Emmet Ryan of Action81.com interviews Irish basketball star Conor Grace.
Conor Grace has played Basketball all over the world but Emmet Ryan first knew him as a car seat. Having played a fascinating career across three continents, the Irish power forward/centre is hunting for a new home.
Listed at 6’11”, Conor Grace is hard to miss on the street but I knew he was tall long before I first saw him. Grace’s sister, Louise, used to give me lifts home from college 14 years ago. The passenger seat in their old Ford Sierra was pushed all the way back for when her brother was on board. At the time Grace was still in school, at the beginning of a Basketball journey that would take him around the world.
“My sister played and one of my good friends played so I sort of fell into it. I had finished up playing Junior Cup [Rugby] and started off,” says Grace.
Then 6’4”, he caught the eye of Irish under-18 coach, John O’Connor, at a camp. This led to him hooking up with Marian BC to further his development. The next stage would involve a particularly Irish kind of connection.
“My mother’s brother’s wife is a dermatologist, [she] was over for a conference in Dublin,” he says. After meeting fellow dermatologists from Oregon who were fond of the game, the path was set for Grace to hook up with an AAU program in the US. After playing in a tournament in Las Vegas, Grace drew interest from Southern Utah University but they didn’t have space to offer a scholarship. Instead he went to a prep school in Maine, part of a loaded outfit that sent eight players to Division I colleges and two to Division II institutions.
“I was named on the All-Tournament team in a tournament at St Thomas More’s. I was recruited by Pete Strickland, who played in Ireland, he was with Coastal Carolina University and I was recruited by St Peter’s in New York,” says Grace. Both colleges and Davidson in North Carolina came to Dublin to recruit Grace when he went home for his Easter holidays. It was the charm of Davidson’s climate however that won him over more than their commit to cross the Atlantic. “I had already visited Coastal Carolina and then I went and visited Davidson in April,” he says. “I was coming from Maine where there six feet of snow to North Carolina where I was sitting on a lake.”
Joining the Southern Conference program presented plenty of chances for Grace to get noticed. With an annual fixture against Duke, he had a chance to pit himself against one of the top teams in the sport.
“Playing at Duke was incredible. When we played them at home our arena was 5,500 seats but Duke won’t play anywhere that seats less than 10,000 so we played them in the NBA arena in Charlotte.
When you go to Duke, playing at Cameron, all the fans – the Cameron Crazies – are jumping. It was a lot of fun to play against them, it was always on national TV,” says Grace.
In a one-bid league, the Dubliner was fortunate to make the NCAA Tournament at his first attempt but it would also be his only flirtation with the Big Dance. “The seniors on the team were telling me we were being spoilt,” he says. “We played in New Mexico’s stadium, it’s called The Pit. You come out of the locker room and it’s a hill, it felt like it was 100 yards long. All the time in college there was nothing like it, the noise was so intense.”
A narrow loss to Ohio State would be as close as Davidson came to Cinderella status during Grace’s tenure, with Stephen Curry arriving on campus a year after he finished with the Wildcats. Grace would eventually get the chance to compete with the Golden State Warrior after he graduated, losing to Curry in Golf one summer.
On the court, a 16-0 conference record along with a win over Missouri had the Wildcats in the at-large discussion in the Irishman’s senior year. Davidson missed out and went to the NIT instead. A three-game run in the NCAA’s secondary tournament ended with defeat at Maryland.
The end of Grace’s college career in 2005 coincided with a golden spell for the Irish national team. NBA veteran Pat Burke spearheaded a roster including Jay Larranaga, son of current Miami coach Jim, which was bidding to join the top flight of European Basketball. Grace, who would later captain the national side, found his time with this team a vital learning experience.
“Coming out of college, that was unbelievable. You had Pat Burke, who was with the Phoenix Suns, Jay [Larranaga] who had played for Real Madrid two years previously. It was a lovely experience, they were able to teach me things and show me the level I wanted to reach,” he says.
Denmark eventually scuppered Ireland’s promotion bid but this would be the least of the team’s problems in the long run. Basketball Ireland’s decision to scrap the senior national sides still grates with Grace.
“The players were told we could email in our thoughts. It was bad for us and even worse for the women. The women weren’t bringing in as many Americans as we were, they had played their way to that level,” he says. In Grace’s view, the loss of the national sides was a poor move for developing the sport in the public eye.
“From a cricketing perspective, I don’t know, if Lansdowne beat Sandycove I don’t care, but if Ireland are playing England, then I care,” he says.
