Casey and Tea­han on Tralee Tigers ’96 ti­tle

In 1995/96 a nascent Tralee Tigers club won bas­ket­ball’s Su­per­league ti­tle for the first time. Dan Kear­ney re­called that bril­liant feat with two of the lo­cal heroes of that team, Mau­rice Casey and John Tea­han

The Kerryman (North Kerry) - - SPORT -

FOR the last few sea­sons the Tralee Sports Com­plex has been a mass of heav­ing bod­ies squeezed into a ticket only arena to catch a glimpse of the lo­cal he­roes, Tralee War­riors, as they dom­i­nate Ir­ish bas­ket­ball. Su­per­league cham­pi­ons in 2019, and only de­nied this year by a board room tech­ni­cal­ity, the War­riors have shone a light on Tralee bas­ket­ball that has brought both pride and hap­pi­ness to young and old in the town.

The War­riors young fans can roll off the names of their he­roes at the drop of a hat. Star, Skinny, the O’Sul­li­vans, Quigley, Rap, Ivan, Dick, Jon, et al, are icons in a place that has had more than its fair share over the years. The re­vival of the War­riors is sig­nif­i­cant in that it has turned back the clock 25 years to a time when Tralee also dom­i­nated Ir­ish bas­ket­ball, although that time they went by the moniker of Tralee Tigers.

Tralee Tigers were formed in 1987 with the aim of bring­ing big time bas­ket­ball to Tralee town, and af­ter a few mid­dling sea­sons, and a num­ber of dif­fer­ent coaches, they made the break­through in 1994 un­der Billy McGa­ley when they reached the Na­tional Cup Fi­nal, only to be beaten 84-73 by North Mon.

The Cup Fi­nal ap­pear­ance was only a smoke­screen, how­ever, as the Tigers had per­formed very poorly in the league that sea­son, fin­ish­ing in sixth place (6 wins, 8 losses). It was de­cided that a change was needed for the 1995/96 sea­son and a Cork man, Timmy McCarthy, was ap­proached to take the job. McCarthy would be bet­ter known nowa­days as the guy with the ‘ boom-shaka-laka’ and ‘dowwwwwnn-towwwwwnn’ phrases when bas­ket­ball is shown on RTE, but he came to Tigers as one of the most dec­o­rated play­ers in Ir­ish bas­ket­ball his­tory af­ter win­ning a num­ber of na­tional ti­tles with Blue Demons, and earn­ing 103 Ir­ish in­ter­na­tional caps, 58 as cap­tain.

At 23 years of age Mau­rice Casey was a near vet­eran on the Tigers team at that stage, af­ter be­ing re­cruited to join the club as an 18 year old fresh faced boy, thanks to the joint ef­forts of Mike Kenny and Timmy Her­lihy. It took Casey a while to say yes to the of­fer, but when he did sign, he brought along an­other player that would go on to be­come one of Ire­land’s great­est ever play­ers, Cur­row man John Tea­han.

Casey, a tall im­pos­ing cen­tre, and

Tea­han, a silken skilled guard with a mas­sive work rate and steely edge, had sol­diered away on St Mary’s un­der­age teams, and were class mates at Castleis­land Com­mu­nity Col­lege, so it was fit­ting that their fledg­ling bas­ket­ball ca­reers would take a sim­i­lar path.

Casey and Tea­han had gone through their fair share of coaches by the time 1995 came along. Ger­ard Carey, Larry O’Reilly, Mike Ri­ley, Kenny Black, and Billy McGa­ley had all come and gone, and now it was time to wel­come McCarthy, although Mau­rice Casey ad­mits that the play­ers didn’t know what they were let­ting them­selves in for.

“We never knew what Timmy McCarthy was like be­cause it was our first time see­ing him. All we knew was that he had played with, and coached, Demons be­fore that. We heard that he agreed three things with the com­mit­tee be­fore he started. The first thing was that he wanted 10 bas­ket­balls at ev­ery train­ing ses­sion. The sec­ond thing was that the play­ers were to be looked af­ter if they had to get a drive to train­ing, or if they were in­jured, and all that craic. The third thing was that we had to be there an hour and a half be­fore ev­ery game. I’m not sure if some mem­bers of the com­mit­tee agreed with the de­mands, but in fair­ness they were all catered for.”

