‘Big Shamrock’ helping put hoops on the map in Ireland
LARAMIE -- College basketball can only be seen on YouTube, unless you buy the high-dollar television packages. Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky are household names.
Wyoming, well, that could be soon, too.
The national stadium seats just around 3,000. Hoops is growing, but nowhere near the most popular sport. Not all high Schools recognize the game. Golf, rugby, hurling and Gaelic football -- those are the traditional past times.
So how does a kid from Ireland fall in love with the game of basketball?
Like most, it's passed down. The same can be said for the Cowboys' newest commit, Eoin Nelson.
"My cousin Sean," he said in a thick Irish accent Tuesday afternoon over a grainy Face Time feed from his home in Dublin. "He's the main reason I play basketball. When I was 16 years old, he told me to try out for a club team. He said if I didn't like it, I didn't have to stay.
"I fell in love with it."
Eoin, which is pronounced like the English name, Owen, was simply referred to as "O" during his lone season at Otero Junior College in LaJunta, Colorado.
Last season, the freshman appeared in 22 games for the Rattlers, averaging 6.3 points per game while sinking 58.7 percent of his shots. At 6-foot, 11-inches tall, Nelson said the biggest transition to the American game was the physicality -- or lack there of.
For a guy who played competitive rugby, he was ready to take on all comers. What he wasn't prepared for were the whistles.
"Back home, you could elbow someone and you wouldn't get charge call," he said. "It's more about finesse and not throwing your weight around."
Don't get him wrong, there will still be plenty of that. His goal is to be a dominating force in the paint. Foot speed is not a concern. Nelson said he probably runs the floor "better than any big man in the country." He credits that to rugby, hurling and soccer.
Now, he feels he has the foot work and shooting ability to be a complete player. He will need that to deal with the skill and speed of American players.
None of that blindsided him when he came to Otero in the fall of 2019. Instead, it was the "big" arena and love Americans have for sports.
"It took me by surprise," he said, adding that McDivitt Gym in LaJunta seats a "1,000-plus."
Nelson didn't know there were 350 Division-I teams. All he knows is he wanted to play for one of them.
Then, Jeff Linder called.
Wyoming's new basketball coach sold the big man on the facilities in Laramie, the history of the program and what his plans for the future are in the Mountain West Conference.
None of that did the trick, though Nelson admits he was in awe of virtual tour his coaches sent him on.
"It was the relationship he built with me," Nelson said. "As soon as he contacted me, he wasn't afraid to build a relationship and get to know who I was. He asked about how me and my family were doing. It was special."
Nelson, admittedly, doesn't know a lot about the Cowboy State. He laughed when he said he could point it out on a map. That's only because he lived in Colorado last year. He's also heard a rumor that Wyoming is windy.
Not inside the Arena-Auditorium it isn't.
Nelson just completed in in-house workout. The sweat stain around the collar of his gray shirt proves it was an effective one, too.
There's a seven-hour time difference between Dublin and Laramie. And like here, his city is basically on lock down because of the world-wide pandemic, COVID-19. There are 11,479 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Ireland. Dublin, the country's largest city, is feeling the brunt of that. More than 400 have died.
That has left Nelson inside his home and wondering when he will even begin to make plans for the 4,345-mile journey to Laramie.
Tomorrow, Nelson will digitally sign his name on the dotted line to become an official member of the University of Wyoming basketball team, joining four more Linder recruits: Xavier DuSell, Drake Jeffries, Drew LaMont and Marcus Williams.
He doesn't know what the process will be, but punching his computer keys into that contract will be the beginning of what he hopes to be three years of winning.
"Expect a lot," he said to the Wyoming fans, who he knows are starving for a winner again. "Expect a guy that's going to give 110 percent every game. I'm never going to give up. I'll battle to the last second, even if we are down 10. I'll bring energy and physicality. I'll bring my presence."
Maybe it's a good sign that Linder took over the program on St. Patrick's Day?
Nelson sure hopes so.
"I want to play at the highest level," he said. "In my opinion, that is the Mountain West Conference. I'm excited mostly about playing with my teammates, really. That's the main thing for me. I want to build relationships with them, compete together and win together."
Nelson chuckled when the question came up about how to pronounce his name. It's not the first time he's been asked. It won't be the last, he said.
What about a nickname?
Nelson smirked and told the story of a player on his national team wanting him to join his team. He thought Nelson's name was "Greg." The name stuck.
A friend suggested the name "Irish Hulk." He deferred to Aidan Harris Igiehon, a power forward from Dublin who plays at Louisville. Nelson said he earned that nickname.
How about the Big Shamrock?
"Hey, I don't mind that one bit," he laughed. "I'm in."
No matter what you want to call him, Nelson Wednesday will become just the 32nd Division-I player from Ireland. That's a source of pride.
"Basketball is growing over here," he said. "It's not big yet."
"Yet" is the key word.