By CHRIS LARICK
Jeff Fink and the Cleveland Cavaliers were born together, in 1970, so Jeff can be excused for thinking of the Cavaliers as playmates.
"I’m told by my mom that my first exposure to basketball was watching the Cleveland Cavaliers, practically from birth (the Cavaliers inaugural season was in 1970, the same year I was born),” Fink said. "My parents were huge Cavaliers fans, so the games were on TV constantly at our house. Apparently, I would run up and down our hallway dribbling the basketball, pretending I was in the Cavaliers games.”
By the time he was in the fifth grade, Fink, a 1988 Jefferson High School graduate who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on Apr. 7, was playing basketball on Saturday mornings in a fifth- and sixth-grade league at Jefferson High School.
"As I recall, the play on the court was not very organized; it was basically a pack of kids following the ball all over the court,” Fink said. "I also remember playing a lot of basketball in elementary school gym class.
"I’m sure the reason for that was because my gym teacher was then-Jefferson High School head basketball coach Rick Nemet. I remember Coach Nemet telling me I showed some promise and that I should focus on basketball. I tried to do that. I loved playing pickup basketball anywhere and everywhere I could. My first ‘real' games were playing seventh- grade basketball for Jefferson.”
Fink became the recipient of an occurrence loved by basketball coaches but not so much by mothers buying clothing for their sons: the growth spurt. As his mother has told him, he grew four inches the summer before his freshman year. While in junior high, he had been just a bit taller than average; after the spurt, he was the tallest in his class. By his senior season, he was playing almost exclusively at the center position, standing 6-foot-7. He eventually topped out at 6-8 his sophomore year in college.
At Jefferson, he started games with teammates Chris Ostrander, Drew Bragga, Billy Burnett and Greg Ashley. That cast changed completely in his sophomore year, when he was joined by Matt Bragga, Matt Burnett, Randy Banks, Tom Koskinen and Dwyane Johnson as starters and sixth men.
The Falcons struggled a bit in those two years. Fink remembers the team going 6-14 his junior year and 4-16 his senior season.
"The first thing that comes to mind when I think about my high school basketball experience was the great players I played against,” he said. "Jefferson was in the GRC (Grand River Conference) when I started playing, and then we were in the NEC (Northeastern Conference) for my senior season. I played against the undefeated Pymatuning Valley team, which had (Doug) Hitchcock, (Rodney) Brown, (Steve) Oman, and (Jason) Poole. Grand Valley had Lowell Moodt, Jim Henson and Carl McElroy. And then in the NEC … Conneaut had all-everything Matt Zappitelli; Harbor with Joe Rich, Tim Tallbacka, and Fred Scruggs; Madison with Scott Whitehouse; Painesville Harvey with Terrell Dillard; Painesville Riverside with Bill Rayl. Those were some great basketball players, and I learned a lot from them.”
Despite the Falcons’ record, there were high points for Fink and his teammates, including a victory over Pymatuning Valley his junior year, a season when most of the great players he enumerated earlier were also juniors.
“The single game I remember the most was a victory we had my junior season against a great Pymatuning Valley team,” Fink said. "They named the game the 'Miracle on South Poplar Street’ (where Jefferson High School was located). "We were down 23 in the first half, but came back to win the game in OT, 63-62. That PV team had Doug Bryan, Doug Hitchcock, Jason Poole, Rod Brown, Sean Freeman, and Steve Oman.
"I believe that was the only time we beat PV during my time at Jefferson. It was a crazy game. I remember the home fans being absolutely nuts! I couldn’t hear a thing on the court. It was pure pandemonium when we won. I didn’t have a lot of wins during my high school basketball career, so it is very easy for me to say that was the sweetest win in my career.”
The Falcons were coached at the time by Tim Mizer, a man Fink admires greatly.
"I give Coach Mizer an excellent rating,” Fink said. "He taught me a ton, but something I remember to this day … He said to give everything I had, at all times, in practice and games … and to not be satisfied with losing. It’s very easy to take plays off, especially in practice; but he used to say, 'That’s not what great players do, and if you want to be a great player, you need to work harder than anyone else in the gym.' That stuck with me in high school, in college and to this day. I’ve tried to live my life that way. Coach Mizer has had a tremendous impact on who I am, and I thank him for that.”
