M. Hoops Battles to Doomed End

It was Dylan Thomas in reverse.

See, Harvard men’s basketball captain Brady Merchant refused to go gentle into that good night. Long after the optimism stirred by the Crimson’s 7-2 start to the season was exposed as false hope, long after Harvard’s premature run through the Penn-Princeton gauntlet doomed the team to another year of mediocrity, long after the Pat Harvey affair signed the death note, Merchant was still raging, raging against the dying of the light.

And his dad was there in the stands the entire time, urging him on through every last bit of defiance.

Dave Merchant had retired from his high school coaching job in Ohio in order to follow the final year of his son’s career. As that final season became the final month and the final month the final weekend, what the elder Merchant witnessed from the stands was no relaxed ride off into the sunset. Instead, as the season descended toward depths that made a mockery of one of the program’s most talented teams in a while, Dave Merchant’s son only burned and raved all the more.

So did Merchant’s compatriot, senior point guard Elliott Prasse-Freeman, who in January became the all-time Ivy assist king but didn’t find any contentment in it. Instead, he waxed about the failure his career would be if he and the rest of Harvard’s all-senior starting five didn’t secure for the school an NCAA tournament bid.

For a while, that dream didn’t seem so preposterous. The Crimson got off to the program’s best start in 18 years and nearly upset Boston College on the Eagles’ home floor.

But then came the infernal road trip to Penn and Princeton, where good seasons go to die. After a pair of setbacks there, compounded by road losses at Yale and Brown the next weekend, the inevitable quickly set in.

But as the fate of the previous 50 years of Harvard men’s basketball gradually swallowed him up, Merchant refused to go away any way except kicking and screaming. Even when it became official that Harvey’s season had ended for academic reasons, Merchant talked bravely about the adjustments Harvard would make to hang in the race. We’ll just focus more on our defense, he said.

The truth was, losing Harvey officially made Merchant and Co. dead men walking for the remainder of the season. To think there was life after Harvey bordered on irrational. Denial, even. But if it seemed delusional, well, Merchant was playing out the twilight of his career like a man possessed anyway.

Having contented himself with the role of sixth man for three years, Merchant was universally recognized as one of those people due to inherit the earth. But there was nothing meek about his last-ever game against Princeton, when Merchant exploded for a game-high 22 points, his two three-pointers in the final minute singlehandedly bringing Harvard within a basket of toppling the Tigers.

There was nothing polite either about his outburst the next week at Columbia, where he finished with a career-high 27 points, including 15 straight in a span of six minutes to put his team ahead in the second half.

And there certainly was nothing deferent about the last game he’ll ever play, when Merchant poured in an astounding, school-record 45 points in yet another valiant, but losing, effort against Brown.

Hell of a game, it was. Those there—Dave Merchant among them—watched what should have been the fading embers of a modestly successful career blaze up one last, magnificent time like a funeral pyre, as Merchant, heart afire, delivered a barnburner for the ages to Lavietes Pavilion.

They saw Merchant, his career finished after being subbed out with under a minute to play, collapse into the somber comfort of hugs and tears along the bench, finally permitting himself release. And then, moments later, they saw him stride off the court arm-in-arm with Prasse-Freeman.

Their best effort was not enough. But they died trying.

After that loss to Princeton in which he’d scored 22, Merchant, who never once beat the Tigers, still refused to concede anything. He made the next generation of Crimson men’s basketball vow to end the team’s futility streak against the Orange Menace.

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