SB Nation

David Tannenwald | March 6, 2014

Higher Education

How basketball coach Tommy Amaker has transformed Harvard

On a Saturday evening in February, Harvard men's basketball coach Tommy Amaker stood on the sideline of Lavietes Pavilion, the team's gym, with his arms across his chest. Clad in a dark blazer, slacks and an open-collared shirt, Amaker looked almost professorial.

Judging by his expression, you would not know that his players were flunking their midterm against Yale. Harvard had trailed for almost the entire time and was now down by six points with less than two minutes to go. A win would have given Harvard a two-game lead in the Ivy League (no small feat in a conference which awards its automatic-NCAA tournament bid to the regular-season champion), but Harvard lost 74-67, shooting only 39 percent from the field as Yale's 6'8 forward Justin Sears (21 points, 11 rebounds) dominated.

When the buzzer sounded, Amaker walked down the sideline, shook hands with opposing coach James Jones, and patted him on the chest. He began his postgame press conference by congratulating the Bulldogs and emphasizing that, had his team won, he would have told his players that no one was going to award them any trophies.

But for Amaker, the path ahead was daunting. With eight games to go, six of which were on the road, Harvard was tied with the Elis, and an NCAA berth, which had once seemed likely, was at risk. The "horserace," as Amaker called it, was just beginning.



Two days later, on a blustery Monday afternoon, Amaker, now in a black Nike sweatsuit and sporting salt and pepper fuzz on his chin, sat in a leather chair in his office. Saturday night's loss was still on his mind.

"We were very hopeful that we could ... become a program here in our league that was thought of as a significant contender every year," says Amaker, who adds, while knocking on wood, "And up till today, that's what we've done."

On a coffee table is a copy of a recent story about the Harvard team entitled "The Startup" from Slam Magazine. "We viewed it as that, as an undervalued stock," says Amaker, who studied at Duke's Fuqua School of Business. "And how we were going to see if we could grow this and a lot of the folks who didn't jump on board were going to wish that they did."

A look around the gym the previous Saturday suggested that quite a few people had bought what he was selling. Lavietes Pavilion, which only seats 2,195 people, but had been dormant before the team's resurgence, had been sold out and featured a raucous student section; two Boston Celtics, Kelly Olynyk and Phil Pressey, had trekked across town for the game; and faculty and staff from across the university, once loathe to be seen at a basketball game, were sitting courtside.

"I've been blown away," Amaker says to have so many "different people ... under the same roof. Under this roof," he repeats, gesturing upwards for emphasis, adding that he has been told that Harvard President Drew Faust described men's basketball games as "the most diverse event on Harvard's campus."

Asked why, in a business measured so strictly by wins and losses, connecting matters, Amaker pauses.

Then he leans forward, suddenly seeming larger than his 6-foot frame. "It just seems like when you connect, you become a much more powerful force in whatever you're trying to do," Amaker says, clasping his hands. "If there's a connection, a relationship, you can move mountains, and we've moved a few while we've been here."

"It just seems like when you connect, you become a much more powerful force in whatever you're trying to do."

Soon, there's a knock on the door. Kirsten Green, the team's director of basketball operations, informs Amaker for the second time that he has to get to his next meeting.

Time for one more question, and this is the elephant in the room. Because despite leading Harvard to two NCAA tournaments and energizing a diverse fan base, some say Amaker and his players are cheaters. In 2008, The New York Times published a story saying that the university had lowered admissions standards for basketball players and that Amaker and his staff had violated recruiting rules. The latter allegation spurred investigations from the university and the Ivy League that involved discussions with the NCAA. Last year, two of the team's star players — Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey — left school amidst a cheating investigation after being implicated in a scandal that affected more than 100 students.

Acknowledging that some of this involves Harvard being a "lightning rod," Amaker shifts from business and basketball to politics, recalling a story that Bill Clinton shared at the memorial service for Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta. While facing criticism during his first presidential campaign, Clinton had landed in Atlanta, and Jackson greeted him on the tarmac. "He said," Amaker recalled, "‘You just remember, they wouldn't try to kill you if they didn't think you could win.'"

