The Startup

by January 07, 2014


Originally published in SLAM 175

by David Cassilo / images by Jesse Burke

Tommy Amaker had a vision for Harvard, and it ended with a dynasty.

It didn’t matter that the school had no league titles, no NCAA Tournament wins and no players in the NBA. This was Harvard, and the impossible could be done.

“Harvard is a magical name that presents the feelings and the thoughts that your dreams are possible,” Amaker says. “That’s a powerful concept to wrap your arms around.”

His vision was simple: become relevant; become a winner; become a contender; become a champion; and then become a dynasty.

“That word ‘vision’ I’m attracted to and I’m moved by it,” Amaker says. “The feeling that you can see something before it actually happens.”

There was no doubt in Amaker’s mind. His vision was going to come true.

The Ivy League’s first bball season began in 1955. In a drought that was talked about in some circles like the Chicago Cubs’ World Series futility, it took until 2012 for Harvard to win the league title.

Playing in the Ivy League is unlike any other college basketball experience. It’s the lone conference without a post-season tournament. Furthermore, its schedule requires teams to play most conference games back-to-back on Friday and Saturday.

With the conference usually sending just one team to the Tournament, the regular season serves as a 14-game postseason. “You have to get up for every single game,” says former Harvard guard Jeremy Lin. “Every game you have to treat like a playoff game.”

Penn and Princeton, historically speaking, win most of those games. The two schools have combined to win 51 regular-season titles. Their success meant if you were an elite student and wanted to play basketball, those were the schools you went to.

“Those players’ first thoughts are that they are going to go to the school with the reputation of going to the NCAA Tournament,” says Peter Roby, head coach at Harvard for six seasons.

So Harvard found itself in an unfamiliar position—with a problem it couldn’t solve. High academic standards plus no athletic scholarships plus no Ivy League success equaled a struggling basketball program. Because the losses piled up, there wasn’t much student interest and the university made little commitment to improve facilities. Harvard was a place for winners, and they experienced athletic success in sports like football, hockey and crew. There was little reason to waste resources on basketball.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the basketball program caught its first break in a long time. A change in the school’s financial aid policy meant it would be easier to recruit. All students who came from a household that made less than $180,000 per year would receive a partial scholarship. Under $60,000 meant no payment at all. But even with that change, Harvard still needed a leader to get the job done. A year later, it found its man.

“A lot of people point to the admissions,” says former Harvard guard Carmen Scarpa. “I don’t agree with that. It all started with Tommy Amaker.”

Amaker is a mild-mannered coach who hates talking about himself because he wants his players to get all of the credit. He was first drawn to coaching because he wanted to teach, like his mother. Amaker played for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke from 1983-87 and left the school as the all-time leader in assists. He returned to the school a year later as an assistant and later was the head coach at Seton Hall and Michigan.

When he was fired from Michigan in ’07, one of the first programs that gave him a call was Harvard, and Amaker was immediately intrigued. “The Harvard name is such a powerful one,” Amaker says. “The institution is recognized as the premier name in higher education across the globe.”

The two sides met for an interview that was anything but typical. Amaker seemed to be the one doing the interviewing, as he asked about the school’s commitment to the basketball program. Harvard was serious about finally making the team a winner, but the administration wanted a coach who would be there for the long haul. So Scarpa, who was part of the search committee, placed a call to an old friend—Coach K.

“He told me that Tommy marches to the beat of his own drum, and that he could see him staying there for a while,” Scarpa says.

After Amaker accepted the job, he immediately went to work to change the culture of Harvard basketball. No detail was overlooked.   

“The first thing he said was, ‘I’m not sure if this is OK with you, but we’re going to switch from New Balance to Nike,’” Lin remembers.

Everyone was committed to making Harvard a winner. The coaching staff spent plenty of nights sleeping in the players’ lounge. The equipment, locker room and even the meals experienced an upgrade. And what Amaker could do unlike any other Harvard coach before him was recruit. He went head to head with basketball’s traditional powers for some of the top recruits in the country.

So how did he sell Harvard, one of the least successful college basketball programs of all time, to recruits? In the most Harvard way possible.

