Bound By the Ivy
Joe Beaulieu's gone.
The most promising basketball player ever to come to Harvard transferred to Boston College two weeks ago. He left with none of the flattering accolade which brought him here, only the nagging memory of Harvard as a "bad experience."
"I would stay at Harvard in ten seconds if I weren't so committed to basketball," he said.
"A lot of the people here--Dr. Petersen, Richard Sacks [his freshman advisor], George Wald, were so good to me. I was screwed up enough not to realize that their help was all I needed. I just never did the work. That got me into a mess. I got into academic trouble, and with the complications from basketball, everything got blown out of proportion. Thus, here I am."
It has been a very chaotic, if not disparaging summer for the Harvard basketball department.
Frank McLaughlin, basketball coach at Notre Dame, replaced ex-Celtic Satch Sanders. McLaughlin talked to Beaulieu shortly after he accepted his position at Harvard.
"I was very surprised about his move," McLaughlin, an incarnate image of the fighting Irish, mused. "I really like Joe. I know he was one of the most recruited basketball players in the country, and I also knew he was frustrated with some things at Harvard. The last time I talked to him, I got the impression he would stay."
Joe was quite impressed with McLaughlin himself, almost inspired. McLaughlin was the opposite of Sanders; he was a high-pressure basketball coach from the big time--someone who would push Joe.
But in the end, it was basketball that convinced Joe to leave Harvard.
"I knew I could do the work here," Joe explained. "But my life revolves around basketball, it is structured around basketball. When that doesn't go right, nothing else does."
For Joe, freshman year was "destructive" to his basketball. The competition was medioicre. The facilities were, generously speaking, poor. But it was the attitude towards ball that alienated Joe.
"In high school, I had always been used to playing with great basketball players, and now I was playing with kids who play basketball as a hobby. One kid on the freshman team really took it seriously. The rest of them had no serious aspirations. I did. I was hoping to base the next five or ten years of my life on basketball. Here, no one took it seriously. That's defeating. I haven't played competitive basketball in over a year. If you want to be good, you have to play every day."
Joe graduated from Don Bosco Technical High School, a Catholic school situated near Boston's Combat Zone. Joe grew up in a low-income housing project in Allston right down the street from Harvard Stadium. He is a city boy, and the transition to Harvard was immense.
"At Don Bosco, I didn't have to do any work I never studied seriously in my life, and I ended up ranking third in my senior class. It's a good Catholic school, but compared to Groton, Choate or a good public high school, it's run of the mill. I was ill-prepared, I didn't know how to study when I came here. Besides, I was the first All-American at the school, and they took care of me, you know, they let things slide they shouldn't have let slide."
Joe's senior year was an All-American success story. He was elected to several high school basketball All-America teams. He led his stellar basketball team over rival Ron Perry's Catholic Memorial to the State Championship. He was lauded in all the local media for his heroics. Scholar-athlete, school hero, interviews, all-expenses-paid-come-see-our-campus-strips, glitter and gold, from rages to riches.
"In high school, I was kingpin. I was kingpin in the city. Every night I'd go to dinner with some coach, I was wined and dined all over this city. I always had people telling me how great I was and no matter how humble you are, it's eventually going to get to you."
Joe had his pick of colleges. He had a free ride wherever he wanted to go.
"I wanted to be an enigma. I wanted to be the kid who could have gone anywhere in the country and went to Harvard. People who weren't involved with basketball were impressed but a lot of those who were felt that I had thrown my basketball career out the window. I was ready to change Harvard basketball. I wanted a good education--no, a Harvard education. The biggest reason why anybody comes to Harvard is because it's Harvard."
But while Joe was shrouded in anonymity of freshman basketball at the IAB, Perry was making Sports Illustrated. All the fickle fans had disappeared: the stands were now empty. Joe was on his own, at Harvard.
"People told me students would be apathetic at Harvard, but Jesus...I'm 6' 10" and no one knew that I played basketball!! There are a lot of negative things here for athletes. The big, dumb jock image is a classic mockery. People say, "ugh, you sweat?"
