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
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.