Before a recent Monday practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reporters from national news outlets surrounded Harvard University basketball coach Tommy Amaker.
They were not there to gain insights into the weekend’s games against Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, but to ask questions about Jeremy Lin, an economics major and point guard for the Crimson from 2006 to 2010. Lin plays for the New York Knicks now, becoming a starter and leading the team to an 8-2 record after scoring 25 points as a substitute in a Feb. 4 win against New Jersey.
“It’s pretty neat to see how he’s become a global figure,” Amaker says, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Feb. 27 issue.
A former point guard at Duke University from 1983 to 1987, Amaker has enjoyed his own run of success. While there is no media phenomenon bearing his name, he has led the Crimson to its greatest height in the program’s 101-year existence. This year the team cracked the Top 25 in a national poll, which never happened when Lin was playing. The Crimson stand atop the Ivy League and are poised to win it -- another first -- and could make their first appearance in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament since 1945.
Amaker, 46, took over the team in 2007 after being coach at the University of Michigan and an assistant for his alma mater.
It’s clear that Amaker harbors ambitions for Harvard that go beyond the Ivy League. He intends to compete with top programs such as Duke and Syracuse University -- schools that, unlike Harvard and the other seven Ivy League members -- offer athletic scholarships.
“We go against places that offer full rides,” says Amaker. “It’s always going to be a factor. It’s money.”
Harvard in NBA
The last Harvard man to play in the NBA was Ed Smith, in 1954. Like Lin, he played for the Knicks. He averaged 2.5 points and lasted 11 games.
In 2007, Harvard fired coach Frank Sullivan, who in 16 seasons compiled a 178-245 record. Athletic Director Bob Scalise said consistently contending for the Ivy League championship was the university’s goal. He asked Harvard’s players to help vet prospective coaches.
“It became clear that the athletic department was trying to jump-start this program to a level that hadn’t been seen before,” says Andrew Pusar, who played two seasons for Sullivan and two under his successor.
Amaker was the players’ top choice, and the changes were immediate. He fought for a tougher schedule, and he changed the psychology. “As basketball players, we had felt like second-class citizens compared to Penn and Princeton,” Pusar said. “Amaker’s approach was to say, ‘You’re part of something special here at Harvard, and there’s no reason the basketball team shouldn’t be part of it.’ ”
In Amaker’s first season, Harvard was 8-22, and during his second, 14-14, with Lin on the team. “When I came, even on our own campus, we weren’t important at all,” says Oliver McNally, a senior guard who was part of Amaker’s first recruiting class.
Now, “there’s a buzz on campus,” says Charles Ogletree, a law professor and season-ticket holder. “It’s not only here, but Harvard is selling out games on the road.”
A newfound confidence does not alone make a great basketball team. “Recruiting is the life’s blood of everything we do,” says Temple University coach Fran Dunphy, who won 10 Ivy titles during his 1989 to 2006 tenure at Penn. “We like to flatter ourselves, and I think Tommy is doing a great job, but really we’re only as good as the athletes we get.”
Ivy League schools, with higher academic standards, may have a difficult time getting quality athletes. “Harvard’s elite intelligence brand is far more valuable than a ranked basketball team or a Nike endorsement,” said Jason Brown, class of 2004 and a former Harvard pitcher.
Amaker, though, doesn’t believe winning games is incompatible with that brand. Harvard basketball still has a long way to go before it becomes a national force. Recent losses to Fordham and Princeton universities revealed weaknesses. But if Harvard doesn’t win the Ivy this year, it likely will soon as Amaker continues to recruit top high school players. Lin’s success should provide another boost. By charting an improbable path from Harvard to NBA All-Star weekend, he’s become a prime example of the athletic potential of Ivy League sports.
“This kid has come from our program, from Harvard,” says Amaker. “He has made it to the pinnacle of the world of basketball. We want to present to other kids that you don’t have to sacrifice anything by choosing Harvard.”