(WTNH)–When 0-2 UConn travels to Los Angeles on Thursday for a suddenly non-guaranteed ‘guarantee game’, they’ll face a foe familiar to a lot of Connecticut fans.
The Lions are memorable not just because of Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble and their high-octane teams of the late ’80’s and early ’90s, but also because the best player they’ve had since the glory days—Anthony Ireland—comes from Waterbury.
Ireland, who played at Loyola Marymount from 2010-14, is one of five players in LMU history to score 2,000 points, with the other four all benefitting from legendary coach Paul Westhead’s record-breaking offense.
He’s also one of the best players ever to come out of Crosby High School.
The 5-10, 180-pound guard led the Bulldogs to a state title as a junior in 2009, averaging 29.2 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds per game. As a senior, he led Crosby back to the state title game, and took home state Gatorade Player of the Year honors. These days, Ireland is in Poland, where he’s balling for Trefl Sopot in one of the best leagues in the Europe.
After spending time playing in France and Greece since graduating LMU, he says his dream is still to make an NBA roster, and he thinks it’s attainable.
“The NBA has scouts everywhere,” Ireland said. “All you have to do is just perform. If I handle my business and perform how I’m supposed to, anything can happen.”
Six games into this season, the 25-year-old is averaging 16.2 points and 6.2 assists per game. He’s in the second year of a two-year contract, and says that in another two years, he plans to be in the NBA.
“My goal is to just continue to prove myself and make the most out of the opportunity. By the time I’m 27, 28, I feel like the NBA will come and I’ll get the opportunity to show what I can do at that level.”
For now, he’s learning what he can from each stop in Europe, from France, where he says the game was more about athletes and transition buckets, to Greece, where coaches would micro-manage every possession and call set plays every time down the floor. In Poland, Ireland says the game is more physical. The differing styles have helped him become a more well-rounded player.
“I’m learning each step,” Ireland said. “I think this is the year that I finally put things together mentally and physically. My coach believes in me, and I’m kind of in a flow where I just feel good out there. I’m just in a good place right now, I’m playing well.”
Ireland said he looks up to other guards like Malcolm Delaney and Bobby Brown, who spent time overseas before finding their niche in the NBA. He says he’ll play in the NBA Summer League next year, and hopes he’ll earn a serious look after that.
“I watch NBA games and I look at backup point guards and third-string point guards, and I think I can easily fit in,” Ireland said. “I think I could do well in a lot of systems in the NBA. It’s all about the opportunity. A lot of teams need help, a lot of teams have that star point guard, but they don’t have that backup they need.”
As with any other type of job, Ireland says connections matter in basketball.
Brown, who went to Cal State-Fullerton near L.A., was able to land a spot with the Houston Rockets thanks in part to his connection to James Harden.
Ireland says one of his connections is fellow Waterbury native Ryan Gomes, who became an All-American at Providence College and spent nine years in the NBA. Gomes is now an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets.
Gomes, a former Wilby star, used to invite Ireland to games and over for dinner when he was at LMU and Gomes was with the L.A. Clippers. The two would even work out together in Waterbury in the offseason.
Ireland’s agent is based in L.A., so he’s also got connections there. His name won’t fade from the basketball business anytime soon.
Ireland also keeps in touch with other Waterbury guys like B.J. Monteiro (who’s now in France), and Mustapha Heron (a freshman at Auburn), and hopes to be someone younger players from the area can look up to.
Of course, they should know that playing professional basketball overseas isn’t exactly an easy career choice.
There’s the language barrier— “I miss just having a normal conversation where somebody is able to understand what I’m saying and I understand what they’re saying,” he said.
The alone time—“Lots of alone time.”
And the pressure to perform— “As an American, if you have 3-4 bad games, your clock is ticking.”
But Ireland is enjoying every second of game time his gritty, natural-scoring game has earned him.
“The road definitely isn’t easy, but I’ve enjoyed it every step of the way,” he said.
Good thing he won’t be on the court in L.A. on Thursday night.