Amaker then stands and walks around his L-shaped desk to pick up a note that Harvard President Drew Faust sent him to welcome him to the school and apologize for missing his opening press conference. "This is from April ‘07," Amaker says, before chuckling about how Faust, then Harvard's president-elect, had addressed the letter, "when I was Mr. Amaker."

Seven years, two NCAA tournament berths, and one recruiting investigation later, Amaker's stature — and that of his team — have grown substantially. But what exactly does that all mean? How did Amaker get them there, and where do Amaker and Harvard go from here?


That a Harvard president would have addressed Amaker in any formal capacity before 2007 at first might seem improbable. And, yes, it was because he was cut from the wrong cloth. Whereas Harvard, prior to Amaker's arrival, had never won an Ivy League men's basketball title, and had arguably been one of the worst DI programs in the country, Amaker had an All-American playing career at Duke, served as an assistant and associate head coach under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, and then ran his own big-time programs at Seton Hall and Michigan.

Timeline3_medium(Created by Ramla Mahmood)

Had the fates aligned differently, Faust might have addressed Amaker as a Harvard graduate. In the early 1980s, Harvard Coach Frank McLaughlin sent a recruiting letter to Amaker, a 6'0, 150-pound point guard at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va. Unfortunately for Harvard's sake, more than 220 other schools knocked on Amaker's door, all enamored with the savvy guard and defensive stopper. Initially leaning toward Maryland, Amaker eventually accepted a scholarship to play for Krzyzewski, then in his third-year at Duke.

The following season, in 1984, McLaughlin gave Amaker pause to rethink that decision when the 25th-ranked Blue Devils traveled to Cambridge. Expecting a blowout, Duke trailed late in the first half and eked out an 89-86 victory, thanks in part to Amaker's 10 assists. "There's no doubt that they're leaving here," senior Joe Carrabino told Harvard's student paper, "knowing that Harvard can play basketball."

For the next 23 years, that statement was rarely uttered again. Harvard never won more than 17 games in a season, whereas Amaker ascended to the blueblood of college basketball, leading Duke to the 1986 National Championship game and winning the National Defensive Player of the Year award as a senior. After being cut by the Seattle Supersonics, he returned to Duke as a graduate assistant and soon became an assistant and then associate head coach, helping Coach K win his first national titles in 1991 and 1992 before becoming Seton Hall's head coach in 1997. The youngest head coach in Big East history, Amaker led the Pirates to the Sweet 16 in 2000 before becoming Michigan's coach the following year. The closest Amaker came to the Crimson was a matchup in Ann Arbor in November 2006. This time, Amaker's squad thumped the Crimson by 32 points.


Four months later, Michigan fired Amaker after six seasons during which he cleaned up the program after the Fab Five scandal, but failed to reach the NCAA tournament. For Amaker and his wife, Stephanie, a clinical psychologist who had been Michigan's associate dean of students, it was a time to reevaluate. "You've been on the trek for so long of just coaching and next practice, next game, next recruiting calendar," says Amaker. "So you never brought your head up to see what else is out there, even outside of coaching."

Meanwhile, Harvard fired Frank Sullivan, who in 16 years, had both won and lost the most games in Harvard men's basketball history. "It was a long and hard decision to actually make a [coaching] change," says Harvard Athletic Director Bob Scalise, adding that the standard for any Harvard sports program is competing for Ivy League championships.

Soon thereafter, Scalise stood in front of a whiteboard and asked Harvard's players whom they wanted as their coach. One student mentioned Amaker. Most of the others laughed, doubtful of the university's ability to recruit such a prominent coach.

Scalise contacted Frank McLaughlin, the man who had attempted to lure Amaker to Cambridge, and McLaughlin, then Fordham's athletic director, offered to put out feelers to gauge Amaker's interest. "I indicated that since I didn't have a job," Amaker says, "I'm listening to anyone and everyone that's interested in me."

Following an initial telephone conversation, Amaker and his wife met with Scalise and Sheri Norred, then an associate director of athletics, for breakfast at the Final Four, further piquing each side's interest. "The reason it intrigued me, to be very honest," says Amaker, "was the name and brand of Harvard." For his part, Scalise appreciated that Amaker called himself an educator, something his mother, a schoolteacher, had instilled in him.

