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In the 1960s basketball brought Northern Ireland's two communities together in a unique show of unity... and a 10,000 sell-out tournament at Belfast's SSE arena last month proved it can do so again

Alan Moneypenny played in the mixed Belfast Celtics team that took on Real Madrid at the King's Hall in 1963. He believes a new transatlantic sporting initiative can pay dividends for the current generation of young people

Alan Moneypenny
Alan Moneypenny
Alan in action for Belfast Celtics (left)
Alan with Co Down manager Paul Ritchie at the Milk Cup in his Sport Northern Ireland role
Alan lining up with the side against Real Madrid
Towson College celebrate defeating Manhattan College to win the Belfast Classic at the SSE Arena

It is now safe to say that the halcyon days of sporting spectaculars being staged inside the gladiatorial stadium of the King's Hall in Belfast are KO'd and kaput: gone for good. Plans to turn the ageing - and it now looks its age - Balmoral landmark into a vast health complex means there will be no more nights such as when legendary boxer Rinty Monaghan won his world title against Glasgow's Jackie Paterson way back in 1948, when the rafters rattled and roared above a multi-thousand mass of fight fans.

Neither will there be nights like the bloody and brutal Freddie Gilroy v John Caldwell bout in 1962.

Nor will there be a night in the rocking, raucous and rolling arena like that on the night before Halloween, October 30, a year later in 1963, when an official tally of more than 8,000 fans - unofficial estimates later calculated there were 11,000 punters present - packed into the famous old venue for a unique basketball game.

It was between the Belfast Celtics team and European basketball royalty, Real (literally 'Royal') Madrid in the game's European Cup.

I remember it well. I wasn't only there, I played in the match. And not least because the Spanish soccer side was in Belfast to play Northern Ireland in a European Championship qualifier at the same time. But their then-Galacticos, Ferenc Puskas and Afredo Di Stefano, turned up to watch our game.

And they even asked us to sign autographs on their King's Hall programmes afterwards.

By that stage I'd already been capped for the Ireland senior side while still a 6ft 4ins student at Annadale Grammar School.

I later joined the then-burgeoning and soon to become all-Ireland champs Belfast Celtics: for a while, the only Protestant on the side. But I will come back to that later.

Because it is important in the context of what I witnessed and was party to at the back end of last year.

That was when, early last month, crowds of thousands again packed into a major venue to watch the game I played - and still love.

This time the venue was the SSE Arena in Belfast (and having served as a trustee there for eight years, can I say that, after the transition from the Odyssey, it has never looked better).

The occasion was a showpiece - and as it turned out, show-stopping - round-robin tournament between four top college sides from the USA.

Sanctioned by the American game's ruling body, the National Basketball Association (NBA), it pulled in more than 10,000 spectators over just two days.

And, significantly, the vast majority of those crowds comprised of families: mums, dads and kids.

Indeed, one of the cherished memories of the whole spectacle - there were razzamatazz bands and cheerleaders and the NBA even shipped over specialist equipment and its own special-wood court - was a wee lad of about six being invited down from the stalls to sit on the bench with one of the teams.

The look in the youngster's eyes as he exchanged high fives with these 7ft giants towering high above him was a sight to behold.

The whole outstanding outcome was the brainchild of Belfast man Gareth Maguire. He is, aptly, the CEO of the Sport Changes Lives Foundation.

Gareth spent years travelling and lobbying in America to make the transatlantic sports connection happen. It is an immense tribute to him and his organisation that it was the soaring success it turned out to be.

And in the context of what the foundation represents, to categorise this whole carousel of (family) fun as merely sport, while that was one of its main purposes, would be to miss a wider, community-wide point.

And that harks back to the days when Belfast Celtics were in their prime and pomp.

Sure, as already mentioned, I may have been the youngest player and only Protestant on the team. But, back then, nobody thought anything of that.

Because basketball was, in those days, a truly cross-community sport.

That was proved no more than on court with the Celtics. If a bit of bother broke out - and there was often a 'boxing' bout or two - it was 'one in, all in'.

The game was also played in almost every secondary or grammar school, with those schools playing each other, both across this province and across this island.

Ditto the adult club teams. And, like rugby, hockey and boxing for instance, it was an all-Ireland sport.

It bound people and communities together.

The huge crowd at the King's Hall for the Real Madrid match - and the thousands-strong crowds again at the SSE Arena last month - proved that.

Unfortunately, the Troubles - because of the difficulties and dangers of where club basketball was played back in the 1960s - torpedoed the game. literally.

Now, because of the American Colleges' project (a four-year contract has been signed to repeat the round-robin tournament here), a window has opened to allow the game of leaps and bounds to leap and rebound back in Northern Ireland.

The number of major agencies involved in staging the initial SSE tournament last month included the American Consulate here, the NBA back in the States, Aer Lingus, Discover Ireland, and, not least, Belfast City Council, which laid on a celebration gala and presentation dinner at the now world-renowned and international award-winning Titanic building.

Significantly, too, the CBA is championing what an external education programme called the Victory Scholarship, which entails aspiring young college basketball players across the Atlantic coming here to play and study at Ulster University.

Even more significantly, those students have signed up to projects, which will see them going out into our communities - many of those designated "disadvantaged" - to work with young people there. Imagine an aforesaid 7ft-plus African-American athlete walking into a classroom on the Falls or the Shankill Roads in Belfast with a basketball tucked under his arm and telling them about the deprivation he has come from - and won his way out of - in inner-city Chicago or New York, through, among other things, his prowess at sport. And especially his sport, basketball.

That is a powerful message, a very positive power-play, for our young people.

At that City Council function in the Titanic Museum the American college players marvelled when I told them that the famous staircase in there was a replica of the actual staircase of the ship built to the exact blueprints: the 'real deal'.

My abiding hope is not just that the example set by this innovative tournament and the Atlantic-spanning Victory Scholarship project helps provide a "new deal" to rescue, recover and resurrect the game I played and love.

But also that, just like the staircase at which the young Americans marvelled, this whole very worthwhile initiative represents a "new deal" for our young people to help them take positive and significant steps up the stairway of life and realise a "real deal" both for themselves and this country.

After all, they are our only real investment in, and for, the future.

Alan Moneypenny is a businessman and sports analyst

Belfast Telegraph


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