With McCarthy’s cri­te­ria set down and ap­proved, it was time to set­tle into the busi­ness of train­ing. John Tea­han was a man that was used to hard train­ing and prided him­self on his fit­ness. Ob­sessed with the ex­ploits of Michael Jor­dan, he mod­elled his own game on the Chicago Bulls tal­is­man, and worked day and night on his move­ment to em­u­late his hero. This was some­thing dif­fer­ent al­to­gether, though, and noth­ing could pre­pare him for what McCarthy was about to put them through.

“We started back train­ing on the 22nd of Au­gust 1995. There was twenty-two of us there the first day. Timmy McCarthy’s train­ing was hor­ren­dous, hor­ren­dous! It was so hard. Sprint­ing, push ups, press ups, slides, over and over again. We had twenty-two at train­ing the first day, and the sec­ond day we had only four, it was some drop off!” Tee­han re­calls.

“I could hardly walk the next day af­ter it. The lac­tic acid was up to my ear­lobes. I think that the four at the train­ing ses­sion the next night were Vin­nie Mur­phy, Kieran Fitzger­ald, Mau­rice Casey and my­self. The Cork lads, Gerry Gal­gey and Kieran O’Sul­li­van, weren’t down at that stage. Timmy would test you both men­tally and phys­i­cally. He kept push­ing you to the limit and when a game came then, you were al­ready tested.

“Ev­ery night at train­ing, right from the very first ses­sion, there was a pesky 12-year old kid on the side­line shoot­ing into the side bas­ket.

His name was Kieran Don­aghy. His mom used to bring him down. He was at ev­ery train­ing ses­sion. I say pesky be­cause he’d be shoot­ing in the side rings and the ball would be spilling out onto the floor. We’d shout, ‘sit down Kieran’, and he’d sit down for five min­utes, but then he’d be up and shoot­ing again. A pesky kid. I’d say he was at more train­ings than some of the play­ers though!”

Although Timmy McCarthy’s train­ing was sav­age in its in­ten­sity, he also left a bit of a slid­ing door op­tion open for fel­lows to come and go. It was as if he was test­ing guys to see what level of com­mit­ment that they had. Some fel­lows bought into McCarthy’s way of think­ing, but oth­ers didn’t show the in­ter­est that he was crav­ing for them to even­tu­ally be­come cham­pi­ons, as Mau­rice Casey re­called. “Af­ter the first train­ing ses­sion Timmy said that peo­ple could go and come un­til the Amer­i­cans came in, and af­ter that fel­lows ei­ther had to com­mit, or pull out. Up to that you could miss a train­ing ses­sion or two if you

wanted, but when the Amer­i­cans came in Septem­ber you were ei­ther fully com­mit­ted then, or you were out.

“He was very pro­fes­sional in the way that he did things, in fair­ness to him. The com­mit­tee weren’t too happy that more lo­cal lads weren’t played, but I sup­pose lads didn’t com­mit to Timmy’s plan ei­ther to be fair. We worked away af­ter that, and train­ing was ev­ery Tues­day and Thurs­day night. There was Em­manuel Haas­tro­phe from Dublin, who was go­ing to col­lege in Tralee, Tea­han, Kieran Fitzger­ald, Vin­nie Mur­phy, the two Cork boys (O’Sul­li­van and Gal­gey), and my­self. The two Amer­i­cans, Ri­cardo Leonard and Al Lyson came then. That was it,” Casey said.

McCarthy needed a cap­tain to steer the new course that he was about to take this team on. When he looked at his play­ers there was one man that stood out above all oth­ers, and not only be­cause Casey taped up at 6’ 7”.

“Timmy McCarthy used to have me do­ing my own drills in the cor­ner, post moves away from the shoot­ers,” Casey ex­plained. “I was do­ing hook shots the same day and he came up to me and said ‘Moss, we are mak­ing you cap­tain for the year’. I said, ‘oh right, yeah?’ be­cause I sup­pose I wasn’t on the start­ing five at that stage, but he said, ‘look, you have the com­mit­ment and drive that I want, and the boys have re­spect for you’, and all that sort of stuff. So I was de­lighted and proud, and I sup­pose it worked out great.”

Af­ter weeks of highly ex­plo­sive pre-sea­son train­ing, Tigers faced de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons Nep­tune away in the first league en­counter. Play­ers like Stephen McCarthy and Tom O’Sul­li­van were house­hold names in Ire­land, and the Cork side were much too good for the vis­i­tors. John Tea­han re­mem­bers a down­beat mood af­ter the de­feat.

