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Guinness, golf and gambling: The day Michael Jordan came to Killarney

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What did Michael Jordan do after The Last Dance? He did what any wealthy American retiree would do. He came to Killarney to play golf and drink Guinness. To find out what the GOAT was really like, Adam Moynihan spoke to the locals who showed him around back in May of 1999.

If, like me, you’ve been gripped by the ‘The Last Dance’, you’re probably wondering what comes next. Now that the fascinating documentary is all over, how do we fill the void?

Well, Michael Jordan was probably wondering the same thing himself after the real Last Dance back in 1998. With his sixth NBA championship secured and the break-up of the Bulls imminent, the game of basketball was about to lose its biggest star for the second (but not the final) time.

A salary dispute between players and owners pushed the beginning of the 1998-99 season out to the New Year so Jordan officially retired on January 13, 1999. Just a few short months later, perhaps to get away from the States during the NBA Playoffs (which, for the first time since 1984, did not feature the Chicago Bulls), Michael and a dozen of his friends landed in Ireland for 10 days of non-stop golf.

Why did he choose our little island? The same reason many American basketballers have arrived on our shores down through the years. The late, great Paudie O’Connor.

GOLF TRIP

Arguably the greatest Irish basketballer of all time and one of Killarney’s most famous sons, Paudie revolutionised the game in this country when he was responsible for bringing the first American professionals to our league in 1979. He subsequently moved to Las Vegas where he set up O’Connor Golf Tourism and when a mutual friend introduced him to Jordan, Paudie, ever the big thinker, jumped at the prospect of bringing one more baller back to his hometown. He suggested that Jordan, an avid golfer, should join him on a trip to Ireland and Scotland.

The biggest athlete on the planet accepted his invitation and on May 18, he and an entourage including his manager, George Koehler, and fellow athletes from the NBA, NFL and MLB arrived in Shannon Airport on a private jet adorned with a large Nike swoosh.

There to greet him on the runway was Killarney man Dennis Carroll, a Kerry Coaches bus driver who would ferry Jordan and co. around the country for the following week and a half.

Dennis remembers the trip well and speaking to the Killarney Advertiser this week he said that, contrary to his portrayal as a disagreeable character in the documentary, he found Jordan to be “perfectly fine”.

“You wouldn’t think that he was the superstar he was,” Dennis says. “He’d salute and he’d engage… He was respectful, courteous and he took care of me. As a group, Jordan and his friends were good fun. They were just like ordinary guys.”

Paudie’s brother Séamie, who caddied for Jordan when he was in Kerry, admits that the six-time NBA Finals MVP “got a bit cranky at certain things”, but overall they got along famously during their time together.

“To me, he was a very fine gentleman,” Séamie recalls. “I couldn’t say a bad word against him.”

FANS

Understandably, Jordan’s arrival in Killarney caused quite a furore.

“The day he played Killarney it was like the Irish Open,” Dennis says. “Young fellas were skipping school left, right and centre to see him. I think there were a few teachers there as well if I’m not mistaken! When they played Ballybunion one of the teachers from a nearby school was a golfer and he got wind of it. He brought his whole class down to see Michael Jordan.

“Everywhere they went there were lots of people. It was kind of being kept quiet but word got out fairly quickly. He didn’t shun the people but he wasn’t going around pressing the flesh and signing autographs. He was here on a private visit and he was given his space. The Irish being the Irish, they were respectful. They weren’t on top of him at all.”

Jordan never asked Séamie to keep fans at arms-length either.

“He didn’t refuse anyone anything and he didn’t tell me to stop anyone coming up to him, but I used to wait for the right moment and give the young lads a wink to say, ‘now is the time’.

“Certainly in Killarney there were a lot of young lads around the place looking for autographs and he did a bit of it in fairness, but he was on holiday. It wasn’t long after The Last Dance in 1998 so he had been under a lot of pressure.”

The group, which included baseball player Vince Coleman and NFL wide receiver Roy Green, stayed in the Aghadoe Heights for three nights and they also got to sample Killarney’s nightlife when they were in town.

“They went into The Crypt nightclub three nights on the trot and they had great fun," Séamie says. "This was a strange country to them but they were very struck by the courtesy of the people and the food and the drink, and life in general.

