- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Jim Larranaga became a champion of underdogs everywhere when he led George Mason to the Final Four in 2006. But compared with what his son is attempting, Larranaga coached an NBA All-Star team plus Goliath.

Jay Larranaga is trying to change an entire culture. He’s the player-coach of the Irish national basketball team, and Ireland plays a bit part on the world stage when it comes to hoops. The big sports are Gaelic football, hurling, soccer and rugby. A lot of kids play basketball, “but in terms of a profile and wealth and resources, we would be the poor relation,” Basketball Ireland CEO Debbie Massey said.

In Ireland’s only Olympic appearance in men’s basketball in 1948, it lost all four games by an average of 51 points, including a 71-9 defeat by Mexico.

By hiring Larranaga last year, Massey and other members of the organizing body continued their effort to broaden the sport’s base and nudge it over the poverty line.

“We wanted somebody who would have very strong credentials and who had a really good understanding of what [basketball] is like in this country,” she said. “It’s absolutely nothing anyone in the States could relate to.”

Larranaga can relate; he has the genetic and coaching bloodlines. He was raised in a basketball-intense environment, evolving into a solid shooting guard at Bowling Green and then a European pro. Thanks to a maternal grandfather born in County Cork, he played for the Irish national team for six years. He knows the landscape.

“Every time you put on the jersey and have an opportunity to represent a country in competition, it’s awesome,” he said. “I knew basketball wasn’t the most popular sport in Ireland, but it’s a great honor. And it’s a big challenge.”

With former NBA players Marty Conlon and Pat Burke, the national team was reasonably competitive a few years ago. Things began to slip, but Basketball Ireland and Larranaga are making progress, albeit slowly.

“Our purpose is to win all our games and then provide a really high profile,” Massey said. “It’s really for all the young children in this country who can see the pathway and see that they can play at the club level and school level and professional level and get involved with the national team.”

Last August, Larranaga’s team went 1-3 in the first round of pre-qualification for the 2011 European championships and the 2012 Olympics, losing its final game to Slovakia in overtime after Larranaga hit a tying 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation. The series dealt a big hit to the squad’s European championship and Olympic hopes. Then again, as his dad told him, if George Mason can get to the Final Four… “I feel like we’ve got a fighting chance,” Larranaga said.

The Euro series resumes next month with four more games. Larranaga said he has 22 players now - 14 Irish-born and eight Americans - and has a good idea who will make the final roster of 12. He said he plans to be on it but isn’t sure how much he’ll play. At 34, he again will play for the Juve Caserta club team in Italy but prefers to stick to coaching with the Irish team.

“I don’t know how guys are able to do both,” he said.

Unlike last year, when the squad had about a month to prepare and played exhibitions against Notre Dame and national teams from Iceland and Poland, practice will be limited to five days.

“The economy in Ireland is so bad we don’t have the resources to put the team together for three or four weeks of training,” Larranaga said. “The economy is one of the worst in the world. The budget is a shoestring. They asked me what’s the bare minimum we can do and still be competitive. I said, ‘Give us a week and we’ll be ready.’ ”

He got less than that.

“I feel confident we’ll still be pretty competitive,” he said.

The team got a boost with the recent addition of point guard Bryan Mullins, who set the Southern Illinois career assists record last season and is auditioning for the NBA in the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues.

“I don’t know if he’ll make it, but he’s talented enough that they’re giving him a look,” Larranaga said.

Mullins’ father was born in Ireland, so Larranaga expedited the paperwork to grant him Irish citizenship. It’s one of his many tasks, none more important than recruiting, an ongoing, word-of-mouth process that tests Larranaga’s networking skills. He works closely with a former teammate in Ireland, Bill Donlon, an assistant at Wright State. During the Final Four, Larranaga placed an ad in a trade newspaper that asked any player with Irish heritage to contact him.

“When Jay got started, one of the biggest things I told him was that the job was going to entail far, far more than just coaching a basketball team,” Jim Larranaga said. “I said you have to put together a team. You have to beat the bushes to put together a program. He needed to do some research on what he was gonna do with a national team as compared with just coaching a team.”

A man of many connections, Jim hooked Jay up with people who could help him raise money. Through sports psychologist Bob Rotella, Larranaga contacted Irish golfer Padraig Harrington, the defending two-time British Open champion and 2008 PGA Championship winner, who donated autographed clubs and memorabilia to a golfing fundraiser last year. (“The nicest guy,” Larranaga said.) But the downturn in the world economy has drastically reduced this year’s contributions.

Part of Larranaga’s research included seeking out former D.C. United coach Bruce Arena, a close friend of his father’s who coached the U.S. national soccer team in 2006.

“As a starting point, it’s a completely different job from coaching a professional club team or a college team,” said Arena, who now coaches the Los Angeles Galaxy.

“You don’t have the everyday specifics and details. As an international coach, your greatest skill is being able to assess talent and bring in the right collection of talent because you have such a short time to get them going. You’re not coaching as much as you’re managing. You’re managing resources, financial resources, and you’re manipulating those resources as best you can. … International basketball is no different from international soccer except that you score more points.”

Jim Larranaga played and coached in Belgium for one season, but the experience afforded little advice he could pass along. This was after he coached five years at Davidson and found himself unemployed. He was 26. The European game was vastly different from today - and not in a good way.

“Back then, the players were way behind in their development skills and their basketball IQ,” he said.

Jim Larranaga recalls drilling his new team repeatedly on man-to-man defense, only to learn it had played zone exclusively and had no idea what was going on. He also remembers a game in which his team trailed by one point with 17 seconds to go. Jim said he drew up play designed to get the ball inside for the game-winning shot, but a player named Alex instead launched a long jumper that missed. Alex later explained that he had 18 points and needed 20 to fulfill a contract clause that would pay him twice his game salary.

“It was a very interesting experience,” Jim Larranaga said.

It’s also been an interesting experience for Jay, who is dealing with much tougher competition.

“It’s been great,” he said. “Growing up the son of a coach and playing for a long time, you start to form ideas of how a team should play. This is my first opportunity to test out some ideas. Working with my coaching staff and our team manager, that was fun. It’s been very enjoyable to see the other side of sports and be part of a group working toward something, dealing with facilities, budget, recruiting. It’s a lot of hard work. Very hard. But worth it.”

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