If it was the last one – and even Kieran Donaghy doesn’t know if it is so don’t expect any revelations here – but if it was, it ended the way you could have guessed. Austin Stacks two points down with time up, a last desperation high ball hooshed into the square.
Donaghy in there wrestling, jostling, reaching up to try and get a final touch. When it dropped, this time it dropped beyond him. The St Finbarr’s goalkeeper John Kerins was able to bat it away from just under the crossbar. Ball cleared. Whistle blown. Game over.
On the pitch afterwards last Sunday, Lola Rose Donaghy (6) didn’t know she was about to walk face-first into a teachable moment. Stacks had been on the run to end all runs – the last three times they’d been in any sort of final, they’d won. Now her dad and his team-mates were hunched over, destitute after losing the Munster club final. Tears and tight faces everywhere she looked.
“When you see the crowd there and your family there, it’s a tough day when you lose like that,” Donaghy the elder says. “I was trying to tell this to Lola Rose down on the pitch. I was saying, ‘You remember when we beat Strand Road in the Kerry final? Those boys were sad. So now it’s our turn to be sad. And that’s just sport, it’s just the way it goes.’
“I try to teach her that when we play basketball and I let her win two games and then I win one. She doesn’t take it well. But you have to teach her that you can’t win everything. You have to learn how to lose as well. That’s why sport is such a great teacher. But it takes a while, you know?
“The acceptance of not getting what they want in the modern age isn’t there for them. When we were young, we used do without things far more than kids do now. You’re trying to help them as much as possible. But when you bring them down to a basketball club or a rugby club or a football club, they’re naturally going to learn that they’re not always going to get what they want.”
These are the things of life now. Sunday was the end of the 2021 season with Stacks. Monday night was the early knockings of Armagh’s 2022, a defeat on penalties to Monaghan in the semi-final of the Dr McKenna Cup. This Saturday night will, he hopes, be the culmination of six years’ work with Tralee Warriors, as they face Neptune in the final of the basketball National Cup in Tallaght. He’s five weeks short of his 39th birthday and still he suits up for it all.
The basketball thing goes to his core in a way football, for all its glories, never has and never could. He grew up wanting to play for Tralee Tigers more so than wanting to play for Kerry. When he became a famous footballer, we looked on from the GAA sidelines and saw his love for basketball as something to keep him occupied through the winter, a handy way to shave the timber off him in time for the league. He never saw it in those terms.
The Warriors are a pet project for Donaghy, going back to when his intercounty football career was finishing up. Tralee has always been a basketball town, yet its place on the national stage had become a diminished thing. The Tigers that Donaghy grew up dreaming of playing for disbanded in 2009, only a year or so after he and Kerry team-mate Micheál Quirke led them to a SuperLeague title. The slack was picked up by local clubs St Brendan’s and Tralee Imperials but if you were any good and you wanted to play in the top tier, you had to go somewhere else.
In 2015, Donaghy got the chairmen of both clubs together and suggested a uniting of the clans. Between the two clubs, they had 700 kids playing basketball. That was far too much potential to have in the town with no top-level outlet for it to funnel into. “It was like a UN peacekeeping mission at times,” Donaghy said of the amalgamation. “But people saw the vision I had and thankfully we brought it together.”
He’s the first to scattergun credit all around the place. Sponsors, coaches, parents, players, supporters. Between them all, they have harnessed the basketball identity in the town and sent it forth into the land. That’s a win in and of itself. They’ve won a couple of SuperLeagues and, crucially, brought back the big nights in the Complex that he and his buddies grew up on. Those are wins too.
But they all sit in the shade compared to what a cup final victory would mean on Saturday night. If they beat Neptune, it’s generational stuff. It’s the whole reason behind the project made flesh. No pressure.
“We had a launch for the final there the other night,” he says. “And even Jim Garvey, the sponsor, was saying, ‘Look, winning the league was great, don’t get me wrong. Those trophies are brilliant to have. But this, this is what we got involved for.’ He was more or less saying, ‘We’re six years backing ye, thanks be to God ye got there at least!’