“The reason I stuck with Basketball at a young age was because I was very quickly put on the Irish Under-18 team,” says Grace. “You need a national team to have that identity. I think they should open up the national league. Justen Naughton who was captain of the Irish team a few years ago couldn’t play as an Irishman, he had to play as an American. You look at someone like Jermaine Turner, who is married to an Irish woman, but he has to play as an American. Whenever you can raise the standard, a rising tide lifts everyone. If you look back, people like Adrian Fulton and Damian Sealy played in a time when it was more open and that helped develop them.”
While his fortunes with the national team were mixed due to the off-court problems, Grace’s club career got off on the right foot. Going straight into Italy’s Serie A, one of Europe’s top leagues, the Dubliner signed with Viola Reggio Calabria. The season gave him the opportunity to take on Andrea Bargnani, who went first overall to the Toronto Raptors in the 2006 NBA Draft, and current Chicago Bull Marco Belinelli. As would prove a recurrent theme in his career, the Irishman was on the move by season’s end. His team relegated and owing him pay, Grace had a try-out with Paris Basket Racing (since merged to form Paris-Levallois Basket) of France’s Pro A league but didn’t get signed. After spending the second half of the season in the second tier in France, he moved to Finland to play for Componenta.
The instability and trouble getting paid frustrated Grace. “I’ve been owed money by two teams. It’s frustrating. Coming out of college you get a contract but you don’t know until you get the money,” he says. More problems would follow with the Finnish club but his fortunes were changing for the better. Mid-way through the season they gave him a choice; stay and take a pay cut or leave and take a month and a half’s pay up front. Grace chose the latter and four days later, with some help from his old Davidson connections, signed for Norrkoping Dolphins in Sweden. “The Basketball community is so small, you get recommendations from coaches and maybe one of the players you’ve played with puts your name out there,” says Grace. The Irishman’s arrival sparked a turnaround in the Dolphins season as they went from also-rans to the playoffs.
That brief stay would be the first of two stints with the Swedish club. “My second time with the Dolphins we went to the Finals, lost in 7 games. The team played 88 games in the season, including the Baltic League and EuroChallenge. We did well in EuroChallenge. We had 6 Americans, we were lucky as 4 of them had European passports,” he says.
The road between his two stints in Sweden, despite being just two and a half years apart, was anything but direct. Still, there are worse ways to spend one’s twenties. “As much as you want to find a place to settle down, it’s brilliant. It’s a different experience when you get to a country and you are working there,” says Grace.
The next stop for Grace was a promising season in 2008/09 in the A2, the Greek second division, with Ilisiakos. The wild nature of Greek Basketball fans extends far beyond the reds and greens of Olympiacos and Panathinaikos.
“Our fans used to come in and let off bangers. There were concrete steps where they would sit and they’d let off bangers and bits of the steps would go onto the floor,” says Grace. The threat of violence from opposing fans was real and ever-present but that didn’t mean those out for blood thought things through.
“One time we ran off the court and one of the fellas tried to chase us. He thought he had loads of friends with him but he ended up standing on his own posing.”
Having been tabbed as possible relegation contenders, Ilisiakos got off to a flying start and were top of the A2 at the mid-way point of the season. Grace played no small part in making the Athens club a surprise package.
“By Christmas I was averaging 12.5 points, 5 or 6 rebounds, and 51 or 52 per cent from three.” Publicly Grace was telling magazines that he’d be annoyed if the team wasn’t promoted but problems behind the scenes were hampering Ilisiakos’ progress.
“Halfway through the year, the Greek guys keep complaining at the coach that he’s not playing them enough. So the coach goes in one day, we’re top of the league, and he says ‘Screw you guys, I’m leaving’,” says Grace. A poor relationship with the new coach meant Grace’s days were numbers. Despite being named to the All-A2 second-team, the Dubliner wouldn’t join his newly promoted club in the top flight and he was on the move again.
Grace got a chance with ZZ Leiden in the Netherlands the following January, winning the Dutch Cup (see video below). Despite winning his first major honour and enjoying the standard, arriving half-way through the year made it difficult for the Dubliner to adjust. “It was tough coming into a season mid-season, we had a guy on the team at point-guard who ended up winning MVP of the league. It was tough to keep your stats steady, which is important when you are looking for contracts,” says Grace. “When you walk into a team, ideally from your own situation, you should make the team fit to you but what you start to do when you meet these guys for the first time it’s tough to keep doing what you need to do for yourself. You find yourself conforming to what they need rather than what you can deliver.”
