History. Neil Fingleton whispers the word over and over as he
strolls around the ancient cathedral in his hometown of Durham,
England. What else can he say? The word answers most of the
Neil, what is the biggest difference between Britain and your new
home, the U.S.? Why did you feel the need to leave? What is your
career goal? Why are you so bloody tall?
History, he keeps saying. History is his story. This 18-year-old
is so shaped by history that he's persnickety about the
definition of the word. "I'm surprised by Americans who refer to
the past 50 or 100 years as history," Fingleton says. "This
church has been here for almost a thousand years. That is
Two hundred years ago, when the church was a mere 700 years old,
Samuel Johnson visited the cathedral and wrote, "It rather awes
than pleases, as it strikes with a kind of gigantick dignity."
On a brisk summer day, visitors to the church were torn between
ogling the millennium-old edifice or the high school senior who,
at 7'6 1/4", is unofficially regarded as Britain's tallest
citizen and could someday become the nation's most prized export
to the NBA.
The kid known around Durham as Big Neil grew up in the
cathedral's shadow, in a modest home that is transformed into a
dollhouse whenever he roams its hallways. His remarkable
altitude is genealogical. It traces back to his
great-great-grandfather Walter Fenwick, who grew to 6'10" in the
middle of the 19th century, as disproportionate to that era as
Neil is to his. Neil's father, Michael, a mechanical engineer
who is 6'1", and mother, Christine, a nurse's aide who is 6
feet, have produced a towering brood. Neil has two older
siblings: Michael Jr. is 6'8", and sister Keely is 6'2".
At age 11 Neil reached 6 feet and was the only kid exempt,
because of his size, from wearing his school's uniform pants.
Between 13 and 14, Neil sprouted 10 inches, to 7'0", too big to
play his beloved soccer any longer, and whenever he and his
father went to cheer on their soccer club, Middlesbrough, they
retreated to the back row, so that Neil wouldn't block anybody's
view. "I used to be dreadfully self-conscious," Neil says.
"People always turned and stared, and I hated it. Then I
realized I wasn't going to get any smaller, so I had to change
my attitude if I wasn't going to suffer all my life."
England is not a place where tall boys are reflexively pushed
into basketball, and Neil didn't dribble a ball until he was 14.
He might never have embraced the game without the intervention
of former UConn forward Tony Hanson, who played in Europe before
settling in England, where he has coached club basketball for 12
years. When Hanson heard about Neil, he invited the boy to play
for his team and later steered him to a basketball camp at UConn
in the summer of '95. Two years later Fingleton made the
difficult decision to leave his family and move to the U.S. to
play basketball. "Growing up, I didn't try very hard in school,
because hardly anybody in Durham aspires to go to college,"
Fingleton says. "I was resigned to a life in a dead-end job, and
then I saw basketball as my chance to escape my destiny."
On Hanson's recommendation, Fingleton enrolled at Holy Name High
in Worcester, Mass., where his adjustment to U.S. basketball
hasn't been smooth. In his first game, in December of 1997, he
blocked three shots and collected three fouls in his first three
minutes of play. He drew taunts from enemy fans for his awkward
southpaw shots, his long red sideburns and his mannerisms
clumsily copied from NBA games shown in the wee hours on British
TV. That first season Fingleton was a hoops Gulliver regularly
subdued by Lilliputians, so raw that he rarely won the game's
Fingleton is often compared to Shawn Bradley, but while Bradley
logged more hoops experience at a younger age, Fingleton is
building a much sturdier pro-style body. In two seasons Holy
Name's strength coach, Tony Elia, has helped Fingleton bulk up
from 245 pounds to 280, and assistant coaches Tony Clark and Jim
DaVolio worked with him to improve his conditioning. As a junior
last season, Fingleton averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds and eight
blocks per game and led Holy Name to the Division 1 state
championship game despite playing with a painful stress fracture
in his left leg. This spring he received feelers from
professional clubs in Spain and Greece, but Fingleton
understands he is still regarded as a project, and he believes
college is the way to reach his goal: to become an NBA All-Star,
or at least the league's best player ever from England, which
means he must surpass the humble credentials of John Amaechi,
Andrew Betts, Steve Bucknall and Chris Harris, the only Britons
to have made the NBA. Fingleton possesses the distinct advantage
that he is already taller than all but one of the 442 current
NBA players--and he is still growing.
The pragmatic people of Durham regard Fingleton's quest as "pie
in the sky," according to Christine, who finds the college
recruiting process a bit confounding. During a visit to
Worcester last December, she asked her son, "Do you think you'll
be able to go to an American college?" Neil is being recruited
by, among others, Boston College, UConn, Holy Cross, Notre Dame,
Ohio State and Wake Forest. "He's gone from a zero to a six,"
says Holy Name coach J.P. Ricciardi, who is also the director of
player personnel for the Oakland A's. "He'll really be dangerous
if he realizes he can dominate a game. He could wind up like Tim
Fingleton relates his journey to that of Duncan, because neither
played basketball seriously until high school, and both come
from islands far off the coast of Basketball Nation. Like
Duncan, who is from St. Croix, Fingleton displays no innate
passion for hoops, only for the challenge of mastering a sport
that was foreign to him. "He's always said he loves the game,
but he's just starting to fall in love with it," says Phil
Giarusso, a computer account executive with whom Fingleton lives
in Worcester. "He's realizing that he's gone from needing a
lottery ticket to potentially being a lottery pick."
Says Fingleton, "I've improved a lot since I came over, and I'll
be much better four years down the road. I'm no longer afraid to
try anything on the court. Now my biggest fear is ceiling fans."
He has spent this summer playing in tournaments from Raleigh,
N.C., to Barcelona, working on his post moves, on developing a
mid-range jumper and on becoming more aggressive.
Only days after returning from a trip home to Durham, Fingleton
was in New Jersey at one of the summer camps at which college
coaches scout prospects. In one game Fingleton basically ran
wind sprints, touching the ball only four times (three of which
were blocks). Yet afterward he was the center of attention,
patiently answering silly questions from the other players about
his height. Big Neil is regularly reminded that he is still a
work in progress. For now, anyway, he rather awes than pleases,
striking with a kind of gigantic dignity.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN
"I'm no longer afraid to try anything on the court. Now my
biggest fear is ceiling fans."
"He'll really be dangerous if he realizes he can dominate a
game," says Ricciardi.