By Julia Karron
For the Povich Center
EILAT, ISRAEL — The Ireland team has looked like a familiar guest at the 13th annual Friendship Games. Its players joined peers aboard a cruise last Saturday night on the Red Sea. Afterward, when the teams retreated to their hotel, the Ireland players were right in the middle of things when the low-key evening took a rambunctious turn.
With Tarab Shaabi’s “Jenno Wo Netto” pumping through the speakers on the hotel’s ground floor, the Ireland players led an international mosh pit of sorts, which brought together – literally – the diverse cultures competing here.
Just maybe not in the way Games organizers had planned, but it proved, Ireland co-captain Manus Darby said, that “alcohol and music overcome language barriers.”
Three University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism students covered the Friendship Games in Eilat, Israel, this summer through a partnership with the event’s organizers and The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.
Ireland’s barriers to entry for the Friendship Games, having appeared in one Friendship Games since the inaugural tournament in 2006, included lack of funding, lack of interest in basketball and no coach.
But Trinity College of Dublin, one of Ireland’s most academically rigorous colleges, is here at the Friendship Games, and not simply for the scenery. Despite Ireland’s reputation for being “historically bad at basketball,” according to Darby, that did not stop this team from enjoying the ride.
The team embraced its motto – “We came here to take, not to make” – according to Robbie Fidgeon-Kavanagh, its other co-captain. Ireland finished the tournament 1-3.
But basketball is not what attracted Trinity’s players to the college. Earlier this year, U.S. News and World Report ranked Trinity as No. 103 overall college in Europe, the highest ranking for an Irish institution.
“No one has ever said, ‘I want to go to Trinity to play basketball,’” Fidgeon-Kavanagh said.
Darby is still “not fully sure” why they’re at the games, but he and Fidgeon-Kavanagh have speculated. One theory Darby had was that the head of Trinity sport, Michelle Tanner, was leaving the European University Sport Association, and was then “offered a place for Trinity in this tournament.”
Another theory posits that professor and benefactor, Seamas Donnelly, prodded the head of Trinity sport to ask for a place in the tournament rather than having EUSA formally give Trinity the spot in the tournament.
Regardless of how Trinity earned its lucky break, its tournament experience has faced plenty of challenges. There are only seven players on the roster for the Games, and while Tal Salman, the attache assigned to the team by Games organizers also bears the title of coach, Fidgeon-Kavanaugh said the team “is pretty student-run … Between me and Manus, we run Trinity basketball.”
That means that lineups, timeouts, and talking with the referees is a team effort. Since Salman has stepped in during the Friendship Games, Darby noted he’s quick to offer advice, but mostly lets the players observe what’s going on and then talks to the referees on their behalf.
The team actually had a coach selected before leaving Ireland, but, Fidgeon-Kavanagh said that he “was absolutely … terrible,” and the players chose to go without a coach.
“He would call time out when we didn’t need to,” said Fidgeon-Kavanagh, and would only call two plays. “His practices were like kiddy shooting drills,” he added, rolling his eyes.
But that is not much of a change from how the team operates back home. Basketball, according to Darby, is probably the fifth- or sixth-most popular sport on campus, behind some of Ireland’s most popular pastimes – rugby, gaelic football, field hockey and rowing.
As a result, basketball often gets meager resources. Their coach is a part-time position, so the players often self-coach, except for the rare evening games.
“We’ve played without a coach quite often actually,” he said, “Our coach usually has a day job.”
When Darby was making the budget for all four of Trinity’s club basketball teams, two men and two women’s, he asked the College for “$13,000 for the entire year and I got $6,000.” That gap is made up by membership fees that players pay at the start of the season.
But basketball is starting to become more popular on campus. The team is starting to get three recruiting scholarships per year, and Fidgeon-Kavanagh said he has to contact those people in the next few weeks.
And the experience of the Friendship Games will help recruitment.
“First year students are always interested in what trips and opportunities our club can offer them,” Darby said.
The event’s organizers sponsored student coverage of the Friendship Games. Editorial control of the coverage and content remained with The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.