Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Finger Put His Stamp On Rookie Season In Norway

In Taj Finger's fifth grade yearbook, "future geologist" is printed below his name, photo, and middle school graduation class.

"I used to have a great rock collection," recalls Finger, smiling the same impish smile he sported as the towering face of the Fox Lane basketball program in the early 2000s.

Most of Finger's then-classmates chose professions that included "movie star," "lead singer in a rock band," and "basketball player."

Finger will certainly have time to pursue a career as a geologist, but not after his professional basketball career is over with.

As Finger grew older and developed a superior basketball skill-set, the dream became more and more attainable.

Becoming more adept in all categories of his game, utilizing his wiry and Pippen-long arms in the post as effectively as his soft touch from 18-20 feet and surprising handle, Finger worked his way into one of Westchester's elite.

 At the time, there was Division-I talent sprinked across the county with Keith Benjamin (Mount Vernon/Pitt), Dexter Gray (Mount Vernon/St.John's), Chris Lowe (Mount Vernon/UMass), Geoff McDermott (New Rochelle/Providence), Quentin Martin (White Plains/St. Peter's), Jamie Procino (Yorktown/WestConn), and Dan Gumb (JFK/Roger Williams).

During a commendable four-year stay at Fox Lane, Finger was a walking double-double who sacrificed personal totals for the betterment of a team which played 6-7 guys comfortable.

 The 6-foot-9 forward made a concentrated effort to make his teammates better, firing in high-low passes and kicking out of the double team. With the right mix of versatility and agility, he even ran the point.

Captained by Finger, Fox Lane captured the Section I/Class A crown that magical winter of 2004.

Known among the Section I/New York State hoop masses, Finger was described as a surefire Division-I prospect camoflouged as a role player.

 He penned with Stanford prior to the season.

While Finger didn't leave the same type of lasting legacy at Stanford--where he spent four years as a role player capitulating to the likes of Robin and Brook Lopez--he helped steer the big Cardinal bus deep into the NCAA tournament his senior year.

Now a professional in the Northern European country of Norway, a nation under a constitutional monarchy, Finger has embraced his role as ago-to-guy.

The onus has been on Finger to bust out that stepback or score aggressively in the paint, and he's been using the backboard on those short-range jumpers more than ever.

Becoming stronger, he's dealt with marking up the opposing team's most prolific scorer.

He's subscribed to thw rim protection role by changing, manipulating, and altering the trajectory of shots in the paint.

More than he ever did at the high school level, Finger has torn down rebounds and battled for supremacy downlow.

Finger averaged 18 points and 11 boards for the Tromso Storm, a team that sells around 3,000 tickets per game.

Those numbers are impressive for a first-year pro, albeit the country of just four million people contains a miniscule basketball market.

"Norway was great, but I am hoping to move on to a better league, wherever that might be in Europe," said Finger, a high honor roll student at Fox Lane.

"For me, it's all about baby steps. Playing well and moving on up."

Finger and the Storm moved on up to the league's high-rent district this season, after playing a dud-filled schedule with plenty of cupcake games prior to his arrival.

Tromso captured the regular season title and advanced all the way to the league's championship game.

 On the biggest stage, the Storm suffered a heartbreaking three-point overtime loss.

Finger was discouraged, albeit no sleep was lost over it.

Finger's defining moment came during the first round of the playoffs.

His team was the much higher seed, playing without thick wads of house money, but they struggled mightily during a lackluster and near lifeless first half.

 There was a search warrant out for the Storm's passion and chemistry.

Finger snapped out of the early jitters, erupting for 27 points and 10 boards.

 He hit timely shots and helped stave off the lower-seeded squad's upset-bid.

"It would have been an embarassment if we had lost," explained Finger.

"It was an elimination game and for us to lose in the first round being the best team, it wouldn't have been pretty."

In another titanic performance, Finger ripped down a season-high 24 rebounds. The record in Norway is 26.

How has life as a professional athlete treated Finger?

"I wouldn't say it is a privilege to be a professional athlete because you work hard and you reap the benefits. I will say I do feel lucky that I get to play basketball and do what I love instead of having to work a 9-5 job."

So, it turns out the only rocks Finger is studying are Spalding, Rawling, and others of this ilk.

Over the years, an influx of young talent has made the quantum leap to the European leagues, avoiding the college experience.

It happened with highly-touted prospect Brandon Jennings, a gritty scoring guard out of Compton, Calif. last year.

Jennings originally committed to Arizona but chased the long green to Europe, ducking the long arm of the NCAA clearinghouse along the way.

High Schooler Jeremy Tyler recently sidestepped his senior year of high school and the NCAA experience to weigh his professional stock and pursue an over-the-waters career.

Tyler, just a junior, became the first United States-born player to leave high school early to pursue a professional career.

"I think it is a shame that guys would pass up college to go overseas," said Finger.

"Just because college is such a great experience. But that being said, I don't know their family situations and money can be a powerful thing. I don't think (skipping college to play overseas) it will be a consistent trend."