2014-15 Harvard basketball preview: No regrets
College Contributor Network
Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker knows the spiel. It goes something like: I really tell people it's about being a part of this incredible institution, one pocket among many highly successful pockets around the campus. We are so proud to be representing this school. We want our kids to be part of this dynamic community and want the community to take pride in our accomplishments on and off the court.
He recites the practiced speech perfectly and isn't phased when his boss, a Harvard academic, steps into the room and listens intently while eating apple cake in the back. In fact, Amaker warmly welcomes this watchful visitor to the occasion and announces that the Dean is the main event of the evening and that he, Amaker, is just the warm up act.
This is, of course, an event exclusively about Amaker and his team. People laugh and are pleasantly surprised by the former star player's humility. In this moment of levity, Amaker furthers the amusement with a joke about Harvard's "Dean Smith," comparing him to the old North Carolina Tar Heels coach, Dean Smith.
People enjoy being in Amaker's presence, because listening to him speak is pleasant and conversing with him is fun. And even in moments when he must put on an act for the esteemed university behind his basketball team, Amaker never stops being genuine.
He is aware that despite all of his talk about "the community" and "this special place" and the "character development" of his players, everyone in the room and around the country know that the most exciting thing about Amaker on Harvard's campus is the success he's gotten over the past four seasons.
For the first time ever this year, Harvard is ranked in the Preseason AP Top 25 poll.
The year before he took over the Harvard program, the team's record was 12-16. In Amaker's first season in Cambridge, the Crimson went 8-22 and 3-11 in Ivy League. It was an auspicious start for a coach who went from Duke assistant to head coach at Michigan(!)... to Harvard?
The Evolution of a Program
My paternal grandfather was for many years a professor at UC Irvine in Southern California. Once when I visited him, he took me to a UC Irvine Anteaters basketball game, because he knew I loved basketball and the school where he taught, UC Irvine, was playing his alma mater, Harvard.
This was in December 2007, Amaker's first season coaching the Crimson. All I remember from the game is that my older cousin loved the way that one of the UCI Anteater guards was playing, and then I noticed it too -- one of those moments when you deeply respect the game of someone you're watching. Harvard ended up losing 80-77 in an overtime thriller.
Nine years earlier, in 1998, my father had brought my family from Washington D.C. to southern New Jersey. That season Harvard went 13-13, a lot better than Amaker's first season would turn out. Two years after the UC Irvine game, in the 2009 season, freshmen Kyle Casey and Brandon Curry, along with sophomore Keith Wright brought respect back to the Harvard program.
One year later, my father drove us across the Delaware River, to a University of Pennsylvania basketball game at the Palestra, 30 minutes away from our house in South Jersey, because he knew that I loved basketball and a local school, Penn, was playing his alma matter, Harvard.
Thanks to late-game heroics, from Casey and Wright, Harvard won that game in double overtime, 83-82 in spite of some suspect officiating. And shockingly, Harvard looked like a team. I remember being taken aback and saying, "Damn Dad, your team isn't that bad."
He turned to me and said, "They aren't that good either. And don't curse."
I am now a senior at Harvard whose basketball team, still led by Amaker, has now won the Ivy League every year since 2010-11 and will win it again this year, barring catastrophe.
From Ivy League champions, one Princeton buzzer beater away from making the NCAA tournament for the first time in sixty-five years in 2011, to the next season making it the first time in sixty-six years, to beating No. 3 New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, to almost beating No. 4 Michigan State and almost reaching the Sweet Sixteen last year, Harvard's incremental improvement has astonished the college basketball community.
It is no secret that Amaker is the difference. He has enhanced Harvard's recruiting capabilities immensely. Hearing him talk, you understand that he has both a great basketball mind and a fatherly, comforting persona that wins over both recruits and academic administrators alike.
He knows what it means to be the head basketball coach at Harvard University. This is not the ACC. This is not the Big Ten. And this is definitely not SEC Football.
Yet for all of his pleasantries, all of the practice he must have put into getting the speech exactly right and all of his political correctness, Amaker still appears to be a legitimately good guy. He's the kind of coach who fans love to watch and listen to and who players love to play for.
It's in the moments when he admits to the audience that he tells his players that he doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, but he curses. It's when he talks proudly about how his senior point guard yelled at his teammates and said what needed to be said to each guy and that that's what kindled the comeback that put Harvard up two with 7:11 to go against Michigan State. It's in these moments that his personality comes forth and it's so obvious to anyone in his presence that Amaker cares about his players, his program, and embraces his responsibility as a leader in an intensely driven community, a community that doesn't exactly cherish athletics.
Next: The Team and The Season
Jake Montgomery is a senior at Harvard University majoring in English. Raised in Philadelphia and a lover of the beautiful game since '06, he is a huge fan of the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, Georgetown and Harvard basketball, Chelsea FC, Neymar, Steph Curry, Shabazz Napier, and Kanye West. Follow him on Twitter: @TheFloorGeneral