“Do you want to make history?”
One question. Just six words. But when Oliver McNally heard them, his life was changed forever.
They came from the mouth of first-year Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker in 2007, and they marked Amaker’s appeal to the San Francisco guard to come play for him in the Ancient Eight—something that McNally, up to that point, had never considered.
“I wasn’t really talking to any Ivy League schools,” McNally recalls. “I didn’t want to come out to the East Coast at all. I was talking to a lot of [West Coast Conference] and Big West schools; I was pretty set on being around California and staying close to home.”
But Amaker was able to convey a message that resonated with the guard.
“[He said, ‘Harvard’s] the most famous school in the world,’” McNally explains. “‘In a third world country, people know the name ‘Harvard.’ In every field, athletically and academically, things have been done. Football’s won, soccer’s won, but basketball never had. You can make history, people will remember you and the team you played on as doing something Harvard had never done before, and you can’t really do that in a lot of other fields here.’”
It wasn’t an easy decision for the high school senior, who had become accustomed to greatness with three consecutive Division V state championships, during which his teams posted a combined 129-12 record. McNally looked at the Crimson and saw a squad which had never won anything, a bottom-feeder in a league typically dominated by Princeton and Penn. The team had struggled to an 8-22 record in Amaker’s first season, and losing was one thing McNally wouldn’t accept.
“Something that was very important to him then was knowing how we were going to put a plan together to win here at Harvard,” Amaker recalls. “He’s a very competitive kid, so we knew right away that his value was critical for our team.”
The guard eventually agreed to take a chance and cross the country as Amaker’s first Crimson commitment. Three years later, the reward for that choice finally arrived in the form of Harvard’s first-ever Ivy League title.
“I bought into everything Coach said then, and I’ve bought into everything he’s said since,” McNally says. “It [was] tough putting your face into something, especially something that wasn’t doing so well … So to be a part of that transition is just really special, and to do it with a team that was extremely close to each other last year on and off the court was awesome.”
The junior played a key role on Harvard’s first-ever title team, averaging 10.1 points and 3.1 assists per game. He also shot 92.6 percent at the free-throw line, good for second in the nation (a number he admits he finds “pretty shocking”).
But to the guard who says he’s not a stats guy, more important was his role as a leader and co-captain on a youthful team that last year contained no seniors. The fact that it was his teammates—rather than his coaches—who chose him and forward Keith Wright as their captains made him consider the role an even greater honor. But with the distinction came increased responsibility.
“[Being a captain] means you have the respect of your teammates, but it’s also a burden,” McNally explains. “You can’t take practices off; you can’t take drills off; you have to set a tone for the rest of the team. … It’s something I take really seriously and something I’m really proud of.”
Initially hesitant to come to Harvard, McNally has already left a lasting mark on his team. CBS Sports college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman calls him “one of the best leaders in the country,” and many of his teammates consider him the heart and soul of the squad.
“Oliver is definitely our spirit, our energy, our vocal leader,” junior forward Kyle Casey says. “He’s just a fighter. He’s the ultimate competitor. He hates to lose [and] loves to win. You can see it in his style of play. ... That’s really what he brings us, that strong, steady spirit, day-in and day-out.”