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In conversation with top basketball referee Emer Buckley

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Eamonn Fitzgerald catches up with basketball referee and former Ireland international Emer Buckley

After earning international caps at U16 and U18 level and winning national titles with her school and with St Paul’s, Emer Buckley is now making huge strides as a basketball referee. The HPG official recently officiated at the 2024 Paudie O’Connor Senior Ladies’ Cup final between Brunell and Fr Mathews at the National Basketball Arena.

I met with Emer and first asked her where her interest in basketball started…

It started in Ardshanavooley. It was a great place to grow up with so many companions to play sport with, not just my own siblings Patricia, Fiona, Noreen, Jeremiah and Gordon, but also the neighbouring children. Mom and Dad were very supportive. Dad (Jeremiah, affectionately known as Skip) played locally for many years and then devoted so much time to coaching and promoting basketball. I loved the atmosphere of the Town Leagues in the Parish Hall and in the local school gyms. I always seemed to have a basketball to play with and learned the basic skills from a very young age.

Tell me about that first international cap at U16.

I will never forget the excitement. There was no email at that time so the letter from the IBA came in the post. Mom didn't open it but gave me that thrill. She headed into Killarney Community College to me where I was surrounded by my sister Patricia and all my schoolmates. I was on cloud nine; I was picked for Ireland. Wow. We were all jumping for joy around the place. High fives and all that euphoria.

It must have been a goosebump moment in your life, to find out that you would be representing your country?

Yes, it was special wearing the Irish singlet for the first time in the 4 Nations tournament in Cardiff and England. Singing the national anthem at the opening ceremony gave me goosebumps.

You were always a very focused young lady, reaching for the stars. On the court you played on the edge. Is that a fair analysis?

I always played my heart out to win that game no matter what level, be it school, club or country. I played from a very young age, and up through all the age groups well into my thirties.

How did you manage that with your three young children, Michaela, Jack, and Emily? 

I took them with me very often and while I was playing or training, I called on my siblings, my parents, extended family, neighbours, and friends in St Paul’s. They were just great to mind them, and I couldn’t have played for so long only for them. Even Botty did the minding in the gym on some occasions.

Who was minding whom?

Ah, Botty is a great person, and he is sports-mad.

When your playing days were over, you got involved in refereeing. How and why?

Breeda O’Neill, a neighbour of ours in Ardshan, did so much to promote juvenile basketball with St Paul’s and she asked me one day to help out refereeing in a juvenile blitz. I loved the action and the buzz. It was the next best thing to playing myself. I took it from there and studied the game and its rules in great detail. There’s a grading system for referees and you must pass the exams before you move up the line. It means a lot of Zoom meetings and written assignments. I qualified at Grade 3 in 2005, Grade 2 Official in 2015, and I am now studying to be accredited as a Grade 1 referee to officiate at games at the top tier, i.e. Super League level.

I was helped tremendously by Emma Perry. She is a FIBA Referee and one of our top referees in the country. Emma is a fantastic mentor to me and has helped me on my journey. Her respect to both her fellow referees and to the basketball community has to be admired. She’s a very knowledgeable educator and can explain rules/regulations with such ease.

Since 2019 I have been the Development Officer for North Munster Referees, helping them to educate, develop and progress. Since January 2024 I have been mentoring six female referees through the European Promise Programme. As I mentioned I was a very competitive player and through becoming a referee, I was still able to participate in the sport I love in a different role. I am also able to spread my knowledge back to other referees.

How do you prepare as a referee for a big game?

Let’s say I’m assigned to referee a big game, a Cup Final or a League Final for Saturday night. On the Tuesday of that week, I receive the game appointment from the National Appointments Officer. This is all done online now. My preparations begin that day when I contact the other crew officials. On Wednesday I watch and analyse (scout) a previous game in which both teams were involved. On Thursday we as a crew discuss keynotes on the game ahead. We would look at the teams individually, pick out the key players, observe what style of game they play, what offence or defence they run, and also if we can prepare for any challenges ahead. Scouting is a tool we use to prepare ourselves both mentally and physically for the court. It’s to help us use strategies dealing with situations which may arise in the game. You can learn a lot about how the players defend or move into the offensive.

This is very helpful when you have to make a call and decide if it’s a foul or not. It could be a technical foul and your decision to call such a foul will have a big bearing on the game's outcome. Usually, I rest on Friday, but during the week I also would go for three runs to keep up a high level of personal fitness.

