With their promotion to the Super League last year and the addition in the summer of two top-flight American college basketball players, hopes were high for Trinity Meteors as they headed into a season they thought would go ahead.
After the summer when the country was in level-three lockdown (oh how we mourn), the government revealed that, despite restrictions, a number of “elite sports” would be permitted to continue. For Trinity, there were five teams which fell under the government’s definition of elite: Dublin University Hockey Club men’s and women’s first, Dublin University Football Club, Trinity Volleyball women’s firsts and the Trinity Meteors. Yet, it seems, even among the elite there are those who are treated preferentially, much to the disappointment of Meteors Head Coach Vinny O’Keefe.
“It didn’t make any sense to us when you consider the likes of rugby with the close contact with the balls and the scrums, they are stuck together for minutes on end, how they could go ahead and play rugby, but you couldn’t go ahead and play basketball where the contact was way less just because it was indoors”, O’Keefe tells me.
“Under-18 kids could train outdoors but couldn’t pass a ball amongst themselves so they had to bring their own basketball, yet Gaelic football could train outdoors”, he adds. “The same kids could train outdoors, pass a Gaelic football amongst themselves and 10 minutes later could come down for basketball training and couldn’t pass the basketball among themselves.”
“I’d be all on board for what NPHET are doing but when you see situations like that it becomes a bit farcical”, O’Keefe admits resignedly. “That was very frustrating.”
Indeed, the coronavirus restrictions hit Irish Basketball particularly hard. According to O’Keefe, the Super League is one of only two or three first-division basketball leagues in Europe to not go ahead.
The same kids could train outdoors, pass a Gaelic football amongst themselves and 10 minutes later could come down for basketball training and couldn’t pass the basketball among themselves
The situation is a particularly frustrating one for Phoebe Sterba and Megan Swords, the American college basketball players who came over on Trinity Sport scholarships to study for their master’s degree while also playing basketball.
“I feel very sorry for them because they came over to play basketball but in fairness to them, they’re making the best of the situation”, O’Keefe says. “They’re happy that they’ve got the opportunity to come over but obviously the basketball would be the big thing.”
With both Sterba and Swords only here for one year, as well as the return of Meteors star point guard Edel Thornton being another question mark, the future make-up of the team is murky as of now.
The process of acquiring Americans on scholarships for next season is to be made more difficult by a rule change. In recognition of the impact the coronavirus has had on the season, American college basketball players can now return to play an additional year.
Previously, players were only allowed to play for a maximum of four years on a scholarship for an American college. This allowed colleges abroad, such as Trinity, to offer scholarships to players for a master’s degree as long as they played for the Meteors. An additional year playing college basketball in America is, for many, a more enticing offer than playing in Ireland.
“That’s going to impact us hugely”, O’Keefe says. “So we’ll be looking for maybe some of the better girls coming out of college and if they’re good enough for us to consider, you’ll have to imagine they’re good enough to be offered a scholarship back home so we’re going to find it really difficult for next year.”
Despite the challenges the team is set to face over the coming year, O’Keefe is keen to not make any more excuses than necessary, admitting that in some way, his team is better off due to the fact that they have two streams of admittance for the club whereas most teams only have one.
“We have two different avenues so in that case we’re not too bad whereas a lot of clubs would be dependent on what’s just coming through their own club system if that makes sense.”
I feel very sorry for them because they came over to play basketball but in fairness to them, they’re making the best of the situation
“We don’t know if girls coming into Trinity are going to play with us because a lot of them would have been brought up in their own clubs and they might feel a sense of loyalty to that club and they won’t want to leave so there are a lot of pluses and minuses to the situation we’re in.”
“So far it hasn’t hurt us. I think the biggest problem will be on the American intake.”
If O’Keefe is somewhat optimistic about the potential of getting new players, he is considerably less so when it comes to the topic of returning to games, even contemplating the possibility that fixtures won’t resume until 2022.
“There was part of me that might have been hopeful that we might get something maybe in April or May, just a couple competitions or even some games, but the way the vaccine rollouts have been hit by the short supply lately I’m very pessimistic about it”, O’Keefe says. “Basketball Ireland are hoping maybe November, but it won’t surprise me if it wasn’t till this time next year.”
All the uncertainty has made it tough to keep the team working – the motivation is just not there for many: “There’s no point pushing the girls to try and start anything because it’s very hard to try and get them to motivate themselves when they’re working at home and they have to turn around and start doing some weight training or running at home.”
“It’s hard for them to motivate themselves without having anything to look forward to”, O’Keefe adds.
There was part of me that might have been hopeful that we might get something maybe in April or May, just a couple competitions or even some games, but the way the vaccine rollouts have been hit by the short supply lately I’m very pessimistic about it
“All we can hope for is maybe we can get a rough idea in a couple of months as to where the girls are with their thought processes and maybe we can get them to do some strength work at home as that’s about all they can do, but even then, there’s not a lot you can do at home because some don’t have access to weights.”
For O’Keefe and the Meteors, the path ahead is unclear and muddied by government restrictions surrounding sports. Having not played competitive basketball in nearly a year, the Meteors will be hoping that fixtures return sooner rather than later. And when they do, that they pick up from where they left off – with that top-flight form that earned them promotion to the Super League.