One of the people who cautioned Joe about Harvard was his high school coach, Kevin Mackey, now assistance baseball coach at B.C.
"Harvard's a fantastic school," he said, "but I questioned the commitment Harvard had to basketball. I was concerned about their attendance, facilities, and past record. For my brother, football here was great. The atmosphere, the fans, the attention made it a fantastic experience. This was what Joe was accustomed to in high school.
"There is a lack of blacks in the Harvard program. Joe is the product of inner-city basketball, he's used to playing with black kids and their style of ball. I don't criticize Harvard's casual approach to the game, it's just not right for Joe. Joe would be cheating himself not to try to play pro. And to do this, you have to play every day, a gym has to be available, competition has to be available. You don't stay the same in this game, you either get better or worse."
Throughout high school, Mackey was a paternal figure for the fatherless Beaulieu, and Joe feels secure that he will be playing at BC under a man who is more than a coach, and who will push Joe's talents to their limits.
At BC, Joe feels he can take basketball more seriously and receive a good education--"though not a Harvard education"--at the same time.
Beaulieu feels that Satch was "too laid back," that he didn't drive his players hard enough. Mackey echoes Beaulieu's concerns, saying "Joe needs to be pushed, to be motivated."
Tom Davis is Bob Zuffelato's successor as head basketball coach at BC, and he brings with him an impeccable record from Lafayette.
"When Joe came to me," Davis said, "I let him know that he could meet his academic goals here, as well as his athletic ones. Joe's an intelligent person, he knows what he wants. We want to make BC basketball a competitive program and I'm going to get after Joe and push him to develop his potential."
Bobby Bigelow plays for the Kansas City Kings and has been a close friend of Beaulieu's for five years. He says he understands Joe's move to BC.
"Having played at Penn, I was one of the key reasons he went to Harvard in the first place," Bigelow pointed out. "The whole conflict between books and basketball has touched every player at a school like Harvard. I think at this point, basketball has become a bigger part of Joe's life than it was before. He has very good raw ability--it won't be easy, but he has the potential to be a professional."
Bigelow cited the freshman rule as a very discouraging element for Beaulieu and for most good athletes in the Ivy League.
"I know that it kept Adrian Dantley [Notre Dame standout] away from Penn," he said.
The athletic limbo created by the rule was a "pain in the ass" for Joe. "It was something I was prepared for--provided the freshman program was at least competitive--and it wasn't. I am no better now than I was when I left high school, and I should be a quantum leap better."
Joe Beaulieu seems to resurrect the question of whether a competitive basketball program, nationally or locally, can exist at Harvard.
At the end of August, Francis Rosa of the Boston Globe blasted Harvard's year-long, aimless quest for an athletic director. Rosa questioned Derek Bok's attitude toward the athletic program at Harvard.
Harvard's commitment to basketball has been something Joe has questioned since the end of his freshman year.
"Everything the Globe said is true," Joe insisted. "It reflects Harvard's attitude towards athletics; it's so wishy-washy. Another place that takes its athletics seriously would have had an AD in a week."
"There's no reason why Harvard shouldn't have the best athletes, the best facilities, especially with the value of a Harvard education."
The absence of black players on the varsity was another factor which influenced Joe's attitude toward the basketball program.
Joe pointed out that there were no blacks on the varsity last year and that there are many superior players shooting hoops in the intramurals. Many black players depsise the style of basketball Harvard plays.
"It's not a schoolyard, run-and-gun type of game. It's a well-constructed, deliberate game of jump shots; not full of slam dunks and blocked shots. Basketball is a serious ritualistic thing for kids in the ghetto, and it's such a sham for these kids that they sit in the stands and laugh and I can't say that I blame them."
But Satch Sanders, now assistant coach for the Boston Celtics, feels "that we were on the road after last year."
"Joe's loss is going to hurt. His leaving means that other players will have to work harder."
McLaughlin recognizes "poor support for basketball across the board." He's begun calling players and alumni for support and has been busy hiring a staff.
"The main thing is attitude," McLaughlin said.
Who knows? With Joe Beaulieu, Harvard may have had a winner. Joe Beaulieu feels he can't afford to wait and see.