Aidan O'Shea: 'Basketball was a totally different buzz'
By John Harrington
Aidan O’Shea’s love of Gaelic Football has always been evident in the way he plays the game.
By the time they are adults, many footballers have had their youthful flair coached out of them by prescriptive drills and cautious managers.
But what makes O’Shea so watchable is that he’ll regularly try something audacious rather than go for the percentage option.
Like a kid in a training game, the reason he does those things is because he’s fuelled by the pure joy of executing a dramatic moment of skill.
That’s what sport should always be about, but by the end of the last year even O’Shea was struggling to find the joy in Gaelic Football.
In fairness, you could hardly blame him. In the space of a few weeks he lost an All-Ireland Final for the third time as a Mayo player, and then his club Breaffy fell flat against Knockmore in the county semi-final.
O’Shea’s reaction to those set-backs says a lot about his mindset when it comes to sport.
Instead of taking a total break from it, he decided the best therapy possible would be to find the joy elsewhere – by joining National League Division One basketball team, EJ’s Sligo All-Stars.
Playing for fun seemed like just the tonic after weeks of performing under pressure for much of the year.
“Yeah, I think so, and I poured a bit of energy into the club scene afterwards and obviously trying to bridge a gap there too,” says O’Shea.
“That ended very disappointingly and was just kind of, I won't say sick of it because I'm never sick of Gaelic football but just wanted to put the gear away for a while and try something different.
“Just going down, it was a totally different buzz. Anyone that goes to a basketball game, there's music blaring, kids running around, jumping around and having craic. It's just totally different and it kind of brought back a bit of my youth to me."
“I really enjoyed it and just looked forward to the hour, two hour round trip to Sligo. It never bothered me, I loved it.”
Playing basketball wasn’t a totally spur of the moment decision for O’Shea, it’s always been part of his life to some extent.
He played elite level schools basketball and featured on a number of Ireland underage teams alongside players like Paul Dick, who currently plays professional basketball in Spain.
He’s a huge fan of the sport too and tries to get to an NBA match or two every year if he can. So for him deciding to join the All-Stars was simply a way of indulging a passion.
“Something people said to me is it a strategic decision around bettering yourself as a footballer. Not at all it was just simply purely an enjoyment thing,” he says.
“I love playing basketball, I love watching basketball, I played a huge amount when I was a young fella.
“I don't declare to be unbelievable at it or anything like that. That was the premise I went up on, zero expectation, just love to play, love to shoot around with those guys. I'll do whatever you want me to do.
“They were like, 'great to have you, happy days'. It just went from there. Then after a couple of sessions, they were like you're better than we thought you'd be. They were like, 'do you want to play this weekend? do you want to register?'.
“I said sure you might as well register me and then all of a sudden it was all over the paper. The people were ringing me, going what's this all about? I just said register me, that's all I said! But then i just got to play a few games, I probably played 5 or 6 in the end.
“The boys, they're a really talented group so I was just happy to contribute in any way, shape or form.”
O’Shea’s time with the All-Stars ended prematurely when he suffered an ankle injury, but he has plans to join up with them again later this year once Mayo’s championship campaign has run its course.
"I'd like to go back and play again,” he says. “It all depends on the club - hopefully that goes well and that takes priority. They're a really good up-and-coming club. There are some really good kids there and, when I say kids, they're 17/18/19 and they're really, really talented.
"I'd love to go back and mess around with them again - I'm messing around, they're taking it super serious. But I will definitely be going back down again in whatever capacity - I'd just love to be playing again in the winter.
"They're only young guys and still physically developing. They're very good around the perimeter but probably don't have huge physicality in their team.
“It helps that Mother Nature has me at 6'4 and just shy of 16 stone. So you throw that into the equation, you're going to throw down a few rebounds and box out a few guys.
"So [my role] is just basically to pull down rebounds, pass it out to the outlet, get up and down the court, work hard - similar to what I do in Gaelic Football, I think."
Gaelic Football, of course, remains his sporting priority. Basketball helped salve the disappointment of last year’s All-Ireland defeat to Dublin, but the wound still stings.
“I think probably the fact that there's three of them now,” he says. “That's three we've lost, I'm now 26, 27 this year, and I suppose it's the fact that you're getting a bit older.
“Time starts to play on your mind. When you're younger, you're thinking these things come ever year, there's no problem we'll get one.
“I suppose that maybe plays on your mind a little bit more. But look yeah it was difficult.”
It’s easy to forget that O’Shea is still only 26 because he’s been an inter-county footballer for so long.
This will be his ninth season, and as much as it feels like a long time ago since he made his debut as a teenager against New York in the 2009 Connacht Championship, the memories of that day haven’t dimmed for him.
"Concrete jungle. I remember it well,” says O’Shea. “I remember my mother didn't want me to go because I was doing my Leaving Cert but thankfully my father talked her around and I went out a day later than everybody else - not that it made any difference to my Leaving Cert.
"It was magic to be honest. There was no way I was going to miss the chance of making your debut in New York.
"When you're 18 and you're in school and you've been told that you're going to make your debut in New York for Mayo, life was good.
"I had a friend who has since passed away who was actually at the game and she did a booklet up of me - she followed me around for the few days and I have a booklet at home for my debut so it's kind of cool."
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since he made his debut and he’s experienced both good days and bad in the Mayo jersey in the intervening years.
If he could go back in time and give that 18-year-old any advice with the benefit of some hard lessons learned, what would it be?
"It's all part of the journey - anything that I learned, I think it's for a reason. I’ve enjoyed the nine years [with Mayo so far] and hopefully there are another six or seven anyway.
"We've had a lot of long summers - and long winters too. Growing up as an innocent young fella, I was probably expecting that this [success] was just going to happen.
“Unfortunately, I'm still here at 26 and it hasn't changed but we're moving the right way, we're doing the right things.
“We've gotten to the latter stages for a reason and I think we're capable of finishing off the job - we just need to get it done."