AFTER their withdrawal from the Irish Super League last week for an inadvertent player registration error, reigning champions Belfast Star have been buoyed by the breadth of support they have received from across the Irish basketball community.
The Basketball Ireland decision to have Star forfeit all the points they gained during the season gave the club no choice but to diplomatically step aside from this year’s competition even though they had already secured their place in the end of season playoffs.
The news sent a shockwave through the sport and a national newspaper report over the weekend suggested that the fallout from Star's withdrawal had quickly deepened with many basketball clubs in disagreement with the obscure and archaic rule that questioned the legitimacy of player Max Cooper’s registration.
“As a club, we’re gutted of course,” said Star Head Coach Adrian Fulton.
“I have received countless supportive messages from coaches and players throughout the country.
“The last two Super League seasons have been affected by very late registration issues so the sport needs to do better in this regard.
“We wish all the teams left in the playoffs good luck - whoever comes out on top will be deserving champions.”
Locally, there was considerable unease at the decision as fans, former players, and officials took to social media to express their opinions.
Former Irish international player Gareth Maguire, now CEO of Sport Changes Lives, wrote that he was truly shocked at the Cooper decision.
“This young man is 100 per cent playing within the correct (registration) category. My question is who has the time or interest to question the integrity of our sport. I also question why the competition’s committee cannot look at this situation with a measured approach rather than this brutal approach - madness!” he wrote.
And Dublin’s Puff Summers, an American import and one of the legends of Irish basketball, wrote of the decision: “Outrageous. Max made our league better. Didn’t skew the competitive balance at all.”
The shock news broke late last week in a letter from Basketball Ireland to all clubs - a mere 24 hours before Star were due to play their final regular season game away to Templeogue.
By that stage, Star had already secured second place in the League’s Northern Conference and had gained home advantage in the first round of the playoffs that would see them defend their Irish crown.
The decision to have the club forfeit all its points came after an investigation was prompted into the registration of Star’s leading scorer Max Cooper, an English-born player who had been recruited after a successful stint in American college basketball.
Cooper, who attended school in England before his family moved to the US when he was 13, had been registered by Star as a European, ie Category 2 player. Category 1 players are normally those from America.
However, due to an obscure rule that states a player must have played for two years at a school that is registered as a basketball school (the player’s Essex school was not registered for basketball) Cooper, upon this late investigation, had been deemed ineligible as Basketball Ireland regarded him as a Category 1 player, ie American.
The eleventh-hour investigation into Cooper’s status understandably surprised Star as they had taken it for granted all along that the player’s registration at the beginning of the season had been properly completed within the League’s rules.
Star’s club officials were therefore distraught when notified of the investigation into Cooper and the subsequent fallout that would halt their drive to retain their title.
Belfast Star chairman Bill McCotter admitted that he like everyone else in the sport is now left wondering how such an archaic rule about school registration can have led to the All-Ireland champions having to withdraw from the Super League at such a late stage.
McCotter said: “Rules are rules, of course, and everyone accepts that. But to have played all season and to be in contention for the league title and then have it taken away because of a rule like that is just gut-wrenching.
“It is my intention, as a member of Basketball Ireland’s Men’s National Competitions Committee (MNCC), to make sure that this rule is gone — not just because of what has happened to us but for every other club out there also.”
In Dublin, Chairman of the MNCC Gerry Kelly admitted he was surprised that the ineligibility had only come to light at this stage.
“It is something that Basketball Ireland will have to ask ourselves,” he said.
“However, the actions of Belfast Star in acknowledging the error and withdrawing from the League is a measure of the integrity demonstrated by the club and the respect it has earned over their almost 60 years in existence and over 40 years in the National League.”
The Irish Super League playoffs begin this weekend.