Thirty years ago this week, a barnstorming basketball troupe called the Maryland All-Stars represented the U.S. on a pioneering hoops mission to the Irish city of Cork.
The team featured some big local names, like George Washington University/DeMatha Catholic High School product Mike Brey and former Montgomery Blair High School All-American Brian Magid. But they made as big an impression off-court as on.
“That trip was wild,” says Magid. “I don’t remember much about the basketball, and my memory’s not going, if you know what I’m saying.”
The voyage took place in 1981, a time of economic depression and ugly politics in Ireland. In the north, political prisoners launched a hunger strike to protest jail conditions and British occupation. The lead striker, Bobby Sands, would be elected to the Westminster Parliament in April, then die of starvation in May, a martyr.
But the All-Stars’ excursion also came at the start of an odd Irish basketball boom. In his 2009 book, Hanging from the Rafters: The Story of Neptune and the Golden Age of Irish Basketball, veteran Cork sportswriter Kieran Shannon describes how the sport went from an outlier to “the biggest, best, and sexiest spectacle in Ireland” during the eighties.
Cork, the home of the Neptune Basketball Club, was the epicenter. Pete Strickland, a Rockville native, moved there to play ball in 1980, after graduating from Pitt. Strickland’s tales make for a sporting version of The Commitments. Instead of Irish musicians yearning to be American soul men, he found Irish jocks mimicking Yankee basketballers.
“Cork was burning with basketball,” says Strickland. “Every Irish club wanted Americans.”
When the locals decided to establish a major pro basketball tournament, Strickland was brought in to help. The pro teams in Ireland at the time were “no better than Division II or III squads in the U.S.,” he says. “I guess these guys heard me murmur to myself that I could just get my buddies to come over and play [Irish teams]. They all looked at me and started yelling, ‘Really? Really? Can you really do that?’”
If Strickland could deliver a squad of Yanks, Neptune management would pick up the tab.
“I just started calling guys I knew from high school and the playgrounds,” he says.
His first recruits were fellow DeMatha alums. Bill Ruback, out of Niagara University, and Brey, a guard who had just transferred to GW, signed on. Then Strickland tried Paul DeVito, a former All-Catholic League guard who had quit the Jacksonville University basketball team after his freshman season a couple years earlier.
No hard sell was needed.
“Here I was, a 21-year-old college dropout making $4.19 an hour working for Pepco,” says DeVito. “I was like, ‘A free trip to Ireland? And I get to play basketball? Hmmm...let me think about it. Yeah! I’m there!’”
Magid, a sharpshooter out of Silver Spring, couldn’t refuse. The 6-foot-3, blue-eyed blond with freckles was the most Irish-looking dude on the squad.
“I’m Jewish,” he says. “But I could fool people.”
Magid and Brey pulled in Steve Karr, then a GW assistant, as coach. Karr brought in his old Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School buddy Malcolm Wesselink, a 6-foot, 8-inch center then at the beginning of a three-decade stint coaching for Exeter.
The tournament program called the All-Stars a “running band of Reaganites,” asserting that they “must be the favourites” simply because American kids learn to dribble “at the same early age that Northsiders in the city of Cork begin picking up their hurling sticks.”
That program also claimed the All-Stars “have won their league titles two out of the last three seasons.”
“We met for the first time at the airport,” says Magid. “We never played before Ireland.”
“The tournament needed something better than ‘the team just met at the airport’ to sell,” Strickland says.
They looked like anything but champions when they landed on St. Patrick’s Day morning. “This was when beer was free on international flights,” DeVito explains.
Strickland realized basketball was the All-Stars’ secondary concern when he hosted a party for the team at his second-story flat.
“I remember watching everybody dancing and my floor move up and down,” he says. “My floor wasn’t supposed to move.”
“I don’t remember that party, so I guess it happened,” says Magid. “I do remember always just hoping tomorrow’s game didn’t start before noon.”
DeVito, who sat out some of the tournament with a back injury—he says he was injured during practice, his mates claim he stumbled into a St. Patty’s Day parade float—gets every All-Star’s vote as MVP—most valuable partier. He kissed everything but the Blarney Stone.
“Paul didn’t mind getting hurt, once he found out he could still sit on a bar stool,” says Strickland.
“I should have kept a journal,” says DeVito. “Then again, I would have had to burn it.”
The locals heaped worship on the basketball ambassadors.
“The Irish people treated us like we were great even though we weren’t,” says Karr. “I was interviewed every day on the news over there. It was the only time I ever felt like a star.”
The opponents and refs, though, weren’t so charitable.
The Irish aren’t known for their cuisine, but during the tournament they showed they knew all about home cooking. With the All-Stars up by two points over a Cork team called the Blue Demons and mere seconds left on the clock, Ruback and a Demon named Andy Houlihan got tied up going for a loose ball at the Irish end. This was in the days before the alternating possession rule, so Ruback and Houlihan faced off in the jump circle.
“The ref tossed the ball so far to the other guy’s side, there was no way I could even reach it,” Ruback says.
Blue Demon John Cooney caught the ref-assisted tip, and fired off a three-pointer at the buzzer. It went in.
The Irish had, for once, rebuffed foreign invaders. The All-Stars were out of the tournament.
A photo of Cooney’s shot was on the next cover of Basketball Ireland, the island’s primary hoops periodical.
“Cooney beat the Yanks,” says Strickland. “He’s a hero.”
If the Americans mourned their loss, it was in the fashion of an Irish wake. “That gave everybody more time to drink,” says Strickland.
The socializing got a little scary when a Cork lass began showing up wherever Brey was.
“We thought she just liked Mike,” laughs DeVito. “But then she was everywhere he was. I think she wanted Mike to take her back to America in his suitcase.”
At the airport, to pull one last prank before returning home, the team paged Brey over the intercom using his stalker’s name. “We had him scared ‘til he found out it was us,” Strickland says.
In 1985, Cork finally built a suitable basketball arena, Neptune Stadium. According to team spokesman Leo Kane, the international tourney was held through 1989. Ireland’s craze for basketball didn’t last, though. Strickland blames the downfall on a league rule change reducing the maximum number of American players from two per team to one. The domestic talent supply couldn’t fulfill the demand.
Strickland stayed around Cork for another season, then came home and began a long NCAA coaching career—he spent the last five years as an assistant at North Carolina State. He’s held onto friendships from his Irish basketball days.
“To this day,” Strickland says, “John Cooney drinks for free in Cork.”
Via e-mail, Brey recalls his 1981 hoops junket as “the trip of a lifetime.” He’s just been named Sports Illustrated’s national Coach of the Year, and this St. Patrick’s Day finds him preparing for a stateside basketball mission as his Notre Dame squad will face Akron in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Up the Irish.
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