Ballina: The making of an American basketball coach
Author Pete Strobl reflects on his time in Mayo
‘DUBLIN Made Me’ is the title of a book by Irish War of Independence veteran CS (Todd) Andrews. While it might be going a bit far for Pete Strobl to say ‘Ballina Made Me’, his short time in the north Mayo capital certainly left an impression on the former basketball player.
The Los Angeles native started the 2007-2008 season with Team Merry Monk, and finished it with Tralee Tigers. He’s just written a book called ‘Backspin: One Player’s Journey From the US to Europe and Back Again’, and has some interesting things to say about his time in Ireland.
As well as playing (and later acting as player/coach) for the senior team in Ballina, Strobl was also involved in coaching youngsters. He says this country was a great training ground for his current job, running a basketball training academy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“I would suggest every basketball coach in America, from the NBA on down, would go to Ireland and coach kids there for a year,” he told The Mayo News in a recent phone interview. “Because there’s so much to be learned … there were so many challenges, and I loved it … It almost like that moulded me into realising: ‘Okay, if I can do this, I can do anything in terms of coaching’.”
Having previously played in Austria, Germany and France, Strobl was used to sophisticated youths structures. He found things were less organised in the west of Ireland, and though he looks back with fondness on his time here, he has some great war stories from his time in coaching’s front line.
These include moving bookshelves to create a court in a school library ‘that just happened to have a hoop connected to one side’. Sessions had to be devised on the hoof depending on what was available – ‘three rugby balls, four hoops and ten kids’, or a flat basketball, nine hula hoops, two tennis balls, and two basketball hoops, one of which was bent downwards. Necessity became the mother of invention.
“Always having different parameters to work with … it was challenging, but in retrospect, I think that played a huge role in my own personal development – as a human and as a coach – in terms of problem-solving and being flexible,” he recalls.
Skill and interest levels among the children under his charge varied hugely. There might, he says, be three kids who had played basketball before; one who knew how to dribble; 20 who were excited because he was tall and American; and five who were at risk of detention!
While recently watching the documentary ‘We Got Game’, about the glory days of Irish basketball, he found himself hoping he ‘had an impact on at least a couple of kids along the way that were inspired and motivated to like basketball and wanna be better and to practise and have at least have some more awareness’.
Strobl’s role at The Scoring Factory in Pittsburgh sees him work with youngsters, college and high-school players, and pros who play in the NBA Development League (D-League), Canada, Asia and all over Europe. He offers private training, camps and clinics, and offers mentoring to young players, helping them learn how to make good decisions – about scholarship offers, agents and playing abroad.
“I’m on the phone a lot, I’m on Skype a lot, throughout the course of the week, helping players that play in the Ukraine, Spain, France, or wherever, helping these guys navigate the daily challenges of being a professional athlete, and trying to share some of my own personal experiences,” he explains. “I’m excited to help people that have that look in their eye that I had when I was a kid. I want to help them get to whatever level they’re supposed to be at some day – in basketball and otherwise.”
PETE STROBL ON…
“THE travel was always interesting. In Germany, Austria or France, you would get a team bus, get on a large autobahn and there’d be sleeping cars. Whereas in Ireland, three players would get into somebody’s car, and the person would drive like an absolute maniac, and you would close your eyes and hope nothing bad happened, and magically, you’d end up at this gym to play your game. I remember looking out the window taking in the countryside, and hoping that the person didn’t hit a cow on those back roads. There were some really fun, humorous memories [of] being in those cars heading to games – and just being very thankful that I got there in one piece!”
“PLAYING with him on the court … there was always a sense that he was trying to live up to Liam McHale’s mighty standard, and I don’t know if anybody could ever really live up to [that]. There was pressure on him to perform at a very high level – from the club, from the fans, from outside sources – and I think this delves a little bit deeper into an older generation/younger generation thing of ‘our guy is better than your guy’. I definitely sensed some of that. So there was pressure there on him to perform at a very high level. It was obvious that Ronan cared deeply about what he did, and I think he reached a very high level in basketball.”
‘The books didn’t prepare you for it’
LIAM McHale and Ronan McGarrity weren’t the only dual stars Pete Strobl got to know during his time in Ireland. He teamed up Kerry footballers-cum-basketballers Kieran Donaghy and Micheál Quirke after transferring to Tralee Tigers.
Strobl’s departure from Ballina came as a cost-saving measure after the Mayo side were knocked out of the cup, and he ended up winning a Superleague title with Tralee.
‘Winners’ is the word he uses to describe the Kerry side – “They did whatever was required to make sure the team won”.
