By Pearse McGrath
When Giannis Antetokounmpo sunk a free throw to reach 50 points in the sixth and final game of the 2021 NBA finals, he not only secured the Milwaukee Bucks’ first championship in 50 years but he also ensured he would become only the second European player in the history of the league to win what is arguably the NBA’s most important award, Finals MVP, after Dirk Nowitzki in 2011.
Antetokounmpo was born and raised in Athens, Greece, and did not leave the country until he went to America to join the NBA draft, while Nowitzki comes from a small town in northern Germany. Nowitzki and Antetokounmpo have been leading lights in proving that Europeans can hang with the Americans on the court and have given rise to a number of younger European stars following in their footsteps.
Twenty-two-year-old NBA superstar, Luka Doncic, hails from Slovenia – a country with a population of just over two million people. Doncic’s teammate Kristaps Porzingis – who became a big name while playing for the New York Knicks – comes from the even smaller Latvia. Last year’s regular season MVP, Nikola Jokic, is Serbian. Our British neighbours also have a rising talent in the league, with London-born OG Anunoby starring in Toronto. If all of these Europeans are able to dominate in the NBA, it begs the question – when will an Irish-born player become an NBA star?
Ireland is not a country blessed with a great history of basketball players, and currently the 107th ranked country in the world in FIBA’s men’s basketball rankings – behind the likes of Taiwan and Tahiti. The national team has not reached the Summer Olympics since 1948 and are still yet to qualify for top tournaments such as EuroBasket or the FIBA World Cup. There are a number of NBA legends who have Irish heritage, such as Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin McHale. However, none of these players have ever lived in or chosen to play for Ireland.
The only Irish-born player in NBA history is Pat Burke – born in Tullamore – who was a bit part player in the three years he spent in the NBA (he did however get to play alongside NBA stars such as Tracy McGrady and Steve Nash). Burke talked to Balls.ie about guarding Michael Jordan in arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time’s final season in the league, “They’re taking the ball out at half court and I’m looking to see who’s got who and then I realise ‘oh my god, I’ve got Michael Jordan’. Michael looks at me and said ‘just don’t hurt me big fella’.”
Aidan Igiehon is probably the best prospect Ireland has produced to date. Growing up in Clondalkin, Igiehon played soccer before being introduced to basketball by Dublin Lions coach Mick White at the age of 12. Igiehon began to learn the game and within two years had moved to Brooklyn and began playing varsity basketball for a New York private school. Igiehon’s high school performances caught the eye of college scouts and he became a four-star prospect and the No. 55 ranked player in the Class of 2019 – which encompasses the entire USA, as well as earning the nickname ‘Irish Hulk’.
Igiehon told Off The Ball about his first experiences at a basketball camp in America saying, “it’s a funny story because I couldn’t dunk the basketball before I came to America. All of a sudden when I came to the camp, I was punching it and dunking it with ease. I just feel like it was God telling me it’s time to show what you can do.”
Igiehon was recruited by the Louisville Cardinals of Louisville University, who have produced the likes of Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell and former-MVP Wes Unseld. Igiehon had a tough time playing for Louisville, partly due to injuries and illness. After two years, he transferred to Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, where he is currently playing. Due to Covid-19, Igiehon still has 3 years left of college eligibility in which time he will try to cement his name as a legitimate NBA prospect.
Igiehon still believes he will enter the NBA draft in the coming years, telling Off the Ball, “I think I’m ready. It’s all about how you play. If you show what you can do and buzz is starting, scouts are coming, you kind of hear. It could be after this year, it could be after next year. The timeline is dictated by me and how well I play.”
Irish fans of the NBA, such as Kevin Kells – who has watched religiously for the last decade – will be hoping that Igiehon can become a star in the league as well as for the national team.
“I’ve watched a few games and highlights of Aidan and he really looks like somebody who could make the NBA. He’s the prototypical modern NBA big-man,” says Kells, “he’s athletic, he can shoot a little bit, and he can guard multiple positions. I really think he could make it”
Kells became a fan after a visit to New York. He explains: “It’s crazy, you’re surrounded by basketball when you’re there and then there’s nothing when you come back to Ireland. It left me wanting more and I’ve followed it ever since.”
When asked about why basketball does not seem to be as popular in Ireland as in other European countries, Kells said, “there’s a huge amount of love for basketball in mainland Europe, I feel like we’re a bit disconnected from the other countries in Europe – because we’re an island, their culture doesn’t rub off on us as much as it does on each other. I do think it’s starting to come around over here though.”
Last year, Basketball Ireland cried foul over the more favourable way in which it feels the FAI has been treated and asked to be allowed to make a case for additional funding. In November of last year, they did receive €550k in funding, with a further 600k going to clubs around Ireland.
Maybe in 20 years it will be an Irish player leading his franchise to an NBA title, but for now it seems as if we will be watching from the outside.