The day basketball star John Stockton came to Dungannon

By Niall McCracken
BBC News NI

Published
Media caption,
John Stockton is widely considered as one of the greatest point guards to play in the NBA

At first glance, County Tyrone seems like an unlikely stage for a basketball player who is widely regarded as one of the greatest point guards of all time.

But in the spring of 1988 NBA star John Stockton showed up to coach at a basketball camp in the mid-Ulster town of Dungannon.

The Utah Jazz veteran's CV speaks for itself.

He still holds the record for most career assists and steals in the NBA and has two Olympic gold medals.

So how did an NBA Hall-of-Famer who hails from Spokane, Washington, turn up in Dungannon?

Speaking to BBC News NI the 58-year-old smiles as he recalls: "I have fond memories of Dungannon. I took a trip to Ireland with my wife, my son who was six months old at the time and my parents.

Image source, Dungannon basketball club yearbook
Image caption,
Utah Jazz legend John Stockton at a basketball camp in Dungannon in 1988

"I'm Irish on my dad's side, so we wanted to trace his roots and while I was there I was asked would I make a stop at the camp."

The person who made that request was Frankie O'Loane.

He has since died but was a driving force behind basketball in Northern Ireland from the 1970s onwards.

Image source, Dungannon basketball club yearbook
Image caption,
Frankie O'Loane coached a number of all-Ireland winning school basketball teams and would go onto coach Dungannon's super-league team

At the time of the NBA star's Irish visit, Mr O'Loane was a PE teacher at St Patrick's College in Dungannon where the basketball camp was taking place.

Stockton says he had an interesting first impression of Ireland: "When I was picked up by Frankie, the first thing I remember was trying to pick up on his Irish brogue.

"The second thing I remember is arriving at the school, and right beside the playground there was a tall, wired fence with helicopters and armoured vehicles."

Northern Ireland in 1988 was still in the midst of violence and Army bases had been commonplace throughout the country for almost 20 years.

The Army base in Dungannon was located next door to two of the town's post-primary schools.

'Your teammates are your family'

Stockton says he still has vivid memories of the setting.

"While driving we were stopped at an Army checkpoint and while at the school it seemed like there were helicopters coming and going every few minutes.

"It sure was an interesting addition to the setting for basketball coaching.

"But I remember when I got inside the camp, to me it was very much like a basketball camp I would have went to back home in the USA at that time.

"A wide variety of kids with abilities, some that had never touched a basketball but some that weren't too shabby for their age."

"I love seeing kids get into sport at a young age, for me there is nothing like it. With basketball you step on the court and it's simple, your teammates are your family for the next few hours and those brotherhoods carry on off the court."

Image source, Dungannon basketball club yearbook
Image caption,
Fintan Colgan pictured in the middle back row with John Stockton at the basketball camp in Dungannon

Fintan Colgan is a retired teacher from St Patrick's Academy and has been involved with basketball for more than 30 years.

He has clear memories of Stockton's time at the camp.

He says: "It was a surprise for the kids, when he walked in there was a real presence about him and he didn't talk down to them but he was very much speaking about dedicating yourself to the sport, that you couldn't improve without practice.

"He demonstrated a lot of passing drills with them and his passing may be the greatest there has ever been. I don't think his assists record will be beaten and that makes him an all time great."

When asked about the countless records he holds, Stockton says he tends not to dwell on them.

"I don't give too much thought to the statistics. I know it's largely how I'm defined but you just go out and play and you lay it out there, whatever history tells us, it tells us.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Stockton still holds the NBA record for assists

"When it's brought up it is kind of neat to hold the record, but I get the credit for the efforts of a great deal of team mates who helped me with that, but it's nice to hold it nonetheless."

Stockton is one of the higher profile Americans to have a connection to Irish basketball, but during the 1980s there was a wave of professional Americans who came to Ireland to play the sport.

A rule change had allowed each Irish basketball league team to recruit two professional players from overseas. It was a move that would transform the sport and brought in American players like Ed Randolph to the Irish league.

Randolph signed for Sporting Belfast in 1982 after playing college basketball at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. His son Darren Randolph would go onto be the Republic of Ireland football team's goalkeeper.

Image caption,
John Stockton says he has fond memories of his trip to Ireland

For many American college players who just missed the cut for the NBA, a career in Europe was a viable alternative.

It's something Stockton says he was considering too, as after college he didn't believe he would be picked to play in the NBA.

"I was fully planning on going to Europe. As early as a month before the NBA draft I wasn't anticipating being picked and all of a sudden I'm picked up by Utah and the rest for me is history.

"But if that hadn't have worked out, I was fully planning on going overseas to play basketball but I hadn't selected where."

When asked if he might have played in Ireland, he replies with a smile.

"Indeed I could have, maybe even Dungannon."