“Jordan loved the pint of Guinness and the Irish coffee and he used to consume them both at the one time."

"They’d be on the golf cart when was playing and the Irish coffee would be cold and the Guinness would be flat, and he’d drink them away.”

36 HOLES A DAY

The travelling party played an incredible amount of golf during their stay. In fact, their driver reckons they took on 12 courses (some of them twice) in just 10 days.

“Michael was a fanatical golfer – I don’t know how good he was – but 36 holes a day was no problem to him.

“They played Lahinch, Waterville, Tralee, Ballybunion, Killarney, Ring of Kerry, Old Head, Fota, The European Club, Portmarnock twice, Royal County Down twice and the two courses in Portrush. They didn’t do 36 holes every day but a lot of days they did.”

And, as was highlighted in the documentary, it wasn’t just the love of the game that was motivating Jordan on the course.

“They were playing for quite large sums of money,” Séamie says. “I helped him to get up and down on the 18th in Killarney for a four and he gave me a slap across the arse. ‘Great call, Séamie!’ I had saved him some money. He was quite entertaining.”

Dennis also recalls some significant wagers being made on the bus.

“He was fond of the gambling. Between golf courses, they were playing cards. They were pretty heavy gamblers, most of them. They weren’t afraid of it.”

One day, however, a game of cards was interrupted when Jordan and his friends became very much afraid. It seems as though His Airness, ironically enough, wasn't too keen on heights.

“We were going from the Ring of Kerry golf course to Waterville, so we were doing the Ring of Kerry arseways for the want of a better word,” Séamie says. “Going up towards Coomakista there’s quite a large, steep drop – it’s probably 200 feet – on the left-hand-side into the ocean. Michael and the boys were playing cards in the back of the bus when we went around a turn. Next thing we looked around and they were all hiding under the table!

“I asked Jordan about it after and he said he had never seen anything like it."

Dennis, nicknamed The Steerologist by Paudie and Séamie for his abilities behind the wheel, laughs as he retells the story.

“Yeah, they were scared. The small roads and all that. I wasn’t hanging about because I was trying to make the tee time. Michael was afraid of heights, strangely enough for a very tall man.”

When they were finished in Ireland, Jordan and his friends moved on to Scotland for some more golf before flying back to America. In the weeks and months thereafter, the people of Killarney could have been forgiven for thinking that it was all just a dream. Did the biggest sports star of all time really just potter about our quaint little town, play a round of golf in Killeen and drink pints of Guinness in The Crypt?

“It was an amazing experience,” Séamie says. “It was great for the town and great for the golf club.

“Jordan enjoyed this part of the world too. He never realised it would be so quiet, with parts of it uninhabited and the green grass and the cattle and the sheep. He couldn’t understand how these golf courses were built and how they were so good. He got a great reception in Killarney and he loved it.”

And, of course, the mastermind behind it all was Paudie O’Connor. Sure, who else could pull it off?

 

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Killarney Valley AC named Club of the Year at national awards ceremony

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Members of Killarney Valley Athletics Club had cause for celebration on Wednesday as they picked up the prestigious Development Club of the Year prize at the 123.ie National Athletics Awards.

The award is handed out annually to a club who have made a positive impact on behalf of the sport within their community.

Sprinter Sarah Leahy of Killarney Valley and UL was also honoured with the Female University Athlete of the Year award.

Speaking to the Killarney Advertiser, coach and committee member Tomás Griffin said he and his clubmates were “delighted” and “very proud” to accept the Club Development award on behalf of all their athletes, coaches and administrators. The opening of their new track alongside St Brendan’s College in 2020 has been crucial, Griffin explained.

“The facility a catalyst but the passion was always there and we had people doing their best and coaching long before there was a track. To see the momentum that came with the opening of the track being maintained is great. We now have a waiting list of people looking to join the club.

“Did we see ourselves winning an award like this, in an organisation of 53,000 members and 400 clubs? No. But was it always possible? Yes. Killarney as a town across all sports – Gaelic football, soccer, basketball, cycling, judo, rock climbing – it’s a place where people excel. The bar is already raised. But being able to reach this level and achieve what we have in just two years shows what other talent is out there.”

