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How Belfast landed the biggest college hoops tourney on the other side of the Atlantic

Dominic Johnson and Brock Bertram of the Buffalo Bulls, celebrating during the first round last season's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, will be travelling to Northern Ireland for the Belfast Classic. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

BELFAST, United Kingdom -- A full-court pass away from the mighty shipyard where the Titanic once emerged, still fully intact, Gareth Maguire sits inside his office with plans to build a vessel that will steer clear of treacherous waters and remain assuredly afloat.

Once a single-minded shooting guard who made more appearances for Ireland's national basketball team than anyone else in history, he has spent much of the past decade constructing a foundation with a mission to use hoops and other ball games to bridge the deep chasms still dividing Northern Ireland, despite the peace accords that ended the bombings and brought a semblance of normality to his home city of Belfast.

Sport Changes Life looked across the Atlantic for an assist from voices who might tell inspirational stories and point to a world beyond a society used to hearing only echoes of its own.

"We created a scholarship program to originally bring over a couple of American students to the University of Ulster who could also play basketball and coach in the community," Maguire says. Now the imported contingent arriving on those Victory Scholarships numbers 34 and has moved beyond the court.

"We also have two golfers because Rory McIlroy is involved through his foundation," he adds. "But the discussions from that led us to partner with a lot of college conferences who said, 'If we can help you promote this, would you consider hosting a tournament in Ireland?'"

From an initial concept, to a false start, to a trial run with four visiting teams last winter, to now a full-blown NCAA-sanctioned college basketball tournament that will take place over three days, starting Thursday, at the 11,00-capacity SSE Arena.

Eight schools -- Marist, Dartmouth, LIU Brooklyn, Albany, Milwaukee, Buffalo. San Francisco and Stephen F. Austin -- have ventured across the pond for the 2018 Belfast Basketball Classic.

With 400 players and staff plus an estimated 2,500 alumni and fans jetting in, Maguire's compact crew has been hitting the streets to spread the word in a town more used to keeping its eye on the city's Ulster rugby side or the English Premier League.

Behind the scenes, on the operational side, small details count.

"There has been a challenge to make sure people understand how great college basketball is and how big this is," says event director Marc Mulholland.

"But the other thing for us is to make sure that every team which comes here gets what they expect. Making sure the floor is the same specification as they'd have in the U.S. That all the logistics are first-class. This is the only college tournament on this side of the Atlantic. That's a big compliment for us.

"What we have to make sure of is that when these eight coaches go back, and they are talking to coaches at Duke or North Carolina or wherever, they say Belfast was the kind of tournament you'd want to be involved in."

The total cost of the venture is about $1.8 million. Some of the finance is funneled through the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, one of the tournament's key allies, with a preceding series of games in the U.S. under the Classic's banner effectively fundraising the trip.

With Northern Ireland's government currently on a prolonged time-out due to an all-too-familiar political stand-off, it has forced organisers to chase every sponsorship dollar and pound available from the commercial sector to ensure this good ship does not run aground.

"Nobody expected us to pull it off," Maguire concedes with a grin. How did they manage to confound the sceptics? "A bit of madness. A lot of trust. Kissing a lot of frogs. We survived the first year. We're surviving Year 2 and we feel we're going to blossom in Years 3, 4 and 5."

Central to opening doors, he adds, has been the involvement of Rich Ensor, the commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, who has close ties with the Hall of Fame.

He journeyed to Belfast several years ago to see for himself where Maguire was placing American scholars, but conversation moved to how a previous tournament blueprint had hit the rocks. "I said, 'Let's try again,'" Ensor recalls.

The MAAC runs similar events elsewhere, but Belfast offers distinct opportunities. The NBA comes to the U.K. at least once each year. It has visibility. NCAA athletics, though? Not so much.

Hence, Ensor outlines: "There are a lot of benefits to expanding our game into other markets because it allows new media rights in different regions.

"You see efforts on the Pacific region, especially with the Pac-12 Conference and Ivy League in China. We focused on the United Kingdom because our schools have some ties there and with Ireland.

"I saw some benefit for our alumni and fans there. But as a conference, we're trying to build our brand. And I like running events, which is probably the biggest reason of all."

Competitive games will deliver audiences on CBS in the U.S. and the BBC, who are giving hoops a rare broadcast in the U.K. The Belfast Classic has caught a break with the inclusion of Buffalo, who are one spot outside the top 20 in the AP rankings. In reality, the crowd will be largely ignorant of who is who and will simply be asked to pick a jersey and cheer.

The teams will attempt to embrace whatever comes from the trip.

"My father's parents were born and raised in Ireland," reveals Marist head coach John Dunne, whose team opens up play against Dartmouth on Thursday (1630 GMT/1130 ET).

"But my dad was very private and never shared any of it and he's deceased now. So I didn't find out about it, which was fine when I was a kid but now I wish I'd asked more questions."

His squad, including three Europeans, will stay an extra day to see the sights and make some memories in the city, but only after the pursuit of victories is complete, Dunne underlines. "It's really like you want to enjoy it, but you want to win games. I'm taking a business approach going into the tournament."

This week is not all work and not all play. The eight squads will each conduct clinics in local schools as part of the tournament's outreach program with the head coach of the WNBA's New York Liberty and Hall of Famer Katie Smith among a handful of additional travellers flying over to enlarge the footprint.

"How many young people are going to be impacted by this tournament? We have no idea," Maguire admits. "We can't measure that impact. Just the tickets sales and everything else. But we will create a massive ripple to hopefully improve the prowess of basketball in Northern Ireland."

And to make small indents outside the arena. "Part of why the Sports Changes Life group works is that it shows kids they can advance their lives through education," Ensor says. "We've got kids of all races playing basketball and they play hard. But at the end they shake hands. It's an important message in Belfast."

Once the circus leaves town, there will still be fences to mend between the neighbouring Protestant and Catholic communities and old wounds to help heal.

A titanic task, too big for one basketball tournament. But the scholars will play on and keep chasing small victories, Maguire affirms.

"They are there to open the doors for a young person to open their mind, to better their lives. That's all we claim to do: to make young lives better."