Heart and Soul of a Captain: Male Comeback Athlete of the Year

Co-captain Siyani Chambers wraps one of the most decorated careers in men's basketball history.

Co-captain Siyani Chambers rejoined the Crimson after missing last season with a torn ACL. Derek G. Xiao

“Siyani Chambers has been absolutely the most important player in our program.”

It was with these words that Harvard coach Tommy Amaker introduced his starting point guard in a “Men of March” feature for CBS earlier this year.

The evidence is there—Chambers graduates as the only Harvard player with more than 1,000 points and 600 assists in his career. As a freshman, he earned Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors, and he leaves Cambridge with two First Team All-Ivy League selections and a pair of second team picks. He is second on the Crimson’s all-time assists list, sixth in steals, and fourth in games played.

Since he first arrived at Harvard, however, Chambers has been more than a standout guard in the Ivy League—more than anything, the Golden Valley, Minn., native’s first three years in Cambridge are now synonymous with what can only be described as a golden age for Harvard men’s basketball.

As a freshman, he led a young Harvard squad to its third-ever NCAA tournament appearance, in which the Crimson would upset No. 3 seed New Mexico, 68-62, for its first ever tournament win.

An article from the New York Times summed it up in a sentence—“It was, if not a seismic upset, then a big one.”

Man of March
Chambers played in the NCAA Tournament in each of his first three seasons.

Despite a lackluster performance from Chambers, who finished with five points, seven assists, and five turnovers that game, for Amaker it was clear the then-freshman was at the heart of Harvard’s budding dynasty; in the ensuing celebration after the win, Amaker went out of his way to find Chambers for a hug that would mark the beginning of something special.

After that game, senior guard Christian Webster put it quite simply.

“He’s the leader on our team," Webster said. “Laurent [Rivard] and I are the captains, but he’s the leader. He drove this team."

As a freshman that year, Chambers was the Crimson’s second-leading scorer and its best passer. He averaged over 12 points and nearly six assists per game while shooting 43 percent from the field.

He was unanimously selected as the Ivy League Rookie of the Year and First Team All-Ivy League.

In his sophomore season, Chambers hardly slowed down. He averaged 11 points and five assists per game en route to Harvard’s third NCAA Tournament appearance. This time around, Harvard upset No. 5 seed Cincinnati. Against the Bearcats, Chambers cemented the win late with a step-back jumper and a steal. The Crimson would fall to No. 4 seed Michigan State, 80-73, in a tightly-contested matchup.

From there, the dynasty only continued.

Harvard went 22-8 during Chambers’ junior year with an 11-3 record in conference. In the Crimson’s final regular season game against Brown—a must-win to remain in contention for a share of the Ivy League and a chance to dance—Chambers dropped a team-high 15 points on 3-of-4 shooting from deep along with four assists and two steals. Harvard went on to win the tiebreaker against Yale at the Palestra and, for the fourth year in a row, the Crimson found itself in the Big Dance—this time against one of the most storied programs in college basketball, North Carolina.

After falling behind by as many as 16 points in that game, Harvard mounted a comeback fit only for March. The Crimson held the Tar Heels scoreless for over four minutes and strung together a 14-6 run late in the second half. The underdogs found themselves down by two with a little over a minute to play. With the shot clock winding down, Chambers took a deep three from the top of the key—he made the basket, with the foul, to give Harvard its first lead of the game.

Had the Crimson won, it might have gone down as the most memorable shot in school history.

Harvard would ultimately lose that game, but Chambers finished with 13 points, three assists, and three rebounds. The Crimson might have lost, but in a broader sense, Harvard was finally winning.

"He's the leader on our team. Laurent [Rivard] and I are the captains, but he's the leader. He drove this team," senior guard Christian Webster said.

Entering the 2014 game against Cincinnati, the Crimson had lost only four games all season. New York Post writer Mike Vaccaro tweeted, “Cincinnati in the rare position of a 5 seed looking to upset a 12 seed.”

After the narrow loss to UNC, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams went so far as to say, “We were extremely lucky. It’s the luckiest I’ve ever felt after a basketball game in my entire life.”

But perhaps Amaker himself said it best—speaking after the win against the Bearcats, he put it bluntly.

“We have become a program that’s relevant in the world of college basketball.”

Through those three seasons, the Crimson had a combined 69-23 record. Chambers would lead the league in assists and minutes played twice and never finished below 20th in the conference in scoring.

For a Harvard team that hadn’t danced in over six decades, those three years of basketball in March are forever tied to Chambers.

With the departure of fellow standout Wesley Saunders after the 2014-15 season, the spotlight was on Chambers and Chambers alone as he entered his senior year.

For the emerging guard and for Harvard men’s basketball, however, things came to a quick halt that summer.

A September press release from the Harvard Athletic Department broke the news, “Rising senior and returning captain Siyani Chambers will take a voluntary leave of absence from the college for the 2015-2016 academic year, after sustaining a torn ACL to his left knee while working out over the summer.”

After successful surgery in Minnesota, Chambers couldn’t help but stay close to the program that he had put on a national stage. In January, he returned to Cambridge—not as a student, but as a babysitter for the basketball team’s faculty fellow, Jonathan Walton.