Killarney Valley now boast five Irish internationals, 320 registered members and 22 Athletics Ireland accredited coaches. The club won 107 provincial and national medals in 2022, and they had 155 graduates from their Couch to 5k programme. Many of these participants are now regulars in the local Park Run and are continuing their personal health and fitness journeys with the club.

Nine Killarney Valley representatives attended the awards ceremony on Wednesday: Tomás Griffin, Jerry Griffin (chairperson), Bríd Stack, Gene Courtney, Con Lynch, Karen Smith, Sarah Leahy, Jordan Lee, and Madie Wilson-Walker. Sarah’s parents Mike and Marie also made the journey.

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Jiu-jitsu champion Wilson da Silva sets sights on world title

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This week Adam Moynihan called to the Movement & Fitness Club on New Street to catch up with Killarney man Wilson da Silva. The 38-year-old Brazilian recently won gold at the European Championship for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and now he’s gunning for a world title.

Wilson, congratulations on your latest success in Rome and Abu Dhabi.

Thank you, Adam.

Before we chat about that, let’s go back to the start. How did you end up living in Killarney?

I came here around 15 years ago because I met someone from Killorglin and we went out for five or six years. After we broke up, I came to Killarney. I’m pretty much half-local, half-Brazilian now.

What part of Brazil are you from?

The northeast. A place called Recife. If you look at the map, it’s the nearest point to Ireland.

Do you get to go home often?

I try to go once a year, you know? I was home earlier this year and then before Covid. But once a year I go home in the summertime.

It must be nice to get some sunshine.

It’s nice, man. Even recently the doctor told me I have Vitamin D deficiency. My skin colour needs the sun! So I go home once a year. I follow the doctor’s advice.

How did you get into jiu-jitsu?

I did it back home in Brazil but I continued here in Killarney. I trained with guys here, Pedro Bessa and Tom McGuire. Then there is another club in Killarney and I trained with them up until four years ago. Things weren’t working out so I started my own gym. I just wanted to do things my way which was to have a clean place, no ego, no drama, no stress, no jealousy. Just come, train jiu-jitsu and help each other. And it’s going well.

Was it hard to go out on your own?

In the beginning it was really difficult because I was opening a second club in the town, on my own. There was really only one guy who wanted to train with me, but then my fiancé (Ewelina) started training and one became two, two became three, and it started to grow. Now we have classes for babies from three years up, kids and teenagers. We’re doing jiu-jitsu and capoeira for all ages. I guess it’s something good for the community.

Can you tell me a bit about jiu-jitsu? Is it similar to other sports?

If you were to describe jiu-jitsu to someone who never saw it, it would be very similar to judo. You have people throwing each other and putting each other on the floor. The jiu-jitsu match is five minutes long and the goal is to checkmate the opponent, to make your opponent quit, or tap out. So there is a lot of ground work, grappling, and wrestling. It’s an excellent sport and great for self-defence. I can’t recommend jiu-jitsu enough.

So there’s no striking?

There is no striking but [in terms of self-defence] there is ducking from striking, turning a strike into a mobilisation. It’s about finding locks on the body – the joint moves this way for example (he turns his arm) – figuring out how the anatomy of the body works.

It seems quite technical and intellectual.

Yes, it’s a very intelligent sport. I trained in weightlifting for a long time, for many years. With time it simply comes down to reps, breaking muscle fibre, and you’re not learning anything. It’s boring. With jiu-jitsu you’re constantly thinking. You’re constantly working your brain.

I compare it to a game of chess. First you figure out how to move the pieces, and then you have to play strategy. Look ahead to the next move and what your opponent can do to you. The moves are complicated and you’re always learning new things. It requires a lot of focus and discipline to get good at it. You don’t get bored with jiu-jitsu.

Is the focus and discipline side of it good for the kids who come to your gym?

Yes, definitely. I find that it is so beneficial for the kids. The kids want to win but if they want to win, they need to learn the moves. In order to learn the moves, they have to pay attention. So straight away it develops focus and concentration and discipline. If they do not pay attention, if they run around the place, they’re going to lose when they spar. It fixes itself. The guys who come in, pay attention, and it makes the others not want to lose so they pay attention and worker hard to learn the moves.

