FINNIE BLAZING FRESH PATH

We talk to the UK’s most prominent basket balling export.

It was Jock Sutherland who did most to plant a Saltire deep into the heart of American sport, the son of Angus revolutionising the Stateside brand of football as a head coach with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Steelers in an era when the glitz of Super Bowls was a dream beyond.

Then, of course, Bobby Thomson, hit a Shot Heard Around the World. Yet it was a son of Scottish émigrés who would unknowingly pave the way for the latest Caledonian export across the Atlantic, one who is truly breaking new ground.

There are no records of whether James Naismith ever returned to the land of his parents before or after he had completed his greatest invention. The man who conjured up basketball as a means to focus on the minds of the young men under his care in Springfield, Massachusetts did – well over a century later – provide a route for Donna Finnie to plot a career path which has now seen her become the first British head coach in NCAA college hoops.

For the Edinburgh native, regarded as one of the UK’s brightest coaching minds, taking charge of Houston Baptist University is the culmination of years of hard graft but it still feels like breaking new ground.

“I’ve had to work so hard just to get to this point because it’s not exactly a career path most people from Scotland can choose,” she said. “Sure, I was an assistant here the last three years. But if you think about how many days I’ve put in with national teams at FIBA tournaments, development courses and just studying the game, there’s been a lot of investment just to earn this opportunity.”

A former player, who spent time at university in Texas as well as with the national side, Finnie made her name as an incubator of precocious talent, as well as someone who would fight to push her young hopefuls towards further education – with some tapping into her networks of contacts in the United States to get a scholarship shot overseas.

The likes of Tennessee legend Pat Summitt are among those whose knowledge she has soaked up along the way. “It’s been really big to be able to go out and soak up influences not just in Europe but in America as well. There’s different styles of basketball and different styles of coaching. That, I guess, gives me something unique to offer. But now I have to make it work.”

Houston Baptist, she hopes, can be a sleeping giant. Recently moved into the Southland Conference, they now have a women’s squad filled with recruits from across the world, the UK included. It is a mix that Finnie wants to nourish and advance this season.

“I think we can accomplish something very special here. It’s a really good group. You’d expect them to do well academically as well as playing basketball. It’s a brilliant challenge to have.”

Less than a year removed from the Olympic Games, the Great Britain national side retains ambitions to keep living among the best in the world. Inevitably, in due course, Finnie’s name will come up as a future coach. Would that appeal?

“Never say never,” she laughs. “But Houston Baptist is where I’m focused on and there’s enough there to keep me busy hopefully for a long time yet.”

Pic: AP

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