Play It Forward: Men's Basketball Builds Up

Guided by Tommy Amaker, the men's basketball team is leveraging Harvard resources to drive success.

Zena Edosomwan lays it up against Penn in Harvard's final regular season game of the 2016-17 season. Timothy R. O'Meara

Harry Lewis has donned many hats at Harvard. PhD candidate. Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science. Adviser. Author. Committee Member. Interim Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Dean of Harvard College.

And basketball recruiter?

When current freshman Chris Lewis was going through the recruiting process to play college basketball, he had one major stipulation—he wanted to study engineering. So, when Lewis visited Cambridge on his recruiting trip, Harvard coach Amaker brought out the big dogs. Not Celtics players who have made visits to the team in recent years, not former players who could be examples of Harvard athletes’ success after graduation, but Harry Lewis, who could show Chris around the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Chris Lewis received his first offers to play college basketball in the eighth grade. The 6’6’’ middle-schooler gained notoriety in a 15U basketball tournament, which led to scholarship offers from Memphis and New Mexico. But Lewis wasn’t satisfied. According to an article in Lewis’ local newspaper, the then-middle schooler told a reporter that “he’s hoping for Harvard, Duke, or North Carolina”.

When talking about college basketball, Duke and North Carolina are common knowledge. With 11 combined NCAA championships and 36 Final Four appearances, it’s normal for any young basketball player to see himself donning Carolina Blue or suiting up in primetime at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

But in 2012 when those initial offers came in, the Crimson had just made its first NCAA Tournament since 1946. It was not yet clear whether the trend of success on the hardwood was here to stay.

After the initial offers in eighth grade, major programs like Notre Dame and Auburn continued to pursue Lewis, but his desire to become an engineer led him down a different path. For some time, Lewis considered MIT, a Division III basketball program, to get the best-possible engineering education.

Over the past four years, you could count on one hand the number of players on the men’s basketball team who have concentrated in a department from SEAS, but Amaker didn’t hesitate to give Lewis the go-ahead during the recruitment process.

“When I asked him about it, he said that he would be very helpful and very accepting of my pursuit in engineering,” Chris Lewis said. “He helped in any way or fashion to allow me to be both great at engineering and basketball, and he’s been very helpful this year and has been very accepting of my workload.”

Player's Coach
Edosomwan is one of several highly-touted recruits that Amaker has lured to Cambridge.
Lewis isn’t alone in holding big academic dreams to go with a collegiate basketball career. Take rising senior captain Chris Egi.

Egi knew he wanted to go to Harvard when he was in the third grade. There’s even recorded evidence.

“There’s this video of me in third grade, and my mom is asking me about what I want to do when I grow up,” Egi said. “I’m like, ‘I’m going to go to Harvard, and I’m going to study and start my business.’ I’ve just always had this dream of going to Harvard and studying here.”

When the Markham, Ont., native stepped on campus in the fall of 2014, he wasn’t your average Harvard basketball recruit. Yes, he was only the second top-100 recruit that Amaker had ever brought to Harvard and was coming off a year at Montverde Academy in Florida in which he won a high school championship alongside Ben Simmons, the number one pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. But Egi was also a top student who had Harvard on his radar before he even knew that basketball would be in his future.

Egi’s inspiration to pursue academics at a high level and eventually join the business world came from his parents, both entrepreneurs. His father, Tony, moved from Nigeria to Canada at the age of 16 to pursue a university education and went on to start a business in land development and real estate in Toronto. His mother, Christiana, owns a group care home for adults with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Across Harvard’s 42 varsity teams, a disproportionate number of athletes tend to concentrate in economics as compared to the general student body, but Egi doesn’t align with many athlete stereotypes. In the spring of 2016, Egi was honored with the Detur Book Prize, which recognizes sophomores who “attained very high academic standing in their first year” as he notched a 3.96 GPA. In addition to doing well in his own classes, he has contributed his time to tutoring other students in economics and math with Harvard’s Bureau of Study Counsel.

