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The Men Who Stayed

Below is Chapter 10 from Hoops Across the Ocean

Kelvin Troy was as close to a superstar as Ireland would ever welcome into the country. In reality, the country should never have benefitted from him playing here, especially for so long. During his college career at Rutgers, Kelvin was identified as one of the ten best defenders in America by Sports Illustrated. The 6’5 forward was a supreme athlete and averaged 12.3 points a game for Rutgers over 119 games. He helped Rutgers reach the Sweet 16 as a sophomore and in his junior year he became an honourable mention All American after averaging 18.9 points a game. His college career saw him inducted to the Rutgers Hall of Fame in 2000 and also saw him drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 5th round of the 1981 NBA Draft. Like Elie years later, things didn’t work out for Kelvin with the Bucks and he would have to start his career elsewhere. Kelvin arrived into Ireland and played for a number of Irish club teams, most notably Killester. During their time together Mario Elie would lament that Kelvin shouldn’t be in Ireland because he was too good to be in the country. Kelvin though would be like many of the Irish players who came over in the 80s, as he found a home that offered him more than just basketball. It was a decision that would see him get married and start a family in Ireland but also become the first ever American born player to be inducted into the Basketball Ireland Hall of Fame. After a number of high-profile seasons in Ireland, Troy became one of Byrt’s early American born players as Enda brought Kelvin into the Promotions Cup team in 1990. When Byrt did make the move in 1990 to include Troy it was seen as a major risk as Kelvin had a larger than life personality and was notoriously temperamental. Byrt though was willing to take a risk and he was instantly rewarded in doing so. Kelvin’s gratitude for the opportunity to represent his adopted homeland was obvious from day one “It meant a lot to me, Enda Byrt was a great coach and one thing he made clear he used to say to me Americans just play for the money but we (the Irish) play for the love of the game and I never understood that. He made it clear to me that the reason was Americans were being paid to play while we pay to play. That’s true. I enjoyed playing for Ireland, I think it was the idea of playing for the country and playing for Enda.”

For Enda, having Troy was a major coup early in his time as Senior Men’s coach as it gave the team a credibility instantly. Troy not only gave a spark on the floor, but his presence gave a legitimacy to Byrt’s programme at a time when both the team and Byrt needed public support most.

Sadly, Kelvin’s time with the Irish team was limited by a long-term kidney issue that required a transplant. While Troy was in hospital waiting for dialysis, Byrt stopped in to visit him. Sitting in the bed, Kelvin sat up in his usual animated way to greet his coach, all while wearing his green Irish team polo. Troy told Enda that any time he required dialysis he insisted on having his Irish polo on such was the significance of it to him. Although Kelvin later said that he made the gesture because he knew Byrt was coming, the simple fact that he had that mindset showed how considerate Troy was and how much Enda meant to him.

It was moments like this that reaffirmed in Byrt’s mind the vision he had for the Irish team was one worth following. People on the outside may have seen non-Irish born players pulling on a jersey for selfish reasons but when the real personalities and stories were explored, there were players who playing for Ireland seemingly meant so much. Reflecting years later on his time in the green jersey, Kelvin looked at what it meant to both his family at home in the States and in Ireland. His brothers at home kept a close eye on him and were thrilled to see him add another chapter to his legacy in Ireland. They did it with good humour too as one of Kelvin’s oldest brothers to this day likes to keep him grounded by carrying a photo of Larry Bird scoring on Kelvin. Kelvin prefers the Sports Illustrated version of him scoring on Bird, but brothers will always make sure you remain grounded. The person most proud of Kelvin’s international achievements was his wife Anne “My wife was so proud of me for anything to do with basketball but to be a part of Ireland basketball, she would brag about it all the time! We’d sit and have discussions about the game at all hours of the morning and she was always so proud of me.”

As much as Smith, Elie and Troy were stars destined to make a big name for themselves wherever they went, Jerome Westbrooks had to do more to carve out his place in history. Jerome arrived from Chicago into Dublin in 1981 and little did he know that he would still be playing basketball in the Dublin men’s leagues almost 40 years later. Aside from his longevity as a player, Westbrook’s impact for Ireland would be as a senior influence that could help Byrt to establish the culture change he was so keen on.