Now you are on the other side of authority, refereeing at a very high level. How do you manage a player who is so determined in her play that she is pushing the borders of the rules or oversteps them? You played like that…

As a referee, my prime consideration is to facilitate players to compete but to also apply the rules of basketball at all times. Yes, sometimes you will meet players who test your patience. I understand their commitment and will to win.

But you still will call a foul on them, if justified?

Yes, but I also understand the human element. This may be a player who is in foul trouble in some games, but that is not normal for her. S/he may have personal worries or have got bad news. While I will implement the rules, I would talk to that player gently but firmly and advise them that if it continues, I will have no choice but to send them off.

In last week’s Killarney Advertiser, I wrote an article on the abuse received by referees in all sports including soccer, GAA, rugby and basketball. Two-thirds of referees leave within two years due to the scale of abuse they receive, be it verbal, physical, psychological, or online. The aggressors or perpetrators of abuse in Irish sport can be players, opponents, opposition supporters, managers, members of a management team, or teammates.

Do you also suffer from such abuse as a referee and if so how do you handle it?

For many years it has been part and parcel of refereeing, but this needs to change as it’s getting harder to retain referees in all sports. Of course, I hear it on court from players, coaches and spectators, but I am a firm believer that if you master your craft, implement the rule to the best of your ability, give respect to all, and be an excellent communicator, this will help.

I also feel that some abuse comes from the misunderstanding of rules that change, not realised by some. Games evolve over time.

As a referee, I have no preference for which team wins. I’m there to ensure fair play and apply the rules of basketball and if abuse persists, we have sanctions for all abusers, such as sending off, getting an abusive spectator removed from the arena, or whatever works. When the game is over the organisers ensure that match officials are escorted safely to the referees' room. As of late, online abuse has unfortunately increased. This cannot be tolerated and needs to be reported to whatever platform it’s on.

There have been very high-profile cases of sexual intimidation by coaches/officials with access to vulnerable players.

I have read about these, but I’ve never encountered anything like that in all my time in basketball. I have great admiration for volunteers, players, coaches and referees in our sport.

Killarney has a proud tradition in basketball. Is the sport still vibrant here?

My dad always talked about years past and the great teams competing in the Town Leagues and other competitions around the country. The annual All-Ireland Ladies Blitz every Easter was a mammoth undertaking and so keenly contested, much like the Christmas Blitz in Castleisland, Teams came from all over the country for this prestigious tournament. Killarney players such as Paddy Culligan (before my time) and of course brothers Paudie and Mike O’Connor, as well as schoolboy internationals Shane Horgan and Aidan O’Shea (uncle of Leah McMahon) were all capped for Ireland.

On the ladies’ side, local internationals include Lynn Jones, Caitríona O’Connell, Orla Kavanagh, Diane Griffin, Máiréad Finnegan, Marian O’Callaghan, down to the present day as Leah McMahon is starring for Ireland as well as playing other sports at a high level.

Locally you have great Killarney club rivals in Cougars, who were founded in 1998. Does this rivalry with St Paul’s in derby games lift both clubs?

Yes, on all counts. It means that so many more young people are playing basketball with the two clubs and is promoted very positively in all the schools. The Pres Gym is my favourite venue as a player and as a referee. A great buzz is generated, and the schools are very forthcoming in renting out the halls to us. The Aura is also a wonderful venue.

Unlike other local sports, you do not own a venue of your own.

Yes, renting out halls is a huge expense and the small amount of money coming to the Killarney clubs leaves us with a huge deficit which we have to collect through sponsorship, players membership and other fundraising campaigns. However, we are very heartened by joining up with Kerry Stars and Killarney Judo Club for a shared facility at Ballydribeen. The sod was officially turned some months ago.

As regards to St Paul’s, my own club, the future is very bright. We have huge numbers playing and have a top-class underage structure so well coached by volunteers. That is what I say to people. You don’t have to be a basketball player to enjoy the camaraderie in St Paul’s. We are always on the lookout for volunteers as coaches, fundraisers, club officers or so many other roles such as match table officials. The National League teams have had a great year, especially the ladies winning Division 1 and now going into the Super League next season. They have great, committed players and Bubu is a brilliant coach. I was delighted to see him awarded the Coach of the Year.

What about other sports or sporting achievers you admire, Emer?

In terms of playing, I concentrated only on basketball, but I love watching all sports. I just love the excitement generated and watching them on TV is great. All sports bring their own excitement. I admire sporting heroes such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Serena Williams and Katie Taylor to mention just a few.

What is your sporting life plan for your future?

I wish to officiate on the HPG at national level, to complete my last year on my Grade 1 programme and continue to educate and support the next phase of officials through their pathways.  

