It was nearly midnight as Tom Wogan turned his mini to take the bend at Castle Hill. Beside him in the front was his girlfriend Mary Tobin and in the back was Biz Houghton.
They were on their way back from a long weekend in Cork but they were far from exhausted. Even as they neared the end of a three-and-a-half-hour car journey, they felt euphoric inside. Outside, the night was illuminated by a strange light coming from the direction of their destination. Casteldermot was ablaze and it took a few moments for the passengers inside Tom Wogan’s mini to realise that they had set the town on fire.
“What’s going on down there?” Mary asked her boyfriend.
“OH MY GOD IT’S FOR US,” she screamed before Tom had a chance to answer.
He pulled the mini in off the road to give the girls a chance to compose themselves. His girlfriend was quiet by nature but right now she kept screaming and chanting along with Biz. In the distance there was a bonfire and it seemed like the whole town was gathered around it.
But this wasn’t Halloween. It was a Sunday night, 31 January 1988, and a tiny corner of Co Kildare had come out to celebrate the greatest sporting success the place had ever known.
If a 6’2 American woman arrived here to play basketball you’d assume she’d come to the wrong place. Kildare is as far from basketball country as Ireland is from the state of Maine in the US of A. This county is named for thoroughbreds, not tall people who shoot hoops.
Yet in September 1986, Elizabeth (Biz) Houghton swapped university life in Boston and a serious college basketball career for oh so quiet Casteldermot and the chance to play for the Irish National Cup. The rural nature of her adopted home was no sea-change because her home town of Cape Elizabeth was pretty similar but it was like she had travelled through a time-machine on her way across the Atlantic. When she left the US, it was the middle of 1986 but by the time she woke up in her semi-d in Casteldermot, it felt like the middle of 1956.
“The TV didn’t come on until 3pm in the afternoon and it was a culture shock. I remember being quite lonely and depressed,” says Houghton, 25 years later. “I wasn’t quite courageous enough to get out and explore on my own and I didn’t really know how to do it – there was no public transportation, there was nothing in Casteldermot for me. I wasn’t a big pub-crawler. I was really like, what the hell am I going to do with myself?”
It didn’t help that her housemate, a teacher at the local secondary school, was as quiet as the town they lived in.
“She was excruciatingly shy,” says Houghton. “I had to work extremely hard to get her to engage and then she would go home every single weekend.”
Houghton was completely out of place.
For a few years in the 80s, basketball had risen from the school playground to become a sport with a major cult following. The biggest games of the year were attracting two and three thousand people. American players had just started to join the league – two allowed for each men’s team, one for the women’s – and a significant minority were captivated by the whole spectacle.
And, by one of those magical alignments of nature, a group of girls from south Kildare – who were totally enraptured by the game of basketball – had reached adulthood at the same time with the same insatiable appetite.
“We lived for sport,” says Paula O’Flaherty, who was one of the youngest players on the Castledermot side. “Boys took second place to sport even when we got to the age when we lost the younger girls to boys but we were like: ‘NO! I’m sorry, sport comes first.’
“I don’t know why that was. Basketball kept us sane, none of us were great scholars.”
At school they had been inspired by a PE teacher named Patsy Ryan, who hailed from Birr, Co Offaly. He was a man with ambition and he captured imaginations.
“He dreamed big. He had great ideas. There was no small-town mentality with him at all,” says O’Flaherty.
Armed with a rare group of like-minded players, Ryan had taken a school team and formed a club side that was competing at the second highest level in the country by the time Biz Houghton arrived. Ryan had already masterminded success in the Kilkenny and Midlands Leagues – necessary steps along the way to gaining promotion to Division 2 of the National League – at that stage and it was a statement of his intent that the club decided to draft a professional from the States for the ’86-’87 season. Inevitably, Houghton landed into Ryan’s kitchen the first night she spent on Irish soil although she had to bridge a strange barrier to get from Patsy’s sitting room to the dining table.
“My very first evening at Patsy Ryan’s house, he and his wife Helen were cooking dinner and I was watching Cheers on TV. He came into the room and he said:
‘Are you right Biz?’
“To an American that means are you alright, is everything okay.”
“He walked out of the room and came back a few seconds later with this mystified look on his face: ‘Oh my God, what have we done here, this woman is stupid.’