"I was shocked and amazed to hear that Harvard University had no African-American [head] coaches."


Affecting Harvard's search was a Boston Globe report detailing that, out of 41 varsity sports, Harvard had no black head coaches, something few people at Harvard — students, faculty, or administrators — had realized. The piece quoted Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, a noted black legal scholar who has taught and mentored, among others, Barack and Michelle Obama. Ogletree discussed the report with faculty from across the university, leading to a series of meetings about the issue. He also communicated his dismay to Faust, then Harvard's president-elect. "I was shocked and amazed to hear that Harvard University had no African-American [head] coaches," Ogletree said, reflecting on the dialogue at the time, "and I made that very clear to anyone who would listen."

Amaker and the other finalists, who included Mike Jarvis, a Cambridge native and former Harvard assistant who had most recently been the head coach at St. John's — then traveled to Cambridge to interview with the search committee, the Harvard team and women's head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith.

One committee member, Tom Mannix, a former Harvard player, questioned Amaker and recalls asking him, "‘Why would you come to Loserville, USA?' Tommy immediately said, ‘For those that don't remember or don't know, Duke was on hard times when I was in high school ... and [people] said, ‘Why would you go play for that loser of a coach?' ... I was the recruit who, [along] with two or three other guys, helped change the Duke program, and I had to do it because I believed in the coach. ... So I know it's all about the coach, the integrity, the message and the school. ... I bought that, so I know how to sell it.'"

Harvard offered Amaker the job. Amaker instinctively sensed that Harvard represented a unique opportunity, even after several of his advisors cautioned him about competing in a league without athletic scholarships and in which Penn and Princeton had won 50 league championships.

Others, such as Clifford Alexander, a 1955 Harvard graduate who became the first black Secretary of the Army and whom Amaker had gotten to know through the family of Duke grad and NBA star Grant Hill, provided affirmation of that instinct. "He called me," Amaker says, "when I was contemplating whether or not I was going to come here, and he said, ‘I'm standing out on a balcony on vacation, and I just had to call you and tell you that you have to do this. This is bigger than basketball. This is Harvard."

"What I hoped to convey," says Alexander, who noted that Amaker had more lucrative opportunities, "was that ... the life of basketball is not the entirety of any man or woman's being and that fulfillment for somebody like Tommy would mean that he would want to be able to contribute to the institution that he is a part of and that the institution he is a part of could contribute to him."


Eight months later, in December 2007, Amaker stood on the sideline as Harvard and Michigan squared off in the eighth game of his Crimson career. Having lost by 55 points at Stanford in the season opener, Harvard's prospects were underwhelming. Behind a balanced attack (including nine points from Jeremy Lin) and a sellout crowd chanting, "We've got Tom-my," the Crimson won 62-51. Amaker was gracious in victory, calling it "a win for our program, not a win for Tommy Amaker."

Still, Harvard won only four more games the rest of the year, finishing the season 8-22 and playing in front of sparse crowds as the program adapted to a new coach and a system with aggressive offensive and defensive schemes that demanded more from the players. "We had guys that were like basically, 'This ain't Duke,'" says then assistant coach Kenny Blakeney.

Meanwhile, Amaker was finding his way around Harvard. He had been told, as soon as he landed in Cambridge, to connect with several influential faculty members, one of whom was Ogletree. ‘Tree, as many refer to the renowned scholar, was already waiting. Soon after Amaker arrived, Ogletree and his wife invited the Amaker's to a concert and dinner. Amaker and Ogletree then had breakfast at Henrietta's Table, an upscale Cambridge eatery, with two other black leaders: Howard Manly, a local journalist and longtime friend of Ogletree's, and Ron Sullivan, a newly appointed professor at Harvard Law School who had been Ogletree's student.

The group soon evolved into a larger breakfast club of local black leaders, many of whom felt having a black men's basketball coach sent a valuable message about inclusion. "It's extraordinarily significant for students to be able to see that no aspect of Harvard is foreclosed to anybody," says Sullivan, who along with his wife, became Harvard's first black housemasters in 2009.

"It's extraordinarily significant for students to be able to see that no aspect of Harvard is foreclosed to anybody."

