Fourteen years ago, Kieran Donaghy was on a journey that would see him become one of the most recognisable athletes in Ireland.
Despite excelling in two sports, Donaghy was a bit-part player on the Kerry panel. Meanwhile, basketball took a backseat so he could focus on his inter-county career.
On July 29, 2006, Kieran Donaghy was thrown on the edge of the square for a crucial qualifier clash with Longford. His introduction at full-forward yielded three-goals inside the first 16 minutes.
A week later, they met a formidable Armagh side for a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Donaghy again was deployed at 14. He didn’t start well against Francie Bellew. However, once the towering Tralee man got going, he proved a force to be reckoned with. Donaghy finished with a game-changing goal that saw the tide turn for underdogs, Kerry.
By the end of 2006, Kieran Donaghy was Footballer of the Year and a marquee name in Irish sport. 14 years later, he still is a marquee name.
The Rodman effect
Donaghy’s towering presence and eye for a score are evident but it’s edge he brought to the game that stood out.
It’s an edge he brought to the basketball court also but here does it come from?
Michael Jordan got him into basketball. The player he modelled his game on, though, was Dennis Rodman. The five-time NBA champion, Hall of Famer and all-time defensive great.
“It’s well known I was a basketballer on the football pitch,” begins Donaghy.
“Jordan was my role model early on. He was my guide. [Seeing him] him floating through the air, going up and under guys, finishing on the other side of the basket. It was stuff I hadn’t really seen before. That sparked the imagination and it got me practising and got me going.
“Then Rodman came into the Bulls team. I model my game on him because I don’t care about scoring. In either code, I never cared. If I had 20 points in a game, or no points, you wouldn’t know it afterwards. It was all about the winning and losing and I think Rodman was like that.
“Rodman just wanted to help his team and he had to figure out ways to do that. He knew he wasn’t the most gifted basketballer. I know I’m not the most gifted basketballer or footballer. My will-to-win and competitive edge combined with the fact I’m willing to go beyond the line of what people are comfortable going to. I’ll do that to help my team win.”
While it may be hard to believe, Donaghy was once the smallest player on the court.
However, the cutting edge and competitive drive set him apart. It was enough to be named Ireland captain.
“I was the smallest player of the Irish basketball team when I was captain aged 15. Why was I the captain? Because I was around the place like a Jack Russell, snapping at all the big guys. I’d say them fellas looked at me as a pain in the hole.
“I was barking at them, I demanded from them and they listened. No-one ever told me to go away. I wasn’t the best player in the team, but I think they just recognised I wanted to win and improve. I’m an energetic person, on the course or on the pitch, and I feel I have to play on the edge and that is where the Rodman comparisons come in.
The comparisons don’t stop with competitive edge. Rodman is widely recognised as the best rebounder in NBA history. This is something Donaghy loves about basketball.
“And the rebounding, I love rebounding. I like the momentum it gives you, especially an offensive rebound. So I go flying in for these rebounds and people think I’m half-mad. I’ll take 10 chances on the fact I might get one that will give us two points.
“If we win that game by a point, everybody is talking about the American player that got 33 points, or the Irish fella that got 28 points. I’m thinking about the one offensive rebound. Happy in my own head knowing that one rebound helped. That’s the way I went about it.”
Rodman as a footballer?
Was Rodman someone he looked to when it came to improving his football game?
Despite making a name for himself at full-forward where rebounds and high balls are prevalent, Donaghy isn’t sure about that.
— The GAA (@officialgaa) July 30, 2017
“The edge on the football pitch? I’m not sure that’s Rodman. That’s me realising in 2007, after I got sent off twice, that I was being the reactor. I was soft in the head a bit and wasn’t wired to be ready for anything, to dish out before I even received.
“That’s not me, the guy you see on the pitch, [it] isn’t really me. It’s the guy I have to be to survive in the game because of the position I play.
“You have to stick the course at full-forward. Being patient in and around the house, especially as a target man. You can’t bail out and be soft, and say, ‘I haven’t got a ball in 10 minutes, I’m going to go outfield and get on the ball’. That’s not the role that was needed by Kerry for me.”
Overall, it was the competitive edge, will-to-win and work ethic of Rodman that Donaghy aspired to mirror. It is also these qualities that he wishes to instil in the generation of tomorrow. Whether that’s on the basketball court or the football field.
“I was watching Rodman getting inside the head of Karl Malone in the NBA Finals by just working harder, being aggressive. He outplayed him in many games, the second-highest scorer in the NBA (Malone) through work ethic and effort.
“It’s the one thing you can control.
“I always say that to younger players. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control the referee, you can’t control whether you have had a good game or not. You can certainly control your effort and your ability. Keep trying no matter how tough the situation is.”