“When Chris decided to come to Harvard, one of the coaches that had been a part of his growth and development through the years...said, ‘You don’t know this yet, but you guys just have the future Prime Minister of Canada coming to play Harvard basketball,’” Amaker said.

Egi has backed up his prediction from third grade in pursuit of starting his own business. The economics concentrator has been the top student on the basketball team in each of his three years according to Amaker and is heading to New York to work as a summer analyst at Goldman Sachs for the second year in a row.

Goldman Sachs is not an internship for the faint of heart, with long hours being the norm for every summer analyst. But for a student-athlete, sport doesn’t stop in the summer, either. Coaches expect players to maintain a fitness regimen and improve areas of weakness.

“My typical daily schedule this summer was that I would wake up at like 5:45 and work out with a trainer from like 6 to 7:30,” Egi said. “I would get breakfast, get showered, get to the office by 9, and work till like 11, midnight. Then rinse, wash, repeat.”

“It was definitely a grind,” he added. “When you prioritize things—and basketball is a priority to me, and work is a priority to me—I think you’re willing to make those sacrifices.”

Getting to the Hole
Co-captain Siyani Chambers drives to the hoop against Penn.
In recent years, the Harvard men’s basketball team has garnered national attention during its rise in the NCAA ranks. The Crimson went from a team that hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament since 1946 to one that went four consecutive years from 2012 to 2015—from a team that never had a player in the NBA to one where top-100 players consistently choose to don crimson as a precursor to the pipeline to professional basketball.

Despite all this transformation, the program hasn’t compromised academic standards for on-court success. Much of this steadiness has to do with Amaker.

When Harvard pursued him in 2007, Amaker was intrigued by the possibility of being a “first” at Harvard. The former Duke standout had coached at more high-profile programs in Seton Hall and Michigan, but he saw an opportunity with the Crimson to take an unproven program and bring it to a new level of success. To Amaker, however, the job was bigger than sports.

“It drives me to think about the Tommy Lee Joneses and the Zuckerbergs and the Gates and the President Obamas—folks like that,” Amaker told CBS in its “Men of March” special that aired in February. “To celebrate the current team at Harvard, how cool would that be?”

Teaching has always been a part of Amaker’s life, and it played a big role in his decision to come to Harvard. The Virginia native grew up in a family of teachers, most notably his mom, who taught in Fairfax County for 50 years. Because of this background, Amaker noted that he doesn’t view his job description as a “coach” but as a “teacher,” having learned more from one particular coach than he did from any teacher or professor—Mike Krzyzewski.

“I look back at my own existence at 18 through 22—my experiences at Duke—and I realize how fortunate and lucky I was [for] the people that guided me and lead me,” Amaker said. “That started with Coach K. I’ve always said he was the best teacher that I had at Duke, and that’s no offense to any professor that I had in any class because there are some world-renowned professors and teachers at Duke. I do think that the teaching component of integrating all that Harvard has to offer with our basketball players, our student-athletes, is amazing.”

Amaker earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Duke in 1987 but went on to pursue an MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business after being cut from the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics. During his first year of the MBA program, Amaker worked as a graduate assistant but took on a full-time assistant coaching vacancy the next season.

Amaker saw Harvard’s academic prestige as a tool that he could use to find top players. Along with increased financial aid opportunities through the Harvard Financial Aid initiative—which which began in 2004—Amaker went after a wider range of players than his predecessors, expanding the scope of the regions that he covered and the types of families that he approached.

"One of the points of our mission here as an athletic department is that we educate through athletics, and that's important for us," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.

Jonathan Walton has seen this method at work firsthand. He has been a mentor to the team and involved in the recruiting process since rising to his current position as the Pusey Minister at Memorial Church in 2012.

