When asked for a specific game or a moment in time that really stands out for him during his 10 years of playing for and coaching the Sheffield Sharks, Chris Finch identifies an entire season.
“Beating Manchester for the title in my second year as head coach, 1999, was probably the highlight,” reflects the 49-year-old from Cambridge, Ohio.
“Not just the final game, but that season as a whole because we’d put together a new team, I’d learned a lot from my failures of the first season and we had some great guys on the team.
“We were probably the story of the season. Manchester had spent a lot of money chasing a title, they were the favourites but we came out of nowhere and beat them to the post.”
Two decades on and there are echoes of that second season in Sheffield as Finch continues a journey that he hopes will one day result in a head coaching position in the National Basketball Association.
Finch is an associate (assistant) head coach with the New Orleans Pelicans in US basketball’s premier competition.
It was an incredible experience in Sheffield, I was fortunate to work with and for a group of people who gave me the opportunity to not only play and coach, but particularly on the coaching side, figure out who I was.”Chris Finch
The Pelicans are the third NBA team he has worked on, having previously been employed in similar roles with the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets.
Like Sheffield at the start of the 1998-99 campaign, New Orleans have a different look about them to previous years, due largely to the haul of young players and draft picks they received from trading away their star player, Anthony Davis, to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Unlike the Sharks of 21 years ago, and pretty much any team in the history of the sport, New Orleans begin the 2019-2020 season with the most exciting player to come out of the college system in half a generation.
Zion Williamson is the future of the NBA, a 19-year-old, 6ft 6in power forward who is the most-hyped rookie in the NBA since LeBron James 16 years ago.
Without playing a competitive game yet – and he will not for a few weeks due to injury – Williamson’s presence has turned the hitherto small-market Pelicans into the team chosen by broadcasters to tip-off the season against defending champions Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night (Wednesday 1am UK time).
Part of Finch’s role with the Pelicans is to help Williamson justify the hype, much like James was able to, winning three titles and making the NBA finals in eight straight seasons on two different teams.
“Zion is going to be a special talent, we’ve seen that already,” says Finch. “He’s a great kid, he’s highly coachable, he’s pure, he plays the game the right way.
“We got lucky with the draft and did a great job on cashing in on the Anthony trade even if we did lose a great player.
“We got the rare opportunity to push the reset button and in doing so we were able to address a lot of issues we needed in our team with depth, young players, flexibility; so we’re pretty excited.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes over the last six months.
“Zion wants to win, he wants his team-mates to succeed. Sometimes I’m not sure he realises quite how good he can be, but I’m sure he’ll figure that out. Like LeBron, you can tell he’s been raised well. If your foundation is good, I don’t see you straying from that.”
Finch has been laying his own coaching foundations for 22 years. He came to England to play for the then-Sheffield Forgers in 1993. He was fresh out of college in Pennsylvania and despite helping the newly-rebranded Sharks win a British Basketball League title in his early years, by the age of 27 he had reached the conclusion that his playing career was taking him nowhere.
“I knew long-term I wanted to coach,” says Finch. “Our coach at the time had taken a job with Manchester and (Sharks chairman) Yuri (Matischen) asked me would I be interested in the job?
“I jumped at the chance. I was fortunate at the time to coach guys I had played with, they were all good dudes, they allowed me to coach them. The way I was wired I was a natural leader on the floor anyway.”
The 1999 title – which helped Finch earn coach of the year honours – was the first of three in six years as Sharks’ main man, plus a host of final appearances across various competitions.
But after 10 years, Finch needed a new challenge. “We’d gotten to the point in Sheffield where we were continuing to try to do more with less, resources were starting to tighten up,” he recalls, with no trace of bitterness.
“I had the opportunity to go to Germany, and Sheffield were super supportive. They wanted me to go and fulfil my potential.
“It was an incredible experience in Sheffield, I was fortunate to work with and for a group of people who gave me the opportunity to not only play and coach, but particularly on the coaching side, figure out who I was.”
That education continued with spells in Germany and Belgium and as coach of Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics, by which time the NBA had come calling.
“Honestly I never dreamed of being in the NBA,” says Finch.
“Never thought much about it, thought it would be nice but I didn’t have a natural route, a natural pathway. I didn’t go to a big-time college, I didn’t have connections in the NBA.
“I didn’t really network within the NBA very much. My goal when I left in England originally was to coach in the US in colleges.
“The NBA came out of the blue. The Rockets were looking for somebody to head up their Development League team, it was a new experiment they were launching and at that time I was at a similar crossroads to what I was at when I left England. I wanted a new challenge.”
It is one he has embraced, and one he is thriving in.
His third season in New Orleans is his ninth overall on an NBA coaching staff after five in Houston and one in Denver.
Finch believes his longevity owes much to his attacking philosophy, one that he began introducing in South Yorkshire two decades ago.
“A lot of the things we were doing in Sheffield; we played at tempo, we shot a lot of threes, we played with a great deal of freedom, are always things I believed in how you should play,” he says.
“The reasons for playing that way haven’t changed, I played towards our personnel strengths in Sheffield, I always thought it was fun for the players to play that way.
“But now the NBA has become so much of an up-tempo league where they shoot a lot of threes, make a lot of high-value shots. My core philosophy hasn’t changed, I just came upon the NBA at the right time and I got lucky in my timing. I had built up a philosophy that supported what teams wanted to do.”
And his work is being noticed across the league.
Three times over the last two summers he has interviewed for head coaching jobs with the Phoenix Suns, Charlotte Hornets and latterly the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Professional sports leagues in America are much more transparent with their recruitment process than here in England, and it is not uncommon for assistant head coaches - as in the case of Finch - to have their interviews for head coaching vacancies become known to the public.
“That’s the goal now, to become a head coach in the NBA,” says Finch, without fear that such an admission would land him in trouble with his current employees.
“I’ve had a few opportunities to interview. I interviewed this summer in Minnesota, last summer in Phoenix and Charlotte.
“If it happens, it happens, but it’s a tough market, very competitive. Timing is very important.
“Having said that I love my job, I love my boss in New Orleans, he basically lets me do my thing, and that’s empowering for me.”
When finally he does take the final step to a top job, Finch may well bend the ear of Nick Nurse, another American who spent his formative coaching days in the BBL.
Where Finch was a one-club man in Britain, Nurse bounced around England, coaching Derby, Birmingham, the 1999 Manchester Giants team that Sheffield pipped to the title, London Towers and Brighton.
He succeeded Finch as head coach of Houston’s D-League team and was two years behind him in landing an assistant’s job in the NBA when Toronto handed him a chance in 2013.
However, Nurse beat Finch to a top job when being promoted by the Raptors at the start of the 2018-19 season.
What many could not foretell, however, was just how quickly he would enjoy success, steering the Kawhi Leonard-inspired Raptors to the NBA championship in his first season.
“Nick is one of the best coaches I’ve worked with at any level, no matter what the league,” says Finch.
“The inspiration I take from him is we come from the same place, have the same experiences, we believe in many of the same things. No one is more excited for his achievements than me.
“Being personal friends, I was rooting for him having worked together and he was able to cash in on a great opportunity.
“He was coaching when I was playing, we were rival coaches. He was my head assistant in the Olympic programme, we’ve had very parallel lives. He was in Belgium, I was in Belgium, he went to the D League, I followed him to the D League, he came to Houston to take over from me in the D League. He went on to Toronto.
“We have been on this very similar journey.”
Do not be surprised if Finch makes it all the way to the top, and when he does, those early days in Sheffield – when he was given a chance by a trusting organisation in the Sharks – will be at the forefront of his mind.