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Some people know exactly what they’re going to do when they graduate from college. Some people don’t. In 1979, Pete Strickland, future successful Div. I basketball coach, was one of the latter.
"So that year, I returned home," Strickland says. "I ended up teaching English at a local Catholic school in D.C. And then the next year, the odyssey began."
A Basketball Adventure Begins
Said odyssey started one weekend while Strickland was visiting his girlfriend at the University of Pittsburgh, where he’d played college ball. He thought his organized hoops days had ended, but a former teammate, Wayne Williams, invited him to join a game. He couldn’t have known that one of the people on the sideline was an overseas scout with recruiting on his mind.
"So I went out, played, and a guy from Ireland saw both Wayne and I, and he wanted us to come over for two different clubs," Strickland says.
"At that time, did you know there was professional basketball in Ireland?" I ask.
"I was not aware. No," Strickland says.
This is not surprising, as the business of basketball in Ireland was not entirely professional, at least by some standards.
"They said, 'Can you buy you own ticket? We’ll reimburse you when you get there,'" Strickland recalls. "I said, 'Great.' So I bought my own ticket, arrived, and they got caught in traffic from Cork to Shannon, and there was nobody there, and I thought, 'This is as good a prank as my friends have ever played on me. They made me buy a ticket to Ireland. Now I’m here. These guys are good. My buddies are good.'"
But it wasn’t a prank. The Irish connection showed up. The Neptune Club would employ Strickland as a basketball player, and, he hoped he’d be introduced to a new world.
"And we go to an Italian restaurant to eat, and I’m in the midst of my teammates," he says. "This is it. I’m gonna be part of a community and a culture. I’m gonna learn about it. Playing basketball, that’s exciting, too, of course, being paid for that. And I can’t understand a word they’re saying. It was English. It was just the Cork version. Took me a while to get an ear."
It must have been a short while. Strickland excelled on the court, and he enjoyed teaching his teammates how to play the game as he’d learned it at DeMatha Catholic High School in Washington and at Pitt. And sometimes Strickland and the other U.S. player on the club, Gary Gardner, would teach basketball at local schools.
"And we go up to Knocknaheeny School, which was at the top of Cork," Strickland says. "Great school in a troubled area. Sister greeted me. She was great. I said, 'Well, we’re ready to get going. Just show us the gym.' 'Oh,' she said, 'Peter, we don’t have a gym. We have the all-purpose room.' I said, 'Oh, that’s not a problem. That’s not an issue at all.' She ushers us in there. I said, 'Well, just bring out the baskets and we’ll get started.' 'Oh, Peter, oh, we don’t have baskets.' I said, 'All right. Well, hey, that’s no problem. Just bring out the balls and we’ll get them rolling.' 'Oh!' Course I knew what was coming then. 'We don’t have any balls, either.' She said, 'I thought you were going to bring the balls.' 'No, I didn’t, but, ah, we’ll get them going.'
"So all we did was defensive stance and slides. Girls were excited. To this day, and I think I’ve done some good teaching in my life, 33-year coaching career, it’s still the best hour of teaching, Bill, that I’ve ever put forth."
The 'Maryland All-Stars'
Maybe it was inevitable that, given that level of creativity, Pete Strickland would soon become the player/coach at the Neptune Club. He was 23. And shortly thereafter, he became a recruiter and basketball promoter. That happened when the Neptune Club decided to host an international basketball tournament, featuring two teams from Cork. They felt they needed a team from the U.S., where basketball began. Strickland said he thought he could scare one up.
"I started calling my friends," Strickland says. "And I said, 'Look, we gotta get a team together. And you guys, here’s what we got. You can come over, and everything’s paid for, flight over and back.' 'Oh, Pete. That’s great. Can’t wait.'"
Strickland and the Neptune club billed those who showed up as the Maryland All-Stars. They weren’t from Maryland. Some of them may have been all-stars somewhere, but they’d never played together. Their publicity material featured photos of John Havlicek and Jerry West, because who was gonna know?
"We wouldn’t have known that," John Cooney says, laughing.
Cooney played for the Cork Blue Demons. He remembers the Maryland All-Stars as, um, American.
"I would suggest that, yes, they were a decent team," Cooney says. "But some of the Americans that had been coming over for years were better players than some of the lads on the Maryland All-Stars."