In his junior year Fink was chosen to the first-team All-GRC and second-team All-Ashtabula County squads, averaging 15.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. After upping those averages to 21.9 points and 12.5 rebounds per contest, he became a first-teamer on both those teams as a senior, adding Western Reserve Basketball Coaches Association All-Star Game first-team, and All-Inland and Northeast District Division II UPI Honorable Mention All-State honors. His junior and senior seasons together he averaged double figures in rebounds and points, while hitting 54 percent of his field goals and 66 percent of his free throws. He also recorded high games of 38 points and 25 rebounds.
“I know our TEAM records were not that great,” Mizer said, "but he was without a doubt the leader, a very, very hard worker, always trying to improve, as evidenced by his high-school accomplishments, including National Honor Society, that led to a scholarship and to basketball at Mercyhurst."
Many colleges recruited Fink to play basketball, at least initially.
"My mom told me she thought there were over 50 initial inquires…mostly NCAA Division II, Division III and NAIA schools,” he said. "There were some lower Division I schools. I remember quite a few phone calls with coaches from Brown University and Colgate University. I visited several Division II and Division III schools in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana as well as Claremont McKenna and Pomona Pitzer Colleges in the Los Angeles area."
Originally, Fink verbally agreed to attend John Carroll University in Cleveland, where he would have teamed with Conneaut’s Matt Zappitelli, but he changed his mind and eventually decided on Mercyhurst University in Erie, a NCAA Division II school.
"Mercyhurst didn’t offer a full scholarship until late in the recruiting cycle, but after a lot of thought, I decided to accept their offer,” he said. “The local media had fun with that late change, but I am very glad I changed my mind. I loved my time at Mercyhurst, and that’s where I met my wife … so all good!”
He graduated from Mercyhurst with a Bachelor of Arts in Accounting, with a minor in Computer Information Systems.
‘I recently joined an Arlington, Virginia-based mortgage technology consulting firm named The Phoenix Team to help them design and develop new software applications for the community banking market,” he said. "Prior to joining Phoenix, I was the Director of Products for another technology consulting firm named JS Walker & Company in Charlotte, NC, where I architected and managed the development of data analytics software solutions for companies of all sizes and industries.
"Prior to joining JS Walker in 2014, I founded a data analytics software company in 2007 named Sparkflow. In 1999, I started a business intelligence software and services firm, Tangent Analytics. Tangent was eventually acquired by financial services technology firm, Jack Henry & Associates Inc. I’ve also held various positions at ProfitStars, Fiserv, Capital Bank, Southern Community Bank and Trust, Price Waterhouse Coopers, and KPMG since graduating from Mercyhurst University in 1992.”
Fink met his wife, Tasha (from Linesville, Pa.), in his very first class of his freshman year at Mercyhurst. They’ve been married for 23 years.
"We were just friends for a couple of years, but then starting dating in the summer before our junior year,” Jeff said. "We married in Jefferson in 1996 and lived in Pittsburgh for four years before moving to the Lake Norman area of North Carolina (40 minutes north of Charlotte). We’ve lived in the Lake Norman area ever since.”
The Finks have have two children, Hayden (14) and Daria (13).
"They have both played basketball since they were five years old,” Jeff said. "They just finished their middle-school basketball seasons and are now playing on travel teams. We love watching them play!”
Jeff himself has not played basketball for several years.
“I did play in local YMCA leagues until a few years ago,” he said. “My doctor said it was time to give up competitive basketball. I have vein issues in my lower legs and I have had three surgeries over the years. I think things are under control, but my playing days are definitely over. It’s now time to get all of my basketball excitement from watching our kids play. They really enjoy playing, and it’s a lot of fun (and nerve-wracking) watching them compete.”
Fink credits his parents with much of his success.
“I just wanted to mention that I would not be receiving this honor if it weren’t for my parents, Larry and Ruth Fink,” he said. "They attended every one of my games from seventh grade all the way through college. That’s no exaggeration; they were at every single game I played, home and away …and the away games were no easy feat in college. We played in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and all across Pennsylvania and New York. They drove to every game. They were the most dedicated fans I’ve ever heard of, but that’s the type of parents they’ve always been!
"My dad passed away in 2015, but I know he’s so happy and proud for me to receive this honor. My mom lives near us in North Carolina. She was very happy when I told her about the ACBF Hall of Fame induction. Maybe this will help make up for the banged-up walls from all of the times I dribbled up and down the hallway as a kid.”