“We’re going to present this to prospects and families as an undervalued stock,” Amaker says. “We talked about it in the business terms. It’s the ground floor of an incredible startup concept.”

Players responded and began to Kickstart the campaign. In 2013, the Crimson welcomed to campus Zena Edosomwan out of Los Angeles, the first Top-100 recruit ever to go to an Ivy League school. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Edosomwan, who had starred at high-performing Harvard-Westlake. “Even our own valedictorian didn’t get into Harvard.”

But it also takes a tad of luck to build a program, and for Amaker, luck came and went by the name of Jeremy Lin.

A sophomore when Amaker got the job at Harvard, Lin eventually became that player that the Crimson could point to and say, “You can be an NBA star if you come to Harvard.” 

“We were very fortunate to inherit Jeremy Lin,” Amaker says. “He certainly became the catalyst for improving our program. He helped this program develop a name and a brand.”

In 2010, Lin became the first Harvard player since the ’53-54 season to play in the NBA. The school was relevant; however, it wasn’t until his week of Linsanity in February 2012 that he became the program’s legend.

“We were traveling on a bus, so people were on their phones looking at live updates,” says Crimson junior Wesley Saunders. “We were going crazy seeing Jeremy’s numbers.”

Just a few weeks later, the Harvard program took another step toward Amaker’s vision. The Crimson secured its first outright Ivy League basketball title in program history and was headed to the Tournament for the first time since 1946.

No longer were Princeton and Penn impossible hurdles. The accomplishment was one that everyone in the program—past and present—reveled in.

“That team carried a lot for all the former players that had played there,” says Tom Thibodeau, a Harvard assistant from ’85-89. “It was a dream come true for all of them.”

Harvard had established itself as a legitimate Ivy League contender, but to take the next step of Amaker’s vision, it needed to establish itself as a national contender. In college basketball, there’s only one way to do that—NCAA Tournament wins. In 2012, Harvard lost its NCAA Tournament game to another strong academic school—Vanderbilt. In the offseason, the program had a misstep when co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry temporarily withdrew from the school because of a cheating scandal.

For what seemed like the first time since Amaker’s arrival at Harvard, he hit some roadblocks. “That’s when the story gets compelling and very interesting,” Amaker says. “When you have a few twists and turns, and you still find your way where the daylight is.”

Even with the adversity, the Crimson didn’t have to wait 66 years to get back to the tournament. Harvard won the Ivy League again and met New Mexico in the Tourney. This time around, Harvard rewrote its basketball history again. The 14-seed Crimson knocked off the 3-seed from the Mountain West, 68-62.

“We’re the oldest school in the country, so we’ve had a lot of time to do things,” Amaker says. “That was one of the few things we haven’t done.”

Two nights later, the team lost to Arizona, but when Harvard returned to campus, things seemed to have changed for good. “There was a different feel when people started coming back,” says Crimson guard Siyani Chambers. “We had more notoriety.”

Now Harvard basketball was a winner, and the school was fully behind it. Prior to the ’13-14 season, Harvard had its first Midnight Madness.

But Amaker’s vision doesn’t end with one NCAA Tournament win. This is a program that is trying to sustain success, and the end game is, of course, a dynasty.

This year’s team is as good as any the school has seen. Harvard returns its top-three leading scorers, including Chambers, who was Ivy League Rookie of the Year. The Crimson add Edosomwan into a mix and welcome back to the program Casey and Curry after their absence last season.

As we went to press, Harvard had just used a balanced offense to roll to the Great Alaska Shootout title and boasted a 9-1 record, with a barometer game against UConn on deck in early January. “I think they are going to be really, really good this season,” Lin says. “Every year they have been building and building. This year is supposed to be the best of them all.”

Harvard is a deep post-season run away from taking that next step and becoming more than just an Ivy League school that won one NCAA Tournament game. It believes it can be the next Butler or Virginia Commonwealth, two mid-major powers, or even the next Duke. But it also believes that it can be something completely different than anyone else, and that is the goal.

“We’ve got our identity and our standards,” Casey says. “We’re trying to become the first Harvard.”