Weeshie's Week

Paudie O Connor and the first Black basketball players in Killarney

October 31st, 2012
by Weeshie Fogarty

Paudie O Connor from Killarney was the greatest Kerry born basketball player I have ever seen and the greatest innovator of the sport of his era.  Now resident in America I considered him a great friend and played with him for our own Killarney team the Busby Babes. He was the only Irish player ever to make the first five of a European All Star team in a European tournament.  He was definitely away ahead of all others in the 70s and 80s. He stood at 6' 4" and played point guard most of his career. He would head off to the states ever summer when he was in his early twenties and play ball there and arrive home to Killarney with all the new tricks of the trade.  Dean Smith's camp in North Caroline was his destination and he would mix and learn there with the very best.

He was born and lived in my housing area, o Sullivan's Place Killarney which is just around the corner from Fitzgerald's Stadium the renowned GAA arena. I watched him grow from boy to man. We have 24 houses in this area and Paudie and his three brothers were basketball mad.  There was a small green area in the middle of the area with one timber telegraph pole in the centre and the o Connor boys erected a hoop on the pole. Paudie climbed on top of his brothers shoulders and attached the hoop to the pole and it was here that he honed and polished his amazing shooting and scoring skills. The then parish hall also next door opened its own basketball hall and every evening you would hear and se Paudie dribbling, shooting selling dummies hour after hour often all on his own. It is said he slept with the ball under the bed clothes so as when he woke in the morning the first thing he would smell was the basketball.  The game completely owned this young Killarney lad; I have never sen such dedication by any one person to his chosen sport.

Paudie learned his game with the Babes, winning Killarney Kerry and Munster championships at a very young age. He won All ireland minor and senior medals with Kerry when the sport had those competitions on the go. One year in 1969 Paudie had the All ireland basketball Cup in o Sullivan's Place, his near neighbor Vince Johnson was the All ireland fly fishing champion and another neighbor Johnny Culloty captained Kerry to win their 21st senior All Ireland title and the Sam Maguire Cup was also on our door step. Sadly no one had the foresight to take a photograph of all three together.

The St Vincent's club was then formed in Killarney and Paudie joined up to play with his brothers, For the 1979-80 season he was the man behind bringing in a Cork coach, Liam o Connell and one of his players, point guard Mick Butler. And then Paudie delivered his master stroke. He brought the first Americans to play in Killarney. Greg Huguley and Cornel Benford.  Yanks had played in other parts of the country but Paudie was the first to move here in Kerry. The ruling body tried to stop them playing but failed. They were dazzling on the court and I have vivid memories of seeing them play in the National league games and they were massive men both over 6' 5".

They were the talk of the town, I mean Killarney town. They were in my opinion the very first blacks to actually live in the town and as they strolled around the streets people stood and stared. Kieran Shannon in his superb Book "Hanging from the Rafters" recalls a great story. The two men took a stroll around the street and dropped into McSweeney's Pub in College St (one of my own watering holes). The usual suspects were ranged along the bar downing big pints of porter and in strolled these two big black giants. All eyes turned to the two, and pints were set aside as the lads called for drinks. Not a murmur could be heard. And then Cornel decides to break the silence.  "damm" he shouts. "on holidays for one week and I come back seven shades darker".  The pint drinkers at the bar were flabbergasted and quickly returned to their pints. A real quick wit was Cornel, when he met the girls at the local disco he would say "are you here to please or here to tease".

The ruling body attempted to take national league points off Killarney because the players had not been resident for the mandatory five week before playing. Paudie took on the "suits and ties" and won. A big tournament was organized, Vincent's, Demons, Killester and Marian all too part. TV coverage and a sponsor were landed for the event. Paudie starred as Killarney won. In 1981-82 he left for America and came home with two more giants of the court, Tony Andre and Arnold Veasley. I went regularly to see the home games. Killarney were now unbeatable with Paudie, the two yanks and big Tim Regan also  kery footballer at full forward from Spa just outside the town. They swept to wins in the top four and the league title and I was present on an unforgettable night in Killarney as a jam packed hall watched enthralled as a last second basket won the Federation Cup for John Carr Doncaster. It was amazing stuff and you could literally reach out and feel the electricity in the hall as the game reached its final seconds.  That Killarney team I can reel off from program of the game as I would a Kerry football team. Tony Andre (10), Tim Regan (18), Arnold Veasley (14), Andy Houlihan (13) Paudie o Connor (10). The following year 198-83 Paudie had one of his brothers along side him as his team Gleneagle Killarney lost the semi final to Blue Demons 84-66.

In 1987 Paudie o Connor emigrated to the states. He was ahead of his time in my opinion and had served as one of Killarney's youngest town Councilors' and had also been Mayor of his beloved Killarney. He was then 35 years of age and his best basketball days were behind him. He married an American girl, had a young daughter and he set up a business in the Bronx where he was part owner of a café and bakery. He then moved to Los Vegas where he is still based. He runs golf tours from there. He comes home to Killarney when those tours are passing through and I love meeting him for the chat. He was also a very accomplished Gaelic footballer and played senior football for the Kerry team at mid field. His mother and father have sadly died and one of his brothers Benny who I worked with as a psychiatric nurse in Killarney also died a young man. He too was superb basketball player. When I leave my home where I live in Killarney I pass the spot where the green patch now tarred once was. The Telegraph pole to which Paudie attached the basketball ring when he stood on his brothers Seamus shoulders has long since disappeared but when I pass that spot every day I can still see as clear as day in my minds eye a tall lanky youngster dressed in baggy shorts and vest shooting, dunking and dodging mysterious imagery opponents as he hones the amazing skills which were to make him one of the greatest ever Irish born basketball players.  But my favourite memories of Paudie o Connor are of a courteous, always smiling, polite, helpful person, no egos there, but a man who had literally sold his young life to basketball in his home town of Killarney.

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