Amaker_with_manly_and_olgetree2_maclellan_mediumHoward Manly, left, and Charles Ogletree greet Tommy Amaker.

A handful of other groups also rallied around the team, including basketball alumni who returned for a weekend that Amaker organized, something that had not occurred under his predecessor; and non-basketball playing students, several of whom invited the coach to lunch and found him surprisingly approachable and forthcoming. Interest in the new coach was so high that a reporter from Sports Illustrated caught wind of the event and emailed a student to ask what Amaker said.

But Amaker still had to learn how to read the broader community. Shortly after arriving, he asked prominent faculty and staff to take pictures with his players for the media guide. The goal of the practice, which he had begun at Michigan and Seton Hall, was to connect the team to the community and identify mentors for his players. At Harvard, some discouraged it. "I don't know how the word got back to us," Amaker says, "but [we were told] these people are so busy and incredibly important. ... The feedback wasn't like, ‘Oh, that that would be a great idea.'" While Amaker acknowledged that "you try to learn about your new surroundings," he still persisted. "I was going to do it anyway," he says, "because that's what we've done."

By the end of his first season, Amaker had a much bigger problem. On Sunday, March 2, 2008, just after Harvard lost to Cornell in the Big Red's Ivy-clinching victory, Pete Thamel, then a reporter for The New York Times, published a story detailing allegations that Harvard had lowered its admissions standards for Amaker's highly-touted initial recruiting class. Thamel, who later wrote a separate piece about Amaker cutting several veteran players to make room for those recruits, also reported that Amaker and his staff had skirted recruiting rules. The most damning anecdote was that Blakeney had played pick-up basketball with two prospects, Keith Wright and Max Kenyi, during a no-contact period in summer 2007, just before Harvard hired him.

Looking back, Harvard Athletic Director Bob Scalise and Amaker downplay the negative coverage. "We wound up hiring a coach who was a lot more aggressive than some of the other coaches in the league were accustomed to in recruiting and just all over trying to get the best players here that we possible could," says Scalise, "and I think some of those folks didn't like that." (The New York Times article drew heavily on interviews with other Ivy League coaches.) Amaker suggests it made Harvard supporters more resolute. "There are so many people that were very much unnerved by what was trying to be done to us," he says, "that they wanted to support us even more."

At the time, however, they faced enormous scrutiny. Harvard's student newspaper published op-eds questioning Amaker's ethics. Author John Feinstein of The Washington Post, with whom Amaker has been close since high school, heavily criticized both Amaker and Scalise. Even more troubling, the school and the Ivy League conducted investigations of Amaker and his staff that led to discussions with the NCAA. The matter did not conclude until summer 2010 when Harvard announced that it had committed an unintentional secondary violation and imposed recruiting limits on itself for the 2010-11 season, an outcome the NCAA accepted.

"Those were two extremely difficult years," says Blakeney, "but there's no one I'd rather be in a foxhole with than Tommy Amaker."


In December 2009, five Harvard players — Christian Webster, Kyle Casey, Dee Giger, Keith Wright, and Brandyn Curry — took the floor together in a game against Georgetown. The game was forgettable (Harvard lost by 16), as was the performance of these players (Lin led the team in scoring.)


But for a team that in the previous decade had sometimes had only a handful of black players on its roster, it was a rare occasion when Harvard had five black players on the court simultaneously. (In what may have been a first, Harvard had an all-black starting five in this season's first game.) For a long time, a large photograph of the moment hung on the wall in Amaker's office, directly behind his desk. The effect was subtle, but powerful. Every visitor received a direct window into one of the many ways in which he has changed the Harvard program — and that includes potential recruits.

The impression that Amaker, who was also the first black head basketball coach at Seton Hall, and his players have made on black leaders in the Boston area and at Harvard has been more palpable. "I think there is a swelling of pride in ... the black community," says former U.S. Senator Mo Cowan of Massachusetts, one of two black senators in the 113th Congress, "for people who have never, and perhaps never will, meet Tommy Amaker because I think some people feel that he's in the midst of doing something that perhaps they perceived as near impossible ... I certainly take pride in that."

"I think some people feel that he's in the midst of doing something that perhaps they perceived as near impossible."