Needing a fresh start, yet again, Grace made the boldest move of his career to date. Irish connections in Asia alerted him to the ASEAN League, a newly created pan-national competition featuring sides from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Current Limerick player Jason Killeen was playing for the Kuala Lumpur (KL) Dragons and Grace was eager to join him. Flying half-way across the world, Grace had to earn his place with the Dragons.
“There was a non-sanctioned tournament in Hong Kong, so I ended up going on a Malaysian All-Star team. We flew in Mike Williams, an Irish-American, from California,” he says.
“The quality was pretty good. We played against a CBA team from China who had a 7’4 centre and a 7’2” power forward. We lost to them by 21 points but beat the team from Thailand and a team from Hong Kong. We ended up playing the Chinese team again in the final, and a Malaysian team had never beaten a Chinese team, and we ended up winning.”
An MVP performance in the tournament, along with being top-scorer in competition and the final, was enough to earn him a contract with the Dragons. With an apartment across the road from a 13-storey shopping centre, Grace thought all his ships had come in. The only problem was, this wasn’t Basketball as he knew it in Europe.
“We were in a lovely gym but with no air conditioning and 100 degrees [Fahrenheit]. We would have practice from 8.30 to 10.30. Normally in Europe you’d do your gym work, lifting weights, in the morning, and then do your 5 on 5 stuff in the evening,” says Grace.
“There you didn’t know what you were going to be doing. You’d come back at 4 and train until maybe 9. It was run by Chinese business men who thought that if you were good after 2 hours training you’d be great after 8 hours of training.” The team flew to Thailand for a game and lost in overtime, only to come back to an unusual grilling.
“We come back and they sit us down for a motivational meeting where they go through the stats, asking questions. They weren’t looking at the game tape and we were thinking this was crazy,” says Grace.
Grace and Killeen got badly ill and ended up being sick for most of the week. Still feeling the effects at training the day before their next game, the Dubliner tried to take it easy. The coach, thinking he was setting a bad example for the Malaysian players, gave him punishment sprints to teach him a lesson. Barely able to move in the game and with only 7 points for his efforts, Grace got a call saying he was cut the next day.
It was then that he finally returned to Norrkopping for his second stint. Persistence with playing through injury would make this a bittersweet return despite the team’s success. “Halfway through the year I started getting bad back spasms. I finished that season, went over to Davidson for one of my friend’s weddings. We were messing around at a lake. I woke up the next morning and I couldn’t move,” Having meant to stay in Davidson for 25 more days to train, he quickly came home and stood for most of the flight back such was his pain. A further set-back came while he was rehabilitating.
“It was in the middle of the  Rugby World Cup, I remember because Ireland were playing Australia at the time. I was sitting on the couch and my back locked up,” says Grace. “I spent the next two and half weeks in bed. My mother would bring food to the bed, I’d have to kneel next to the bed to eat because it hurt too much to sit.”
For the next two and a half months, he was treated with cranio sacral therapy. That Christmas his dad, former Ireland and Lions Rugby international Tony Grace, found a surgeon to examine Grace’s back. The surgeon said an operation was unnecessary and put him in touch with Joyce Gavin, a former power lifter, who used pilates over three months to bring the power forward back to full-health. She has continued to work with him since to maintain conditioning. “I’m now the healthiest I’ve felt since college. I went to Uppsala [Sweden], finished the season there before moving to Eco Orebro. It was bad situation there; I’m one of four people I know to have left. They wanted me to stay for the rest of the season but I figured I’d be better off going home and trying to come back elsewhere later this season,” says Grace.
Now 30, the Dubliner is entering his peak years for a big man. He says he is hearing offers from clubs in several leagues in Europe but remains cautious. “It doesn’t mean anything until you see a contract.”
While waiting for the call, or rather email, to send him on his travels again Grace is plying his trade with DCU Saints in the Irish Superleague. “We’re doing alright, it was frustrating last Saturday against Limerick but we had won three games before that,” says Grace. “I’m just hoping to go away again. I have some good game tapes from my Eco Orebro games; I’ve sent those to an agent. I’ve put so much work into getting healthy again that I want a steady opportunity to show what I can do. I thought Eco might be that but it served its purpose because it showed I’m in the shape that I can play.”
When we finished I walked Grace back to his car. The Sierra is gone but the new model still has plenty of leg-room.
Sport Is Everything. Emmet Ryan.
You can see the original interview on Emmet Ryan’s excellent website, Action81.com, by clicking here.