From Big Ten to the Quad

How a Golden Gopher Became an IM Legend

Leah Pillsbury

The 6’6 point guard dribbles down the court, looking for a crease in the defense.

He spots the hole, heads right, crosses over left, and barrels into the left side of the paint.

As he rises to the basket, the lay-up is contested, forcing the big man to lower his head, glide under the hoop, and deliver a silky-smooth reverse lay-up.

A move like this conjures memories of Dr. J, King James, or maybe just your average NCAA All-American.

But this is no Michael Jordan. The sequence does not take place at the United Center or Cameron Indoor or even Lavietes Pavilion.

It happens in a dusty gym tucked away in the Quad, at an Intramural Basketball game between Cabot and Currier houses.

And that is what makes the play, in more ways than one, unbelievable.

The same could be said about the athletic career of the Cabot point guard. Senior Zachary Puchtel is not your average Crimson I.M. basketball captain.

Many intramural squads have one ringer—“that” guy who was recruited to play soccer but chose not to, and despite not playing for four years, scores five goals a game to lead his house to championship glory.

But the term ringer doesn’t even come close to describing Puchtel. He is “that” guy who played Division I Big Ten basketball last season, starting the final 14 games of the season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers (see article, 3/9/06). He is “that” guy who dunks on unassuming sophomores like it’s his job.

“I show up to the gym and there is this massive mound of man dunking and ‘oop-ing’ left and right,” Clement D. Wright ’09 says. “Quite frankly, it was frightening.”

Horror stories such as these have circulated through the arena of I.M. sports like urban myth—with the talented but dreaded Puchtel at the center.

And for those true believers, Puchtel does not disappoint.

In a recent victory over Currier House, Puchtel is all over the court. Assisting to Cabot’s three-hundred pound center for a lay-up, drawing triple teams and dishing it out for the open three, taking charges—it’s all-around play that might make John Wooden proud.

Now, after playing under the lights at Michigan State and Indiana, Puchtel wouldn’t be blamed for taking plays off at the Quad. But what strikes fear into the hearts of the Harvard I.M. basketball league is that game in, game out, he is there to play.

“It was inspiring,” Wright says. “The thing was, for his first basket, he dunked and then screamed, shaking the gym. He did not mess around.”

The irony is that his intense play, which has angered I.M. basketball purists, is exactly what brought Puchtel up from the obscurity of Harvard junior varsity basketball to ESPN primetime with the Golden Gophers. He has been lauded by the likes of Tom Izzo, a national champion coach for Michigan State, for this very reason.

He wants to win—and win big—in every game he plays.

“We played all right tonight,” Puchtel said after his victory over Currier. “But I was a little frustrated that we won by 15. We usually win by 40.”

Puchtel’s desire rubbed off on his Minnesota teammates last year. In his breakout game against then-No.11 Indiana, Puchtel shut down Hoosiers star Marco Killingworth, holding him to 6-of-14 shooting in an astonishing 61-42 Minnesota win.

Over his final thirteen games in the Big Ten, he started each one, with the highlight of the half season coming against No. 11 Michigan State, when he dropped thirteen points on Tom Izzo’s defending Final Four team in an upset victory.

This year, Puchtel tosses in thirteen points—with a three here, a three-point play there— in about three minutes.

But the biggest difference in coming back to Cambridge is not points-per-game average. It’s lack of notoriety. On the Minnesota campus, after a big game, Puchtel was a star. After a huge victory here, he is welcomed with problem sets instead of post-game interviews—tired looks instead of hugs of gratitude. As every student at Harvard knows, it is simply a different environment—and one that, for Puchtel, has been difficult to get used to.

“At Harvard and Minnesota, you’re in two different worlds,” Puchtel says. “In a big Division I university, you play sports and you’re put on a platform; here, you play sports and its cool—but not to that degree.”

But Puchtel’s fifteen minutes of fame might not be over yet. Last May, the Chicago Bears offered Puchtel a tryout, despite the fact that Puchtel had not played football since catching passes at tight end for the Crimson his freshman year. Although the transition back to football was difficult, he showed signs of progression—enough for him to pick up an agent and continue to explore his NFL options. The allure for teams rests in the hope that he can follow in the model of successful college basketball players-turned superstar tight ends such as Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez.

And he has support in this pursuit right here at Harvard.

“I’ll be the first one to admit that I didn’t expect that he’d be able to play basketball in the Big Ten,” Crimson football head coach Tim Murphy says. “I maybe caught five minutes of a Minnesota Gopher game, and I sent him a note, an e-mail congratulations, after he’d been in Sports Illustrated, and I said, ‘yeah, you should give football a try.”

This support, however, does not extend into the realm of intramurals. Puchtel is allowed to participate in basketball because his collegiate eligibility has not run out, but as he still has collegiate football eligibility, any game he participates in for Cabot I.M. football is forfeit.

The bizarre tale of I.M. dominance, however, does not stop there. Puchtel’s case is similar to that of one of his classmates, former Harvard star receiver Brian Edwards ’05-'07: the same Brian Edwards who was the favorite target of current St. Louis Rams quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 during the Crimson’s 2003 campaign and its 2004 undefeated season. Edwards attempted to play I.M. football for Winthrop this year. For the same reason as Puchtel, however, he is prohibited from playing I.M. football.

And it is too bad for Winthrop. Any team would take a guy who averaged 143.9 yards per game for an undefeated Division I team during the 2004 season. That must translate into at least five touchdowns—okay, give him six.

Despite Edwards and Puchtel’s lack of PT on the pitch, Puchtel can still ball on the hardwood. For now, this is the only outlet for his competitive drive, and the only opportunity to somehow remember the limelight of yesteryear.

An NFL contract may await him, but at the moment, his gridiron is a dusty gym off Garden Street.

—Staff writer Walter E. Howell can be reached at wehowell@fas.harvard.edu.

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