Ryan asked his new guest the same question again.
‘A-r-e y-o-u r-i-g-h-t Biz?’
‘YES. I’m fine thank you, REALLY I’m fine.’
And with that Biz sat down for her first taste of Irish potatoes.
Her first experience of Patsy Ryan the coach was no less confusing.
To her, a graduate of an elite college basketball programme, time meant something. So when Patsy told her training was at 6pm, Biz arrived at 5.45pm, ‘because that’s what you do, you get there and warm-up.’
“I would be standing at a black, locked doorway for half an hour. Patsy might come around at 6.15.”
This place, her new home, felt like it was 30 years behind the world she grew up in and now it dawned on her that she had to allow an extra 30 minutes as well.
If you were a girl interested in sport in the late ’70s, you were either lonely or limited and probably both. Camogie and ladies football were almost exotic they were so uncommon.
“It (basketball) was probably the only sport that was offered to women at the time,” says Paula O’Flaherty. “We started a ladies football team at some stage and the only reason we started it was because we missed hanging out together in summer-time. We had 10 players and we went out on the streets and grabbed five girls who did athletics or something just to make up a team.”
Thanks to the foresight of nuns and the enthusiasm of a priest, Castledermot was blessed with a basketball team.
“Fr Comer was the priest at the time in Casteldermot and he got the basketball club going,” says Mary Tobin (now Wogan), who left school in 1979. “Castledermot was only a dot on the map. When the Dublin teams played Casteldermot they thought they were going to be playing in a hay-barn. We were very lucky that the nuns had great foresight and we had the facilities.”
When Tobin was in fifth year, the school got a new PE teacher but Patsy Ryan’s arrival was a boon for the fledgling club. Through a little luck and lots of good timing, basketball was about to take off.
“There was nothing else to do,” says Tobin. “We just loved going down the three nights a week – if we could have gone down six nights a week we would.”
All of a sudden, like mushrooms sprouting, Casteldermot had a girls basketball team but they were far from an overnight success. The team started to take shape in the late 70s but it was a decade later before they captured a piece of the national stage.
The team began life in the Kilkenny league and then moved onto the midlands league. This was the breeding ground for any side with national league ambitions. Success in the midlands gave you a chance to try out for the Irish leagues. Castledermot won the tournament that gave them entry to the nationals.
“The more you played, the more you wanted to play better,” says Tobin. “Patsy (Ryan) was a great motivator and he always wanted to do better and he always thought ahead.”
It was 1984 by the time they had reached Division 2 of the National League. By now younger players like 19-year-old Paula O’Flaherty were beginning to come through but while the team knew each other inside out, it took more than instinct to succeed at the top level.
“It took a while to get used to the finer points of basketball like how not to foul,” says Tobin. “We all knew each other so say if I was going to pass to Paula, I’d know what pass to give her without even looking. When you played national league you had to play slightly more structured. It took us a while to get used to that.”
It wasn’t the only difficulty they faced. Having finished school, work had taken O’Flaherty to London which meant a mad dash to the airport every Friday afternoon to get home for games. At Prudential Assurance, once you were there when you were supposed to be there, no one was bothered about what you got up to in your spare time.
“You could do flexi-time in London – work up a couple of extra hours during the week and then get away early on a Friday. From September to Christmas I used to fly from Gatwick to Dublin and Patsy Ryan used to pick me up in Dublin. We’d train on a Friday night and before the match on a Saturday, play the match and fly back on Sunday night. I was 19 at the time. I was staying with a girl from Castledermot who was training to be a nurse and she was mad into sport as well – she’d be gone to athletics.”
Her £65 return flight with Dan Air took its toll after a while and O’Flaherty packed it in after Christmas. By the time Castledermot were winning promotion to Division 1 of the National League in 1987, O’Flaherty was working in Dublin and an American had flown in to join the team.
“There was a process that you applied to have an American come to your club,” says O’Flaherty. “You put in a criteria for who you wanted – our number one criteria was somebody tall. Height was what we needed because I was 5’8, Ita (Tobin) would have been our only player taller than that (5’11).”
And so began the trip of a lifetime for Biz Houghton.
Biz Houghton is on her way to an alumni game with Boston College, the university she graduated from in the mid-80s. It’s early on a Sunday morning in January, 2013 and her energy pierces the air across a transatlantic phone call.