“Rick (Leonard) wasn’t too fit at the time, he was car­ry­ing a bit of pandy, and none of us played well re­ally. Nep­tune beat us by 11 points. I re­mem­ber leav­ing the hall with Casey, and he said to me, ‘Tea­han, this could be a long year’, but thank­fully he was wrong, and it went the other way.

“Af­ter that we played St Vin­cents at home and beat them. Timmy McCarthy was a bril­liant mo­ti­va­tor and he said to me at train­ing on the Thurs­day night, ‘John, you are bet­ter that Karl Don­nelly and Stephen McGurk’, and I started laugh­ing at him. Those two were like gods to me like. ‘Don’t laugh at me’, he said, ‘I’m telling you now you are bet­ter than Karl Don­nelly and Stephen McGurk’. Satur­day night came and I had 35 points, and the two lads had a com­bined to­tal of eight. It sunk into me then that I’d bet­ter lis­ten to this fella a bit more from now on.”

“Af­ter that we won five on the trot, North Mon (away), Star of the Sea (home) and Dun­gan­non (home and away) be­fore Killester beat us in Dublin. An­other Amer­i­can, Nigel Palmer, re­placed Lyson then, but we had a dis­as­ter when Star of the Sea beat us at home in the cup.”

Two de­feats in a row, and the huge dis­ap­point­ment that a Cup de­feat brings, could have had dire con­se­quences for a Tigers team that were rid­ing on the crest of a wave prior to that. Next up were lo­cal ri­vals St Paul’s in the league, and an­other de­feat would have de­railed the Tralee side’s ti­tle charge. As it tran­spired, McCarthy’s sav­age pre-sea­son coach­ing ses­sions were about to pay rich div­i­dends, as Tea­han ex­plained.

“We dusted our­selves down and got on with things again and for me the turn­ing point of the sea­son was when we beat St Paul’s in­side in The Pres in Kil­lar­ney on the 29th De­cem­ber. That game started on Satur­day, and fin­ished at 12.05 am on Sun­day. The place was rock­ing. It went to triple over­time but we came out on top by 105-103.

“It was one of the best games ever. We were down 28 points at half time. St Paul’s were dunk­ing, they were three-point­ing, they were laugh­ing and jok­ing in our face. We went into the dress­ing room and Timmy McCarthy de­manded com­plete si­lence.

No­body said a word. There was a vent over­head and he opened it and he left us lis­ten to Kil­lar­ney in the next door dress­ing room and it was like a rave party. They were high fiv­ing, telling each other to slam dunk it in our face, all this sort of stuff. We had to sit there for five min­utes and lis­ten to it.

“Then Timmy closed the vent and he ate us! I won’t say what he said to us. We went out in the sec­ond half a dif­fer­ent team. That was Timmy, he knew that he had pre­pared us men­tally with his train­ings, that’s why we only had a panel of nine play­ers be­cause he would break you both men­tally and phys­i­cally. He said if we got it down to 10 points by the end of the third quar­ter that we had a chance, and we did.

“I think I got the two free throws to win it. We were up two and there was a loose ball and my­self and Brian Clarke dived for it. I got to it first and Brian jumped on top of me so I had two free throws. There was seven sec­onds left and they called a time out. We were up two at this stage. Timmy said to me, ‘ you are go­ing to make the two of them, and when you make the two of them, no­body foul’. I had to walk the length of the court to make the free throws and I’ll never for­get the roar­ing and shout­ing, the abuse, the things that they were say­ing to me. I had my mind made up then that I was go­ing to make them. The more they roared, the more de­ter­mined I was. I sank the two of them and we left Cor­mac O’Donoghue go down and score af­ter, but there was only a sec­ond left af­ter that so we had it won.

“I re­mem­ber Timmy say­ing that there are very few times in your life that you will get to play in a bas­ket­ball game like that, and he was so right. It was the best ever,” Tee­han said.

Tigers were back with a bang and won the next three games on the bounce against Nep­tune (home), St Vin­cents (away, with Ri­cardo Leonard pop­ping a mam­moth 48 points), and North Mon (home). Next up was an­other huge game away to joint top of the ta­ble Star of the Sea on Fe­bru­ary 4th, and Mau­rice Casey saw Coach McCarthy’s game in­tel­li­gence at full tilt that week­end.

“Star were joint level with us at the top of the ta­ble, but Bal­lina had beaten them in the Cup fi­nal the week be­fore and we felt that it was bound to af­fect them. We went up to Belfast the night be­fore and checked into our rooms and all that craic, but then Timmy gath­ered us in a room for some video anal­y­sis of Star.

