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Courting Ireland in more ways than basketball

Rus Bradburd arrived in Ireland four years ago to coach the Tralee Tigers. Rus Bradburd arrived in Ireland four years ago to coach the Tralee Tigers. (JACKET ILLUSTRATION BY MELISSA TANDYSH)

Paddy on the Hardwood: A Journey in Irish Hoops, By Rus Bradburd, University of New Mexico, 239 pp., $24.95

The 1980 Intervarsities in Cork -- the Irish equivalent of the NCAA basketball tournament -- were something to behold.

The opening game, pitting Trinity College of Dublin against University College Galway, took place in a gym so cold that, when the players exhaled, plumes of smoke hung above them. Three of Trinity's starters -- Mike Swanick, Joe McLaughlin, and Mike Fitzpatrick, exchange students from St. Joseph's University in Pennsylvania -- had prepared for their first-round, 10 a.m. game by closing the Hotel Metropole bar, singing rebel songs that infuriated the Queen's University players from Belfast. Another Trinity player had a black eye.

McLaughlin's first offering, a jump shot from about 15 feet, was so wide of the rim it wouldn't have counted in horseshoes. As play went on, he walked to the sideline and benched himself. Still, the viciously hungover Trinity side prevailed, which was not surprising given that several of the Galway players were wearing on their feet brown socks and what appeared to be Hush Puppies.

As we all know, Ireland has followed Yeats's verse and changed, changed utterly. It is a gleamingly rich, modern place now, and basketball has been dragged into the 21st century with the rest of the country.

Sort of.

Four years ago, when Rus Bradburd, author of "Paddy on the Hardwood," first arrived in Ireland to coach the Tralee Tigers in the (sort of) professional Super League, he was more accustomed to the flash and dash of the NCAA tournament than the surreal goings-on of something like the Intervarsities. Bradburd had spent 14 years as an assistant coach at New Mexico State and the University of Texas at El Paso, making the trip to the big dance, as the NCAA tournament is known.

But, in Ireland, basketball is more of a small jig. It took some getting used to. Yet Bradburd was burned out and ready for the change. Ireland's pace fit him well. It gave him a chance to refine his fiddling and writing, two skills valued in Ireland far more than the ability to cross-over dribble.

If this hidden gem of a book is really about Bradburd finding solace and his soul in his music and writing, its real joy is found in the characters he meets along the way: Junior Collins, the earnest if clumsy team manager, a loyal Boy Friday who ends every sentence with the word "like"; Ricardo Leonard, the overweight, over-the-hill American who whined and dined at the expense of his obvious skill; David "Super Dave" Cronin, a stockboy who played hard but at a disadvantage, since his thick eyeglasses fogged up when he started sweating.

One almost winces for Bradburd, having to take on a team named the Frosties, as Frosted Flakes are called in Europe. He nixed the idea of having one of the locals don a Tony the Tiger mascot suit, fearing a chain-smoking tiger would set a bad example for the youth of Tralee. As it is, Kellogg's , the sponsor, dumps them after they turn in a dreadful season. But there is redemption on the court, not to mention the pub.

Bradburd, the fiddler, trying to nudge his way into the traditional Irish music session world, is a mirror image of his Irish players, having been weaned on Gaelic games and soccer, trying to convince their American coach they are worthy of being considered basketball players. Each culture gradually warms to and nurtures the other.

As frustrated as he was on the court, Bradburd's Tuesday night seisuns at Baily's Corner Pub were a balm, a reminder that there are some things more deeply rooted than basketball.