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'There's a market for basketball': Belfast Star look to future despite funding frustrations as CJ Fulton seals USA switch

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Inspirational: CJ Fulton

Inspirational: CJ Fulton

�INPHO/Oisin Keniry

Inspirational: CJ Fulton

Reigning league champions Belfast Star didn’t need Brexit to feel the full force of the border, despite not crossing it for over a year.

The team haven’t travelled south to defend their title as pandemic restrictions cancelled the 2020-21 season, making it 12 months since the last competitive basketball game here.

But, more importantly, the North-South divide caused the Belfast side to miss out on part of a €1.2 million Irish Government fund, which is only reserved for clubs combating Covid in the Republic.

Without that southern comfort, Star’s chairman Bill McCotter struck a pessimistic tone just as the initially postponed season was finally called off in November.

“Unfortunately because we’re based in the North and, even though we’re the All-Ireland champions, we’re not eligible to apply for that (Irish funding),” McCotter told BBC.

“The funding from the North? It looks as if the application could be ready in December and that could be available in March or April, but that’s no good to us. We’ll be bust by then.

“There just seems to be zero tolerance from both governments, north and south. We (normally) generate money from fundraising so that’s gone.

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“The guys’ contracts have to be paid and with work permits, flights, accommodation, we’re probably in the region of about £20,000 (€23,000) down and we haven’t bounced a ball.”

While Belfast Star has held on, its international players American James Claar and Englishman Johnny Foulds had to return home without setting foot on court.

The club’s Conor Quinn, who was inspired by Star’s past US athletes to take up the game, regrets their departure in the lost season.

“For the kids, it’s big to have guys coming in as role models from different levels of basketball with their knowledge. That’s how I started playing,” he said.

“You heard the American accent, you saw them. They were the coolest people as an eight or nine-year-old. That hooked me on the game and then I wanted to go to America.”

Having gone on to hone his skills, alongside his twin brother Aidan, at North Dakota’s Mayville State University, Quinn wants to spread his passion for the game.

The 25-year-old was delighted to see the hit documentary ‘The Last Dance’ renew interest in basketball at the club’s outdoor camps in St Malachy’s College last summer.

“The numbers and the interest from that were amazing. Even people that don’t really know basketball say to me, ‘did you watch the Last Dance’?’’

“It shows there’s a market for basketball if we can get kids involved,” Quinn said.

Frustratingly, the sport hasn’t fully capitalised on the Michael Jordan documentary as Ireland remains one of two European countries unable to resume their league.

Belfast Star has reason for some cheer though, as teenage sensation CJ Fulton secured a scholarship to Pennsylvania’s Division 1 college Lafayette University last month.

The 18-year-old helped the club bring the title north for the first time since his father, and current coach, Adrian Fulton, last won it on the court in 1999.

“There’s a big feeling of wanting to do it again. The league got cut short and it was a fairly controversial finish to the season,” Quinn said.

“So we wanted a chance to prove anybody that doubted us last year wrong and, unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

Shorn of a season, which should have ended this month, Quinn concentrates on his work at McCotter Agencies – a high-end fashion distribution company established by Belfast Star’s chairman.

Golf helped occupy some of his spare time before that was stopped and now a wearying cycle of movies, runs and walks around the block fills the void.

The Ireland international has also been preparing, alongside his brother, for the European Championships at Basketball Ireland’s new Centre of Excellence at UUJ.

The Europeans, set to be staged in Limerick in June, like the league’s return may depend on the Republic’s vaccination, which lags behind thae timeline of that of Northern Ireland.

“If it’s only six to eight weeks behind here it’s not a huge difference.

“It’ll be a big disappointment if the season doesn’t happen for a second year,” said Quinn, whose mother has been busy inoculating on the frontline.

Despite the cost indoor sport has had to pay during the pandemic, the Star guard remains philosophical when considering his own lot.

“I definitely say there’s people in a lot worse positions than we are. Even though it is tough we’re fairly lucky,” he added.


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