“There are so many people in different regions of the country and from different backgrounds that a place like Harvard is invisible to,” Walton said. “They are doing great work, they meet the academic standards, they could come here and thrive as well as anybody else, yet no one in their life has ever said to them, ‘You should consider Harvard.’.... I think that’s part of [Amaker’s] gift and his skill and why he has helped to make Harvard a better place.”

According to a data project by The Crimson in 2014, the men’s basketball program had 64 players from New York, Connecticut, and Maryland combined between 1970 and 2007, when Amaker took over the coaching job. By comparison, Amaker successfully recruited just three players from those three states between 2007 and 2014. According to the data set, Lewis’ commitment made him the fifth Harvard player to hail from Georgia, four of which came in the Amaker era.

You know that Amaker has gotten in a recruit’s ear when he recites one of the coach’s quintessential recruiting phrases—that Harvard is a “40-year decision” rather than just a four-year one. Only now, instead of convincing players that their Harvard education will be there when they want to pursue business or medicine after their basketball careers end at commencement, he’s reminding players that their degree will be there when they exhaust their options at the professional level—whether that involves playing abroad, in the NBA D-League, or in the Association itself.

While Harvard was on Lewis’ radar prior to his recruitment, it would not have been surprising for a player of his caliber to choose a more proven basketball program. Yes, Lewis is certainly considering professional basketball in his future, but he also has firsthand experience with what life after professional athletics looks like. Lewis is the son of former New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, known best in New England for laying the hit on former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe that thrust Tom Brady into the lead role in 2001. Since retiring from the NFL at the age of 34, Lewis has shown Chris how much life remains after a sports career, and thus the value of non-athletic academic goals.

Additionally, there is an element of pride in defying athlete stereotypes. At a press conference in March, the coach recalled a story that Lewis had told him during the recruiting process about a teacher trying to tell him that he was in the wrong place when he showed up for an AP Government class.

“He was supposed to take a certain class because it’s for…the gifted and talented kids,” Amaker said. “[Chris] showed up for the class, and he’s towering over everybody. He is how he looks; he’s who he is. The teacher, or whoever it was guarding the door, [says], ‘You’re not supposed to be in here. And he’s like, ‘What do you mean? Why not?’ It got to the point that he had to explain that he was one of those kids that was supposed to be in that [class].”

Senior forward Zena Edosomwan had a similar experience. Upon entering high school at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, he was tasked with selecting a foreign language to study. His guidance counselor and basketball coach recommended Spanish, but Edosomwan wanted to take Mandarin. Despite the school’s hesitations given the challenges of his other subjects and his need to keep up with basketball, Edosomwan pursued his pick. Now, nearly nine years later, Edosomwan is graduating Harvard with a degree in East Asian Studies.

While 20 percent of the Harvard student body participates in intercollegiate athletics—and can be found in all areas of study across the university—nationwide stereotypes of collegiate athletes pervade even strong academic institutions. In 2013, North Carolina was found guilty of creating opportunities for athletes to enroll in “fake classes”—ones that either didn’t exist or were created with minimal requirements so that athletes, particularly of major revenue-earning sports, could maintain academic eligibility.

This was just one example, but the event brought the conversation of academics and intercollegiate athletics to the forefront. The NCAA maintains standards for teams that fail to show progress for athletes towards graduation or who drop below a certain grade level, but universities often respond by steering their players towards supposedly easier fields or courses.

To play in the Ivy League, each team must follow a statistic known as the Academic Index—a number between 60 and 240 which is calculated using SAT and SAT II scores, GPA, and class rank. Every student is assigned a number on this spectrum, with each athletic team required to remain no lower than one standard deviation below the average for non-athletes. According to a 2013 article published in The Crimson, each individual student athlete must meet a minimum AI of 176, while the average Ivy League student holds approximately a 220. A 176 represents approximately a 3.0 GPA and an 1140 out of 1600 on the SAT.

However, with a typical standard deviation between 12 and 16 points, with the 220 Ivy League mean, and with no individual school dipping below 200 on average, it is likely that no program sits at the league minimum of 176.

