This is the story of a bunch of guys from Harvard who love basketball and play it pretty well, and who concocted a dream tour of Ireland to enjoy the sport in a novel setting before they got too old. At least, that's the way it started out. Parts of the trip went as expected—the pints of Guinness, political arguments and late-night poker games. What began as a simple vacation, however, turned into something quite different, as these once self-centered brutes ended up forgoing sightseeing to teach basketball to schoolchildren in some of Ireland's most remote spots. They signed literally thousands of hastily ripped scraps of paper—not to mention basketballs, arms and even legs—destined to be pasted carefully into scrapbooks by kids all over Ireland. And one particular town tucked away in a corner of the island even held a parade in their honor. In short, this is a story about becoming heroes in a foreign land.
The World B. Tour was dreamed up by onetime Harvard point guard William Kenneth Aulet, who holds a management job with IBM but whose true love is hoops. Aulet, 32, had spent one postcollege year, the 1980-81 season, playing professional basketball in England; in 1987 he asked his old British teammates to help put together a basketball tour for some of his American pals. He dubbed the spring 1988 trip the World B. Tour, a play on the name of former NBA player World B. Free, and assembled a roster of tourist-players.
One of Aulet's first calls went to Joe Carrabino, a 6'9" power forward who holds Harvard's alltime career scoring record. Carrabino, 27, an investment banker, responded enthusiastically: "I've got it booked." That's how easy it is when people love a game. Other former Harvard players also jumped at the chance, among them diminutive play-maker Marty Healey, 35, now an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston; forward George White, 29, a real estate investment adviser from Philly; and swing-man Tom Mannix, 31, a Boston-based institutional equity salesman and a long-range bomber who started for three years for the Crimson.
Even as the first trip wound down, things geared up for the 1989 extravaganza. That's when I come in. At the time, I was living in Cambridge, Mass., and playing with some of the guys a couple of times a week. I had listened with growing envy to tales of the inaugural World B. Tour, and though I went to UC Davis, I lobbied for tour qualification on the grounds that I had also attended Harvard while on a science-journalism fellowship. When some of the original players couldn't make the second trip, I was tapped to join the group. Other newcomers included two guards, Washington attorney Dale Dover, 40, and real estate developer Mike Griffin, 36, and 6'7" power forward Joe Pettirossi, 25, a real estate loan officer in New York City. In me, the team got a 35-year-old free-lance writer as a 6'3" backup forward. Our coach was Colgate grad Andy Caso, 39, a marketing manager for computer products; he and I were the only non-Harvard grads present. Rounding out the entourage was team manager John Fenton.
February 12, 1990
It was Fenton who had discovered Jerome Westbrooks, a 33-year-old American who teaches phys ed and religion at the high school level in Ireland. West-brooks used to play professional basketball in Ireland and currently coaches a pro team there. With help from his wife, Lois, West-brooks and Fenton arranged an Irish foray that began with a four-team tournament near Dublin, followed by a week of games around the country.
The tournament began on a Saturday afternoon in early April in Killester, a Dublin suburb. Our first foe was the Irish National League Selection, which included several players from the national team. The gym turned out to be typical of what we would see throughout the tour—a linoleumlike floor and loosely fitted backboards.
Our team surprised me. Only about half the guys lived in the Boston area, so we weren't used to playing together, especially in the rough-and-tumble international game. But everyone was grounded in the fundamentals, and we meshed well enough for a convincing 30-point victory in the opener.
Game 2 that night provided the real test, however. Our opponents, the International All-Star Basketball Service (IABS), were American professionals who were playing in the Irish National League; Westbrooks, it turned out, is also the manager of the IABS. (Ireland is home to 10 Division I and eight Division II teams, and each team is allowed one American player.) All of the IABS Americans had played college ball back in the States, and though none had become household names, there were some very good players—including LaVerne Evans of Marshall University, Anthony Jenkins from Clemson, and Boston College's Skip Barry.
We were outgunned in youth and speed but we played more cohesively than they did. Several times we slipped behind by 12 or 14 points, only to come charging back. Carrabino used his bulk to create space for his deft shooting touch; he finished with 46 points. Late in the game, we took the lead. But with 23 seconds left, the IABS moved ahead again by two. Desperate, we pressed, and with about 10 seconds remaining, Griffin picked off a crosscourt pass. He pushed it downcourt to Healy, who swung it to Mannix in the left corner. Mannix drove to the hoop and tried to dish off to Dover for a final shot. But the pass was stolen, and the IABS scored a breakaway to ice the game. Final score: 125-121. As for myself, I saw only a few minutes of action.
The next day we demolished a First Division English team called the Cheshire Jets. But we lost again to the IABS team in the evening finale. Still, we found consolation in the second-place trophies and the fact that Carrabino, with 156 points in four games, won the Most Valuable Player award. And we left the gym knowing an important point had been established: We could play ball.
