Matthews Arena sits just off Massachusetts Avenue, a few steps from the Northeastern University campus. It is 104 years old, and seats 6,000. If you want whoa-factor, it doubles as a hockey rink, the oldest one in the world. Once tonight’s basketball game has ended—the one I’m going to tell you about—and the hardwood floor has been removed, a chill begins to paint the air, like cold-clutching fingers sweeping ’round you as the ice is fitted in.
It’s December 7, 2013, and Harvard has made the trip across town, one of four non-conference matchups they’ll face this season against Beantown neighbors. They also faced Holy Cross, located 40 miles away in Worcester, at the TD Garden.
You know it’s Harvard in the house, because the heckling doesn’t take long to begin.
At Matthews, the Northeastern student section is right on the court. It is four rows of chairs deep, extending almost the entire length of a sideline. And there’s a couple of hecklers standing front row who won’t leave Harvard sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers alone.
They make fun of his slight frame, they make fun of his name. Ad hominem, ad infinitum. Ah, college sports, seen through the unmistakable lens of a young partisan.
But what these two kids couldn’t make fun of, as is so often becoming the case where Harvard is concerned, was the final score. The Crimson were tested, and the Crimson prevailed. Another successful cross-town trip. Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker called the performance “gritty.”
And there was a moment, right before halftime, when Chambers became the spitting image of the wizardly, dexterous point guard Amaker has referenced. The kind that leaves an arena in a wake of Dopplerized reverie as he pistons up court. Here, the 6-foot guard seized a rebound and headed out on the break. He navigated the left side. Junior Crimson swingman Wesley Saunders was to his right. Chambers attacked the lone trailing Northeastern defender, then jumped up in the air. He hung.
Until his toes were inches from returning to the court. At that precise, precarious moment, Chambers released a pass past the defender that Saunders layed in with ease. The Crimson went into the half up 34-29. They went on to win 72-64. Saunders said afterward that it was Chambers who kept the team organized when things got tough. Once again.
Recently, I re-read through my notes of that game. Nary a mention of Chambers for most of the first half. Seems strange. As a freshman, Chambers was a finalist for the Bob Cousy award, given to the nation’s top point guard. He’d once again be named a finalist as a soph. He was the first freshman in history to be named to the Ivy League First-Team. Then, that moment of brilliance. Coursing upcourt like a churning rapid, the perfectly timed leap. Coaches so often tell players not to jump in the air, unless they’re trying to score—it so inevitably leads to indecision and turnovers.
But this was unbridled instinct, honed from years of playing ball. Ultimate cool, laced with breathtaking brilliance. As Amaker told the Boston Globe‘s Julian Benbow last season, Chambers is never emotionally drunk. Chambers knew exactly what he was doing. So did Saunders.
When he’s asked about that Northeastern game, and those hecklers, some nine months after the fact, Chambers’ response seems fitting. He doesn’t remember any of it. I mean, he remembers them in a vague sort of way, like you might make a subconscious note of an ill-placed stump along your morning run. You’ve conditioned yourself to side-step past it and keep going. That’s pretty much how Chambers and his teammates deal with hecklers.
“We really just try to focus on the court,” says Chambers. “We listen to each other and we listen to Coach. We get a lot of heckling when we go to gyms; I guess it comes with winning lots of games. The intensity grows, and crowds get bigger. But we don’t focus on the outside noise.”
It comes with the territory of a top-25 program, which is what Harvard has, thrillingly, become in these past few seasons. Those three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. Wins in the Round of 64 in the past two.
Word’s getting out about this group. Even President Obama picked them over No. 5 seed Cincinnati last spring. Told about that the day before the game against the Bearcats, Amaker told reporters, “Really? That’s pretty cool.”
After the game against Northeastern, Huskies coach Bill Coen followed Amaker and co. in a post-game press conference located in the bowels of the arena, next to the weight room. He talked about how the Crimson had that aura, the know-how of closing out tough basketball games so many crave. Experience has that habit of bursting to the fore when it’s needed most.