The pride reflects a painful reality: Boston and Harvard have extremely checkered racial histories, both within and outside of sports. The Red Sox were famously the last professional baseball team to integrate, and in the 1970s, the city went through a bloody experience with bussing. More recently, after Joel Ward, a black player, scored a goal to knock the Bruins out of the 2012 playoffs, numerous fans posted racist Tweets, drawing the attention of national media outlets and once again putting Boston’s racial legacy under scrutiny, and a fall 2013 feature in CommonWealth Magazine entitled, "No Seat at the Table," highlighted the minimal representation of minorities in the region's power structure.


Harvard's connection to race — on and off the court — is similarly complex. In 1973, Satch Sanders retired from the Boston Celtics after a 13-year career during which he won eight NBA Championships. He then became the head basketball coach at Harvard, making him the first black head coach in any sport in Ivy League history. Sanders, who went 40-60 in his four seasons in Cambridge, recalls most people in the Harvard community being extremely welcoming, but he also remembers people asking, "Why would someone like you consider working at Harvard?" The implication? "Why," Sanders surmises, "would a black guy who is a former Boston Celtic and world champion basketball [player] with all of these things seemingly at his fingertips, why would he come to work at an Ivy League program where balance is important and basketball is not the thing?"

Against this background, Amaker's breakfast club expanded from the initial foursome to include more than 40 of the most prominent black leaders in the area, including Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, actor Courtney Vance, and former Business School Dean John McArthur, a white man who, Amaker says, they call the "honorary brother." Traci Green, the head coach of the Harvard women's tennis team and one of two black head coaches other than Amaker at the school, also participates.

They now meet in a private back room, the same space where financiers gather for power breakfasts. "We as minority folks should be comfortable in taking our fair share of ownership in the institutions that we're involved with," says Dr. Augustus White, a professor at Harvard Medical School who grew up in Jim Crow-era Tennessee and has authored a volume on racial, socioeconomic and other biases in medical care.

The group provides extensive support to Amaker, from mentoring players to advising him on the new arena deal. (In 2012, the university announced plans to build a larger arena to accommodate increased interest in the team.) "[Tommy's] got two teams," suggests Suffolk University's Richard Taylor, who played varsity basketball at Boston University before becoming a Rhodes Scholar, "he's got a team on the field, and he's got a team off the field."

There is both a private dimension to the club and a sense of fraternity. Amaker says it's a place where he and his friends "let [their] hair down," And where lasting relationships have been made. The members also take their roles seriously, in part because some see in the criticism Amaker has received vestiges of the region's exclusive history. "I wonder if people challenged Harry Parker's success with crew," says one, who emphasized his high regard for the school's late, legendary crew coach, "in the same way that some people have chosen to challenge Coach Amaker's success in basketball."


Still hanging on the wall of Tommy Amaker's office is a picture of him with Krzyzewski and a letter that Coach K sent him in 2009. It reads in part that the "relationship between a point guard and his coach is one of the most special relationships in all of sports. My relationship with you is still the best that any coach could ever have. Thanks for the commitment you made to me. It is one of the strongest foundation blocks that our program has been built on."

After arriving in Cambridge, Amaker found himself making a similar recruiting pitch. His first commitment came from Oliver McNally, a 6'3 guard from California. Initially focused on West Coast programs, McNally, at the urging of his father, visited several Ivy League schools. "I immediately fell for Coach Amaker and the program and what his plan was," says McNally, who in 2012 helped lead the Crimson to its first NCAA tournament berth since 1946, adding that he "believed in what Coach [Amaker] was offering."

Meanwhile, Amaker made pitches to prospects from lower socioeconomic brackets and minorities not all that unlike the one Clifford Alexander once made to him. At a recent event at Harvard's Institute of Politics, one of Amaker's many on-campus speaking engagements, Amaker described his conversation with one high-profile recruit Brandon Knight, currently with the Milwaukee Bucks after playing one collegiate season for Kentucky. Knight was hardly a typical Harvard recruit. Florida's Mr. Basketball, Knight, who is black and, as Amaker noted, wore his hair in braids, had "never had a B in his life" and was considered one of the top-five recruits in the country. He was the kind of player Harvard rarely sought out and the kind of player who never sought out Harvard.

