Cian Sullivan (above) and La Salle are headed to Ireland for a pair of games this weekend. (Photo courtesy La Salle athletics)
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
The hoops on Cian Sullivan’s home court weren’t exactly 10 feet tall.
Mercy Secondary School, Mounthawk -- known locally as Mercy Mounthawk -- is the largest school in Tralee, Ireland. It’s where Sullivan learned to play the game of basketball, and where he and the Mercy Mounthawk team played most of their games.
Basketball was by no means the only use of Mercy Mounthawk's small gymnasium, however; the school used it as a multi-purpose recreational facility for gym classes, which spanned a number of sports, from soccer to badminton.
Four rows of bleachers lined one sideline of the dead, wooden floor. The baskets on each side were only a few feet from the wall, at most.
And, as it were, the rims were a few inches above regulation height, hanging somewhere from 10-foot-1 to 10-foot-3, according to Sullivan.
“I don’t really know what it was,” said Sullivan, now in his second year at La Salle University. “It was all we had, so I don’t think anyone really complained about it.”
That school gym really was all the area had to offer basketball-wise; according to Sullivan, there “might have been” one or two others court in the town, but he wasn’t able to use them. Because of Ireland’s rainy and snowy climate during basketball season, there were no outdoor hoops available to the public, and the few indoor courts out there were hard to gain access to.
Sullivan was approached by Mercy Mounthawk coach John Dowling to join the basketball team when he was 13 -- high school includes six years in Ireland -- and already stood about 6-foot-3.
Sullivan had tried a wide variety of other sports growing up -- hurling, taekwondo, rugby, soccer -- but none had really stuck.
At the time, Sullivan’s main concern outside of school was whether he would play Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, or FIFA on his game system when he got home. With not much else going on, he agreed to Dowling’s request.
“Before basketball, I guess I used to play video games,” Sullivan said. “I used to ride my bike a lot, but that was about it.”
Basketball gave him that coveted access to the school gym, where he started to pick up the sport.
His first two seasons on the team, which was historically a successful one in Ireland, Mercy Mounthawk didn’t win a single game.
After those years, however, the team consistently found itself in Basketball Ireland’s national rankings, and usually in the top four. Located at the southwest edge of Ireland, they would regularly travel 5-to-6 hours away to Dublin for competitions, and even made eight-hour trips to Northern Ireland a couple times.
“Everyone loved missing school for a game, so nobody complained,” Sullivan said.
In Ireland, public and private schools play in the same leagues and cup competitions, and Sullivan’s Mercy Mounthawk found itself in two consecutive All Ireland Schools League semifinals, though it never did break into the final.
It was then that Sullivan really started to get good -- and tall. At 14, he was 6-7, then shot up to 6-10 the next year, then 7-foot at only 16 years old. He just didn’t stop growing.
Now, he’s 7-2.
“I started playing when I was 13 but I was only messing around,” he said. “When I was 16, I was 6-10, 7-foot, and then I was like ‘I can probably do something with this.’”
Taking basketball seriously meant looking beyond Ireland for the next phase of his career. Sullivan considered playing in England or Spain, or coming to the U.S. for college basketball.
In the end, Sullivan decided to come to the States. While European options were closer to home, they weren’t the authentic, high-caliber basketball experience he was looking for. Plus, a college education is important to him.
Sullivan signed on to do a prep year at the St. Andrew’s School in Rhode Island in hopes of honing in his game and getting enough exposure for a Division I offer.
“This is the home of the game, I had to go to where basketball is best, in America, to compete with the best,” he said.
In Ireland, the competition is no match. Basketball there doesn’t even rank among the top sports; those spots are reserved for rugby, soccer, and Gaelic football. That’s why it’s rare to see an Irish player in the top tiers of basketball in the States.
Before Sullivan was good, he was able to look up to -- or down at, considering his height -- a pair of Irish natives who had done things in their American journeys. John Carroll, a Dublin native, came to play at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa. and is now at Hartford; Jordan Blount, a standout from Cork, Ireland, is a year younger than Sullivan and spent a few seasons in Spain before going to play at Illinois-Chicago.
Sullivan himself began attracting some interest of his own at St. Andrew’s. At a fall open gym, he caught the eye of La Salle assistant coach Horace “Pappy” Owens, who alerted head coach John Giannini.
Giannini traveled up to see Sullivan play just a couple days after Owens’ visit. The following Wednesday -- Nov. 6, 2015 -- Sullivan headed to Philly for a visit to 20th and Olney, just two days after Blount had committed to UIC.
At the end of the visit, Giannini and the Explorers offered Sullivan, making the big man just the eighth Irish player to ever pick up a Division I scholarship.
Despite some attention from Ivy League and Patriot League schools, Sullivan accepted right then and there, committing to play college basketball at the very least an eight-hour trip away from home.
“All the other players I talked to, they said Coach G’s honest, and they said whatever he tells you, it’s going to be that or better,” Sullivan said.
Giannini had a plan laid out for his 7-2 recruit; a redshirt year was the first step. After that, his playing time would gradually increase.
So far, it’s going according to plan. Sullivan redshirted the 2016-17 season, working to adjust to the physical style of U.S. basketball with La Salle’s coaching staff.