The job as a babysitter allowed Chambers to be around the team, but it was on the court where the guard was perhaps missed the most.

No Cartilage, No Problem
Co-captain Siyani Chambers didn't miss a beat in his return to the men's basketball team. The Crimson finished second place in the Ivy League during the regular season.

What ensued was Harvard’s first losing season since the 2007-08 campaign. The Crimson lost seven of its first eight conference matchups, and despite the emergence of forward Zena Edosomwan as a force to be reckoned with inside, Harvard never got past its sluggish start.

The Crimson finished 14-16 overall and 6-8 in conference play. Speaking on the season, Edosomwan pointed to the missing piece.

“[I] kind of wanted to show people consistency and that I can play with the best and play at the highest level,” Edosomwan said. “But it was really hard not winning, especially given what we’ve been doing, and it obviously shows how much we missed Siyani and his leadership on the court.”

In his absence, Harvard’s rise to the top of the Ivy League halted. The program he had built up, however, was very much thriving.

Buoyed by four straight tournament appearances—including the upsets against New Mexico and Cincinnati along with near upsets of Michigan State and UNC—Harvard found itself in uncharted territory for the Ivy League. The Crimson had a recruited the 10th-best recruiting class in the nation, just in time for Chambers’ return.

It wasn’t all perfect, though.

His homecoming was to a team that had a total of seven upperclassmen and 13 underclassmen. Of the former group, the guard had only seen significant time on the floor with Edosomwan and co-captain Corbin Miller. Some of the most highly-touted recruits in program history figured to carve out spots in Amaker’s rotation.

Despite the moving pieces on the young team, Amaker felt the difference even before the season began.

“He is our undisputed leader,” said Amaker in early November. “It was evident what we missed from him when he was not here. Now we have him back and we feel the difference. There is a presence about him. He is a veteran point guard and he has led this team since the day he set foot on this campus and we’re just expecting him to do the same as a senior.”

Picked to finish second behind Princeton in the conference before the season began, Harvard couldn’t find a rhythm early in the year—the team began the season with four losses through its first five games and struggled to find consistency. In those five games, Amaker had four different starting lineups.

For Chambers, the start was equally underwhelming, with the low point coming against Holy Cross. Against the Crusaders, the senior scored three points to go with five assists and five turnovers in a home loss—Chambers’ return was not looking like the storybook ending that many had predicted.

“We’re still a team that’s trying to find the right rhythm, and we haven’t found that yet,” said Amaker following a loss to George Washington in late November. “You have to look at different pieces and players to see if we can ignite that. I think we have seen flashes of that but not enough that we have had victories that we can feel good about.”

After that loss to the Colonials, however, Chambers was at the helm of a big turnaround for the Crimson.

It began with Fordham.

Against the Rams, Chambers dropped nine points, 10 assists, and three rebounds to snap a three-game losing streak.

"He is our undisputed leader. He is a veteran point guard and he has led this team since the day he set foot on this campus," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.

From there, he would add 11 assists in consecutive games to take down non-conference rivals Northeastern and Boston College.

After the win against the Huskies, freshman forward Seth Towns didn’t hesitate to credit Chambers.

“It comes easy with the people that I’m playing with,” Towns said. “Especially with [Chambers] at point guard. He’s the best point guard I’ve ever played with.”

All told, Harvard would win 10 of 11, including a big win on the road against Houston. Midway through the season, Chambers ranked fourth nationally in the assists.

Once Ivy League play began, the guard continued to dominate. At Yale, he tallied 16 points and six assists to hand the Bulldogs their first home loss in over two years. Against a Princeton squad that was undefeated in conference, he dropped 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting.

Chambers’ best game came against Brown on senior night. After Harvard jumped out to an 11-2 lead, Chambers decided to end his career in Lavietes on a high note. Over a span of three minutes, the senior scored 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting—he assisted on the only other bucket in that span, and finished with 19 points and five assists.

The Crimson’s season was cut short in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament after an opening round loss to Yale, but Chambers’ return to the court was nothing short of spectacular—the guard averaged 9.9 points and 5.9 assists per game to go with his second First Team All-Ivy League selection.

Losing one of the most prolific players in program history certainly creates a void, but it’s one that seemingly won’t go unfilled. As a freshman, Chambers became the first player ever to earn Ivy League Rookie of the Year and First Team All-Ivy honors. The second player to achieve that same feat was freshman guard Bryce Aiken, who’s set to take the reins at lead guard next season.

“I’ve learned a ton from Siyani,” Aiken said. “The main thing that I take away is just how to be a leader. He’s done that for us all year and that’s the main thing that I take away from his game. He’s done a terrific job for our team and for the program in general. He’s taken them to new heights, took them to multiple March Madness appearances and that’s something that I hope me and my team now, we can bring back to this program and even take us to new heights.”

Coach Amaker echoed the thought.

“Siyani was, it seems like he’s been here forever and I wish he could literally be, but he’s had that kind of impact throughout his time,” Amaker said. “It’s nothing short of remarkable what his career has been throughout these four years. Obviously, coming back from a season ending knee injury is another layer to why it’s been a remarkable journey for him. It’s going to be hard not having him.”

—Staff writer Troy Boccelli can be reached at troy.boccelli@thecrimson.com.

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