"I started calling up my friends, and I said, 'Look, we gotta get a team together. And you guys, here’s what we got. You can come over, and everything’s paid for, flight over and back.'"Pete Strickland
Still, those ersatz All-Stars were greeted enthusiastically by basketball fans in Cork. They marched in the town’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, following behind a hoop mounted on the back of a truck, shooting baskets along the route. Everybody remembers it as a heck of a show.
And in the tournament’s early going, the Maryland All-Stars lived up to their billing — minus the Hall-of-Famers in their promotional material. After their first two games, they were 2-0. Pete Strickland didn’t get to play with the All-Stars. He was still on the Neptune roster.
"And then it came down to the ultimate game of pool play, where the American All-Stars were supposed to play the Blue Demons, which is our hated rival," Strickland says. "I mean, take your Hatfields and McCoys and multiply by 10. Blue Demons and Neptune do not like each other."
Under normal circumstances, Strickland shouldn’t have had to worry. But the Maryland All-Stars were playing with a depleted roster, in part because they had been partying at an abnormal rate since arriving in Cork. And John Cooney of the Blue Demons liked his club’s chances for this game that had captured the imagination of Cork’s fans.
"The atmosphere was electric," Cooney says. "The actual gymnasium was full. It was an old gym, right, it was the only gym we had. But there were these big, steel rafters, right? And the crowds, even — we had people hanging from the rafters. It was unreal."
'The Yanks Don't Even Make The Semis'
The game was all the Irish fans could have hoped for: physical at times, close all the way, and in doubt as the clock ran down with the Maryland All-Stars up a measly point:
"There was two seconds — only — left. Two seconds," Cooney says. "There was a jump ball. Our lad that was jumping was only about 6-foot-3, but he couldn’t jump an inch off the ground. Their guy was about 6-foot-6. The Maryland All-Stars set up to defend their basket. So they were expecting to win the jump. But our fellow won the jump, passed it back to me, and I just had time to catch the ball and shoot it. Nothing but net. Game over.
"The buzzer went off and the crowds went mad. They just ran over the seats and on to the court. It was crazy, crazy stuff."
"My understanding is that you have not had to pay for a drink since," I say.
"I wish that was the case," Cooney says. "Yeah, but I have to say, I got plenty of Guinness after that, all right. I was the toast of the town for a while."
The shot that Cooney drained delighted the Irish fans, but it unsettled Neptune Club player/coach and Maryland All-Star recruiter Pete Strickland.
"I mean, the Yanks don’t even make the semis, Bill. It’s a total disaster," Strickland says. "We’re going to have a pretty dead semis and a pretty dead final. Not only is the gym going to be empty, but our hated rivals are the ones that beat 'em. Well, we forget, of course, in the emotion of the moment that our hated rivals have fans, too. The semis are sold out, because this is the team that beat the Yanks, and the finals are sold out, and it’s a huge success. So, you know what? Just like we drew it up!"
Pete Strickland spent part of another season in Ireland as player/coach of the Neptune Club. Since then he’s run summer basketball camps in the country from time to time and stayed in touch with the game there as he coached at various colleges in the U.S. Unhappily, Irish basketball during those years was, well, according to former Blue Demon and heroic shot-maker John Cooney, not so good.
"It really hit a slump for years there, you know," he says.
Returning To Ireland
Indeed. It was a slump so deep that the national team ceased to exist, and most of the youth teams that remained were underfinanced and no longer competitive. So somebody had to save basketball on the island. Wouldn’t it be great if Pete Strickland, the guy who’d built such enthusiasm for the game 37 years earlier had wrapped up his college coaching career in the U.S. and had watched his son play his final college game? What if he was open to the idea that he ought to come back? Why not give him a call?
"'Pete, would you be interested?' I said, 'Yeah, I would be interested now. I would.' I applied and I got the job," Strickland says.
John Cooney is good with the hire.
"He was a fantastic player, but a great coach, and I’m sure he’ll help bring on these guys, because there are a few very good 17-, 18-year-olds here, who, with good coaching, I’m sure, will come on in leaps and bounds."
As John Cooney sees it, leaps and bounds … and defense and 3-pointers might eventually get the Irish National Team to international respectability, and Pete Strickland’s the fellow who can make it happen.
"Please, God, he can," Cooney says. "Yeah, yeah. I mean, we’ll all get to the Olympics someday."
It might seem like a stretch, but, hey, if the Irish club needs inspiration, Pete Strickland can tell them of the day when, under those rafters from which the fans hung, he saw the lightly-regarded Blue Demons of the city of Cork knock off John Havlicek, Jerry West and the rest of the Maryland All-Stars.
This segment aired on March 11, 2017.
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