Walking Tall

<b>Lexington High (Mass.)</b> senior point guard <b>Lew Finnegan</b> hasn't let diabetes stand in the way of earning a Division I college basketball scholarship.

To overemphasize Lew Finnegan's never-ending battle with diabetes is to sell Lew Finnegan short.

Finnegan, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound senior point guard from Lexington High, is a jaw-dropping, "did you see that?" basketball talent who just happens to be afflicted with a chronic illness. He doesn't see himself as a guy who's courageously overcoming a disease, and portraying him as such would be massaging the truth.

Forget the diabetes angle. Lew Finnegan can play.

Just ask Bob Farias, who has coached basketball at Lexington for 36 seasons. In that time, Farias has helped develop players like Wayne Morrison, who played for Lexington in the 1970s and is still the all-time assists leader at the University of New Hampshire, and Lloyd Mumford, who played at Villanova in the 1990s and later had a stint in the USBL.

Farias, 58, is old school — a Durfee High product and a disciple of local legend and longtime Hilltoppers coach Skip Karam. Let's just say Farias isn't the type of guy who gushes.

Until, apparently, the conversation turns to Finnegan.

"Lew is right in their (Morrison and Mumford) category," says Farias, who recently completed his 29th year as Lexington's head coach (his first seven seasons were as an assistant). "He's the most well-rounded player I've ever had. He's the biggest and the strongest point guard. He's a true leader by action. He plays so hard at both practices and games. And he's a tremendous shooter. I don't know if he gets enough credit for that because he does so many things so well."

Let the record show: Finnegan can shoot. Try 23 points per game as a senior despite being selfless enough to average eight assists and aggressive enough to rip down eight rebounds a night. Of course, California Polytechnic State University already knows that. The Mustangs offered and Finnegan accepted a scholarship to play Division I college basketball there next season.

The shooter is also a winner. In three full varsity seasons with Finnegan running the show, the Minutemen went 52-2 in Middlesex League play and 56-8 overall. With plenty of help from fellow senior and 20 point-per-game-scorer Mark MacDonald, a 6-foot-8 center headed to Brown University, Finnegan helped lead this year's Lexington squad to a 20-2 overall record, though the Minutemen ended their season in the Division 1 North semifinals for the third straight year.

Finnegan is the type of point guard who takes over a game any which way you let him. Which means that one way or another, he's going to get it done.

Control his drive and dish and he'll step out and bury shots from the perimeter. Overplay him outside and he'll flash through the lane for easy buckets or trips to the line. Mostly, he's a professional con artist — unselfishly feeding his teammates until the game reaches crunch time, then exploiting defenses that have long since abandoned collapsing with help on his drives.

Point is, Finnegan understands how to play his position.

"At the beginning of games, I really emphasize getting my teammates involved," says Finnegan, a two-time Boston Globe All-Scholastic who scored more than 1,000 points in his high school career. "Once we're in a situation where we need to keep or get a lead, I make a decision to try to score or pass as we come up the floor. It's a long game, and you have to remember you're going to get your shots."

The diabetes angle, then, really amounts to a footnote. Though it is worth noting Finnegan accomplishes all this while wearing beneath his jersey a harness that holds a pager-sized pump that dispenses insulin via a needle inserted into his upper thigh during games.

Diabetes, a disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin (a hormone needed to convert sugar and other food into energy), affects 18.2 million people in the United States, or 6.3 percent of the population. Without his pump, Finnegan would suffer from a variety of ailments to varying degrees, including degraded eyesight, kidney damage, heart disease, brain dysfunction and chronic fatigue.

Which makes it all the more cool that Finnegan doesn't swallow his fate. He confronts it and embraces it, both attending and more recently serving as a counselor-in-training at the Jocelyn Diabetes Camp in Charlton, Mass.

"The fact that he goes back and gives back to the Jocelyn Camp makes the kid a hero of mine," says Mike Crotty, Finnegan's AAU coach with the Middlesex Magic and himself a survivor of Hodgkin's disease. "He's like Superman to them. This big, strong basketball player who gives them hope at a time when they're most afraid they'll never grow up. In the end, forget basketball. Lew is a great kid, period."

"I'd like to think I have an impact on them," says Finnegan modestly.

The impact goes beyond the kids. Finnegan, who at press time planned a return to the Lexington baseball team after playing JV as a freshman and sophomore, even motivates coach Farias, who was diagnosed with diabetes six years ago.

"He's an inspiration to me, for sure," says Farias. "He knows the effects. He's very cognizant of what he puts in his body, and he manages it very well. He knows what his body can do, and he's more meticulous about it than I am. Then he goes out and plays the game at a high, high level and with tremendous endurance. He just educates himself, and he's not going to let it get the better of him."

"From the first day I got it, I never thought anything would change," says Finnegan, who was diagnosed in 1996 while attending school in England because his dad worked as a CFO for Lotus in the U.K. "I was diagnosed on a Monday, missed school on Tuesday and Wednesday and was playing in a youth soccer game on Saturday. It's just something I deal with."

Dealing with the pressure of being a Division I college hoop recruit is something else altogether, admits Finnegan.

"On the court, [the pressure] was great," says Finnegan, who owns a 3.2 GPA and scored a 1210 on the SAT. "The more pressure to perform, the more excited I got. I just wanted to play all the time. Off the court, you've really got to concentrate on blocking it out."

The pressure grows greater from this point. Next season, Finnegan will be ballin' in the Big West Conference, which is big leap for a 6-3 kid from suburban Boston. Players at Utah State and the University of the Pacific in no way resemble those at Stoneham and Belmont. And Finnegan knows it.

"The point guards are quicker, and that ties into a lot of stuff defensively," says Finnegan, who was essentially a role player his sophomore year in a three-guard offense featuring brother Tommy Finnegan, now at Trinity College in Connecticut, and Danny Lawson, now at Bentley College. "I'll need to get quicker to handle pressure defense and bring the ball up effectively. Yeah, it might have helped me to play at a prep school and face that competition, but I never thought that way. I'll tell you what: I probably wouldn't have worked as hard at practice for anyone else as I did for coach Farias."

Whatever he did and whatever he does moving forward, it seems Finnegan will always have the tight-lipped Farias gushing.

"He likes to compete and play, and he's not afraid," says Farias. "He's got that desire to succeed, and he backs it up. He's got exceptional skills. He can jump, he's strong, he's smart. He doesn't have a weakness. I miss him already."

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