"I don't give a blankety-blank where you go, but just put Harvard or Yale on your list," Amaker recalled saying. "Just let folks know that you're capable."

"Why?" Knight asked.

"It changes the dynamics," Amaker replied. "The world we live in, it's unfortunate, but you'll be looked at a little bit differently. That's something you might want to have later in your life." Indeed, Knight's flirtation with Harvard still occasionally gets a mention in Knight's biography.

"I made it my point to recruit African-American kids that could have success and do well as student-athletes."

Amaker was not alone. "I made it my point to recruit African-American kids," says Blakeney, Amaker's former assistant, who is black, "that could have success and do well on that campus as student-athletes." It also, Blakeney suggests, reflects a shift in Harvard's ethos, which accompanied a recent increase in financial aid. "Harvard's done it with the Kennedy's, they've done it with the Roosevelt's," Blakeney says, summarizing his recruiting pitch. "What my take was on campus is that they want to do it a little different now."


The question was whether recruits would respond to the message and whether they would see Harvard as a place where they could be comfortable. As a result, Amaker has brought recruits to on-campus get-togethers of the Harvard Black Alumni Society. "Coach Amaker wanted to give the students he was recruiting an opportunity to see seven or eight hundred black Harvard alums and also have their parents see that group," says Walter Morris, a past president of the Harvard Alumni Association who is active in the Black Alumni Society.

The move is not without precedent. Northeastern University Athletic Director Peter Roby, who was Harvard's second black head basketball coach from 1985-91, recalls that he and several of the black assistant football coaches had what they called the "black alert": when a black recruit for either sport came on campus, they made a point to meet him.

The racial and socioeconomic diversity of the team has made an impression on many at Harvard, including several of the faculty members whom Amaker approached about taking pictures with his players in the media guide. "The truth today is that dumb, rich kids are much more likely to complete college than even the most able poor kids," says Larry Summers, who significantly expanded financial aid as Harvard's president, adding that, "successful recruiting of first-rate basketball players has a role in contributing to promoting diversity."

Tim McCarthy, who played JV ball for Harvard in the early 1990s and teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, makes the point even more forcefully. "The fact that this winning team can ... bring together different kinds of kids to play on the same team together and have that be the public face of a new Harvard, that's great," he says. "That's ... sports at its best."


On March 5, 2011, Harvard's 6'7 forward Kyle Casey, one of Amaker's prize recruits, held the ball just outside the three-point line, with the Crimson up 44-40 at home against Princeton. Playing before a sold-out crowd, a win would guarantee Harvard a share of the Ivy League title, the first in program history. Casey got his defender in the air with a shot fake, drove the baseline, and threw down a one-handed dunk while drawing a foul that threw Lavietes Pavilion into a frenzy rarely, if ever, seen previously in program history.

The fans that night included shirtless football players, breakfast club members and basketball alumni, and even celebrities like ESPN's Bill Simmons. The students stormed the court after Harvard won, 79-67.

One week later, Harvard's fortunes reversed when Princeton defeated the Crimson at Yale in a one-game playoff on a buzzer beater, denying the Crimson its first NCAA tournament bid since 1946.

Harvard lost, but in disappointment had, somewhat improbably, come together.

Trey Grayson, a Harvard alum who had recently been named the director of Harvard's Institute of Politics, listened to the game on his rental car's XM radio while driving to a political event in eastern Kentucky. Upon returning to Cambridge, he reached out to friends in the athletic department and became the team's faculty fellow.

McLaughlin, the former coach who had helped bring Amaker to Cambridge, watched the game on his computer. "When it looked like Harvard was going to win the game, I was so upset at myself for not going," McLaughlin recalls. "And then when the fluke shot was made, I was so happy I didn't go because I wouldn't have been able to take it emotionally."

And in the stands that day were generations of Harvard players, many of whom gathered after the game at Mory's, a traditional Yale watering hole. In an atmosphere that was strangely communal and almost festive, attendees lamented the loss, but anticipated the bright future for the squad, which had no graduating seniors.

They sensed next year would be special.


