Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 7, 2007

An Irish Hoops Odyssey

Rus Bradburd, the former UTEP assistant and Tim Hardaway's one-time mentor, learned about Irish fiddling, Gaelic football, and the proper pour of a Guinness in his tour of duty as coach of the Tralee Tigers.

Carl Bialik

There are thousands of college basketball coaches in the US. It's a safe bet that none are accomplished fiddlers and authors. Those are the new identities of Rus Bradburd, who left his job as UTEP's assistant coach to get his MFA and pursue his dream of becoming a writer. In 2002, the onetime mentor to Tim Hardaway and dribbling tutor to Shane Battier headed to Ireland to pursue his twin passions of writing and fiddling—specifically, he wanted to learn some Irish tunes. To pay for his trip, he coached a local professional basketball team, the Tralee Tigers.

Rus Bradburd (left) coaching the Tralee Tigers/Photo by Michael James
"At Irish basketball games, the fans are very young, under 20. That base will grow and develop, even if the official media policy seems to put it on the back of the sports bus."

Rus Bradburd (left) coaching the Tralee Tigers/Photo by Michael James

Bradburd had trouble finding time to work on his fiction because of the unique challenges posed by Irish hoops: It was one of the lowest priorities for practice time at the local sports facility, and his best player kept leaving the team to go play Gaelic football. Yet he soon realized that he had a work of nonfiction on his hand. Paddy on the Hardwood: A Journey in Irish Hoops encompasses the high art of Bradburd's fiddling lessons with his mentor, Paddy, and the often-uproarious comedy that ensues when a former Division I basketball coach encounters his hard-drinking, rough-hewn players, and the team's ever-optimistic manager, Junior Collins.

Through it all, the one storyline that borders on implausibility is Bradburd's courtship of Connie from an ocean away, and her seemingly infinite reserves of patience and understanding as her long-distance boyfriend grows obsessed with the Tigers. But Bradburd insists it's all true, and he and Connie have wed since the events described in the book.

In the following interview—conducted by email (in green font, in homage to Ireland), and edited for clarity—Bradburd talks about the book, why he expects Irish hoops to flourish, and the merits of a Guinness poured in New Mexico. Plus, read on for audio samples of Bradburd's fiddling. (Also, you can hear Bradburd and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, June 6, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: At what point in the season did you know you had a book on your hands? Did you write it while in Ireland, or take notes and write it upon your return?

Rus Bradburd: I began keeping a journal right away. When Paddy Jones gave me the same speech I gave my team—you've got a long way to go, you weren't raised in the tradition—I thought I might have a book on my hands. Of course, there are lots of better writers than I am, and no coach has walked away from college ball and published a book since Clair Bee did his young-adult series. So, the real answer is that I hoped I would write a book after that coincidence.

GM: What's happened to the Tigers since you left? Who's the coach?

RB: The Tralee Tigers, as I've feared, have done pretty well since Paddy on the Hardwood came out this season. This is my third year away, and overall they have a winning record…and even won the mid-season Irish Cup twice—something I could never do. [Eds. note: The Tigers went on to win the SuperLeague South, but lost in the semifinals of the playoffs.] They had two player-coaches to save money, then this season they brought back David Falvey, who they fired to bring me in. The wacky world of Irish hoops.

GM: Does Falvey ever ask for advice?

RB: No, but I sent him their best player this year, Wilder Auguste. He sounds like an Irish poet, but he's a 6'7" stud from Sam Houston State.

GM: I don't remember this from the book—what was Falvey doing in the meantime, while you were coaching? Are you two friendly? Is he annoyed that you wrote the Tralee Tigers book before he could?

RB: David Falvey is an electrician in Tralee during the day. He was always good to me.

GM: Now that Gaelic football is no longer costing you players, and you can judge it objectively: What do you think of the sport? Could it ever gain wider popularity outside Ireland?

RB: Gaelic Football is a superior game to American football, or rugby. Rugby, incidentally, is the only sport in the world where they cheer if you kick the ball out of bounds. But Gaelic Football requires speed, skill, teamwork, endurance, and toughness. It's a fast game, physical, but not a brawl. I don't think the Irish want it to leave Ireland. It's too big a chunk of their national identity.

GM: What would it take for basketball to become a more central part of Irish culture (or at least for it to take precedence over at least one or two sports in the Tralee gym schedule)?

RB: Basketball in Ireland is sort of like the way Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead were in the '80s: I'd go to a Dead show and there'd be 70,000 people, and their records sold, but you never heard them on the radio. At Irish basketball games, the fans are very young, under 20. That base will grow and develop, even if the official media policy seems to put it on the back of the sports bus.

GM: Are you Irish?

RB: Well, I feel like I am now. I call the Irish "we," and worry about the fate of the country. And I think trying to immerse myself in Irish fiddling is what makes Paddy on the Hardwood a unique sports book, as well as making me a wee bit Irish.

GM: How does Guinness in New Mexico compare to Guinness in Tralee?

RB: Bartenders in the States might be executed for the sloppy pour of a pint in Ireland. But it's a freshness issue. Guinness tastes good in America, but it's Mother's Milk in Ireland.

"Shane Battier is completely self-aware and observant about the distorted world in which he exists today."
GM: Any good fiddling bars in New Mexico?

RB: I'm in an old-time Appalachian string band here, and we play at the High Desert Brewery in town.

GM: What are you up to now? Any other books in the work?

RB: I'm trying to publish my collection of fiction that I went to Ireland to finish. I got distracted by writing Paddy on the Hardwood, but I'm nearly done with the linked-story cycle now. It's set in the world of college ball, but we never get on the court. The stories are darker than my first book.

