Cork’s Orla O’Reilly is now in her third year as a professional basketballer. Here she tells me why this season has been her best to-date in the top Spanish tier
MENTAL toughness is to physical as four is to one, the legendary coach Bobby Knight once said.
One of college basketball’s most successful and innovative coaches in the US, his words have meaning.
For Ireland’s second best female basketball export ever, Cork’s Orla O’Reilly (Tullamore’s Susan Moran being the first having played in the WNBA), mental toughness and physical peak rings true more than ever in this her third season playing professional ball overseas.
Having excelled on scholarship at Binghamton University in New York, the Blackrock woman began her pro career in the Czech Republic with BK Lokomotiva Karlovy Vary in 2012 before a knee injury saw her return home early.
The following summer at a coaching camp for elite athletes in Spain, O’Reilly — the younger sister of Blue Demons’ player-coach Colin — was spotted by Antonio ‘Chiqui’ Barros of Division One side CB Bembibre.
Barros knew he had to sign her just for her raw athleticism, but in this her second season, he’s seen her raise her game to a whole new level.
24 first-half points in a game against top side Gernika — with whom former Cork-based basketballer Rachael Vanderwal now stomps the hardwood — just shows how much her progression has exploded.
While at home for Christmas and coaching at the innovative Triple Threat Basketball Camp in Killarney, O’Reilly took a session with former Irish and UL Huskies coach James Weldon.
He too was blown away with how far the 23-year-old had come in the last 12 months.
O’Reilly says it’s down to, what Knight called, mental toughness.
“Some times as a pro because you’re training all the time, you can actually get a little bit lazy and let things slip and your coach might let it go because you’re training so much. But, mentally right now, it’s definitely one of the biggest improvements I’ve made in the last year, and it’s another reason I think why my game has improved.
“The thing for me was that I’d, not lose focus, but I wouldn’t have the focus to be 100% engaged in every single possession and I tended at times to just go through the motions. I’d give into that but you can’t let your mind wander.
“I’ve got a lot better too at being able to push myself for every workout, every game and every possession, and just push past my limits.”
And here’s the link between that mental toughness that Knight spoke about and the physical side of the game.
“I thought my fitness was ok, but I figured out last summer how far I could push myself and I pushed way past what I thought I could, so now I’m like ‘ok how much further can I go?’
“I’ve always been the person or type of player who will work hard on something to get better. I don’t need to be pushed by a coach to want to improve. I just do it. But training twice a day, everything is hard work, it’s never easy.
“I’ve a lot of areas I want to work on. Right now I’m a tall player
(6ft 1”) and for a guard that’s pretty decent, but I want to work on being able to post up and have that be one of my go-to ways of scoring.
“If I got that down, it would be handy,” she smiles.
Apart from pushing herself to new limits, both physically and mentally, O’Reilly also challenged herself away from the rafters and the dusty smell that fills the likes of Gurranabraher’s Parochial Hall on August evenings in pre-season.
Having taken Spanish classes in her first year, she opted to instead fill her down-time with learning the language from a book last summer. An hour or two a day, to have the courtesy to speak to the club’s president and the Mercia town (a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Madrid) mayor in their native tongue.
That’s how well O’Reilly’s parents, Anne and Tony, have brought her up.
“The difference between this year and last year is huge for me because I know the people, I know the language, the town. I know exactly what my coach wants and how to play within his system.”
Now, in her second season with Bembiere, she’s the ‘mother hen’, leading the way for the club’s rookie American, and her roommate —
6ft 2” Ariel Edwards fresh out of division one college Penn State.
“Even though I’m two years older than her the difference between your first year as a pro and your third is huge so I’ve taken her under my wing,” she says of the former Tulsa Shock WNBA franchise training camp attendee.
O’Reilly — who learned her trade at Ursulines Blackrock and with Team Montenotte Glanmire — is one of three professionals, along with Edwards and Latvian Dita Liepkalne, but she says it’s the scoring variety in the side that has seen them feature in the top end of the table going five and eight into the second half of the season.
“We don’t really have a stand-out player. I think there’s about six people that average nine or 10 points a game, whereas with other teams they’d have just one go-to player, usually the American might get 20 points or so. But, honestly for us, any one player could be the star.
“The last game it might have been me, but it’ll be someone else the next night. Literally, we could have four different MVPs in four games.”
Unlike O’Reilly, Edwards and Liepkalne, the remaining squad are all Spanish and not professional, however, all are expected to attend every session.
The average week goes something like this: home game on Saturdays at 6pm, alternates every second weekend with away games; Monday night practice from 6.45-9pm; Tuesday from 11.30am to 1.30pm, then a second session from 6.45-9pm; then it’s two sessions again on Wednesday; Thursday morning off; Thursday night session; Friday, two sessions; and then it’s game day all over again.
Beyond the life of a pro then, what’s the plan?
“At the moment I can’t speak for the next few years especially with injuries. They can put a big dent in your plans pretty quick so I try not to think too much about the future.
“There’s a lot of ups and downs in playing professionally and especially in women’s sports where a lot of countries don’t have money in the sport, so
for me to be in a comfortable position and get paid every month, I’m happy in Spain.
“I’m happy with the people and the team, and I’m playing good basketball. I think it would be stupid to walk away from that.”