And when are you going to retire, Emer?

(All I could get from her was a broad smile, which told its own story. Let it be.)

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Kerry ladies must bounce back at home to Waterford

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All-Ireland Senior Championship Group 2

Kerry v Waterford

Saturday 3pm

Fitzgerald Stadium

The Kerry ladies will be looking to get back to winning ways against Waterford on Saturday following last weekend’s frustrating draw against Donegal in Ballybofey.

The Kingdom led with seconds remaining in treacherous conditions but a late Donegal free snatched a draw for the home side (Donegal 1-6 Kerry 0-9). It was a game that Kerry would have been expecting to win and the result puts a lot more pressure on them this weekend as they try to top the three-team group and earn a home quarter-final.

If they beat Waterford and Donegal do likewise next week, Kerry and Donegal will be level in first place on four points each. The top seed will then be decided by the head-to-head record between the teams. As Kerry v Donegal was a draw, the deciding factor will be whoever scored the most points in that draw. That would be good news for Kerry as they scored nine points to Donegal’s six.

When Kerry and Waterford last met (in this year’s Munster Championship), Kerry needed a late winner by Fiadhna Tangney to prevail by narrowest of margins (1-8 to 1-7). If Waterford beat Kerry and then lose to Donegal, Kerry would be eliminated from the championship.

The Kerry squad has been boosted by the return of Síofra O’Shea who came off the bench against Donegal following a lengthy period out with a knee injury.

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US-bound Kerry runner Lynch hopes to emulate Mageean magic

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by Adam Moynihan

Killarney middle distance runner Oisín Lynch is taking inspiration from newly crowned European 1500m champion Ciara Mageean as he gets set for the next stage of his career in the United States.

This week Lynch confirmed that he will be heading Stateside after accepting a scholarship at Adams State University in Colorado. The promising 800m and 1500m competitor caught the eye of coaches at the leading American college after representing Ireland in the Youth Olympics and also by winning two national titles in recent months.

Speaking to the Killarney Advertiser, the 18-year-old Killarney Valley AC athlete, who is currently doing his Leaving Cert at St Brendan’s College, says he one day hopes to emulate Mageean’s heroics on the international stage.

“The Irish are on the up at underage and at senior level,” Lynch notes. “We have been improving a lot in recent years. When you see Ciara Mageean winning the 1500m it just shows that it can be done by Irish people.

“Sometimes Irish athletes don’t really believe in themselves when they’re getting knocked out of championships by English or European athletes. Mageean winning that European title is definitely something to drive me on. It shows that I can actually do it.”

DREAM

For Lynch, moving to the United States is a hugely significant step, and one that he has dreamed about making since he was a child.

“It’s unbelievable. I always hoped I could earn a scholarship. I worked hard over the last few years, so it’s nice to see that work paying off.

“I had a few schools onto me but when Adams State got in touch, I sized it up and I knew it was a really good opportunity.

“The fact that the college is at 7,500 feet… That’s a crazy altitude. It’s double the height of Carrauntoohil. Altitude training has massive benefits for distance running and nowadays nearly every pro spends most of their year training at altitude. The chance to get that training for the next couple of years is great.

“And their athletics programme is unbelievable. Coach Damon Martin has been there for 40 years and he has coached 12 Olympians. Adams State is in the top 15 for distance in the country and the standard out there in America is very high.”

STRIDES

Killarney Valley AC have made enormous strides since building their new, state-of-the-art facility in 2020 and Lynch is a grateful beneficiary of that progress.

“I can’t thank the club enough. Going back a couple of years we were training on grass in parks. When you want to be a track runner, it’s just not the same. After a lot of hard work by a lot of good people, we managed to get a 200-metre track in Killarney. That’s massive for us and it’s all we need for training.

“The coaches down there are putting in the hard work, including my dad (Con), Tomás Griffin, Jean Courtney, Jerry Griffin, Bríd Stack, Alan Delaney… I could go on. It’s a great club and there are some good athletes coming through. It’s an exciting time for Killarney Valley.”

After Lynch completes his Leaving Cert, he will start preparing for life as a college athlete. He will study kinesiology in Colorado and on the track he hopes to keep on moving in the right direction. That means getting his times down (his current PBs are 1.50.59 over 800m and 3.51 over 1500m), representing Ireland, and hopefully winning a national title in America.

“Obviously I’ll take every step as it comes,” the ambitious Kerryman says, “but the Olympics is the main long-term target, hopefully in LA in 2028.”

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