Basketball lasts forever, but basketball players don't.
Although Ralph James is just out of the starting gate--as a freshman, he leads the Crimson in scoring--he can already see the finish line.
While many players spend their lives looking forward to the day they will be able to play in the NBA, few ever actually make it. And the few that do make it are unprepared to face the "real world," having tuned their athletic instead of academic skills.
James is making sure he will not follow a similar path.
"Basketball will not last forever," says James, "and I want something to fall back on, and education is it."
As with many outstanding students. James was looking at the leading academic colleges--Ivy League schools, Stanford and Duke--in his junior and senior years in high school.
And the colleges were looking back at him. In James, they saw a top talent who could give immediate help to their programs.
After all. James has always been an impact player. At 6-ft., 4-in. and 200 lbs., James is usually too big for enemy forwards.
A three-year starter at Archbishop Molloy in New York, the West Hempstead, N.Y., native was captain of the Catholic School champions and the nation's number-three high school team, averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds a game.
In addition to being named first team All-State his junior and senior years, he was also on both the Converse All-American and Converse Academic teams, and honorable mention All-American.
And he could have been guaranteed the opportunity to continue his winning ways if he had picked Duke, a national basketball power and regular participant in the NCAA championships, or Stanford, a Pacific Coast power.
But he picked Harvard and a basketball team which had gone 15-37 over the past two years and had never captured an Ivy title.
He has been asked many times--by the media and others--why he picked Harvard over the basketball powers.
"I just tell them I picked Harvard because of the education. That's what I was really looking for in a college. I was considering other schools, but when I got my acceptance letter, I asked myself, "How in the world can I turn this down?"' James says.
So far, James has had immediate impact on the team. He leads the squad in scoring (14.1 points per game) and rebounding (5.7).
"Ralph brings us tremendous athletic ability," Harvard Coach Peter Roby says. "The guys are confident he will score. We know he can get us a big bucket or a big rebound."
He is equally adept at dribbling with his left or right hand, and is almost impossible to stop on a drive in the lane. He often dribbles into the lane, hangs in the air for a few eons and lets the ball go at the height of his jump.
But as good as he is, James had his problems on the court early on. James felt the pressure to do big things right away, and ended up taking many ill-advised shots.
"That was the problem at the beginning," James says, "I felt I had to score."
But as the saying goes, the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores, and James, in only half a season, has matured rapidly.
"The team is starting to come together," James says, "and I just have to do my job, whether it's rebounding or defense."
Over the course of the season, James began to exhibit more patience on offense. He and his teammates began to pass the ball inside more. The balanced attack resulted in more wide-open shots for the perimeter shooters, namely James.
"He's been picking his spots much better," Roby says. "He's been letting the offense come to him."
James has led the Crimson in scoring in nine of the Crimson's first 15 games, including a career-high 24 points against Vermont. He has grabbed at least 10 rebounds on four occasions.
In his last trip back to hometown New York, he scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against Columbia--good enough to earn Ivy Rookie of the Week for the second consecutive week. He is the leading candidate for Ivy Rookie of the Year.
"If it happens, great," James says. "But if someone else wins it, I'm sure they will deserve it. I'm just trying to help this team win an Ivy championship."
If anyone has been campaigning for James, it has been the media. Although James has played in only 15 games, he has already been featured in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, N.Y. Times, N.Y. Post, N.Y. Daily News and Newsday.
USA Today is next.
"It's good to know that people like what I'm doing, on and off the court," James says. "You have to keep things in perspective. If you get barraged by reporters and cameras, you have to keep your head on straight."
Although he picked Harvard, he still does have NBA aspirations. But no more than any other kid who has picked up a basketball.
"I think it would be great to play a professional sport--to get paid for what you like to do," James says. "But I really liked working for Bear Stearns [a Wall Street firm] this past summer. The Wall Street scene could be for me. Or I may decide to become a doctor."
While he continues his adjustment to college athletics, drawing the attention of reporters and piling up awards, he has not forgotten why he is here.
"He's tremendously motivated," Roby says. "He hasn't lost sight of why he is here, and that is to get a good education. He has handled the media attention very well, and it hasn't changed him a bit."
"I think he is the perfect role model for kids in the Boston area," Roby adds, "especially young Black kids. He shows that you can combine athletic ability along with academics."