Celtic, But Not Boston: D'alessio Goes To Ireland

August 27, 2009|By KEVIN COWHERD

With a mom born and raised in County Roscommon, I know the Irish do lots of things well.

They turn out terrific poets and novelists.

They can sing and step-dance like nobody's business.

They make wonderful beer and whiskey. And you don't have to hold a gun to their heads to get them to join you for a pop or two, either.

But when I think of Ireland, here's about the last thing that comes to mind: great basketball.

Luke D'Alessio says that might be changing.

D'Alessio, 49, the longtime men's basketball coach at Bowie State and CCBC-Catonsville, just signed on to coach the UCC Blue Demons of the SuperLeague in Cork, Ireland.

When I think of Irish ballers, I picture a lot of short, pasty-faced guys working the ball around the perimeter like the old Boston Celtics of the 1950s.

I don't picture monster dunks. Or ankle-breaking moves. Or dazzling no-look passes.

But D'Alessio says the caliber of basketball in SuperLeague, Ireland's top league, is actually similar to low NCAA Division I ball in this country.

Sure, the Irish players might not be as athletic.

"But I was told they're very skilled, very intelligent," he said recently when we met for lunch near his Annapolis home. "And their work ethic is tremendous."

So he and his wife, Jacqui, are packing up and heading off to Cork with their family to sample a new culture and hopefully add another successful stint to D'Alessio's coaching resume.

"We're very excited," he said. "Everyone we talked to who's done this said it was a wonderful experience."

The UCC Blue Demons - UCC stands for University College Cork, where the team plays its home games - finished 22-1 last year. They're also the defending SuperLeague champions.

But their coach, Doug Leichner, moved on to take an assistant's job at the University of Maine.

Club officials quickly launched an exhaustive search for his replacement - these people screen basketball coaches the way the Vatican screens papal candidates - and selected the hardworking D'Alessio, who coached the past 10 years at Bowie State and six before that at CCBC-Catonsville.

Still, this will be a different kind of basketball experience in Cork, Ireland's second-largest city, with a population of 120,000.

For one thing, D'Alessio will be coaching pros instead of college kids.

"That's one thing I'm looking forward to - it's all about basketball," he said. "At the college level, you're worrying about the kids' grades, how they dress, keeping them out of trouble, mentoring them."

In the SuperLeague, "it's pretty much a business."

He'll also have to get used to the weird dichotomy of the team itself.

For instance, each team is allowed one American player. It used to be two Americans. But Ireland has been whacked by the worldwide recession, and the league is doing some belt-tightening this season.

So what each team does is try to sign the biggest stud from the U.S. it can find, preferably a strong rebounder who can also score inside.

"The Irish [players] are almost like volunteers," D'Alessio said. "A lot of them have regular jobs and play basketball on top of that. They get a modest stipend. But most of the money is spent on the American players, who get a salary and a place to live."

Great, another reason for the rest of the world to resent us.

The Blue Demons' top American player last year was Jerrah Young, a 6-foot-7 center who played for the University of Toledo. But he has moved on to play in China, which means D'Alessio is scrambling to sign another strong U.S. player before the season starts in October.

Maybe the biggest adjustment players have to make is that SuperLeague teams play only once a week, on weekends.

This allows the Irish players to keep their day jobs and practice four nights a week. But it can be tough on homesick American players acclimating to a new culture.

"You've got a lot of free time," D'Alessio said. "How're you going to handle it?"

Not, the coaches hope, sitting in a pub night after night, chasing women and swilling Guinness stout.

In any event, D'Alessio and his family leave today for their grand Irish adventure, which will last about seven months, providing he doesn't re-sign with the club.

He said he's a little nervous about meeting his new players.

But you know what really makes him nervous? The prospect of driving in Ireland, where they drive on the left side of the road, the steering wheel's on the right side of the car and the stick-shift is to the driver's left.

Got all that?

Neither does D'Alessio.

"Doug Leichner said it took him two weeks to figure it out," D'Alessio said with a laugh. "While he was [driving], no one was allowed to talk to him. No radio, nothing. But he said the other drivers were polite."

That's another thing the Irish do well: mind their manners.

Not that that helps on the basketball court.

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