In truth, playing for Ireland wasn’t on Jerome’s radar when he first arrived in Ireland but an anniversary trip to Paris would change the direction of his life forever. In 1988 on his way back into Ireland, where he was teaching at the time, Jerome was stopped at immigration and told that he faced a writ of deportation and would be sent back to the States. As it turned out his new work permit had not yet been processed and his existing one had expired, technically making him illegal in Ireland. Westbrooks was told that this writ of deportation could only be cleared by ministerial pardon and that his chances were slim. Fortunately, Jerome was able to turn to close friend, and Dublin Football star, Brian Mullins, who pulled some strings to help get the situation resolved. While dealing with immigration it was noticed that Jerome had been in the country since 1981 and was eligible for citizenship and would never have to deal with an issue like this again. Jerome checked if accepting citizenship would affect his American citizenship and when it didn’t, he jumped at the opportunity. Around that same time, Westbrooks signed for Team Callaghan Concrete in Trim in Co. Clare, where he would play regularly against Enda Byrt, who soon asked him to utilise the citizenship and play for Ireland. For Jerome not only would it start a fascinating journey on the court with Ireland but it would also help to solidify his own identity off it, especially as his own kids also grew up in Ireland “My involvement with the Irish team, that feeling of what established my Irishness centred around all of the relationships that were part of the teams I was on. Enda was huge there; I can’t say enough about Enda. I have so many stories that relate to Enda and his passion, it was something that was infectious. His passion for the Irish team, his ability to connect all of us. He was really able to establish that connection of who I was as a member of the Irish team and what Ireland was to me…The team itself, my connection through family that were born here all of that became a part of the mix that really began to mix the red white and blue with the green white and orange. The tricolour and the star-spangled banner definitely began to mix in that sense”. Jerome went on to become a critical team member as Enda established a new culture around the Irish squad and Westbrooks was undoubtedly a calming influence as the team brought in lots of young faces in the early 90s. Jerome’s ultimate impact though was not on the court, but rather on the side-lines. Staying in Ireland he became a teacher, and he went on to have a major impact coaching in both St. Fintan’s College in Sutton and Holy Faith in Clontarf. The conveyor belt of talent that he coached would see numerous professional players (including his sons), countless internationals both male and female, and multiple NCAA players. In one thirteen-year spell with St. Fintan’s, Jerome’s teams won 16 ‘A’ National titles a record that is unlikely to ever be topped. He in many ways was the embodiment of what Noel Keating had hoped Irish American players could become in Ireland when he looked for a more rounded impact than just on the floor.

As much as both Jerome and Kelvin would add huge amounts to the Irish programme, they knew that their relationship with the team was slightly different than the rest of the players. On the American tours that visited Irish-American hotspots on the East Coast of the States, they sometimes were questioned around their involvement and why they were there, as Jerome recounted “Even on the tour we probably had dealt with a number of situations there on the east coast in very staunch Irish American communities, that were kind of going Oh! Looking at us in the sense of you don’t look too Irish.” For both men, they were used to race being an issue as when they arrived in Ireland, many Irish people weren’t used to seeing black people at all. One of the notable stories of the 80s era was a young kid coming up to one of the American players seeing if the black would rub off their skin.

Both Jerome and Kelvin also experienced looks and comments throughout their time with Ireland, even from opposing countries. Most were without malice, but there was always a note that they were different. Despite being looked at differently abroad, the basketball people at home would be happy to see them play and even separated the duo from the Irish-American players that were starting to play for Ireland “There was no negativity, partly because of Enda’s commitment to us. There was a perception within the Irish community in Ireland that maybe we were more connected to the Irishness of the team than maybe an Alan Tomidy. You did hear that, oh well Jerome and Kelvin are here with us they live with us. These guys are blow ins. We had lost a bit of our blow in status because there were bigger blow ins to deal with. In that sense we were made to feel a part of the Irish team and legitimately part of the team”.