To be sure, Harvard’s rapid rise in recruiting and NCAA performance did raise eyebrows to the methods of attracting basketball players to the university. Claims that the school lowered its standards for admission for basketball players as it went through the coaching transition were highlighted in a New York Times article in 2008, but the university denied such claims.

There was a well-publicized instance of academic wrongdoing in 2012, when the men's basketball team's co-captains withdrew amid the Government 1310 cheating scandal. However, the case affected more than men's basketball, as over 120 Harvard students were investigated.

To meet proper AI scores, some Harvard athletes—including basketball players—choose to go to a fifth year of prep school to prepare themselves for the rigor of the Ivy League. Current players on the roster attended preparatory schools such as Northfield Mount Hermon and Vermont Academy—which each have sent several players to play basketball in the Ivy League—to improve their scores as well as their basketball skills.

Edosomwan was the most prominent player to pursue this route. The 6’9’’ big man was recruited to join the Crimson out of Harvard-Westlake but was unable to gain admission to Harvard based on his initial SAT score. Despite offers from 39 total schools who would have taken him straight out of high school, Edosomwan decided to fight to get to Harvard by pursuing a postgraduate year at Northfield Mount Hermon, even if it meant potentially risking his basketball career if he suffered an injury. He was eventually able to improve his scores and gain admission to the class of 2017.

But the importance of academics for Amaker doesn’t end with the caliber of students that he brings into the program. Adding learning opportunities to team activities is of equal, if not greater, importance.

“One of the points of our mission here as an athletic department is that we educate through athletics, and that’s important for us,” Amaker said. “It’s important that we share that with our current student athletes and things that we want them to be engaged and involved in on campus. We want them to be a part of this community and think that they can learn.”

Lewis Link
Forward Chris Lewis received a personalized pitch from SEAS professor Harry R. Lewis ’68.
As part of a plethora of team activities that go on outside the confines of Lavietes Pavilion, Amaker has created a program for his team that he calls “Food, Faculty, and Fellowship” in which prominent professors give lectures to the team to engage them in academic pursuits outside of their regular coursework.

One session this season that stood out to Egi and several other players was with Harvard Business School professor Steven Rogers. A former student-athlete himself, Rogers put himself in the players’ shoes by using the Socratic method to engage them rather than just make them listen while he instructed.

“I’m very cognizant of talking to athletes,” Rogers said. “That is, athletes are—as a former player myself—we’re accustomed to sitting in a room and being lectured at...Typically, we sit in a room, and unless we’re actually playing, we’re sitting in a room being told, instructed—never sort of this sort of interaction. They’re very good and conditioned to be listeners primarily. I think one of the things that I’ve always done when I have athletes as an audience is to engage them.”

Rogers spoke on the fundamentals of business and entrepreneurship—first because of an interest among many players such as Egi who hope to go into business after basketball, but also because of the applicability of his lessons to sports.

“I taught to them the theory of sunk costs, which is a business concept that says you make business decisions about today and tomorrow based on information about what’s best for today and tomorrow, not based on your investment yesterday,” Rogers added. “I said, ‘To think about that whole concept, isn’t that similar to what you have to do as an athlete?’ That is, you have to leave behind what you’ve done in the past and focus on the here and now. So I told them it’s a natural move from the classroom to the hardwood.”

Since the session, players have gone back to Rogers to seek his mentorship and advice as they look to get the most out of their Harvard experience. For Amaker, one of the main goals of “Food, Faculty, and Fellowship” is to connect players with professors and mentors across Harvard’s campuses, not just to provide them with a few extra hours of classroom time.

“People come from all over the world to try to find answers, and they come to Harvard to get the answers,” Amaker said. “Whatever some of the concepts or challenges or issues or questions that we may have, on the floor and off the floor, or with our team-building dynamics, leadership, teamwork, whatever it is, we think that the answers are somewhere on this campus. We think that we have amazing people and the people have been so willing to embrace us.”

