Short Film Honors Coach's Philosophy

“Act As If” chronicles career of Kathy

If you’re as beloved and celebrated a personality as Kathy Delaney-Smith, you shouldn’t have to do much pretending.

But Harvard women’s basketball’s head coach for 27 years running has a mantra that at once belies and explains her confidence: “Act As If.”

A short documentary of that title, written and directed by Melissa Johnson ’00, played last night at the AMC/Loews Boston Common Theater as part of the Boston International Film Festival. The festival began last Friday and runs through this Sunday, April 26.

The mantra “act as if,” a hallmark of Delaney-Smith’s coaching philosophy dating back to her first days as a head coach, focuses on the importance of carrying oneself with confidence and concealing concern from others.

The coach recounted a story from the start of her coaching career, where she read about various basketball drills in her office and then directed practice, running the newly learned drills as if she had known them for years.

“It’s not Xs and Os, it’s psychology,” Delaney-Smith explained. “I was fooling a lot of people early.”

Johnson’s film tracks Delaney-Smith’s career from her beginnings as the head coach at Westwood (Mass.) High School and her tireless support of Title IX policies, to her success at the helm of Harvard’s program—a program that, under Delaney-Smith’s guidance, has won 11 Ivy titles and garnered the only victory by a 16-seeded team over a top-seeded team in the NCAA tournament.

That win by Harvard’s 1998 squad over top-ranked Stanford—a game that Delaney-Smith admitted was “full of ‘act as if’s’”—featured prominently in Johnson’s film, complete with an ESPN interview in which Delaney-Smith compared the happiness of that day to that of her wedding day.

But it had been a long and varied road until that point. Raised in Newton, Mass. as the fifth of six children in a blue-collar family, Delaney-Smith had considered Harvard another world.

“There’s the perception that Harvard is a geek school, a rich school, an entitled school,” Delaney-Smith said on camera. “When I applied for the job and told my mom, there was silence on the other end.”

As the 6’5 Johnson discussed the idea behind “Act As If,” the crowd didn’t need too much explanation to figure out that she spent her time at Harvard on the hardwood.

But for one weekend last year at Lavietes Pavilion, she traded in her sneakers for a camera, and shadowed Delaney-Smith and her Ivy champion squad.

The film includes personal interviews with seniors Emily Tay and Katie Rollins, sophomore Claire Wheeler, and several former players to highlight their experiences under Delaney-Smith’s tutelage. Many current and recent Harvard players, including outgoing co-captain Niki Finelli and 2008 captains Lindsay Hallion ’08 and Jessica Knox ’08, make cameos in game footage as well.

The film also dealt briefly with Delaney-Smith’s diagnosis with breast cancer, which the coach said forced her to “call on [the ‘act as if’ mentality] the most.”

She recounted a game her team was playing at Cornell, in which she was in the middle of delivering a locker room halftime speech and, as a side effect of her chemotherapy, forgot everything she had been planning to say.

“I had to ‘act as if,’” she remembered on camera, “but really, I was humiliated.”

The film features many anecdotes like these and, perhaps more importantly, assures the audience that hundreds more like it were left on the cutting room floor.

Now that Johnson has tackled the story of her former coach, she turns her attention to a project about Tay and Rollins, and their ambition to continue their basketball careers in Europe after their June graduations.

Tay said that Johnson has already compiled roughly 90 hours of rough footage featuring the two players, and admits that she has come a long way since she first told her coach that she was unwilling to be interviewed in front of the camera.

“I’m very shy and don’t like being in the spotlight—I didn’t want to do it at all,” Tay recalled in a phone conversation. “[Delaney-Smith] just forced me to do it, and after [Johnson] was around for a while I felt a lot more comfortable.”

“I did a lot of work to try to make her feel relaxed,” Johnson added. “She was the toughest.”

While Delaney-Smith was unable to attend last night’s screening—she is recovering from back surgery—her philosophy touched every part of Johnson’s project. The footage of Delaney-Smith’s speeches on the Lavietes Pavilion sideline, coaches and players’ soft-spoken remarks in front of the camera, and the film’s own status as the artist’s fledgling idea all contribute to a short but affecting project.

“If you ‘act as if,’ it becomes a reality,” Delaney-Smith said.

—Staff writer Emily W. Cunningham can be reached at ecunning@fas.harvard.edu.

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