It was in Ballina that Strobl had his first and only experience of being a player/coach, a role he took on after Terry Kennedy developed health problems. The American had previously been assisting head coach Kennedy – ‘watching a lot of video, helping him strategise’ – before taking on the top role. He pays tribute to Brian O’Malley, who helped make his combination of duties as smooth as possible.
“I wanted to make sure there was no conflict of interest,” Strobl explains. “It was a huge challenge to make sure that everybody had a fair shot, everybody was treated as a player, nobody felt like I was giving myself any advantages … I wanted to be brutally fair. It was a huge challenge, and something I think helped shape me into the man and coach I am today.”
About three months ago, Strobl saw ‘We Got Game: The Golden Age of Irish Basketball’, a TV documentary which chimed in certain respects with his own experience. He felt nostalgic seeing footage of Liam McHale, Deora Marsh and the gym in Neptune, as well as sadness.
“It makes you wonder why basketball hasn’t taken off like it could or should have [in Ireland] after that,” he recalls. “What led to it not being at that level anymore? Why has it not grown? What mistakes were made along the way?”
While the facilities in Ireland ‘weren’t great’ and publicity-wise, basketball took ‘a back seat’ to Gaelic football, he remembers the passion he witnessed among fans brought up with the ‘really rich history’ of the sport in Ballina.
“People who would support their team feverishly, and it was like that everywhere you went,” he recalls. “In Austria, France or Germany, when the fans were screaming stuff at the ref or at us or at the opposing team in those places, it took me several months to learn all the vulgarities. Whereas in Ireland, I heard people yelling stuff and I knew what it meant for the most part. The fans were great.”
The chance to speak English had been one of the plus points about Ballina for Pete’s wife Sheryl, who had also been a professional basketball player, and gave birth to their first child shortly before they arrived in Mayo. Having done ‘oodles’ of research about Ireland, Pete found, upon arrival, that ‘the books didn’t prepare you!’
Despite the common language, sometimes Ireland felt more foreign than Austria, Germany or France. Hearing kids saying the ‘f’ word in daily conversation was ‘really interesting’, as was trying to understand the dynamic between Travellers and settled people.
The tendency of certain Irish people to ‘tilt their head sideways and make a little clicking sound’ was a mystery until it was explained to him as ‘just another way of saying hello’.
They flew into Shannon, he was immediately struck by the ‘stunning beauty’ of the landscape. He was brought to The Merry Monk, the pub which sponsored the team, and saw Irish music and dancing. He walked around town, checked out books from the library, ate paninis in Bacus bakery, visited members of the club’s board at their places of business – including Kevin Moran in his butcher shop, and Kevin Clarke in his salmon smokery – and immersed himself in the local culture, making a lot of friends.
“The people there were simply fantastic. We used to play some scrimmages out in Belmullet as well… It’s just a beautiful part of the world. I don’t think enough Americans that don’t have Irish ancestry realise how stunning some of the coastline is.
“We used to walk up and down the river. We’d see the people fishing and walk across the bridges. It was a really good time in my life, and we look back on it very nostalgically … I still stay in touch with a lot of people in Ballina.”
Liam McHale – an accessible superstar
WHEN Pete Strobl was shown the Ballina Sports and Leisure Centre upon his arrival in Mayo in 2007, Liam McHale happened to be in the gym. Seven years on, the American is full of praise for Ballina’s most famous sportsman.
“Liam was fantastic,” Strobl told The Mayo News by phone from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “He was one of those larger-than-life figures. When Liam walked into a room, it was almost as if it got quieter for a second, and then louder as everyone turned and gravitated towards this man who had two arms and two legs but had done wonderful things and made beautiful memories for people, on the field and on the court. In America, your superstars in music or the arts or in sport, they’re inaccessible. Whereas Liam, he was there. He would shake your hand, he would talk to you, and there was a relationship there, where he was one of them.”
But Strobl has an interesting take on the particular relationship Ireland has with its sporting heroes, more nuanced than the GAA’s self-image of ordinary men made good.
“There was almost a ‘he’s one of us’ feeling, but at the same time, he was exalted for what he was able to accomplish – in sports, and probably in leadership; just the way he commanded himself, and I’m sure he inspired a lot of people on the field and court through the years to be and play better than they probably were, because he was standing there,” he explains.
“There’s a certain aura about him. I learned a lot by watching him, and seeing how he carried himself. Because previously, I had seen people get treated like that, allow it to go to their heads, and … think that they’re better than other people. I never had that feeling with Liam. He was one of the guys, although he was better than most, to be brutally honest. He’s a special human, and he didn’t rub your nose in that.
“I went to lunch with him, and just watching the waitress look at him and speak to him … She asked me what would I like to eat or drink and I was just a customer. And then she spoke to Liam as if ‘we’re lucky to have you here, sir’. And he didn’t abuse any of that. It was beautiful to see that.”