“I’m very excited. It conjures up a bunch of memories that you wouldn’t think still exist 25 years later,” she says before recounting her amazing story to an Irish stranger.
“I was a year out of college and I was really eager to stop playing basketball because it was pretty intense so I went right into teaching. After a little while I started to play with the men at the school where I taught – some of the men were like, ‘why the hell aren’t you playing basketball still?’ I said, ‘I’m tired of basketball. It took a lot out of me in college.’ They said I should play.”
That conversation in 1985 got the ball rolling.
“I started thinking about it and I got an agent and the agent put me in touch with a few teams. I spoke with a former opponent of mine who was playing in Ireland and she said it was wonderful, it’s a beautiful country, the people are so great and it’s decent basketball. She connected me with Patsy Ryan and the rest is history.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, Castledermot were simply looking for a tall person. They ended up with someone who would enrich their lives more than they could have ever imagined while Biz became the biggest celebrity the town had ever known. Certainly the tallest.
“Biz was total, total novelty. We couldn’t get her a man – there was no man tall enough. They were all afraid of her,” says Paula O’Flaherty. “They loved her, she was a great character. She really was embraced by the whole community, everybody knew her.”
And yet the first three months was probably the toughest time of Houghton’s life. Few friends, no social life and nothing but basketball each week left her feeling lonely and isolated.
“Within those first three months I felt like going home. I was homesick. A friend of mine came to visit me in Ireland and she could not believe what I was adjusting to as far as lifestyle and simplicity of living. The fact that there was a very slow pace, I did a lot of sitting around and reading and she couldn’t believe that. It felt like going back in time by about 30 or 40 years.”
Without anyone else realising it, all that natural energy and enthusiasm was being drained from Houghton and it got to the point where she was staying in bed half the day. The turning point came when Tom Wogan, Mary Tobin’s then boyfriend (now husband), called over one day.
“It was 12.30pm and I was still in my pyjamas. Tom Wogan just stepped in and took over. He took me all over the countryside, he took me to the JFK memorial. Tom got to know me and he could say this is no one to be afraid of. She’s not some, scary American, stereotypical, full of herself.”
Houghton got a bicycle and started to get out and about. She began to fill up her days by coaching in the schools while her friendships with teammates blossomed to the extent that she spent Christmas with Martha Kenny’s aunt.
“Coaching a lot of the school teams helped because I got to know the kids in town and some of the nuns. Just as I started to get comfortable, I would go out more and visit people. I think the girls, as they got to know, would go out of their way to help me and ask me over for dinner. People started to see me as one of their own.”
It took time to adjust to things on the court as well because playing for Boston College (BC) was one thing, playing for the local PE teacher was quite another.
“I taught him an offense that we were running at BC. I showed it to him and he couldn’t wrap his head around it so we went right back to the improvise offense,” says Houghton of her attempts to educate her new coach, Patsy Ryan. “It was hard to go from a very structured, very regimental programme at BC to go to a place that was back in time as far as their basketball knowledge. We made it up as we went along.”
Playing off the cuff yielded results all the same. In Houghton’s first season, ’86-’87, Castledermot won promotion to Division 1 and reached the semi-finals of the Cup. They were going places.
“We drove the length and breadth of the country,” says O’Flaherty. “We’d play our match and it could be in Oughterard in Galway – 1am we’d all head for home. In ’88 the quarter-final was in Ballina in Mayo – I think we had to set out for that on St Stephen’s Day. God we travelled everywhere – whoever had a car at the time, whoever had a boyfriend who had a car was drafted in.”
With their American fully acclimatised, Castledermot began their first season in Division 1 of the National League when Biz returned after spending the summer of 1987 at home in the States. Although the previous season had been a success, they had tasted defeat in the semi-finals of the cup and the bad taste lingered.
“We were beaten after extra-time by a point so we knew what it was like to lose and we had such a desire,” says Mary Tobin.
“We were a bit shell-shocked at the whole thing,” says O’Flaherty of the ’87 semi. “The next year we played Wildcats from Waterford in the semi-final and they were shell-shocked by the whole occasion. We got them on the hop.”