Clearly, no team of Irish players would be a match for us. The original plan had been to tour the country playing local teams. But Westbrooks had suspected the mismatch and arranged for us to tour instead with the IABS. After a day off, which we spent sightseeing around Dublin, we got up early on Tuesday and piled into a private bus. The whole complexion of the trip was about to change.
Now we traveled the back roads of Ireland, moving from place to place daily—up early, stumbling groggily into the bus, on to the next town. During these road trips, Westbrooks explained that basketball was introduced in the schools only about 20 years ago—and initially with girls. Boys, weaned on Gaelic football, found basketball somewhat sissified. Lately, that had changed, and Westbrooks had arranged for both teams to give clinics, featuring dribbling, passing, shooting and defensive drills, for schoolchildren in and around the towns where we would play each night.
That Tuesday afternoon, as our bus pulled up at a school in Falcarragh, a tiny town in County Donegal in the north of Ireland, at least 100 kids were waiting outside. Others were lined up at the classroom windows. We split into groups of two or three, some staying in Falcarragh and others heading out to neighboring areas. Everywhere the greeting was warm. Mannix and Barry went up the coast a bit, to a small school overlooking a white-sand beach. The reception was so moving, Mannix turned poetic. "It was fabulous," he reported. "The children had waited an hour for us. They ran about a quarter of a mile as we came down the road. They ran as hard as they could, then jumped over fences and looked up at us with rosy cheeks."
Taking the court that evening, we were surrounded by a sea of eager faces. At halftime, we barely had room and time to warm up, so busy were we autographing the pieces of paper pushed our way. I became the personal favorite of two teenage girls—Joanne and Mary—whose mission was to persuade their friends to root for our side. We lost nevertheless, 126-107. But it was my best game so far: five points, a couple of rebounds, an assist and no turnovers.
During our stay in Dublin we had adopted the practice of staying after the game for at least a half hour, signing autographs and visiting with fans. Afterward, we were joined at dinner by local residents. Then, invariably, we would end up at a pub until long past the official closing time of 11 p.m., happily swapping stories and addresses with local players, fishermen, poets, even priests.
The morning after the Falcarragh game we bused to a hotel in Donegal Town, about 34 miles away. I gave a clinic at a primary school with IABS player Ed Randolph. The entire school came—the younger children forming a circle around the court while the older kids ran through the drills.
Afterward, we regrouped for some rest and a bite to eat before heading to the gym. But a surprise awaited us when we emerged from the hotel that evening. Down the street, belting forth an impressive selection of American and Irish music, came a student band, about 75 strong, in full uniform. With several hundred people lining the roadways, and a growing string of kids joining the procession, we marched around the central square and up a long street to the gymnasium. Throughout the tour, we had been treated to some warm hospitality, but nothing like this. It was our first parade.
That marked another turning point in the trip. The long bus trips and clinics left virtually no time for sightseeing. We had pressed Westbrooks to stagger the clinic duty so that half of us were off each day. But now things changed. Not once after the Donegal parade did anyone complain about the clinics. In fact, we usually had more volunteers than spots to fill. During the parade, I walked beside Healey, who said, "I thought we came to Ireland to play basketball. I didn't realize we were bringing basketball to Ireland."
When we reached the locker room we were fired up. In each of our previous games, we had hit the floor for warmups in our sweats, looking like a ragtag bunch of color-blind fools. Now we went out as a unit in our black-and-crimson away uniforms. As the public address system played Paul Simon's Gum boots, Aulet led the way. We jogged around the court once before breaking into two lines for layups. Fans were packed in the balconies. The floor-level seating, with kids jammed under the scorers' tables, overflowed to the point that out-of-bounds lines were obscured. And the ovation was overwhelming. I know I speak for the rest of the team when I say that at that point we would have done virtually anything for the town of Donegal. Except win. Not that we didn't give it our best effort. The game was another doozy, with both teams eclipsing the century mark, but we again fell short by a handful of points, 117-110.
During the next three days, we drove to Belfast, in Northern Ireland, then crisscrossed back through Dublin, where we caught a train that took us to the southwest for a game in Killorglin, County Kerry. We continued to play well, but lost in both cities, making our record for the tour 2-6. After the Killorglin game, we said goodbye to our foes and traveled by train to Limerick. There we split and then teamed with local players for a final exhibition. This marked my personal scoring apex, 25 points—which was six more than I had scored in the previous eight games altogether.
We shuffled into the hotel bar later that night for a final round, tired and battered. But the trip had also energized us, and we excitedly planned a thank-you present for Donegal: a World B. Tour trophy to be awarded each year to the person doing the most for basketball in the county. And we talked about the site of the next tour—Poland. Finally, we lined up against the bar for team photographs. Hands were clasped emotionally all around. And we raised our glasses to coach Caso's toast: "To James Naismith, wherever he may be."
Free-lance writer Bob Buderi plays pickup basketball in San Francisco, where he lives.