You can see the difference in the kids when they come here. We try to make them comfortable in uncomfortable situations so that when you take the child out of the jiu-jitsu class and they have a to deal with a hard subject in school, or a bully, they are mentally stronger.

I have witnessed that myself. I worked in security for many years and before I dedicated myself to jiu-jitsu, I found it easy to lose the head. But the more hours I put into the gym and training in jiu-jitsu, the more comfortable I became with frustrating situations. You’re able to remain calm. That’s a benefit of jiu-jitsu.

How important is size in jiu-jitsu?

That’s a tricky one. People say that size doesn’t matter. It definitely does. There’s no doubt about that. But the beauty of jiu-jitsu is that once you have the technique, you’re able to apply it against bigger guys. You know, the bigger guys have big muscles and bigger egos, but if the small guy trains hard he will be able to move the big guy’s body in a way that works against him. The big guy who goes to the gym, he’s used to pushing the bar this way (straight out), whereas the guy who knows jiu-jitsu knows that if he moves the bigger guys arms here (upwards), he’s not strong anymore. Now the bench press is worth nothing.

Bigger guys think they are unbeatable. The small guys have to work for it. I always motivate the guys here in the gym to be humble. You always have to consider yourself the second best, the guy who wants to be first. The moment you think that you’re bigger and better than everyone else, you stop working.

Tell me about your recent victories in London, Rome and Abu Dhabi.

Yeah, so I went to the UK and managed to win four golds at the London Open in the ‘Gi’, ‘A’, ‘No-Gi’ and ‘Absolute’ categories. (The ‘Gi’ is a uniform sometimes worn in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There are categories in which the Gi is worn – ‘Gi’ – and categories in which it is not – ‘No-Gi’. The ‘Absolute’ is an open weight division).

Then a couple of weeks ago I travelled to Rome to compete in the European Championship. The day before that event, the Rome Open was on and since I was already there, I signed up for that too. I won the first fight, submitted the guy, but then in the final I lost. It was a good lesson for me. Coming from so many wins, I thought I was going to smash this other guy. I got a bit cocky. Losing settled me down and humbled me a little bit. I went back to my accommodation and analysed my mistakes. I hoped that the next day I would be able to play a strategy to win.

In the end I managed to win four fights and win the biggest European tournament – the No-Gi European Championship. It was my dream. I have been there twice before and got knocked out in the quarter-final, and came third in the Gi division.

It was really emotional for me. It was a great achievement. Even now when I’m talking, I feel emotional. I don’t train that much with No-Gi so to come first in Europe, it’s hard to believe.

It’s really hard to run and promote a club and also train and win tournaments, a lot of people say it’s not possible, but I’m putting a lot of hours into this and proving that it is possible. When you work so hard, with the help of my training partners, the results have to come.

And you weren’t finished yet. Where did you go next?

Yeah, to finish the story, after winning the European tournament on the Saturday, I flew to Abu Dhabi on Monday for the World Championship. I managed to go there and win three fights before losing the semi-final after getting beat pretty hard. I got my ass kicked by the winner. Then I had to fight to win the third place [match]. So, even though it’s only third place, it’s third place on the biggest podium in the sport.

Is it normal to compete in this number of events in quick succession?

No. It’s crazy to do so many competitions in a short period of time. I usually take a month or two months off before the next competition. It’s expensive too and I must thank Kevin Leahy [from the neighbouring Black Sheep Hostel] for sponsoring me. But after London, I had a feeling that there was no stopping me. I’m healthy. I’m not injured. Now is my moment and I have to take the chance.

It was hard enough to believe that I won the European Championship but to go to Abu Dhabi and fight against the best guys in the world… It’s a dream. Well, it’s not a dream now because it happened. It’s a reality.

Is this it for you now? Have you achieved all you want to achieve?

No, there’s more. Much more. I want to win the World Championship in California next year. For sure I would like to win the European Championship next year too.

But my goal is more than just winning championships, it’s to build champions. I want to teach people and share techniques that are proven to work. As I try to grow the gym, I will continue competing for as long as God blesses me with this health. That’s it.

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