Winning-percentage3_medium(Created by Ramla Mahmood)

In the 2011-12 season, not long after his team captured the inaugural Battle4Atlantis championship in November, Amaker received a voicemail from a man claiming to be Bill Cosby. Suspicious that a friend was pranking him, Amaker was pleasantly surprised to find himself speaking to the television celebrity. Cosby's message proved powerful. According to Amaker, Cosby said, "‘I just want you to know [my wife] Camille and I were watching your team play, and we were just so amazed and impressed that you have these black boys that can get into Harvard and can jump."

The call came in a season when Harvard cracked the Associated Press and Coaches' Top 25 for the first time in program history and earned its first berth to the NCAA Tournament since 1946. That summer, the team toured Italy where they swept several professional teams. Entering the 2012-13 season, Harvard appeared poised for a repeat trip to the tournament.

Then, in September 2012, Sports Illustrated reported that senior co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry were withdrawing from school after being implicated in a cheating scandal that affected more than 100 students. Curry and Casey, however, were the only two students whose names were leaked to the press.

"I remember cringing when I saw those articles," says McCarthy, the Kennedy School faculty member, "[and] thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is only going to reinforce and confirm the worst kinds of prejudices and perceptions that are untrue.'"

The news contributed to a resurgence of criticism. Nicolaus Mills, a member of the Harvard Class of 1960 and American studies professor at Sarah Lawrence College, wrote a stinging op-ed for CNN chastising the university for allowing athletes to take a year off from school to preserve their athletic eligibility. Mills harped on Harvard's basketball team, "At Harvard the most noteworthy early withdrawals from the school are those of the senior co-captains on the basketball team, which in recent years has been faced with troubling questions about its players and coach."


On a Friday evening the following March, Amaker again stood on the sideline of Lavietes Pavilion, and in a rare show of emotion turned to the crowd and gestured for people to stand up and make noise.

It was late in the second half against Columbia, and after trailing for most of the night, Harvard was forging a comeback. A win, paired with a Princeton loss, would vault Harvard into first place, putting the squad one win away from at least a share of its third consecutive and, given the acrimonious way the season had started, most improbable league title. The crowd, dormant for most of its night, stood, and a steal and dunk by Steve Moundou-Missi sealed the Crimson's comeback in a 56-51 win.

It came amidst a season of extraordinary comebacks on the court. In a January game against Dartmouth, Harvard had trailed by 10 points with just over three minutes left (and by seven at the 1:19 mark) before senior captain Christian Webster unleashed a volley of three three-pointers to force overtime, where the Crimson prevailed.

In the aftermath of the cheating scandal, Amaker and his team, one might say, seemed to be playing from behind in the public eye as well. Even after President Faust stated that the scandal was "not confined to any one student group," Casey and Curry had their names and pictures plastered across the national media. Several outlets mentioned Amaker, and The Wall Street Journal published an article about the scandal including a picture of him.

"I'm not saying it's racism, but I'm just saying it's awfully damn stinky."

This did not sit well with members of the breakfast club, leading one of its inaugural members, Manly, who then worked for The Bay State Banner, a local paper that primarily serves Boston's black community, to arrange for articles criticizing The Wall Street Journal and highlighting the community work Casey was doing while away from the university. "I'm not saying it's racism," says Manly, of the media's focus on the basketball team, "but I'm just saying it's awfully damn stinky. Awfully damn stinky."

One night after defeating Columbia, the Crimson beat Cornell, which, paired with Princeton's second-consecutive loss, gave Harvard the conference championship. In a season that had begun with so much turmoil, Harvard was returning to the dance. The players, it seemed, were no longer quite as important as the man who led them.

In the its first game, Harvard, a 14-seed, drew New Mexico, the 10th-ranked team in the country. It seemed likely to be the end of the line for the 2013 squad; and when the TV commentators said that Harvard had lowered its admissions standards for basketball players, it appeared to reprise the criticism of the team.

But the focus that night was the court. Harvard prevailed, 68-62.  The upset caused social media to blow up; a collection of alumni at a New York City bar replicated the student section's "I Believe" chant; and one Harvard alum drove from California to Salt Lake City to catch the Crimson's third-round matchup with Arizona.