“And that’s the whole thing. It’s national TV. It’s what kids remember and carry with them forever. It’s where everyone wants to be. I promised them we’d get there in two years and it has taken us six. This is where sponsors get their payback, it’s the week they get their name heard all over the place in ads and on the radio and online. We’ve had so many great nights in the complex but this is what we came together for.”
Coming together. All these years later, nothing sums him up better. Doesn’t matter if it’s trying to win an All-Ireland or playing for a fiver a man down the back nine of a winter morning fourball, collaboration has always been the thing that pulled him by the nose wherever he went.
He tells a story about his teenage basketball days. Castleisland were the underage kingpins in Kerry when he was growing up and they weren’t a bit shy about putting on a show. Donaghy was on teams that got hidings at under-12, under-13, under-15, all the way up along. Proper beatdowns, 50-pointers, no mercy.
“But I remember us turning a corner after under-15s,” he says. “I got the lads together and said, ‘Listen, I’m going to talk to the man up at the complex and ask him if we can get in on Wednesday and Friday mornings to shoot.’ I remember going up on the bar of the bike of a buddy of mine, Colm Mannix. And four of us meeting there at a quarter-past-six in the morning. It would be dark and wet and cold and he would take me on the bar of his bike for 20 minutes to get there.
“And it was all around shooting. It was all basically going, ‘I’m telling ye lads, by hook or by crook when we get to under-17, we’re beating Castleisland. We’re going to absolutely ate them alive.’ That’s what ended up happening.
“That’s as early as it goes back with me. I love competition as part of a group. Even when you’re getting hockeyed at under-13, being competitive still was the big draw for me. I love the battle of it, I love the psyche of it. There’s a sick part of me that even loves the pain of it not going your way because then when it does go your way, it’s all the sweeter.”
The group thing is the key, though. He knows there isn’t a lot of road left in either the football or the basketball for him so he’s going to be clinging to golf to keep him some way whole. But it’s a very specific type of golf that he wants to play. It’s team golf. Partner golf. Three down with four to play, I’ve got you buddy, we have them rattled boy. That kind of golf.
“I don’t like playing in singles tournaments,” he says. “I don’t get any buzz out of playing against 50 other players and the best score wins. I get no real joy out of that. That’s why I would never have made it as a rower or a cyclist or anything like that. My thing is being around people and having a cause and going after it together. That’s the love of sport I have.
“I know that there is no way I would ever have had the self-discipline to go boxing every day on my own or swimming or running or whatever it might have been. I love swimming but I couldn’t think of anything worse than that type of monotony, that time in my head of going up and down a pool for three hours to get fit for a race meet every three weeks or whatever. I wouldn’t have it in me.
“Sometimes I think that’s not a good sign of myself. But I know that if you put me in with three other fellas to train for a month for a relay race against our local rivals, I would get in and do those three hours every morning no bother.”
On the hardwood, he can still find his place and get his kicks. For the Warriors, he’ll get in and be a presence when they need him. The smooth shooter who scored 22 points in the SuperLeague final in 2008 is long gone but that’s not what they ask of him now.
“Ah, my role is fairly straightforward at this stage,” he says. “It’s hard defence, getting in and taking rebounds. The last day I had 16 rebounds and I played good defence down the stretch. We held them to 28 points in the second half after they had 46 in the first half. So that kind of stuff really.
“I was minding myself a little bit with the minutes because I had the Stacks game coming up but I won’t have to worry about that now obviously. I might play a bit more if the coaches want me to. I would bring a lot of intangibles, a lot of getting stuck in, that kind of stuff. But I’m not going to go out and get you 25 points.”
They don’t need him to be a hero. They only need him to be there. The magic of it is, he needs to be there every bit as much. Just him and a group of team-mates, vibing off each other, neither ending nor beginning. The clock ticking down, the goal there to be reached. The same for him now as it was when he was on the bar of the bike a quarter of a century ago.