Amaker’s bond with the faculty began almost instantly. As the only African-American coach in the Athletic Department at the time of his hiring, African-American faculty members started a monthly breakfast tradition that they refer to as the “Breakfast Club”. The original group consisted of Amaker, law professors Charles Ogletree and Ron Sullivan, and journalist Howard Manly, but it has since grown considerably in size. While Amaker claims that they don’t “talk shop” at the breakfast club, he has forged friendships with faculty members that he has passed along to his players.

“Coach Amaker and I were appointed the same year. We met each other very early on and became friends,” said Sullivan, the faculty dean of Winthrop House. “Tommy was always interested in making sure that his athletes got a holistic experience, so from day one he was always thinking about innovative ideas to ensure that the experience that the basketball players had at Harvard was as full and complete as possible.”

The innovation has gone beyond facilitating professor-student connections. Amaker has brought his players outside the gates of Harvard so they can share their Harvard experiences with the community at large. This practice includes annual trips to the local Boys and Girls Club where the players aim to inspire the children attending the club and demonstrate that they too can make it at Harvard.

“I think it’s really fun and important at the same time, just to get in touch with the youth and kind of bring them our working habits and show them how we were where they were and how they can get to Harvard no matter what,” sophomore forward Balsa Dragovic said. “Anything can happen here. You don’t have to be perfect to get into Harvard.”

Facilitating ways for his team to give back is a significant part of Amaker’s goals in creating a thriving basketball program.

“We also are constantly talking to our kids—kids that we recruit and talk about having here,” Amaker said. “We talk to them about the opportunities that they can bring to Harvard themselves. Their pieces that they can add to the greatness of Harvard, where they are from, who they are, what they’re interested in, how they look. Whatever their interests may be, they can add, and we want them to always understand that they bring value too.”

High Motor
Big-time recruit Chris Lewis plans to study engineering.
Every day at practice, Amaker has a quote of the day. At the end of one particular session last season, Amaker shared some words from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.”

While the success that Amaker has achieved at the helm of the basketball program is unprecedented for Harvard, he’s not content with where the team stands. On the court, the Crimson strives to go even further in the NCAA Tournament than its predecessors. In recruiting, Amaker has continued to push boundaries of what was expected for a Harvard recruit, most publicly going after the No. 4 recruit in the class of 2017, Wendell Carter.

Though Carter eventually chose Duke, it was his consideration of Harvard that made national headlines. When asked why he was considering Harvard, the Amaker-speak was clear from the get-go—that he wanted to be different from his peers, that he knew the value of an education when basketball ends, and that Harvard could still get him to the NBA.

While Amaker didn’t persuade Carter to sign, the coach continues to push for high-caliber athletes. Lewis has shown that Amaker doesn’t leave his promises unfulfilled. Having wrapped up his freshman year, Lewis plans to spend his summer applying what he’s learned this year. First, he’ll return home to work for a local architect to learn about housing and building design, and then he’ll be back in Cambridge to do research with SEAS associate professor Conor Walsh.

“His desires or his academic pursuits, as for every kid, will always come first,” Amaker said. “We told him that, one of the things that Chris has mentioned after his first year here, is that he was really grateful because sometimes people say those things and don’t necessarily mean it or follow it through. We’re committed to Chris with that—committed to his growth and development in every way, not just basketball-wise and athletically.”

The team continues to embrace the mantle of “student-athlete.” Freshman guard Bryce Aiken summed it up at a postseason press conference in March when a reporter asked what part of the program’s story hadn’t received enough attention.

“Our impact off the court,” Aiken replied without hesitation. “Just us being at Harvard, [being] Harvard student-athletes. It just shows that life is bigger than basketball. You can do so many different things in this world and have an effect on so many other places and inspire the lives of so many people… People see that these basketball players can go to Harvard and still play the sport they love on a national level.”

—Staff writer Theresa C. Hebert can be reached at theresa.hebert@thecrimson.com.

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