Harvard lost to the Wildcats, 74-51, but it did little to dampen the pride that had engulfed the community in the win over the Lobos. "On that night," says Scott Sherman, who covered the game for the student paper, "Harvard felt like a basketball school."


After defeating Columbia on March 1, 2014 (the Crimson's sixth straight win since losing to Yale), Harvard guaranteed itself at least a share of its fourth-consecutive conference title (the league's first four-peat since Penn from 1993-96); and with one win or a Yale loss in its final two games, the Crimson will clinch its third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. Last year's squad had the feeling of a Cinderella team, but this year's group, with the return of Curry and Casey, is expected to win.

Some in the community still see room for improvement. One question that remains is when the women's team, will receive similar recognition. "In a sports town as prolific as Boston, the re-energized community and student buzz around Harvard men's hoops is great to see and a tremendous accomplishment," says women's head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who has captured 11 Ivy League Championships. "Now, the trick for us is to attract that same support in the stands for an equally exciting women's program." Jarvis, the Cambridge native who nearly became Harvard's coach in 2007 and in January led his Florida Atlantic team to an upset of the Crimson, hopes to see the day when the squad has "become more than just Harvard's team, [but also] Cambridge's team." Another former coach, Roby, would like to see Harvard hire more "head coaches of color."

And there continues to be opposition, including Mills, the alumnus who wrote the CNN op-ed. When asked how he would respond to suggestions that the team has faced undue scrutiny for racial reasons, Mills, who did civil rights work in the 1960s and wrote a book on Mississippi's Freedom Summer, says, "That seems to me a very understandable charge. Whether the charge also involves an evasion of what happened is another question," adding, "If Harvard is to diversify, it seems to me the real focus on diversity is through its academic programs, not through its athletics programs."


Yet Amaker and his players have won over a substantial swath of the Harvard community. Seven of its 12 home games this year were sell-outs; students across campus sport Harvard basketball T-shirts, which the team distributes to the student section; and on the team's website are pictures of Harvard basketball players with some of the most prominent leaders on campus and in Boston, including former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (recently a visiting fellow at Harvard); President Faust; and Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee for president. The once-discouraged practice is now a form of cachet.

Amaker insists it is not a response to him or his actions (he describes himself as a "peon" of a basketball coach.) But many suggest otherwise, including President Faust, who says Amaker is a "very special kind of individual"; and as he continues to receive commitments from star-studded recruits, he appears positioned to contend for conference championships for as long he wants. "Unless the other Ivy League schools decide they're going to try and change," says Jarvis, "Harvard should remain atop forever."

Some fear that Amaker may eventually leave for another opportunity and that in particular he could succeed Coach K when he retires at Duke.

If he does, he will be missed by students like Emily Rubenstein, a junior from upstate New York. She saw Amaker speak at an event in her dorm and then, along with a few friends, met with him to discuss how to organize the student section. She not only wanted to support her classmates and increase school spirit, but noted, "You come to Harvard to meet people like Tommy Amaker."

Earlier this year, Amaker replaced the photo of five black players hanging on the wall in his office with a photo of three Harvard players speaking to the media after last year's NCAA tournament victory. There's Webster, who graduated and is now an assistant coach; Laurent Rivard, a Canadian sharpshooter concentrating in computer science; and Wesley Saunders, who played AAU ball for the Compton Magic and, some say, could be the next Harvard player in the NBA.

By the end of this season, Amaker might have a new photo to add; but the image he is ultimate aiming for — one of where his players end up years from now — will take longer to develop. Standing in his office after defeating Cornell last Friday night, he held a pocket-sized image that gave a good indication of what he's aiming for. It showed Alexander, the alumnus who helped persuade him to come to Harvard, offering advice to another black Harvard alum who knows a thing or two about hoops: President Barack Obama.

From Mr. Amaker's perspective, it doesn't get any bigger than that.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler
Photos: Ian MacLellan and Getty Images | Special Thanks: Josh Laincz

About the Author

David Tannenwald is a case writer at the Harvard Kennedy School and freelance writer focused on the intersection of sports and society. He’s previously written about Ivy League sports for Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. He is a 2008 graduate of Harvard College. You can follow him on Twitter at @dtannenwald.