This Gulliver travels in jersey and sneakers

He's just an ordinary teenager who spends too much time on the computer, idolizes the Rolling Stones, and plays basketball on his high school team. Nothing special.

Except that, at 7-feet, 6-inches, Neil Fingleton doesn't tower just over his teammates, he towers over most NBA players.

To realize his dream of one day playing in the National Basketball Association, Neil left his family in Durham, England, and crossed the Atlantic at age 16. He's been living in this hardscrabble, working-class town in central Massachusetts, adjusting to spicy Italian food and making do with a jerry-rigged 8-foot futon for a bed.

It's been a long three years for Neil, now a senior at a private school here, but for him and a growing number of young foreign athletes, the opportunity to shoot for a pro-basketball career in the United States makes the lonely times worth it.

"The floodgate for recruiting of foreign athletes has really been opened in the past couple of years," says Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

And, as Neil's experience shows, college recruiters are tapping ever-younger students, steering them into reputable high-school sports programs and then on to college ball. Even in the United States, says Mr. Lapchick, recruiters "are in elementary school now, figuring out who's going to be ready to help their team eight years later. I mean, it's big, big business."

Then, too, competition for talent is intensifying. The NCAA tournament now includes 64 teams. Plus, some young players are going into the pros straight from high school, and others are leaving college after a year or two.

"There's a thinner pool of talent," Lapchick says. "Schools like North Carolina, which has one of the best programs in the country, have to keep competitive. So if there are some great ball players overseas, they're going to be looking for them."

In fact, Neil was courted by the University of North Carolina, and he'll be playing there next year on a full athletic scholarship. Scouts met with his parents in Durham, and they flew Neil in a private jet to Chapel Hill, N.C., for a tour of the university's state-of-the-art facilities.

Because foreign athletes have so many obstacles to overcome in getting to the US, they tend to be more mature and eager, experts say. That may explain why American colleges try so hard to recruit them, even at such young ages.

"There is a mentality among college coaches nowadays that players in Europe and Africa are more hungry," says Tony Hanson, head coach of the Teesside Mohawks in the British national league. "They are willing to listen and learn because they know that this is an opportunity of a lifetime."

Like many foreigners who made it to the NBA, Neil did not grow up playing basketball. Former NBA center Manute Bol, for instance, was tending sheep in the Sudan when he was spotted. Atlanta Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo, from the Congo, didn't touch a basketball until his senior year in high school. He came to the US on an academic scholarship.

Neil was raised on soccer. But by age 14, he was already 7 feet tall and had become too big for the agile game. With his love of sports, it didn't take long for Coach Hanson to persuade him to take up basketball.

"He was very raw, having only played a bit of basketball in gym class, but I could see he had a lot of potential," says Hanson, who until recently held the career scoring record for the University of Connecticut and played in the European basketball league.

While the thought of keeping Neil in England appealed greatly to Hanson, "his potential for stardom in the United States was too great. He needed to be in the best schools, getting the best training and the best education."

So after attending basketball camp at UConn for a summer, Neil decided to pursue basketball in the US full time - and immediately began turning heads of college coaches around the US.

While his stats are good (he averaged 18 points per game last year), his game still needs a lot of work. He blocks, he dunks, he runs the court well. ("That comes from playing soccer," he says.) But at a recent game against Worcester's Doherty High School, he let his opponents get to him.

Later, he sheepishly admits he didn't know how to handle the height of the other players. "I didn't play well tonight," he says. "I had all these 5-feet, 9-inch guys nagging me the whole game; I didn't know what to do with them."

He will get plenty of help at North Carolina, known for its history of developing big men and its strong academic focus.

Not only do colleges recruit the best foreign athletes, they recruit the brightest as well, says Pat Meiser-McKnett, athlete director at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. The women's soccer team at Hartford, which has the most foreign athletes and finished seventh in the nation last year, has a 3.4 combined grade-point average.

The University of Hartford has had some of the best success in the country at recruiting foreign athletes, and Ms. Meiser-McKnett says some 80 countries are represented on campus, playing every sport. "I can't think of a team that doesn't have an international player on it."

Some, however, contend that colleges are putting their bottom lines ahead of the interests of young athletes.

Neil concedes that being far from home and family has been difficult. "I was really homesick the first year, but I just keep busy to take my mind off it," he said after a recent home game.

It helps, though, that his high school, the Holy Name Napoleons, erected a British flag in the gym, and that local moms routinely drop off Shepherd's pie.

"That's what America has been about historically" - pulling the best and the brightest from around the world, says Lapchick. "If the young person isn't abused in the process," he says, "then it's a great opportunity for them to get an education and to possibly have a shot at a pro career."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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