HALL OF FAMER Liam McHale from Ballina was presented with his Basketball Ireland Hall of Fame award by Theresa Walsh (President of Basketball Ireland) and Fran Ryan (Chairperson of the Board of Basketball Ireland) during the Basketball Ireland annual awards at Croke Park last weekend. Pic: Sportsfile
LEGENDARY Ballina basketballer and Mayo footballer Liam McHale was one of six people inducted into the Basketball Ireland Hall of Fame last weekend.
It seemed fitting that the awards ceremony took place at Croke Park, considering the number of times that McHale graced the famous GAA stadium with both his club, Ballina Stephenites, and Mayo during his illustrious and star-studded Gaelic football career.
But it was for his services to Ballina basketball that the talented all-rounder was recognised by Basketball Ireland, and a group of around 40 friends, family and old team-mates joined the former Irish international to celebrate his latest success.
For those of us who developed an interest in sport in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Liam McHale was an iconic figure on the local and national sporting landscape.
We remember the stories of him flying to places like Belfast or Cork to place basketball on Saturday nights and rocking up in Charlestown or Ballina the next day to line out with Mayo in a National League game. Or being driven from Dublin to Donegal to do likewise.
And we’ll never forget seeing him shooting hoops ‘live’ in the famous gym in Killala or at the National Stadium in Dublin in big cup games when he strode around the court like a collosus with his brothers, brother-in-laws, cousins, and some of his best and closest friends.
During a stellar career with Ballina teams of different descriptions, McHale won a Super League medal, two National Cups, and a handful of Division 1 leagues.
Not to mention the countless memories and priceless experiences he helped to conjure up for so many people who followed the team’s fortunes.
True to form, Liam spoke beautifully and brilliantly when he picked up his award last Saturday evening.
“It’s been a wonderful day, I’m delighted,” he smiled. “This isn’t just an individual award, there was a huge community behind us, we had great support and a great committee and it means an awful lot. We had the time of our lives doing it, and we were lucky we got to compete with some of the best teams.
“We put in a huge effort to try and bridge the gap to the likes of Killester, Neptune and Star of the Sea, and we were so lucky that we played in that era, and got the chance to compete against some great Americans. To play with the likes of Deora [Marsh] and Kelvin [Troy], and play against the likes of Kelvin, we learned so much from them.
“It was the icing on the cake that we were able to bridge that gap and win two cups [1991 and 1996] and a [Super] league.
We had great memories, it was a dream come true,“ he added. “We had a great team, we were a very close bunch, a lot of brothers and cousins, and I’ll always cherish this day.”
When asked for his own personal highlight from his career, he had no hesitation: the 1991 Cup Final victory over Neptune of Cork.
“They were the Boston Celtics of basketball in Ireland,” explained McHale. “We beat them by 18 points in their own gym, and we took a lot of satisfaction from that because we’d taken a lot of beatings from them over the years.
“Thankfully we kept at it, kept getting better, and ended up winning that one.”
They say you should never meet your heroes, but Liam McHale is one of the exceptions to that rule. He always played the game — be it basketball or Gaelic football — in the right spirit and believed that nothing was more important than trying to express yourself in a positive way on the court or on the field.
From a media perspective he was always a pleasure to deal with over the years, both in victory and defeat, and he never shied away from a hard question or a difficult subject.
Liam McHale was one of those sportsmen who wasn’t fully appreciated until he had hung up his football boots and played his last game of competitive basketball.
But for those of us who were lucky enough to see him play in the likes of the 1996 drawn All-Ireland football final, or in the Basketball Cup Final of the same year, it was an absolute privilege. On his day, McHale was different class.
And it was great to see him get what he deserved from Basketball Ireland.