Finding His Niche
Former Stanford forward finds hardwood home In Norway.
In Taj Finger’s fifth grade yearbook, “geologist” is listed as his desired profession beneath his then man-sized mug.
“I used to have a great rock collection,” recalls Finger, who authored a storied career at Fox Lane High School and served as a role player at Stanford University. Most kids chose “movie star,” “singer in a rock band,” or “basketball player.” But there was Finger, a rangy kid towering over his classmates while sporting basketball jerseys to class, cleaving to grand aspirations of becoming a geologist.
Finger will likely have time to pursue that career. But he might have to wait until his professional basketball career is over. Given the way Finger manhandled the competition in Norway (where basketball is an afterthought), he might be waiting quite some time.
Aspects of Taj Finger’s game have changed considerably over the past seven years. At Fox Lane High School (Bedford, NY), Finger was a human double-double who sacrificed individual shine for team success.
The 6-9 forward bought into the we-first brand of basketball (see Jackson, Phil for more on that one), and the Foxes were all beneficiaries of his lanky 6-9 presence. Captained by Finger, his sleeper team pulled-off two mammoth upsets en route to the finals of the Westchester County Center (White Plains, NY).
The Foxes captured the Section I/Class A crown in the final year of longtime Westchester County coach George Masters’ career. The squad pulled off a stunning victory over Peekskill (the alma mater of Elton Brand and Hilton Armstrong) and prolonged their success with a victory over Port Chester. It was a memorable sendoff for Masters, who had molded young minds in Westchester School Districts back when rocking John Stockton size shorts was the norm. It was a storybook ending for Finger.
Known to the Section I/New York State masses, Finger was described as a superstar camouflaged as a role player. While Finger didn’t leave the same type of lasting legacy at Stanford—where he capitulated to the likes of Robin and Brook Lopez in the frontcourt, Finger turned in meaningful minutes off the knot.
Now a professional in the mountain-dotted Northern European nation of Norway, Finger has embraced his role as a go-to-guy. For the first time in his life, he’s passing less and shooting more. He’s utilizing his size and applying a pack of post moves. Finger packed some muscle onto his spindly, 210-pound frame.
He’s no longer settling for a mid-range jumper that he depended on so heavily growing up. The sudden basketball metamorphosis bodes well for the 23-year-old, who watches “The Office” religiously and started getting into novel writing at college. In Norway, the book on Finger has been an easy read.
The onus is on him to score baskets by the bundles. It’s up to him to shout out his out number and put the pedal to the floor when his teammates need a power surge. He’s handled the chore of guarding the opposing team’s top scorer. He’s sealed the baskets shut by changing, manipulating, intimidating, and altering the trajectory of shots in the paint.
Finger averaged 18 points and 11 boards for the Tromsø Storm, a team that sells around 3,000 tickets per game. Not bad for a small nation of just four million people and a Shaun Livingston-weak basketball market. “We had one of the best crowds in the country,” says Finger, who was recently named to his league’s All-Star team. “Norway was great, but I’m really hoping to move on to a better league, wherever that might be in Europe. 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. Tromsø 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 loss in overtime. Finger was discouraged, but he admits no sleep was lost.
Finger’s defining moment came during the first round of the playoffs. Tromsø was the higher seed, but they struggled early on. The Storm frittered away an early lead and were festering under the playoff pressure.
Finger rose to the occasion, exploding for 27 points and 10 boards. He hit timely shots and helped stave off the lower-seeded squad’s adrenaline-fueled upset-bid. “It would have been an embarrassment if we had lost,” explained a physically and mentally drained Finger after the game. “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 all-time high-water mark in Norway is 26.
As a youth, Finger spent his summers at the Teaches Summer Basketball league in Fox Lane and John Jay High Schools. At 6-9, Finger was a menacing shot blocker. Anyone who experienced a blocked shot at the hands of Finger got the royal treatment from the crowd. “You just got fingered!” The rowdy, youthful crowd would yell.
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,” he said. “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 the orange spheres. A buffet-line of young talent made the quantum leap to the European leagues, circumventing the college experience. Brandon Jennings’ decision to follow the long green to Europe stands out. Jeremy Tyler, just a junior, became the first United States-born player to leave high school early to pursue a professional career.
Wasn’t Tyler, a big neophyte from SoCal who finishes with authority, just featured in Picture Me Ballin’ (SLAM 115) the other day? Time flies.
“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 it will be a consistent trend.”
Zach Smart has written for Big East Basketball Report, Hoops Addict and The East Coast Bias. Read more on his blog.