On a cold morning in January, 70-year-old Joe Mullaney boards a
train for the two-hour trip from Dublin to Belfast. There, at St.
Malachy's School -- whose campus is hard by the infamous Crumlin
Road Jail, where a number of Irish Republican Army leaders have
been imprisoned, and the Girdwood Barracks, a foreboding British
garrison post -- Mullaney conducts a basketball clinic for 35
Catholic teenagers. The students, many of whom wear jerseys with
either o'neal or barkley on the back, listen attentively as
Mullaney warns them not to pattern their games after Shaquille
O'Neal's or Charles Barkley's or that of any other behemoth in the
``Everything is strength with Shaq and a lot of the big guys,''
says Mullaney, who should know. He was the coach who put
Providence on the college basketball map in the 1950s and who,
during a two-year stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, coached the
team to the seventh game of the 1970 NBA Finals against the New
York Knicks. ``Most of them can't shoot from beyond the foul
line,'' Mullaney says of the NBA giants. ``So don't try to play
Among those at the clinic is Billy Ingram, an assistant professor
of sports and leisure studies at the University of Ulster at
Jordanstown, who has come over to say hello to Mullaney. Ingram, a
Protestant living in Belfast, coaches basketball for Belfast
United, a program begun in Northern Ireland in 1989 by Dan Doyle.
A former basketball coach at Trinity College in Hartford, Doyle is
the founder and executive director of the Institute for
International Sport at the University of Rhode Island. Belfast
United, a program run by the Institute, seeks to get Catholic and
Protestant teenagers to play together on the same basketball
That is no small feat in a country where, as a rule, Catholics
and Protestants not only do not play on the same teams but also
rarely even play against each other.
Mullaney began working for Belfast United in late 1993, coaching
Catholic and Protestant players in and around Belfast. Then last
June he coached some of the same players when Belfast United
traveled to the U.S. and played games against high school
all-stars from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
``They got killed by the American teams, but the Belfast United
kids got along great with each other,'' says Mullaney, who was a
captain of the underdog Holy Cross team that won the NCAA
championship in 1947 with a freshman point guard named Bob Cousy.
When they gather for their first practice, Protestant and Catholic
players stand apart, and there is a palpable uneasiness between
the two groups. But, Mullaney says, once they start playing,
basketball helps them form a bond.
In an effort to bring the players still closer together, each
Catholic shares accommodations with a Protestant at a host's house
when the team makes its annual visit to the States. ``That's the
purpose of Belfast United -- bringing young Catholics and
Protestants together through the medium of sport,'' says Doyle.
Unfortunately, the players of Belfast United don't get to be
teammates for more than a few months. The team roster changes each
season so that other youths can participate. The players typically
spend about two months practicing together before their trip to
the U.S. Because of the strict demarcation between Catholic and
Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast, the players seldom meet after
``I've made some good friends among the Protestants I've played
with on Belfast United,'' says Adrian Fulton, 21, one of Northern
Ireland's best young athletes. He plays for the University of
Ulster and for Star of the Sea in the Budweiser Super League.
Sponsored by the American beer company, this league is the top
echelon of Irish basketball. ``I've visited some of them in their
neighborhoods, and some of them come to my house, which never
would have happened if it hadn't been for Belfast United.''
To help establish lasting friendships, over the past two years
players have held reunions during the Christmas season. These have
taken place at ``neutral'' locations such as the University of
Ulster, which has both Catholic and Protestant students. ``There's
got to be some continuity over the long term,'' Ingram says. ``And
we're trying to find a way.''
The racket inside the gymnasium at the Dublin City University
sports complex is deafening. But on the far left court, where
Mullaney is conducting a practice session with nine women
basketball players, no one seems to mind the noise.
Mullaney, who will be returning to Belfast the next day, has a lot
to contend with on this particular afternoon: Rock music blares as
50 people take part in an aerobics class on the adjacent center
court and 35 or so Gaelic footballers work out on the third
court. Because of the din, Mullaney must raise his voice to be
heard, first by the Dublin City women's team and later by the
men's squad as he tries to teach the matchup defense that he
devised more than three decades ago and that is still used by many
college basketball teams in the U.S.
Would Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor have tolerated
such distractions at a Laker practice? Would Lenny Wilkens, Jimmy
Walker and John Thompson have put up with such a din when they
played at Providence College? Not likely. But Mullaney's current
players don't seem fazed. Mullaney himself, who coached all of the
above-mentioned U.S. stars, makes do without a whimper.
``Because of all the yelling I have to do to be heard, I find
myself hoarse after a practice,'' says Mullaney, who is fit, trim
and able to run back-to-back two-hour practices. Neither of his
Dublin City teams is about to crash the top 20, not even in
Ireland, where even Budweiser League basketball is overshadowed by
soccer, Gaelic football, hurling and rugby. But Dublin City is
determined to improve its club basketball program (all college
sports in Ireland are played on the club level, as they are in
most of Europe), and thus the presence of Coach Mullaney.
In him the Irish players have a master. But after coaching at the
top levels in both college and the pros in the U.S., Mullaney
finds himself frustrated at times as he tries to teach basketball
fundamentals -- not to mention the matchup defense -- to young
people who in many cases would rather be playing other sports. ``I
remember how I was about to give a clinic in Belfast, and the kids
were playing soccer in the gym,'' says the coach, who led
Providence to nine consecutive seasons of more than 20 victories
(1958- 67) and who spent a total of 18 seasons coaching the Friars
during two stints at the school. ``And they kept right on playing
until I blew my whistle to start the clinic. They paid attention
and were enthusiastic about learning the game, but until I got
their attention, their minds were on soccer, not basketball.''
Particularly vexing to Mullaney are the frequent absences of
players from his practice sessions. ``If there's a conflict, my
two best players will practice with the Budweiser League team they
play with. But I can understand, because university basketball is
a club sport and the games don't mean a thing.''
That's true even when six-year-old Dublin City University plays
its crosstown rival, 402-year-old Trinity College, as it did
during the 23-team university basketball championships held March
2-5. But Mullaney still does not like to lose. ``In January the
men's team lost a game to Green Mountain College from Vermont,
which was on a tour of Ireland,'' says John Kerrane, the sport and
recreation director at Dublin City. ``When it was over, Joe had
fire in his eyes because the team hadn't executed some plays
During his recent five-month stay in Ireland, his second trip to
the country, Mullaney, who was accompanied by his wife, Jane, was
given an apartment and reimbursed for expenses but received no
salary. That was his arrangement with Dublin City University, the
Institute for International Sport and Belfast Unlimited. Noel
Keating, head of the Irish Basketball Association, says Mullaney
is having an impact in both Northern Ireland and the Irish
Republic, as well as among Catholics and Protestants on the
Belfast United basketball teams.
``Joe's done a wonderful job,'' says John Sugden, a professor of
sports and leisure studies at the University of Ulster and a
coordinator of the Belfast United program. ``We've had 500 years
of strife, and the impact of Belfast United may be only a drop in
the bucket. But quite often I'll meet one of the kids who played
on the team, and he'll say, `You know, that was the best thing I
ever did.' ''
Jack Cavanaugh lives in Wilton, Conn., and writes often for