Jerome and Kelvin ended up as the two players who made the greatest impact in tournaments for Ireland, but they were certainly not alone. Javan Dupree in Belfast is not remembered in the same light as the two Dublin based Americans and yet he was responsible for one of the most critical moments in Byrt’s tenure. Dupree was a 6’5 forward, who had a standout career in North Texas before settling in Belfast. While playing for Danny Fulton in Star, Dupree had a major impact on Irish internationals Adrian Fulton and Gareth Maguire. Away from the club game, Dupree was eligible for citizenship and came close to playing a similar role for Ireland as Westbrooks would. Despite not progressing on to play in European qualifiers, Javan’s biggest contribution to the Irish jersey came in the 1991 Roy Curtis tournament, which was the biggest invitational tournament in Ireland (and one of the best in Europe). The tournament was significant during Byrt’s era for two reasons. Firstly, it was one of the few occasions that one of Ireland’s greatest domestic players lined out for the National team. Liam McHale was a Gaelic Football star as well as possibly Ireland’s greatest ever basketball player. Sadly, due to his football commitments he would never really get to play properly internationally in European competition. Secondly and more importantly, Ireland would win the prestigious invitational tournament, in what would be a major early boost for Byrt’s tenure as Irish coach. The win was made more incredible as it came after a five-overtime game against St. Vincent’s in the semi-final. The game held the record as the longest game in European basketball for many years, and McHale shone with 31 points, while Dupree scored an Irish record with 57 points, in one of the all-time classic games in Irish history. Dupree would also perform well in the final giving Enda his first silverware and the Irish team some much needed credibility at home. The change in perception could be seen in Cliona Foley’s round up of the tournament which referred to the team as ‘Byrt’s aces’ which was a long way from the joke the team was referred to as just a year earlier. Foley would also sum up 80s invitational tournaments with the final lines of her story in the Independent “it was a spectacular conclusion to a marvellous tournament played against the now familiar backdrop of teams from Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union doing a roaring trade of vodka, champagne and electrical goods off court. These days Eastern European sports stars pack duty-free money-spinners for their trips abroad. The Soviets from RTJ Minsk even set up shop on an invitation basis only in their hotel room where visitors were invited for a friendly nip of vodka before perusing the objects on sale.”

The tournament served as a tipping point in terms of the Irish team as it started to gain more credibility. At the same time the domestic league started to struggle after the reduction of Americans from two to just one. The move had been made to protect some of the clubs who were struggling to keep up, but also to help Irish players to have more of an involvement on the court. Sadly, many of the top stars of that 80s era wouldn’t follow Byrt into the new era of the Irish team, something that with the benefit of time is a shame. The appetite clearly wasn’t always there for some players as Gareth Maguire felt that the US tours and some of the other tournaments were almost a break from their real basketball “They saw the Irish team as an opportunity to get away and have a few drinks. That’s what I felt. I was a very young pup when I came on the scene (as a 17-year-old from St Galls). We (him and Cormac O’Donoghue) went to a few trips and it was an education. The problem was those guys more valued winning cups and leagues than anything else. They enjoyed playing for Ireland, the enjoyed playing in Four Countries or Promotions Cup but it was a huge change for Enda to come and try and change that mindset.”

Despite the ongoing differences between the National Team and the country’s top clubs the balance seemed to be changing as Ireland entered the nineties. At the start of the eighties, the domestic league was set to explode with American players coming in to redefine the league. A decade later and it was now going to be the turn of the National Team to really progress. Dan Doyle’s involvement in Irish basketball during the early eighties had opened up the US tour and brought more money into the sport but his usurping of Danny Fulton as National Team coach in 1982 had led to a major indirect benefit. Danny Fulton and Enda Byrt went to the Junior Men’s teams and along with Gerry Nihill, they developed a new wave of talent both Irish and Irish American. Byrt was now ready to start reaping the rewards of that work and even more promisingly, his creative recruiting was only just getting started.

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