“It was my first time ever see­ing some­thing like this. Timmy had a video of Star’s last game and he had all of their play­ers matched up. He had jobs for our play­ers. Rick was to take Jack­son, Nigel was on Dupree and had to stop him go­ing to the board, Tea­han’s job was to take Maguire and keep him on his left, Vinny was on Ful­ton, and Gal­gey took who­ever was left. We won that game by about 15 points in the end, but it was the first time that I saw such at­ten­tion to de­tail.”

Timmy McCarthy’s train­ing was hor­ren­dous, hor­ren­dous! It was so hard. We had twenty-two at train­ing the first day, and the sec­ond day we had only four...

WITH five games left to play, the league was in Tralee’s hands. A home vic­tory over Dun­gan­non was fol­lowed by a loss away to Killester, be­fore things were brought back on track once more with a su­perb home vic­tory over Liam McHale’s Bal­lina. It was at this stage that Tigers got word that the league was theirs, although the cir­cum­stances, and the way that they heard about their win was un­usual, as Casey ex­plained.

“We trained on a Tues­day night af­ter the Bal­lina game and Star of the Sea were play­ing Notre Dame in Dublin on the same night. Kieran and Gerry used to drive back to Cork, and I used to get a spin back to Castleis­land with Timmy Her­lihy (Tigers As­sis­tant Coach). We got a phone call that Notre Dame had beaten Star, and that meant that the league was ours. There was noth­ing fur­ther for us to do than to turn around and go back into the Grey­hound in Tralee to cel­e­brate it, and have a few drinks. Tea­han was liv­ing in Tralee at the time and I stayed with him, it was a long night, and I hon­estly can’t re­mem­ber if I went into work the next day or not!”

With the league won and a fi­nal home game against St Paul’s to come, Timmy McCarthy would have been for­given for al­low­ing his charges some chill time to en­joy the oc­ca­sion. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth, how­ever, and the Cork man in­sisted on his team giv­ing the home sup­port some­thing to shout about.

“The sup­port by the Tralee peo­ple was un­be­liev­able. It was amaz­ing. Ev­ery time that there was a home game it was packed out. It was no dif­fer­ent for our fi­nal game against St Paul’s. The at­mos­phere was un­real. Although we had the league won, if we lost to St Paul’s it would have meant that we fin­ished on the same points as St Vin­cents, but with a bet­ter head to head record. Timmy stressed to us at train­ing that we had to win to be out­right cham­pi­ons, and we beat them by 103-94. Rick had 43 points, he was un­stop­pable, but Tea­han and Vinny Mur­phy had huge games as well. It re­ally was a spe­cial night.”

It would be the 2003/04 sea­son be­fore Tralee Tigers tasted Su­per­league suc­cess once more. They fol­lowed up with an­other ti­tle in 2007/08, and also had Cup suc­cess in 2004/05 and 2006/07. By that stage Kieran Don­aghy and Micheál Quirke were the home grown stars, but the leg­endary John Tea­han was still pro­duc­ing top of the class per­for­mances for a fresh batch of Tiger cham­pi­ons.

Casey stayed with Tigers un­til 1998 and knew that it was time to move on then. Court time had be­come very scarce at that stage, and with St Mary’s af­ter form­ing a Na­tional League Di­vi­sion One team of their own, he fell back in with the club where it all be­gan for him. Casey would taste suc­cess once more as St Mary’s claimed a league and cup dou­ble in 2019/10, and they suc­cess­fully de­fended their league ti­tle in 2010/11.

John Tea­han ( pic­tured) had also re­joined his old buddy Casey back at St Mary’s, and even at 40 years of age his pow­ers hadn’t di­min­ished as he claimed 41 points, and the MVP ti­tle, in their 2011 league fi­nal vic­tory over Ti­tans of Gal­way.

Mau­rice Casey can still be seen play­ing lo­cal league bas­ket­ball in Kerry. Now 48 years of age, his move­ment is a bit slower, but the de­termi- na­tion and re­sil- ience that were his trade­marks as a player are still present. Casey still plays ev­ery game as if it’s his last one.

John Tea­han played on the Wa­ter- ville team with his son Seán at the

St Mary’s Christ­mas Blitz last De­cem- ber, and fin­ished up with an- other win­ner’s medal when they claimed the

Di­vi­sion 3 ti­tle. If his name is on the pro­gram next De­cem­ber make sure you go to watch him – there mightn’t be too many more chances to wit­ness a liv­ing leg­end in ac­tion.

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