Just like that, Casteldermot found themselves in a national final, playing in front of a full house at the iconic Neptune Stadium in Cork. They were the biggest outsiders you could imagine going in to play against a Lee Strand team from Tralee that was littered with international players.
“I think Lee Strand just thought all they needed to do was just turn up,” says O’Flaherty and who could have blamed them with their handful of Irish players as well as their American star. They were playing a team of unknowns from a place that, as Mary Tobin describes, ‘was only a dot on the map.’
And yet Biz Houghton felt a sense of destiny about the game despite their underdog status.
“There was no way we were going to lose that game the way we were playing. It was probably the one game in my entire career, and I played a lot of basketball, where I knew that we were going to win. ” she says, recounting the final like it was yesterday.
“I remember we had a one-point lead and they had possession with 10 seconds to go. I remember someone stealing the ball, passing it to Martina Kenny and all she had to do was hold onto it and the game was over but she just nonchalantly took it to the basket and made a lay-up and we all went crazy.”
Castledermot, having travelled with three busloads of supporters, had captured the imagination of every neutral in the stadium. They had beaten the favourites 63-60 in a way that underdogs rarely do: they held on.
“It was like nothing else I’ve experienced since,” says Mary Tobin. “It was just… WOW, we’ve done it. We’ve climbed a mountain, we’re here.”
Tobin’s parents, who had never been to a match before in their lives, had travelled down for the final and it was chaos when the game ended.
“I think I played the entire game without a sub. I was exhausted and we were in a pile of screaming women jumping up and down and I remember thinking, if I jump up and down another second I’m going to pass out,” remembers Houghton.
“I think I had a Casteldermot flag over my shoulders and I was just breathing so I wouldn’t pass out. There was a lot of people there who had never seen either team play but they just wanted us to win and you could just feel that. When we won, it was emotional. I remember this photo of me holding the trophy up high. I remember feeling like I had the paparazzi around me.”
When the crowd subsided, the players stayed to watch the men’s final and around 8pm they made for home. They had never been so high and they would never see such scenes as the ones that greeted them back in Casteldermot.
“They had banners out, they had a tractor and trailer waiting for us and it was like, my God we’ve really come home. The local parish priest and politicians came out which was unheard of for a basketball team,” says Tobin.
“I was with the cup in the back seat of Tom Wogan’s mini,” Biz recalls. “We were just flying high the entire ride back. We were on the back of a lorry at one point. We went through the town and people were cheering for us and of course it ended at a pub where we filled the cup with whiskey and even those who didn’t drink had a sip from the cup – that was a fun feeling.”
Mary Tobin, like Biz after the game, was struggling to draw breath.
“It was surreal, it just took your breath away and then you just enjoyed the moment. It was just lovely.”
If only they could have stayed in that moment at top of Castle Hill, looking down upon that blazing bonfire. Time, inevitably, marches on and by the end of the ’87/’88 season it was time for Biz to bid farewell.
“I remember leaving and it makes me teary to this day. There was probably a ring of 20 people around me and I was giving them hugs and I was hysterical, I was so sad. I was embraced by these people and they were my family and now I was leaving and not knowing if I’d ever see them again.”
Her emotions were tempered slightly by the presence of two friends for the flight home. Mary Wogan had just recently become Mary Tobin so herself and husband Tom accompanied Biz across the Atlantic for a unique honeymoon.
“It’s not many people who can say I’ve never been married but I’ve been on a honeymoon,” says Houghton 25 years later. For three weeks she toured her Irish friends around her country and cemented a friendship that is secure to this day.
“Biz finished up in March with the club but stayed on in Ireland for an extra two months at her own expense to stay for our wedding. We got married on 14 May,” the current Mrs Wogan explains.
They’ve reunited a few times since and today they keep in contact through Skype. This summer, Biz hopes to meet up with her old teammates again. Her life has been nothing less than interesting since she left Castledermot.
In 1995, she took a job as a tutor to the children of the King of Jordan, where she lived like a princess in her own apartment and travelled on the royal family’s private jet. She spent three years in that role and today she runs her own educational business in Freeport, Maine – Stars Learning Cooperative.
“I like the motto, bloom where you’re planted,” she says, reflecting on a life less ordinary. “If you happen to be planted in a palace you make it work. And if you happen to be planted in a teeny town in Kildare you make it work.”
That bloom will never be forgotten.