In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Sports writer John Wagner talked with former St. John's Jesuit and Bowling Green State University basketball standout Jay Larranaga, who recently was named head coach of Ireland's national team.
Jay Larranaga has had a long and productive career as a basketball player at the high school, college and professional level.
But Larranaga's is about to take a new turn: earlier this month he was named coach of the Irish national team, making the 33-year-old the youngest active national coach on the planet.
Larranaga first hit the basketball spotlight at St. John's Jesuit, which posted an 84-19 record during his four years. He twice earned All-City League honors and, as a senior in 1992, led the Titans to the Division I state championship game, where they lost to Cincinnati Elder.
He finished his career as the Titans' all-time leading scorer with 1,387 points.a total that now ranks third. He remains the career leader in rebounds with 605 and is fourth all-time in assists with 260.
Larranaga played for his father, Jim, from 1993-97 at BGSU. Jay earned All-Mid-American Conference honorable mention as a senior, when he combined with Antonio Daniels to lead the Falcons to a 22-10 record and a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.
After his four years at BGSU Jay Larranaga ranked 17th on the all-time scoring list with 1,249 points. As a junior he tied the school record by connecting on 72 3-point shots.
He began a pro career in Europe that saw him play for teams in Italy, Greece, France and Spain. He helped lead FC Real Madrid to the 2005 Spanish League Championship, and the following year his SS Basket Napoli team won the 2006 Italian Cup.
He also earned a berth on the Irish national team, making more than 40 appearances with that squad and serving as its captain. In 2002 he was named the Irish men's international player of the year.
On Feb. 4, Larranaga was named coach of the senior Irish national team. He is playing an important role in a project called Emerald Hoops, which will bring Notre Dame and several national teams to Ireland for a tournament that Larranaga hopes will help develop the sport in his adopted homeland.
Larranaga and his wife, Andrea - a graduate of Anthony Wayne High School and BGSU - have two children, 5-year-old Tia and 2-year-old James.
"AFTER GRADUATING from college I didn't want my basketball career to end. I learned that my mother's father was born in Cork, Ireland, and the rule is that if you have a parent or grandparent of Irish descent you can become an Irish citizen. At the time in Europe it was an asset because there are limits to the number of Americans on a roster, and even though I am American I didn't count as an American.
"I've played in every major tourist city in Europe: Athens, Paris, Rome, Madrid. In fact, my agent always kids me by asking me if my wife or I have picked the teams I have played for. Paris and Rome are beautiful cities, but whenever my team lost we could have been in Siberia.
"It is somewhat like a college atmosphere, but the fans can be more extreme. The fans of teams in Europe love basketball, and they really want their teams to win. The other day, when we lost our game, the other players and I needed a police escort to get to our cars. Earlier in the year we had a bit of a losing streak, and some of the local fans came to one of our practices. They walked right onto the court because they wanted to tell us how important it was for us to win."
"I HAVE GREAT memories of my time at St. John's. I had a great four years there. I grew athletically in basketball, spiritually and educationally. Coach [Ed] Heintschel was a great teacher and coach, and he helped us with other stuff away from the court. I can't say enough about my time at St. John's.
"I also had a great college experience at Bowling Green. It's so close to Toledo, I think a lot of people don't realize what a great situation it is there. For me, Bowling Green is a great college town. Playing with Antonio Daniels, especially in his senior year before he got drafted [by the NBA], was special. And playing for my dad is something I'll always remember.
"Actually, playing for my dad did help prepare me for the pressure of playing in Europe. That was the greatest pressure I ever have felt in my life. There always was pressure to play well, because if we lost people would say I played badly and my dad was a terrible coach. But I have so many great memories of my time playing for my dad, spending time with him on road trips and practice and such. But the positive times are accentuated when you share them with the people who mean the most to you in your life."
"I WAS SO happy for my father [when he led George Mason to the Final Four in 2006]. I look at my father as someone who worked hard his whole life. He found a situation where a little bit of luck, a little bit of talent and a little bit of hard work came together and made for success. I think that run was a tribute to him not giving up. One of my dad's friends in coaching said that run gave hope to so many coaches, who have worked so hard at mid-major programs, at places where it's not easy to win. I really love and respect my dad."
"IN 2001 the head coach of the Irish national team asked me if I would be interested in playing. Soon after that I became the team captain. I had a great time playing on that team because it was a great group of guys. Last year I retired from that team because I felt my participation had run its course. Then the former coach retired, and Basketball Ireland [the national governing body of the sport] asked if I would have any interest in becoming the coach. When I retired I told them to ask me if they ever needed anything because I felt I owed a debt to them."
"IT'S NOT A FULL-TIME job, but I'm just starting to get my feet wet. I've been doing everything: contacting people who have played in past years, contacting potential sponsors, things like that. We're in the process of identifying who could play on the team - for example, Mike Dunleavy has a grandfather from Ireland - and trying to identify Euros who have Irish citizenship."
"I'm very excited about the Emerald Hoops program, which will take place in August. Basketball in Ireland is comparable to soccer in the United States. In terms of youth participation basketball ranks third in Ireland in popularity, but in terms of participation it only ranks 15th. The pro league in Ireland is more semi-pro, and other sports such as soccer and Gaelic sports are more popular. We're trying to think of ways to make the sport more popular, something people in Ireland want to watch and support when they're older."