Posted Aug 20 2011 11:49AM
HOUSTON -- The original plan was for Chris Finch to see the world as a member of the Washington Generals. So maybe it's fitting that a winding path as a globetrotter brought him to the NBA.
Rather than a career of buckets of confetti, uniform pants pulled down, yo-yo basketballs on rubber band strings and various other pranks, Finch went the, uh, conventional route of playing overseas, then coaching four different teams in three different countries and spending two seasons in the NBA Development League before landing a spot on Kevin McHale's Rockets staff.
"But it's been fun, both a basketball and cultural experience that I never thought about when I left college and wanted to be a coach," said Finch, 41. "I guess I took the long road."
After a career as a Division III All-American at Franklin & Marshall College ended in 1992, financial problems for the Globetrotters resulted in Finch joining the expansion Sheffield Sharks in England. Four years later, the head coach left and Finch, at 27, was offered the job.
"At that point," he said, "I figured my playing career wasn't going anywhere fast, so it was an opportunity to jump over to the coaching side, which is where I wanted to be, and see how far it could take me."
Finch won a championship in the British Basketball League, then moved to Germany and two different clubs in Belgium, winning another league title in the process. He was a guest summer league coach with the Dallas Mavericks when the Rockets first made contact.
"To be honest, I was surprised that they knew who I was," Finch said. "It turns out the organization is always casting a wide net looking for talent and that's how they pulled me in."
It was 2009 when Finch took over as coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the same year that the Rockets took control of basketball operations of their D-League affiliate.
"Making that move was a big step for our operation and part of the process was to get a young coach who we hoped could grow and develop along with the talent on the floor," said Gersson Rosas, the Rockets vice president of player personnel and general manager of the Vipers.
"We know that odds are against us. We know that most players and most coaches in the D-League are not going to move up to the next level. But Chris had the aspirations and what we hoped we had was a stepping stone job that could eventually get him here. He's confident in his ability and has a willingness to try new things."
Finch guided the Vipers to the D-League finals in each of his two seasons -- winning the championship in 2010 -- and so impressed Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that he wanted to add him to Rick Adelman's staff at the end of last season. When Adelman and the Rockets parted ways, he eventually became a candidate for McHale's staff.
"I liked a lot of the ideas Chris brought to the table and felt comfortable with him right away," McHale said. "I definitely have my ideas about what I think makes a team success in the NBA. But you want guys with a fresh outlook, guys who can adapt. And I'll tell you, nobody has to adapt more than those coaches in the D-League."
His prior experiences dealing with different styles and different rules and different languages in England, Germany and Belgium had taught Finch not to get set in his ways. So the culture shock of the D-League, where your best player can get a call-up to the NBA at any time, was not so great.
"In Europe, the travel wasn't as extensive and not as much a factor as the D-League," Finch said. "But you're working with a small staff and the head coach is relied on to do a lot. So it was a good proving ground for organizational skills.
"I've always thought I've been pretty good in a state of flux and the D-League is nothing but flux. The thing is, most people immediately think that losing your top scorer in the D-League is a problem. But it's not. Believe me, there's talent in that league and plenty of guys who are willing to step up and fill the scoring void. It's the leadership and the intangibles that are the tough roles to fill. That's where you need a system to carry you through."
While the Rockets weren't micromanaging or telling Finch what plays to run out of a timeout, they were in constant touch and generally wanted the Vipers to institute a loose structure of running in transition and moving the ball on offense.
"That was our backbone," Finch said. "You're always going to have your two- or three-game losing streak. But we were doing things -- the way we ran practice to working on individual skills -- with a purpose. You're trying to get some guys up to the next level and get guys from the NBA club who are rehabbing or just need time working on their game to feel comfortable in a system that you want to be at least similar.
"One of our goals was the corner offense that coach Adelman was running with the Rockets, but we also tried other things. We used a lot of the same terminology to make going back and forth between the clubs smoother. But they always encouraged me to experiment, use things I saw in Europe, try different things of my own. The more experiences you get, the more you learn."
Finch's other experience is as the head coach of Great Britain's national team, which will take part in EuroBasket 2011 beginning Aug. 31 in Lithuania and be the host team next summer at the London Olympics.
"British basketball right now is probably at the point of U.S. soccer pre-World Cup in 1994," he said. "The professional game was on the downslide, but is ticking back up. [The British] national team has progressed under the Olympic umbrella in terms of resources and players and we're hoping good performances this summer and next summer can be a catalyst to get us to the next level. We know it's a long road."
And nobody knows better already than Finch that life is a journey.
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