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WALTHAM

Medical assist

Diabetes proves no match for his passion for the game

By Craig Larson
Globe Staff / March 1, 2009

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One minute, Lew Finnegan will back down an overmatched defender in the low post with his sturdy 6-foot-4, 195-pound frame, lean in to knock the opposing player off balance, and then drain a fadeaway jumper in the lane.

The next minute, he'll rip the ball out of the air off the defensive glass, triggering a fast break opportunity. A moment later, he'll deliver the finishing touch, burying a 3-pointer from the corner.

The former Lexington High player's versatility, talent, and unbridled passion for the game have been essential ingredients for the Bentley University men's basketball team, a Division 2 program that has been a dominant force in New England.

"When you talk about the best players we've ever had, he's in the conversation," says Bentley coach Jay Lawson, now in his 18th season at the Waltham school, adding, "not many players love the game more than Lew."

At the same time that Finnegan has been helping the Falcons set records on the court, he's been blazing paths for those with diabetes, serving as a role model.

The 23-year-old, who first shot into prominence on the court just up the road at Lexington High, is one of roughly 2 million Americans with Type 1 diabetes, a disease that leaves the body unable to produce insulin, the hormone that converts sugars and starches in food into the energy needed for life.

Few individuals - even his teammates, the four roommates in his dorm just a five-minute walk from the university's Dana Athletic Center, or his coaches - notice the details of his daily ritual for managing the disease.

"This is what I want to do, my parents never held me back, and I thought it was normal being active," said Finnegan, who is averaging a career-high 16.7 points per game this season for the 24-5 Falcons, who will tap off the Northeast-10 Conference playoffs tomorrow night.

He had never heard of diabetes before the diagnosis, at age 11, Finnegan said, "and from there, I just tried to take care of it every day,"

His family was living in a London suburb at the time, and five days after doctors broke the news to him, Finnegan was back playing youth hockey with his older brother, Tommy, he said.

To keep the disease in check, Finnegan monitors his blood-sugar level from morning until night, as many as 10 times on game day, using a prick test. A black strap draped around his neck, barely visible, is attached to an insulin pump that is concealed under his game jersey, between his shoulder blades. The pump feeds a constant drip, through a narrow tube inserted into a patch in his stomach, around the clock.

It's certainly a less painful alternative than the shots that were a daily constant in his life until he made the switch to the pump in the eighth grade - "a real miracle," in the words of his mother, Marcia. "He said, 'I'm never going to give this up,' " she recalled.

Every three or four days, if his blood-sugar level is too high, he'll administer a shot of insulin into his stomach, or one of this thighs. And if the level drops too low, his locker and dorm are stocked with a dozen Gatorades.

"It really is incredible what he has to go through on a daily basis," said Bentley senior center Mike Sikonski, a four-year teammate and two-year roommate. "He's so knowledgeable about it; in fact, he jokes with us, if anyone needs a paper on diabetes, he can write five. . . . And the way he approaches the game, he is just relentless."

That was apparent from an early age.

His father, George, a former basketball and soccer player at Bentley, and mother, who still runs, encouraged all of three of their children - Lew, Tom and their sister, Eleanor - to be active.

Lew attended the summer camp run by the Joslin Diabetes Center as a youth, absorbing as much information as possible, learning how to live with the disease. "I credit them with the majority of what I know," he said. In high school, he returned as a counselor.

Marcia Finnegan said her son "was handed a ball and chain, a devastating diagnosis, as a kid, and he never let it bother him," she said, her voice reflecting her immense pride. "He gets up and takes care of business."

His older brother never let Lew use diabetes as an excuse, the two continuing to push each other. When Tom was applying to college, his admiration shone through in his essay: The person that he admired the most was his younger brother.

Promoted to the Lexington High varsity at the end of his freshman season, Lew Finnegan started at the point for the Middlesex League champions as a sophomore, feeding his brother on one wing, and Lawson's son, Danny, a future teammate at Bentley, on the other.

"The game is predicated on speed, quickness and strength . . . and his diabetes never affected his performance," said longtime Lexington High coach Bob Farias, himself a Type 2 diabetic, with the disease surfacing in his adult years. "He never missed a practice, or a game. He is a role model for any kid that has a debilitating illness, knowing that they can overcome that."

He earned a basketball scholarship to a Division 1 program, California Polytechnic, but after winning four straight league titles under Farias at Lexington, losing while on the West Coast 3,000 miles away from his family left Finnegan homesick.

He found a home at Bentley.

Lawson considers Finnegan his best shooter, his best post-up player, and his best team defender, as well as an exceptional rebounder and great passer. And his unique ability to play all five positions, at both ends of the floor, is unmatched. "Maybe the most versatile player we've ever had," says Lawson. It's a notion seconded by athletic director Bob DeFelice, who has seen every Bentley team of the last 40 years.

Since Finnegan joined a talented cast that included Nate Fritsch, Yusuf Abdul-Ali and Jason Westrol, the Falcons are a ridiculous 90-7.

"Talk about a dream come true," said Finnegan. "I just said that I wanted to get 13 wins in a row, because my freshman year at Cal-Poly, we lost 13 in a row."

Bentley won 32 straight his first season before falling to Winona State in the Elite 8 in Springfield. "I was the luckiest kid to come into that," he said.

A magnificent 34-1 season ended in the national semis last March, and the Falcons recently captured their unprecedented third straight NE-10 regular season title outright.

He has developed into a player "that we can count on every day; he's really matured," Lawson said. A player that never takes a play, let alone a day, off. "Tenth or 11th pickup game in the summer, 102 degrees, a lot of guys are done, Lew is still in," said the coach. "He's steady, he's a machine. And you factor in the diabetes, it's just amazing."

Gearing up for an extended run in the postseason over the next month, Finnegan doesn't want to see it end. "This is the time of the year that you play for," said Finnegan, who will consider playing basketball overseas after graduation.

The Diabetes Exercise and Sports Association's annual North American conference will be held in Boston this June. For more details, go to www.diabetes-exercise.org.

Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com.

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