- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Perhaps one day, basketball in Great Britain will become a presence on the international stage. Maybe it will create a source of national pride and provide a diversion from the endless machinations of the royal family.

That possibility is mostly in the hands of a former Division III player from the colonies — a would-be member of the Washington Generals.

Ohio-born, Pennsylvania-bred Chris Finch, once a big man at little Franklin & Marshall College, is rebuilding the previously dormant United Kingdom national team. By next year, the UK might be in position to qualify for a berth in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

That would be a jolly good show, indeed, considering those Games will be in London.

“Every once in awhile I think about what’s at stake here,” Finch said in a telephone interview from England. “It’s never far from my mind. I kind of remind the players what we’re doing, even if those players or myself are not here, for whatever reason.”

The truth is, Finch prefers to be in the United States when 2012 rolls around. The reason would be a stateside coaching opportunity. The 36-year-old is a hoops expatriate who went to Europe after college to play and then coach. Although the experience has been educational and enlightening, he is ready to return.

“Without a doubt, my goal is to get back,” said Finch, who married a Chicago woman he met at the Final Four in San Antonio in 2004.

Finch’s day job is coaching the Bree team in Belgium. This is his third season. Previously, he coached in Sheffield, England, for six years and a season in Germany.

“I love it over here,” he said. “I love my lifestyle, the community I work in. But it’s still not home. I miss being home. It’s fun to be in your own basketball environment.”

Because of his success in Belguim and in Sheffield, where he also played after graduating from college, Finch was handed a program mostly invisible internationally. The last time a British team competed in the Olympics was 1948 — in London. England fell short in 1980 under another American coach, Norm Sloan.

Recently, the program was disbanded for a couple of years, and there were funding controversies. One positive result of that turmoil is rather than competing separately, England, Scotland and Wales now form a single, united team, with Finch in charge.

“Chris Finch was the best candidate,” said Radmila Turner, a former member of the Bulgarian national women’s team who is now England Basketball’s High Performance Manager. “He had extensive knowledge of the European game. He also had very good knowledge of the British players. And he has a very good record as far as setting up successful programs.”

But Finch’s biggest challenge is building a solid foundation that will last even if he does not.

“My goals are to instill professionalism in the program so word spreads that it’s a good place to be, put the building blocks in place and not be flat on our backs in Year 1,” he said.

Here in Year 1, British basketball is on its feet, albeit a bit wobbly. But Finch and company won’t know until next year how tall the program really stands.

The United Kingdom must play its way out of FIBA’s Group B and join the big boys in Group A to even try to qualify for the Olympics. To do that, it needs to win its four-team group in the Eurobasket tournament — eight games spread over two years. In the four games just completed, Finch’s squad went 2-2. The final game was a one-point loss to Belarus on Saturday.

On Sunday, Finch kicked back in front of the television and watched his Philadelphia Eagles blow a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead and lose to the New York Giants in overtime.

“I told my wife, ‘Isn’t this fitting?,’” he said. “But it was nice to be back in my place chilling out, doing a few American things.”

The United Kingdom now might have to win all four games next year to advance to Group A.

“We still have a chance to go through,” Finch said. “We’re only a game off the pace. It doesn’t scare me.”

Finch is confident because he expects to have a new, improved team by 2007. He said seven “automatic selections” were missing this year for various reasons. He had to cobble together a patchwork team that included 39-year-old Roger Huggins, who is three years older than his coach. Finch hopes to have some or all of the missing players back next year. Included in that group are Luol Deng and Ben Gordon of the Chicago Bulls, former George Washington star Pops Mensah-Bonsu and ex-Illinois player Robert Archibald.

“I don’t see the other teams being able to improve their talent like we’ll be able to,” Finch said. “Even if we get half the guys back.”

Finch said Deng, whose family fled the civil war in Sudan and moved to England, wanted to play but could not travel because he lacks a passport.

“It’s simple,” Finch said. “He’s a refugee. It’s a long-winded passport application, which is taking longer than anticipated. In a post 9/11 world, getting a passport is tricky.”

Mensah-Bonsu also wanted in, but the free-agent signee of the Dallas Mavericks hurt his knee last season and does not have a contract that is guaranteed against further injury.

Finch had a brilliant playing career from 1988 to 1992 at Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, Pa. He started all four years for the Division III program and his teams went 105-14 under coach Glenn Robinson. A 6-foot-4 swingman, he was “pretty much a coach on the floor type,” Finch said of himself. He could pass, score, rebound and defend.

“I did a little bit of everything but nothing exceptionally well,” he said. “I loved to play defense. I loved the movement of the game.”

Said Robinson, who remains the coach at Franklin & Marshall after 35 years: “He was an absolutely terrific player. He’s still in the top 10 of every category we have. … But the most notable thing about him was his defense.”

Robinson noted that the year his top scorer, Will Lasky, earned All-American honors, Finch was voted team’s most valuable player.

“He was a real student of the game and an incredible competitor,” Robinson said. “Not only did he drive himself, but if anyone on the team wasn’t living up to expectations, it wasn’t surprising to see Chris get in his face.”

Lacking even a free-agent invitation from an NBA club, Finch was supposed to play for the Washington Generals, the perennial patsy of the Harlem Globetrotters. Just his luck, the Globetrotters went bankrupt. So, Finch went to England to play and had a nice career before taking over as coach.

“It took some getting used to, but I looked at it as an adventure,” he said. “I wasn’t intimidated by it, at all. Europe at the time was about 10 years behind the U.S., but it was interesting to be here when it was modernizing.”

Basketball also was modernizing in Europe. Finch has witnessed that first-hand, too. Today, the so-called “European game,” is being held up as a model of how, to some extent, the American game should be played. Just ask the U.S. national team, which recently lost to a supposedly undermanned Greek squad in the FIBA World Championship semifinal. More international players are playing in the NBA than ever before.

“It’s getting better and better because you have younger and younger players playing professionally,” said Finch, who recalls playing against a team from Wurzberg, Germany that featured 17-year-old Dirk Nowitzki. “They’re highly skilled and they’re going off to play for $100,000 a year. They prepare kids and they protect them. They let them come along at a decent pace.”

Finch’s knowledge of the international game and its players, plus his coaching experience, would seem to make him a likely candidate for a pro or college job in the U.S. There have been some nibbles and he has several contacts, including Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations Donn Nelson, but nothing significant has come his way. Networking has been a problem.

“I never really connected with the Division I market,” he said.

Nelson thinks it might be just a matter of time before Finch lands an NBA job.

“He’s great,” Nelson said. “He’s got all the pedigree. He’s got the resume. He’s got the package. More than anything, it’s not being known.”

But for now, Finch has his hands full in Europe, and he’s fine with that.

Besides, his continued overseas involvement can only help.

“The game is so global now,” he said. “That’s the great thing about this UK job. I get to see Albania’s best players, for what that’s worth.”

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