Fulton family's generation game a unique tale of elite performers
A real sporting dynasty spanning almost a century with teenage basketball star CJ following some illustrious footsteps
Nature or nurture? The search for the secret to sporting success has taken in many tomes but maybe sometimes it is simply in the blood. The name Fulton in Irish basketball circles is laminated in 24-carat respect.
Step forward 15-year-old CJ Fulton of St Malachy's Grammar and Star of the Sea. An incredible 47-point performance in the All Ireland Schools under-16 final has garnered 400,000 views on social media and shortly he and his team-mates will enjoy a reception with the Lord Mayor at Belfast City Hall.
On the bench giving instructions was dad and former Irish captain Adrian, assisting fellow Malachy's teacher Phil Molloy, while his grandfather Danny - a former Star and Ireland head coach - proudly watched on from the stands of the National Basketball Arena.
Adrian was the on-court general for dad, head coach Danny, when Star won the All-Ireland Superleague in the 1990s and came agonisingly close on numerous occasions to win the Cup. Now CJ is showing even more promise than his talented dad, with an American university scholarship in two years time all but guaranteed - if he wishes to take it up.
The sporting talent of the Fultons is not confined to basketball as Danny's father Bertie is remembered as one of Northern Ireland's football legends, representing Great Britain at the 1936 Olympics when Jesse Owens stood tall in front of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime with his gold medal-winning displays.
"Four times my dad turned down the chance to go and play for Manchester United," revealed 71-year-old Danny, also a past Malachy's student, having travelled on the train every day from Larne. "My dad definitely saw Hitler, I don't know whether that was a great experience but he was in the same stadium as Jesse Owens. I suppose if he had signed for Manchester United, that wouldn't have happened.
"I always wanted to be a PE teacher and that was the influence of my father. I never saw him play but he would talk a lot about his career and when he talked about playing in the Olympics he always said that if Britain had picked the Cliftonville goalkeeper Fred McCrory they would have least won a bronze medal. He wasn't impressed with the English goalie. As it happened they lost 5-4 to Bulgaria and went out at the group stages.
"We've always been a sporting family. In fact when the great Joe Bambrick scored his record six goals for Ireland against Wales in 1930, my dad was the left back and my uncle Jimmy McCambridge was the inside left. You couldn't conceive of a teacher captaining an international team today but he did it. He was a true amateur - he'd be turning his grave looking at the way English football has gone."
Danny's sporting odyssey was greatly helped by the influence of Malachy's teacher Mick McCormick and while he was a solid basketball, it was in coaching that he truly thrived.
"I taught at La Salle College for 33 years and there were quite a few players who went on to become Irish internationals such as Gareth Maguire, Brendan Kennedy, Paul Kennedy and Brendan Rushe but really it wasn't until I went to a coaching course in Long Beach, California that I really understood what the sport was about. After five minutes I turned to John Kennedy and said 'we know nothing about basketball' and I had been coaching for seven years and he had played for Ireland!"
One of six brothers, as well as having eight sisters, Danny would go on to have a glittering career in Irish basketball and continues to be assistant coach to Superleague side Star, as well as monitoring the development of grandson CJ.
"He's a very smart player, he doesn't make too many mistakes. That performance in the schools final was exceptional for any level of sport," he added.
Comparisons have naturally been drawn between CJ and dad Adrian who also had the opportunity to head Stateside but turned it down.
"I was at a stage that in Upper Sixth that because of my age I could have gone to the States and done a year of high school before going on to university over there. I was offered the chance by St Thomas Aquinas in Connecticut but I turned it down and then later on I was offered the chance of playing professionally in France and Croatia and again turned that down because I wanted to stay at home," said 46-year-old Adrian. "I don't regret it but I do wonder what it would have been like. It's a debate that we're having in the house at the moment. I think it would be a great experience for Christopher if he wants it... but America is not for everybody."
It seems that CJ's career may well follow the same Irish path of that of Adrian as the teenager is eager to play a part in ending the trophy famine at Belfast Star. "I want to win the National Cup for my dad and my granda. Star have never won it so that would be great," says the 15-year-old, who is coming to terms with his little bit of fame.
In the All Ireland final, his game-high 47 was a point more than the total number of the opposition, St Mary's of Tralee and included 15 three-pointers - a masterclass in scoring that had the world talking about him.
"It was all a bit surreal. Every time I shot the ball it went in and then the response afterwards was crazy. My phone never stopped, social media went crazy and then coming back to school was great and it was brilliant to win the Cup for the school. We're a tight bunch of lads, there's a good team spirit," said CJ, who revealed that he was brought down to earth a few days later when Malachy's lost in the All Ireland League quarter-finals.
"I had hit a three to tie up the game but then our opponents went in front and I had a three to level it and it hit the rim and we lost. After what happened in the under-16 final it felt like I was a bit of hunted man. I know I still have a lot to work on and I feel that this year my defence has come on a lot."
Playing for Ireland in the European junior championships proved to be a major boost in his development, though the guidance of dad Adrian has been critical to his rise, which so far includes seven All Ireland schools titles and a runners-up medal this year in the under-19 final.
"My dad is my main inspiration. I managed to see a clip of him a few months ago on Facebook and it was the first time that I had seen him and in the three minutes he had four turnovers so that's all I've seen. He looked terrible so I'd need to see more clips because everybody tells me how he was so good," added CJ, who at one point was also a member of the Manchester United academy as well as the Northern Ireland development squad.
"My dad helps me a lot and so does my mum (Jackie). She basically organises everything for me so I can train before and after school and still have time to work hard on my GCSEs."
Mum Jackie also has sporting prowess running through her veins as she is the daughter of Jim Granaghan, an Ulster senior championship winner with Donegal, while sisters Jenna (12) and Katie (11) have both been international gymnasts.
"Jenna and Katie and my mum and grandad were all down at the under-16 final so that made it very special. They are all very supportive to me - even when at times it seems that everything revolves around round basketball!"
Though, his next sporting mission will be with Malachy's on the football field when they face Boys Model in the quarter-finals of the Schools Cup.
Dad Adrian adds: "He had to make a choice 18 months ago whether it was going to be football or basketball and he chose basketball and because he's an international we have to manage him very carefully because it can be easy for a young sportsman to burn out.
"The good thing about Christopher is that he is pretty level headed and he listens and I suppose the way I treat him is the way my dad treated me. If he makes a pass and his team-mate doesn't make it I'll tell him it was his fault not the team-mate because he should know that the guy couldn't handle that particular pass.
"We call a spade, a spade and I think that just makes sure that you never stop learning - even if you can shoot 47 points in an All Ireland final."