GM: Have your Tralee associates read the book? What about former colleagues in the US (at UTEP or elsewhere)? If so, what did they think?

RB: The Irish are big readers, and the book has gotten a lot of press in Ireland, although it still hasn't been published there. I'm hoping to get a UK or Irish press interested. Everyone has given me great love over Paddy on the Hardwood, but I've heard the Tralee Sports Complex people are pissed off. Maybe they'll clean up the place now.

GM: What, in general, do your former college-hoops colleagues think of your budding writing career?

RB: It's mixed: Some coaches act like I died, but many are jealous that I got off the treadmill of college basketball. Most coaches don't have a happy ending to their careers, but I did with mine.

GM: You're a dribbling expert. Who's the best of all time?

RB: I think Tim Hardaway is far and away the best. He's looked bad in the last month, but most of us were shocked by his comments. [Eds. note: See Bradburd's comments on Hardaway's homophobic statements, in Gelflog.] Anyway, Tim was already a great dribbler when I met him, and I've gotten far too much credit for teaching him anything. Maybe we should have focused on other stuff, huh?

"The NCAA should either go one way or the other: Either pay the players what the market commands, or make it completely a wealth-sharing and community-based collective. But they won't do either."
GM: What did you think of Shane Battier, from your dribbling work with him?

RB: Shane Battier is our next Bill Bradley. He's smart, articulate, politically aware, and was a comparative religion major at Duke. He's a kind guy, very respectful, but this is what I noticed: He's stubborn, really stubborn. He didn't want to go on the next drill until he felt like he mastered the previous one. Also, I think Shane Battier is completely self-aware and observant about the distorted world in which he exists today.

GM: Do you have any urge to return to hoops coaching?

RB: Every spring. I'm conflicted and I'll likely never get over it.

GM: Have you made it back to Ireland much?

RB: I've gone back two Christmases to play music and watch the Tigers. We have an infant now, so I haven't been back since she was born. December is the ideal time to go to Ireland: Only Irish people are around. But the weather then is pathetic.

GM: What does Connie think of the book? Could she really be as amazingly understanding and patient as she's portrayed?

RB: Well, first, she's a better writer than I'll ever be, an award-winning poet. I think we both knew that we had a winning combination, being together, and she was patient with me working out my basketball demons.

GM: Aspects of the book remind me of the Joe McGinniss book The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro. Have you read it? If so, what did you think?

RB: There were two books that I studied as I was writing Paddy on the Hardwood. One was The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. The other was a book called Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain. I loved them both, and wished I'd written them.
But the most profound sports book in my upbringing was the David Meggyesy book from 1970 called Out of Their League. Meggyesy's journey of self-awareness, and his condemning of the militaristic and racist NFL, shocked me as a kid. He walked away from a glamorous sport, just as I did 30 years later. Except he did something important, working to end the our invasion of Vietnam. I walked away to write and to learn the Irish fiddle. Still, his story has always been inspiring to me, and his conclusion—something is wrong with big-time sports—still rings true.

"Guys like Rick Pitino or Tim Floyd are so charismatic, and their life focus is on winning basketball games. These are guys that could solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict if you gave them a year, just from the power of their personalities."
GM: What is wrong with big-time sports? How would you change college hoops, if you were Myles Brand?

RB: College sports is conflicted. The people who make the decisions—the coaches, the NCAA, the presidents—want it to be pro sports only for the bosses, but amateur sports for the workers: the players. But the only thing any fan cares about are the players. It's a huge labor scam, and the reason it works is that the labor force is gone quickly…off to the pros, or done playing.
So, I think they should either go one way or the other: Either pay the players what the market commands, or make it completely a wealth-sharing and community-based collective. But the NCAA won't do either. They're afraid to pay the players, and the richer, more prestigious schools won't share anything. Plus, sharing the wealth and means of production—well, that's a bad word we can't say here on a family website.

GM: Who's the best head coach in college basketball?

RB: I was lucky, because I worked for two of the best who ever hung a whistle around their necks: Don Haskins and Lou Henson. Therefore, I'm a tough critic. I'm more impressed by the guys who get the most out of lower-level jobs. Also, I'm a Nolan Richardson fan, largely because I consider him to be a racial pioneer in college sports. All three of those guys are retired.
But as for guys who are coaching today, I'm going to name three. Tim Floyd at USC flopped in the pros, but he made an irrational move: He went to the Bulls when Jordan and Pippen left. He would have been better off going to the Tralee Tigers like I did. Now he's quickly gotten USC into the national spotlight, and it's just his second year. Tim is an immensely talented guy: He could be president, or governor, or whatever he wanted. But that's also one of my biggest frustrations with college hoops: Guys like Rick Pitino or Tim Floyd are so charismatic, and their life focus is on winning basketball games. These are guys that could solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict if you gave them a year, just from the power of their personalities. So, in a way, I think their potential has gone untapped. Don't you think Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been a great college coach? Thank God he wasn't.
The other two you might not know. The best record of any independent this season was Utah Valley State. Their coach is Dick Hunsaker, who can't make a game schedule because every coach knows he's nearly impossible to beat. He was 22-7 this season, and won't go anywhere because he can't qualify for the NCAA as an independent. The other coach is Northeastern State's Larry Gipson, who reads more than I do. Larry Gipson won the national championship in Junior College and Division II. But at U of Toledo, he spun his wheels. He was Henry Iba's best friend the last few years of Coach Iba's life, and he absorbed as much of Mr. Iba as he could.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.

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