Coen had told his team to use Harvard as a measuring stick. Because when he looked at Harvard, he couldn’t help but note:
This was a team headed back to the NCAA Tournament.
It’s worth noting, once more, that before the 2011-12 season, it had been 66 years since Harvard made an NCAA Tournament. The Ivy League title that got them there was their second in a row, and just the second in school history. (The previous year, Harvard had tied with Princeton for the title. They fell to the Tigers, 63-62, in a winner-take-all playoff.)
They’ve now made three in a row. It began with the parting gift from Oliver McNally and Keith Wright, seniors on that ’11-12 team. They’d committed to an idea when they committed to Cambridge, as part of Amaker’s first full recruiting class. McNally, from San Francisco, CA, joked that he had to be “coerced” into taking a visit. They became sold on the idea of bringing a program to respectability. They’d certainly gotten it in that debut showing. After falling behind by 18 points late in the second half against Vanderbilt, Harvard clawed back to within five before falling 79-70. “We can be proud of this team,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan in the next day’s paper.
It set the scene for Chambers, who entered Harvard the following season. He was thrown into the fire from the offset. Weeks before the start of the ’12-13 season, Harvard’s athletic department was rocked by a far-reaching cheating scandal. Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, both slated to be seniors, and the latter of whom was slated to start at point guard, were suspended. (Both were re-instated for ’13-14.) Enter Chambers, who assumed full point guard responsibilities as a true freshman. He responded with aplomb. His 5.4 assists in ’12-13 led all DI freshmen.
That might have surprised many around the nation. Not so for Amaker and his staff. They didn’t raise an eyebrow. They’d known all along they had something special here.
Now, Harvard doesn’t just want to make the tournament—they want to make a run. It was already on Amaker’s mind after that loss to Vanderbilt two years ago. Never mind that he’d just coached Harvard to its first NCAA appearance in generations. “We’ve got a lot of guys returning (next season),” Amaker told reporters. They were already thinking of what it would take to get back.
They did so in ’13, and found third-seeded New Mexico awaiting them. They promptly beat the Lobos, and shocked the nation. Last season, they encountered a dogfight with the Bearcats. With time dwindling down in the second half, and Harvard’s lead cut to one, Chambers got the ball at the top of the key. He was just 1-9 from the field at that point.
No matter. He calmly nailed a free-throw line jumper to put the Crimson up 56-53. He said afterward that the team practices that situation all the time. Harvard won 61-57.
“He’s fundamentally sound—pivoting, footwork, passing, shooting—all the nuances and feel and instincts and intelligence you think of with athletes on the floor,” says Amaker. “He’s one of the smartest young players I’ve been around in all my years of coaching.”
From a statistical standpoint, Chambers’ production dropped across the board in ’13-14 after his sensational debut season.
But Amaker argues that Chambers’ importance to the team remained iron-strong. He’d become a focal point of opposing team’s scouting reports, and he progressively learned how to handle that attention. “Siyani has been our most important player, and I think he’s been the best point guard in our conference and one of the best point guards in the country,” says Amaker. “His impact last season was still the same.”
See: big-time shots in big-time moments.
Speaking with Amaker, you can sense the enthusiasm over this recent surge. He certainly knows not to take it for granted. “Anybody who’s been in this crazy business recognizes how fragile things can be, how lucky you need to be, but also how good you need to be,” says Amaker. “I’m incredibly proud to think we’ve created a top-25 program at this amazing institution. We’ve been able to do it, and have fun doing it.”
That ’08 class helped kick this thing into overdrive. (There was this Jeremy Lin dude doing his thing at one point, too.) Now, the new generation is looking to build upon the foundation.
And who better than Chambers, the kid who won three state championships at Hopkins (MN) High, and began playing varsity in the eighth grade, to help lead the way. “He’s a flat-out winner,” says Amaker. “That’s how he’s wired.”
A winner always looking to get better.
