Out of the Shadows
The bright artificial green of an Astroturf carpet covers the floor of Briggs Athletic Center, and when spring sports practices end for the day, the gym sits silent and empty.
At night, with the overhead lights off, the playing surface slips into green-tinted quiet. The only illumination comes from offices and signs at the corners of the huge room, made larger by the absence of stands.
Out of the dreamy semi-darkness that blankets Briggs, memories of two winning seasons rise up easily. Crowds seem to fill the bleachers again, and the shiny wood floor reappears and comes alive as warm-ups begin, or even a game.
Another Harvard men's basketball season has ended exactly like all the seasons that went before. For the 83rd year, no Ivy League title. Once again. Harvard in the middle of the pack.
It was a matter of fighting history had a long winning streak on its side. Try as it might, it seemed as if the only breaks Harvard would get would come after they could no longer help.
It wasn't supposed to be like this; last season, the inevitable did not come until the final weekend, with a loss to Cornell. The core of the Crimson's second-place returned last fall looking ready to pick up where it left off.
It was supposed to be a romp through the weaker squads in the conference and a challenge from Penn and Cornell, and it started out looking that way, with eight non-conference victories in a row.
It ended last Saturday night far from Briggs, with a bitter one-point loss to a bunch of Yale freshmen in the gym where the Crimson's co-captains once recorded their career highs. Like the season, the game slipped away, and before Harvard could grab it and spend the time it would take to turn the whole thing around, it was gone.
"This game sort of exemplifies the whole season," Harvard Coach Frank McLaughlin said later, after his squad had battled back from a 16-point disadvantage and lost anyway, posting a 15-9 overall, 7-7 Ivy mark, tied for fourth in the league.
He continued wearily, saying as he did all season, "We don't have the dominating talent--when we're on, we can play as well as anybody, and when we're not on, we can lose to anybody."
His squad was on for the first part of its season, the part that included Division II and III opponents and Dartmouth, the worst team in the Ivies. The first sign of trouble came after winter break, when the Big Green visited Cambridge and left with what would be one-quarter of its league wins.
But it wasn't until February that the bottom fell out and Harvard started losing--first the Crimson lived up to its early promise by sweeping Princeton and Penn on the road for the first time in Harvard hoop history.
In mid-January, at the Tigers' Jadwin, it seemed that the team could will itself to win, despite the odds and the defending league champions. The next night, at the Quakers' Palestra, the burden of history, and the curse of not being able to win on the road, fell away--for a while.
"We rely and play on emotion," sophomore Keith Webster said after the final game of the season. But emotion only carried his squad past its Ivy opponents once; it split with every team in the league, and only in the Cornell series was Harvard's loss in the second game.
The turning point came exactly where the previous season had taken a dramatic upswing: Duke came to Briggs in February 1984 and escaped with a three-point victory, and the Crimson won eight of its next 10; Harvard traveled to Durham, N.C. a year later, lost by 26 more points, and skidded.
Lehigh and Lafayette were the first two legs of the trip to Duke. "It's been bad since the Lehigh-Lafayette trip," McLaughlin said after Columbia downed Harvard a month later and his team fell to 6-5 in the league.
Little consolation lay in the fact that the Lions would go on to a second-place Ivy finish, because the slide had already begun. Emotion could do only so much, and it had helped to carry the Crimson past insignificant early-season opponents like Manhattan, Holy Cross, and even lowly Merrimack. The peak came too early to help when it really mattered.
Even the squad's other big weapon, its deadly free-throw shooting, faltered once opponents caught on to it and adjusted their strategies accordingly. Suddenly, Harvard was being outscored in the second half, and just as suddenly, Harvard was losing.
The five starters did yeoman's work, playing the whole 40 minutes more often than not. Arne Duncan, Pat Smith and Webster all set career highs in scoring over the course of the season. Senior Co-Captains Joe Carrabino and Bob Ferry turned in performances that would make them, respectively, first- and second-team All-Ivy selections.
After the second Columbia game, Ferry could only shake his head in disappointment and remark. "I don't know what happened--I don't know what to say."
And so it went. Exhausted, the starters finished almost every game, for even when McLaughlin went to his bench, he found freshman nerves and inexperience, not the skills he needed.
All but two of the freshmen played with the j.v. this year, working on fundamentals. A more enthusiastic bench would be hard to find. But finding replacements for Carrabino and Ferry--Harvard's first and third all-time leading scorers--will nonetheless be a long, difficult task.
The best player in a program's history, such as Carrabino, come-along just once in a lifetime. A recruit as highly heralded as Ferry is hard to find even at a traditional basketball power which Harvard certain is not.
"I was disappointed for them," Webster said after the pair finished their careers in defeat. "They had pretty brilliant careers."
The burden falls now on the recruits who came after Ferry, who have spent the past two or three years in the co-captains' long shadows steadily improving.
Watching the imaginary activity in empty Briggs, the players separate into to distinct figures. Carrabino takes a pass in the corner, looks around, and releases a perfect 22-ft rainbow. Ferry drives to the lane, fakes left, and goes in for the easy layu.
Just as clear, though, is the memory of Duncan, disappearing into traffic along the baseline and reappearing underneath the basket, drawing the foul as he shoots.
Playing defense, Smith takes a charge, then brings the ball up, sails to the top of the key, pulls up, and hits the jumper.
Webster, the best athlete of the five, runs with anyone else's fleet guards and eludes them. He barks out a play, passes and, a moment later, appears out of nowhere to can an unchallenged jump shot.
Less distinct, and less familiar, is the squadron of players who mostly watched this year. The heaviest burden is on them, and on McLaughlin, who says he will need help from the Harvard administration to bring the program up to its potential.
"You can't get a better group of kids to represent a university," he said Saturday, "but you can't expect miracles either."