On a cold morning in January, 70-year-old Joe Mullaney boards a train for the two-hour trip from Dublin to Belfast. There, at St. Malachy's School—whose campus is hard by the infamous Crumlin Road Jail, where a number of Irish Republican Army leaders have been imprisoned, and the Girdwood Barracks, a foreboding British garrison post—Mullaney conducts a basketball clinic for 35 Catholic teenagers. The students, many of whom wear jerseys with either O'NEAL or BARKLEY on the back, listen attentively as Mullaney warns them not to pattern their games after Shaquille O'Neal's or Charles Barkley's or that of any other behemoth in the NBA.
"Everything is strength with Shaq and a lot of the big guys," says Mullaney, who should know. He was the coach who put Providence on the college basketball map in the 1950s and who, during a two-year stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, coached the team to the seventh game of the 1970 NBA Finals against the New-York Knicks. "Most of them can't shoot from beyond the foul line," Mullaney says of the NBA giants. "So don't try to play like them."
Among those at the clinic is Billy Ingram, an assistant professor of sports and leisure studies at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, who has come over to say hello to Mullaney. Ingram, a Protestant living in Belfast, coaches basketball for Belfast United, a program begun in Northern Ireland in 1989 by Dan Doyle. A former basketball coach at Trinity College in Hartford, Doyle is the founder and executive director of the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island. Belfast United, a program run by the Institute, seeks to get Catholic and Protestant teenagers to play together on the same basketball team.
That is no small feat in a country where, as a rule, Catholics and Protestants not only do not play on the same teams but also rarely even play against each other.
Mullaney began working for Belfast United in late 1993, coaching Catholic and Protestant players in and around Belfast. Then last June he coached some of the same players when Belfast United traveled to the U.S. and played games against high school all-stars from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
"They got killed by the American teams, but the Belfast United kids got along great with each other," says Mullaney, who was a captain of the underdog Holy Cross team that won the NCAA championship in 1947 with a freshman point guard named Bob Cousy.
When they gather for their first practice, Protestant and Catholic players stand apart, and there is a palpable uneasiness between the two groups. But, Mullaney says, once they start playing, basketball helps them form a bond.
In an effort to bring the players still closer together, each Catholic shares accommodations with a Protestant at a host's house when the team makes its annual visit to the States. "That's the purpose of Belfast United—bringing young Catholics and Protestants together through the medium of sport," says Doyle.
Unfortunately, the players of Belfast United don't get to be teammates for more than a few months. The team roster changes each season so that other youths can participate. The players typically spend about two months practicing together before their trip to the U.S. Because of the strict demarcation between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast, the players seldom meet after their season.
"I've made some good friends among the Protestants I've played with on Belfast United," says Adrian Fulton, 21, one of Northern Ireland's best young athletes. He plays for the University of Ulster and for Star of the Sea in the Budweiser Super League. Sponsored by the American beer company, this league is the top echelon of Irish basketball. "I've visited some of them in their neighborhoods, and some of them come to my house, which never would have happened if it hadn't been for Belfast United."