When Amaker recruited Chambers, he’d tell him about ways he could improve his game. Chambers didn’t bristle at the advice, or shield himself with his lengthy list of accomplishments. Amaker was so personable; it was the sort of approach that had sold Harvard players, including Lin, when Amaker interviewed for the job back in ’07. We’ve got to get this guy, Lin told Pablo S. Torre, then of Sports Illustrated.
So Chambers listened. He knew he was talking to someone who knew the game, from whom he could learn. As Chambers once told the Globe’s Benbow, “[Amaker] kept it real. he wanted me to become a better person and a better player.”
“That speaks volumes about him,” Amaker says. “To show that kind of respect, and then to take things in, to understand that my intention was to help him improve, it shows a great deal of maturity. That’s the first thing I thought of him—this is a mature kid.”
Amaker, a former prep stalwart in Virginia who played point guard for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, saw traces of himself in Chambers. “It’s pretty neat to see some things that you think you were a part of once,” says Amaker. “Siyani struck me like that.” Chambers had a homework list this offseason, helped once more by Amaker. Focus defensively, get a lot better on and off the ball, continue to make consistent jump shots.
Take that next step as a leader. This summer, Chambers was named a team captain alongside Steve Moundou-Missi, a senior. For a junior to be named a captain is a tremendous honor, Amaker says, and a reward for Chambers’ first two seasons, during which he emerged as a dynamic, on-court leader. “You don’t just drop that on somebody for the sake of it, when he becomes a junior,” says Amaker.
The Crimson are getting after it. Chambers talks of doing everything at game pace, whether its moving from set to set in the weight room, or playing afternoon pick-up. “We want to get better each and every day,” Chambers says. “Trying to strive to become a better player, a better person and a better team. That’s what’s really going to help us during the season.”
That might sound like coach speak. Which it is—it’s one of Amaker’s main messages to his team. It’s fitting that Chambers is voicing it.
This season, the Crimson lose Brandyn Curry, Kyle Casey and Laurent Rivard, all integral members of past teams. But Kenyatta Smith, a 6-8 junior center who came on strong at the end of the ’12-13 season, is back after missing ’13-14 due to successive injuries to his left foot. Corbin Miller, a 6-2 sophomore guard, returns after spending the past two years on an LDS mission in Mexico. He hit 46 percent of his threes in ’11-12. “The transition process has been pretty seamless,” says Chambers. “We lost key pieces, but we’ve got a lot of good ones coming back.”
Amaker often speaks with Chambers about taking the next step in his game. “I’ve told him since we recruited him that I think he can be dynamic, he can be electric” says Amaker. “We need him to do that. I want him to think of himself as a guy that can play with flair and flavor. He can be electric at times with his pinpoint passing, seeing things before others can.”
Chambers has certainly shown flashes of comprehensive impact. He scored 27 points in a win over Vermont last season, before dropping 21 in a narrow loss to UConn, the eventual national champions. He was 5-7 from three against the Huskies.
Amaker wants a jump in Chambers’ shooting percentages, on top of all the things you expect of a top-notch point guard at the high-major level when he becomes an upperclassman. “He’s incredibly fast with the ball,” says Amaker. “He’s our pace-setter. When he has it, boy, we sprint hard to keep up with him. Which is what we want. We want him leading the charge for us.
“When the ball is in his hands, we’re very confident.”
As the conversation with Amaker wound down, I mentioned that game against Northeastern, and that play at the end of the first half. It was stunning stuff, to see Chambers rocket, 0-to-60 style. The way he’d hung in the air and…and…
I didn’t have my notes with me. I’d forgotten the crescendo’s final cresting.
Amaker finished it for me.
The Northeastern game? The end of the first half? When Siyani hung in the air?
Amaker remembered the whole scene, way better than I ever could. He even filled in additional details, like how Chambers made a bounce pass to Saunders.
The total recall of a top coach.
Chambers is the type of point whom coaches look at and say, That’s the way this game should be played. Same goes for Amaker’s style: stout defense, fast-paced attack.
You need a great floor general for that type of scheme. Harvard has one.
“He’s been voted a captain by his peers,” Amaker says of Chambers. “It’s his time.”