For those close to the top level of Irish basketball, Enda Byrt has been on the periphery of the game since his last stint as Irish Senior Men’s Head Coach at the end of the 1990s. Barring a brief appearance as Moycullen’s head coach, Byrt had quietly exited stage left and was no longer the visionary driving forward Irish teams. So when one of the Irish U20 assistant coaches had to pull out ahead of this week’s U20 European Championships, Enda’s name would hardly have been high up many people’s list of expected replacements. Despite the surprise, Byrt with his fountain of knowledge of Ireland internationally seemingly proved to be the perfect elder statesman to place beside a debutant international head coach in Paudie Fleming and assistant in Josko Srzic. What tied the whole opportunity together perfectly of course was that the U20s were led by none other than CJ Fulton, grandson of Danny, Byrt’s partner in the early European adventures, and son of Adrian the young point guard Enda brought through the system into the senior team.
In so many ways things were so different than when Byrt first came along to the Junior Men’s teams in the eighties. Games were not simply a box score in a national paper or even a round up in the Irish Basketball magazine. Now every game could be watched and digested immediately by Irish fans at home who got to revel in the performances of players like Sam Alajiki (Cal), Rapolas Buivydas (Assumption) and CJ Fulton (Lafayette). For Byrt, the appeal of Irish American recruitment in the 80s and 90s was bringing in height and also expanding the minds of Irish players as he hoped being close to American college players would make Irish players strive to go to the States. Now suddenly with no Irish Americans on the team, the majority of the players have already been in the States for at least a year and the rarity on the team were players who have stayed at home. Equally size wasn’t a big problem either as Ireland matched and sometimes overpowered teams with length. Leeroy Odiahi and Killian Gribben alone are two 6’9+ players developed in the Irish schools/clubs systems who are both now based Stateside.
For year’s watching Ireland play internationally, Irish teams struggled against pick and roll basketball and couldn’t match up defensively or on the glass. Again this team changed that narrative by being disruptive defensively and running patient modern offenses that have shown that the gap between Ireland the rest of Europe is narrowing.
Yes, this team could be a generational team just like the women’s U18/20 squads with Claire Melia et al. but at the same time we are getting constant reminders that Ireland is closing the gap. The Senior Men’s team in recent weeks only further cemented this opinion. What makes the U20s performance even more incredible this week is that they were missing two of arguably the best eligible players with ND Okafor (Currently in the NBA Academy in Mexico is signed to join Sam Alajiki at Cal) and Mobi Ikegwuruka (currently playing pro in the top Czech league) both missing.
Instead of conversations around who was missing or what the Irish team didn't have, the team under Coach Fleming instead went out and won five of their six games, losing only to eventual 6th placed Latvia. The measure of that one loss was that Latvia lost to Serbia by just three points in the quarter final. Ireland beat Hungary (twice), Bulgaria, Georgia and Albania. Despite finishing 5-1 (Ireland's best U20 men's finish ever), the team will still come away from the tournament with regret as they had qualification to the top 8 in their palm but points differential got in their way against Bulgaria. The idea of an Irish team coming home disappointed with a 5-1 record would previously only have been realistic at Small Countries level.
For the basketball community who got to watch, it couldn’t be clearer that things are changing rapidly in Irish basketball and we are gearing ourselves up to be a competitive team internationally even without the help of Irish-American talent. One constant though that has remained since Enda Byrt’s last time, is that Ireland are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to the available financial resources that support the national teams both at senior and junior level. As much as the basketball community can enjoy knowing we have high level prospects bursting through to support an already competitive senior team, it’s about time others in the Irish sporting community, particularly those making elite funding decisions, start to take notice of a sport ready to thrive.
For tonight though we sit back and congratulate Paudie, Josko, Enda and a brilliant squad on a wonderful performance over the past ten days. We already have one of the team starting for the Senior Men and it won't be long until there are more.
Full Stats of the event: https://www.fiba.basketball/europe/u20b/2022/team/Ireland
Get 'Hoops Across the Ocean' to find out more about Enda Byrt and Ireland's path to international relevance: https://www.hoopsacrosstheocean.com/shop