Rus Bradburd, a former Division III reserve point guard from Chicago, was a Division I assistant basketball coach for 14 years, most of those under coaching legends Don Haskins at Texas-El Paso and Lou Henson at New Mexico State. But he gave it all up to move to Ireland and play his fiddle.
"I ran out of gas," Bradburd, 47, writes in "Paddy on the Hardwood: A Journey in Irish Hoops," an enjoyable memoir of the two years he spent in the small town of Tralee, County Kerry, working on a book of short stories and trying to master Irish fiddling. Oh, and coaching the Tralee Tigers, a team in the Irish Superleague, the lowest rung on the ladder of European professional basketball.
He figured the Tigers would be an easy side job, a way to sustain himself without getting too emotionally involved while he pursued what he calls his "two new romances: literature and music." It didn't work out that way.
The Tigers, known as the Frosties Tigers after their sponsor, what Americans know as Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, were hit by a wave of injuries and defections and finished last in the Irish Superleague, a circuit that plays no better than a distant fourth fiddle to Ireland's two most popular sports, Gaelic football and hurling, plus soccer.
Irish basketball is a land of dim lights, filthy locker rooms, tile floors and battling the local badminton club for gym time. Only the imported American players, limited to two per team, get paid, and they don't get paid much. As the Tigers foundered in 2002-03, Bradburd writes that he found himself obsessing over the game as much as he had in his big-time college coaching days.
Despite having married after that first year, he decided to return for a second, this time leading the team, now called the Horan's Health Store Tigers because of a new sponsor, to the league title. At that, he took his leave, though he still signs e-mails with "Go Tralee Tigers!" They're the Abrakebabra Tigers now. "It's a 24-hour kebab stand," he says.
I spoke to Bradburd Monday by phone from his office at New Mexico State, where he teaches English.
How does fiddling relate to basketball -- or how doesn't it?
Before I wrote "Paddy on the Hardwood" I would have had no idea, but what I learned over in Ireland was that the similarities are that in basketball, you go and practice your shot or your dribbling or your moves by yourself, and then you go back to the larger group and you find out how good, or in my case how bad, you are.
Well, I had the same experience with fiddling. I would sit at home in my apartment in Tralee trying to work out problems and work out tunes, and I'd go with the group and realize, OK, I'm playing with this group, I've got to be able to do what that guy there can do.
More than anything, what that did for me was remind me of what my players were going through as I was trying to force my system and an American mentality on them, and wondering, "Why don't they get it?" Well, by having to go through the same process myself sort of in reverse, learning an Irish tradition as a naive American, I think it gave me patience, and also helped me sort of understand the Irish mentality.
I traveled around in Ireland about 20 years ago, and as a musician myself I noticed, you walk into any pub in Dublin or other cities, and there'd be three guys noodling away in the corner who were better than any musicians I'd ever seen in the States in any style. I wonder if there's a parallel in basketball. You walk onto a playground in New York City, say, and you're going to see five guys who are better than any starting lineup in the Irish Superleague.
I think that's very much so. I went to Chicago as a recruiter and got Tim Hardaway to come to UTEP -- which I know is probably not a popular name at Salon these days -- and then years later went to Chicago again to get a kid named Eric Channing to come to New Mexico State, and they both became the leading scorers in our schools' history. But they were completely unrecruited.
I think in the elite places there is that incredible level of breathtaking expertise. Like in Tralee, a town of 20,000, there were at least a dozen what I felt were world-class fiddlers, in not even a famous music town. It's kind of a very average music town in Ireland.
You write about the newspapers in Ireland ignoring basketball. Gaelic football and hurling are the two big sports. What sport in this country would you compare to basketball in Ireland in terms of the interest level? Lacrosse?
Maybe lacrosse, or even soccer. In some parts of the country soccer is bigger than others, but even some high schools still don't have soccer teams. Now I can imagine what the swimming coach and the water polo coach and people like that go through.
But in a way, we're the only country in the world that's tied its athletics programs to the universities. I think that in most ways the Irish system [in which the professional teams have associated youth teams] is much healthier. In some ways our university system is broken when the highest-paid person on nearly every major college campus in America is either the football or the basketball coach.
Highest-paid public employee in the state, usually.
Here at New Mexico State the 50 general education English teachers, of which I'm one, we don't make what the basketball or football coach makes, combined. If your kid comes to New Mexico State he'll never meet the football or basketball coach, but he's going to have to take his two English classes, and he'll get taught by people who have a high rate of turnover and are frustrated and trying desperately to get out of the jobs that they're in.
You left college coaching, but judging from the book, that seemed like more of a personal decision than any sense that the system is broken.
I think what happened to me is that when I began taking the writing classes at New Mexico State, I became more observant, more analytical, looking for irony and surprise and things that would work against the reader's or the listener's expectations. I think I became more observant of the system that I was in.
And New Mexico State, as you know, it's not at the highest level. It's not overly glamorous. We're not on television every week like some schools. But I think I became more observant, more aware of what I was doing and my place in that system.
So you don't think you're ever going to go back to coaching?
Well no, that's the catch, isn't it? I'm a little bit like the alcoholic who keeps walking by the pub, sort of peeking in at the door. I'm very interested in going back, partly because I think it's the only thing I can do to make money. I got married and we have a baby girl, and I'm making $200 a week. I'm making a quarter of what I was making when I was an assistant basketball coach.
So I think about it all the time, especially at this time of year, when all of the successes are more magnified and you don't see the 260 teams that won't get in the NCAA Tournament. So I haven't ruled that out at all. I've interviewed for a job at DePaul in Chicago, my hometown, and also Loyola. Didn't get either job, but I was certain I was going to and was excited about it.
I've also thought about going back to Ireland to coach. So I don't think I've gotten over the conflict in any way. To think that I'd go back to that level shows that I'm not sure I've learned anything or not.
The story of the book is sort of the clichéd Hollywood sports story --
Outsider comes to town, takes over the team.
Last place the first year, then you win the championship the second year. How did you get around that without it coming off as "Hoosiers Goes to Ireland"?
I was conscious of working against cliché all the time. I don't want to judge whether the book was successful or not, but 80 percent of the book was about coming in last place, which is not what most sports books or movies are about.
Also, [it was about] the concept of being in an odd place, especially basketball-wise, but also trying to learn the Irish fiddle. A good percentage of the story is about trying to learn the Irish fiddle, which is certainly different than most sports stories.
I'm hoping what the book does is more of an archetype than a cliché. But I think one thing that undercuts the cliché is we win the championship and who cares? Nobody cares. They don't know how to cut down the nets, the kids in town don't know we won, they just want me to coach the soccer team. The players aren't going to give me a gift or anything; they just want me to find another coach. And when we gather together to watch the game on delayed telecast the next day, it cuts off at halftime and switches to an Irish sitcom.
How have the Tralee Tigers done in the three years since you left?
[Bradburd describes how the team has been just OK in the regular season, but has twice won the National Cup, a prestigious midseason tournament that eluded both of his teams.]
The other interesting thing is that the book's basketball star, Kieran Donaghy, the guy who says "fuck" all the time, he has gone from being a bench-warmer on the Kerry Gaelic football team to being the No. 1 star in all of Ireland. He got named Sportsman of the Year in Ireland.
So more because of that than the basketball aspect, the book has gotten all sorts of interest in Ireland. It would be almost as if I'd written a book about this obscure North Carolina high school baseball team and this weird sophomore named Michael Jordan. I sort of stumbled on the Michael Jordan of Ireland.
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