John Burke grew up in Ireland, but when he was there last week a funny observation came to him.
“I never realized there were so many sheep in Ireland,” the Truman girls’ basketball coach said with a laugh.
That’s because from the moment he and his players got off the plane, that’s all the Mustangs wanted to talk about. And how green the grass was. And how Irish people are able to eat so many potatoes.
The nine-day trip, during spring break, was an incredible learning experience for Truman – and not just because the players have never seen sheep grazing in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. They stayed with basketball players from St. Mary’s College HS in Naas, County Kildare, Burke’s hometown, visited ancient castles and got to play some hoops, too.
“It was very special for everybody,” Burke said.
The team from St. Mary’s came to New York City last year and Burke and his girls took them on a tour of Manhattan. The Irish players returned the favor this year. In order to make the trip, the Mustangs had to raise money and, with the support of principal Sana Nasser, they sold more than $16,000 worth of CapriSun juice drinks and Pop Tarts to their fellow students to do it.
It paid for the trip and even allowed for some spending money, too. When Burke gave his players 20 Euros each, they looked at him with wide eyes.
“They thought I was giving them Monopoly money or something,” the coach joked.
This kind of trip was right up Burke’s alley – and not just because he’s from Ireland. The former player at Hofstra and Long Island University is very much into the academic side of things and the experience of exploring a foreign country might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for his players. Most of them, Burke said, have never been out of New York City. Seeing the centuries-old castles and architecture is something that really stood out.
“As Americans, you wouldn’t see structures that are more than 100 or so years old,” Burke said.
Truman has five players who will attend college next year. Senior Kaydine Bent, the team’s star forward, “has her heart set on St. Peter’s,” Burke said, but needs to improve her SAT score in order to qualify. Point guard Sajidah Pressley has an art scholarship to CCNY, Terri Ann Nelson has a full academic scholarship to Fordham and Isatou Kujabi will attend SUNY Buffalo. Samantha Gillman, an underrated, 6-foot-2 forward with perimeter skills, is college ready, Burke said, but might attend a junior college to improve her stock.
“There’s a big emphasis on academics,” the coach said.
Burke said he’s going to try and make the trip to Ireland happen every four years – so all of the players who come through his program experience it.
“It was like,” he said, “being a kid again myself.”