Finkel a pivotal part of UD's basketball tradition
By Tom Archdeacon
As he ran his finger down the Who's Who list of 80 players coming back for the Celebration of Flyer Basketball extravaganza at UD Arena on Tuesday, Don Donoher stopped when he got to one name: Henry Finkel.
"In the Donoher household he was on a pedestal that goes above the roof," Donoher said with a grin. "I could say good things about any number of players, but there's just a special spot in your heart for Henry Finkel because of all this right here."
Nursing an orange juice at a fast-food restaurant just down the road from the arena one recent morning, Donoher held up a sheet of yellow legal-pad paper upon which he'd printed the equivalent of a treasure map that led the way to UD hoop fortunes.
It was a Henry Finkel time line â€” New Jersey to Dayton and the success that followed â€” and as Donoher studied it, he smiled.
That was a rarity in itself. The legendary UD coach is not big on public sentimentality and gushing nostalgia, but he also believes were it not for the 7-foot All-American, there might be a lot less to look back on.
Maybe no UD Arena, Donoher Center or, for that matter, Donoher legend. Nor would there be this big celebration, the one featuring Bobby Knight as the guest speaker and hoping to raise enough funds for the renovation of the UD Physical Activities Center.
While that may sound a little far-fetched to you â€” it certainly does to Finkel, who said, "I don't believe that at all" â€” Donoher doesn't back off his assertion.
He explained how Finkel was brought here from a New Jersey shipyard in 1962 by then-coach Tom Blackburn, the raspy-voiced Pied Piper of Flyers promise, and how Blackburn then died.
As the inexperienced Donoher inherited the Dayton program, Finkel, who had just finished his sophomore season, was drafted by the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers.
The fact that Finkel's dad had died a couple of years prior â€” and his mother probably could have used the help â€” had to have made the NBA a bit more enticing.
"Right then we were at a crossroads," Donoher said. "Tom Blackburn had just passed away, Harry Baujan had just stepped down as athletics director and was replaced by Tom Frericks, who immediately had a hard sell for what he was trying to do.
"And I was the new coach and had no credentials for the job. And if you look at the roster we had coming back â€” with no Henry Finkel, there's no size â€” it would have been a bloodbath.
"I was on as a one-year deal, so talk about your one-and-out, that could have been it right there."
Finkel, though, came back to the Flyers even though he admits, "The Lakers pressured me right up to a half an hour before I left for Dayton. They even doubled the offer."
He dismissed the pros â€” after his junior year, too, when Philadelphia drafted him â€” because he said he'd promised his mother he'd return to college and get a degree. Besides, he enjoyed UD.
"I know Henry would probably say 'Naah,' but sometimes I wonder if, even at such a young age, he had a sense of what we were up against out here," Donoher said. "Without him, we might have fallen right off the map. Instead we go 22-7 one year, 23-6 the next and make the Sweet 16 each season.
"So yeah, Henry Finkel is on a pedestal at our place."
NBA can wait
Prior to the pedestal, he was on a street corner. It was the summer of 1962 and Finkel â€” from Union City, N.J. â€” had quit college after one season at St. Peter's.
His dad was battling cancer, so Henry started working as a sandblaster in a Jersey City shipyard.
"Me and my buddies would always play ball in the schoolyard afterward," Finkel said by phone from his home in Lynnfield, Mass., just north of Boston. "Then we'd gone to the Dairy Queen on 16th Street, and I happened to be standing on the corner there eating ice cream when Harry Brooks pulled up. He'd been a star at Seton Hall and then coached at Emerson when I played for Holy Family.
"He said, 'Finkel, what you doing now?' I told him I was working at the shipyard and he says, 'How'd you like to go back to school?'
"I assumed he meant Seton Hall, but he said Dayton. He was a friend of Tom Blackburn's and Dayton had a name then. They'd just won the NIT in Madison Square Garden. I told him I had to check with my mother first, but even though it was far away, she told me to go. She knew the value of an education."
Finkel redshirted his first season at UD and the following year â€” eligibility-wise he was a sophomore â€” he played for Blackburn until, with three games left in the season, the ailing coach had to hand over the team to Donoher, who'd coached at Chaminade.
When Blackburn died, Finkel said the players lobbied for Donoher: "Bob Sullivan made up a letter we all signed saying we wanted him. That's why I don't buy his argument that he would have been in trouble after a year. He's a great coach, just a great example of someone you want to follow."
Donoher said he and Finkel hit it off because they were only 10 years apart in age.
"We treated each other more like brothers," Finkel agreed.
And Donoher liked Finkel's attitude in practice: "He was just rough as cobs. He called them mice and he'd let them come down the middle, then take a shot at them and just laugh."
Donoher's first year as coach â€” the 1964-65 season â€” the Flyers won eight of their first 10. Then Henry Burlong was ruled ineligible and the team lost three in a row, the last one to DePaul.
"Henry didn't think much of me that night," Donoher laughed. "Right after the game I brought 'em all back on court for a rough practice. Kept them three hours. Henry told me that under his breath he called me 'every name known to man.' "
The ploy worked. The Flyers won 13 of their next 14 before bowing to Cazzie Russell and his top-ranked Michigan team in the Sweet 16.
The next season Donoher said he felt â€” and does to this day â€” that his team had a shot at winning the national title. Along with Finkel, he had a talented band of underclassmen led by Donnie May.
But then senior Denny Papp â€” the guy Donoher called "a shooting machine" â€” blew out his knee and was lost for the year.
"We lost to Kentucky â€” they were No. 1 then â€” in the (Sweet 16) when Adolph Rupp went to his patented 1-3-1 zone," Donoher said. "All we needed was one more shooter on the perimeter, and Papp would have supplied that."
After that, Finkel â€” who averaged a career double-double at UD, 23.7 points, 13.3 rebounds â€” did go on to the pros, playing nine years with Los Angeles, San Diego and Boston.
Meanwhile, the season after he left, the Flyers made it to the championship game of the 1967 NCAA tournament.
The tradition was set.
Passing the torch
Donoher plans to pick up Finkel at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport Monday.
Finkel doesn't get back to Dayton often and said he's got four things on his itinerary:
"I want to visit with the Donohers and see my friend Baldy Morgan. I'd like to walk around campus and go to Kramer's."
Then Tuesday is the gala.
"We're honoring the whole Dayton tradition, and it's also helping the kids of today get that practice facility they need so badly," Donoher said.
Brian Gregory's current crop of Flyers will be at the function, and Donoher said that's important:
"It's a way to connect the old with the new. These current players, they're the tradition-carriers now and they need to see who's passing them the torch, who made it possible for them."
That's why Donoher wants them to take a long look at Henry Finkel.