“The game is so slow back home…we don’t run. That’s what I had to get used to here first, running,” he said. “It’s fast, fast break, everybody’s so much more athletic, everybody’s playing above the rim. Back home, nobody’s dunking the ball, everybody’s just shooting.”
Life was also bigger and faster-paced off the court, and that certainly took some getting used to. The heavily-concentrated city lifestyle Sullivan encountered in his first two years in the States was nothing like what he was accustomed to back home.
“I live right next to a farm. I just look out my window, all I see is green,” Sullivan said. “In the field next to us, there’s sheep. In the field behind us there’s cows. It’s completely different. Here [in the U.S.], I’ll never see a sheep or a cow.
“It was such a shock for me when I moved to America...everything’s so much bigger,” he added. “I’m used to small things, like looking outside the window it’s just fields of green, and then I look out and I see it’s a city, everything is quick-paced, fast-moving.”
When he was just getting acclimated, Sullivan recognized a few store names from Ireland, but even McDonald’s was a totally different experience than he was used to; everything was just huge.
He quickly caught on, though, and really immersed himself in American culture. Upon his arrival to Philadelphia the summer before his redshirt season, Sullivan made sure to go around and try a boatload of cheesesteaks.
Now, he has a favorite -- Dalessandro’s -- and a consistent order: American cheese, fried onions, ketchup. “I try to keep it basic enough,” he said.
Sullivan’s adjustment over the last two years has been so drastic that his Irish accent has all but disappeared. He’s now just a typical American college student, though he still gets stopped regularly for questions about his height.
“A lot of people think I’m from New England or New York. I think I just lost my accent because I’m so immersed in American culture,” he said. “I didn’t want to come here and not embrace the culture.”
Like Giannini promised, Sullivan has also been integrated little-by-little into the team. This season, he’s made appearances in four of La Salle’s seven games, accruing four minutes and scoring his first career point on a free throw against 20th-ranked Northwestern.
Behind fifth-year center Tony Washington, Sullivan is bulking up and starting to play a stronger game inside. He’s still skinny, but much more adjusted to his body than he was when he came over to the States.
If he continues his course of improvement, he could, like Giannini also told him, garner even more minutes next season as a redshirt-sophomore.
“Coach G, he told me the truth, he told me what was going to happen,” Sullivan said. “He said I’d redshirt and the next year I’d play a little and he said the year after then I’m going to have a chance to play a lot.”
Another thing Giannini happened to mention was a certain tournament in the works -- one that would be played in Sullivan’s home country.
Though the event was by no means official when Sullivan committed, Giannini was already working closely with Gareth Maguire and the Victory Scholar Program in Northern Ireland to organize a series of games to be played in Belfast.
“It wasn’t like a Lonnie Walker situation where we promise you we’ll bring you back,” Giannini said, referencing the former Reading High star who was promised a game in his hometown by Miami. “But we actually have been in discussions with this for like three years now, so we told him the whole time.”
Sure enough, the Basketball Hall of Fame Belfast Classic was announced in March 2017 in partnership with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and La Salle was one of four teams included.
The Belfast Classic, the first NCAA basketball games to be played in Ireland in over 30 years, is set for this Friday and Saturday, Dec. 1 and 2. The Explorers flew over the Atlantic Wednesday night for their 2 PM Friday matchup with Towson.
(Correction: The Belfast Classic has been marketing itself as the first NCAA games to be played in Europe, but we have found that's not the case. This NY Times roundup from 1987 reports on games being played in Cork, Ireland)
Giannini is excited for his first-ever trip to Ireland, a country he’s heard nothing but good things about. It’s a bigger deal for Sullivan, however, who will get the chance to play in front of his friends and family for the first time since he left for the States.
“I thought I would never go home and play another game,” Sullivan said.
“I believe in God’s timing and I think this is just a wonderful thing for Cian,” Giannini added. “He will be in front of family and friends and that doesn’t happen very often when you’re an international player.”
As soon as La Salle’s inclusion in the tournament was made official, Sullivan told “everybody” back home that he was going to be playing in Ireland.
He’ll be joined in Belfast by his parents John and Anita, his high school coach, other players from across the country, and even relatives flying over from England -- despite the event being an eight-hour drive from Tralee.
Most of Sullivan’s teammates have never been to Ireland, so for a change, he’ll be the one showing them the ropes, substituting cheesesteaks with mashed potatoes, beef stew, and cabbage, plus some homemade apple pie and lemon meringue pie.
“I’m blessed to go home,” said Sullivan, who noted that his Irish accent will likely resurface around family. “I still see it as home. Even if it’s eight hours away, it’s still my country and I love it.”
If the familiar atmosphere didn’t make the trip sweet enough, Giannini assured that Sullivan will garner significant minutes over the two games for the first time in his collegiate career.
“Coaches have hard decisions about who to put in or who not to put in, but Cian, especially the last couple of weeks, has been really good,” Giannini said. “I’m looking forward to having him get in front of his family and friends and get some action.”
Sullivan’s success has caused a spike in basketball’s popularity back home; for the crowd of kids hoping to be the next Cian Sullivan, the 21-year-old wants to set a good example.
“I kind of made basketball big, I like to think,” he said. “Everybody back home looks up to me. I just want to be a role model to everyone else. I want other people to follow my footsteps and come to America.
“I’m like the eighth guy to ever get a scholarship, Division I, from Ireland. I want there to be a lot more.”