To someone who spends a lot of time around the Harvard basketball team, the mention of Donald Fleming conjures up many distinct and diverse images. The first, by its sheer power, has to be that of Fleming, crouched low, receiving a pass up high on the right post, maybe 15 feet from the basket. Sensing an opening. Fleming feints right, but flashes left, toward the basket. He takes the ball past his opponent and drives straight to the hoop, laying it off the glass and in. In Harvard basketball history, no one has ever possessed the offensive tools that Donald Fleming has used to become the school's all time leading scorer, amassing close to 1800 points with one game to go in his varsity career.
But in spite of his dominant presence on the court, other images of the senior captain stand out for the close observer of Harvard basketball. Like after each home game, as the often sparse crowds filter out of the IAB, the sight of his tow children, Darrell and Tamelia, romping all over the gym. Donald's wife, Jean, says she lets the kids run relatively free when they are outside of the couple's small Peabody Terrace apartment.
Other images reflect yet another facet of Donald Fleming's complex personality and lifestyle. Tom Stemberg '71, president of the Friends of Harvard Basketball and a very close observer of the program, recalls Fleming at the 1978 Rainbow Classic: "My recollection of Donald," Stemberg said recently, "is of him getting on a little mini-bus in Hawaii with a Bible. He read the Bible the whole trip. I'd never seen anything like it before, and I probably never will again." As Fleming himself will be the first to say, his religion--a non-denominational but highly devout form of Christianity--has been a "tremendous help" in balancing the disparate pressures of family life, finishing school, and playing varsity basketball.
His ability to successfully order his life constantly amazes those who see him most often, and are most often, and are most aware of the particular hardships which he faces. "Somebody going through Harvard is difficult," Harvard basketball Coach Frank McLaughlin said," Somebody going through Harvard involved in an extracurricular activity is more difficult, and somebody going through it playing basketball and being married with a family is like unbelievable."
Others, especially his teammates on the squad he has captained for the past year, share his admiration which lends to border on awe. Ken Plunicki, one of a strong crop of players which McLaughlin recruited during Fleming's sophomore year, described the effect that the captain had on the team during the current, disappointing season: "When everybody gets down on themselves because they're thinking about whether the season is worth it, is it really worth it, because there is so much else to do, you look at Donald raising a family and going to school and playing basketball. For me, he's just an inspiration that way."
"The guy," said assistant Coach Rick Duckett, "has done some things already that most people haven't done at the age of 30. He's pulling them off and he's not using mirrors, either."
He started doing things way back in ninth grade, at Robert E. Lee High School in New Haven, Conn. There, as a freshman, he barely made the j.v. squad, coming into Coach Peter Evans basketball program with, as Evens generously described them, "limited skills." But, said Evans, "he made himself into a great player... Freshman year, he was the first one here and the last one to leave." By sophomore year, he had made a varsity team which included current new York Knick Sly Williams. The team won the state championship, but without Fleming, who had left at the first of the year to serve as a page for U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker (D-Conn.). But before coming to Harvard, Fleming cupped all-District and honorable mention all-State honors in both his junior and senior year.
After picking the Crimson program ("I said if I got the opportunity that's the place I would go") over Yale and a host of other Ivy League schools ("Yale was out of the question: I didn't want to stay in New Haven.") Fleming proceeded to rip apart opposing Ivy league defenses. Following as sporadic freshman year. Fleming hit stride during the 1979-80 campaign, averaging 19.6 points per game in League play (19.9 overall) and earning first-team all-Ivy honor. This year, in spite of an early season slump, Fleming has scored at an 18.2 ppg clip and is almost a clinch to repeat on the all-League squad.
"I progressed every year I played." Fleming said. "Even now, I don't think I'm as good as I'm going to get." Getting better, of course, implies a shot at the pros, and Fleming would not look askance at the chance, al though "nothing concrete has come up."
Characteristically, Fleming downplays his position as the all-time leading Harvard scorer. "I don't play just to break records," be said. "It's just an honor, he says, and "all my talents I attribute to Christ," This deep belief in god has shaped the way he lives, the way he plays, and the way he treats other people. "If somebody gets knocked down I'm always one of the first gays over to help him up, even if he's on the other team... I consider other guys on other teams as friends, this is just a game. They're not opponents in life I'll help them, even help them on the court. I Think a lot of guys on other teams feel that for me."
His beliefs, and the quiet, almost sedate lifestyle that results, have made him especially comfortable with the Harvard basketball program. "Every body is sort of clean cut. There is very little cussing, no drugs or anything like that. That's something I didn't experience in high school. It was something I didn't experience in high school. It was really great playing in an atmosphere like this."
Besides his religious beliefs. Fleming finds particular comfort in his family life. "Christianity and getting married," he explains, "are what kept me here through tour years of Harvard," The story of his relationship with Jean, whom he married after freshman year, is a classic girl-next-door love story, the two lived in the same neighborhood as children, but there was little--if any--love interest before high school. ("I thought he liked my sister," Jean said. Donald, for his part, explained, "I didn't particularly like her, either.") later, however, love bloomed: "It was a gradual kind of thing. She started growing on me." By the end of Donald's junior year in high school, the two had decided to get married. The wedding came in June, 1979, after the two had spent Donald's freshman year apart.
Jean and the kids have been a main source of strength for Donald, who has balanced summer and term jobs with basketball, and academics. But with all the economics major through school has been the main priority. "That emphasis," admits Donald, "has been a kind of strain on family life, with Jean having to work, and being away from the kids for basketball practice."
McLaughlin, who has two young children himself, with whom the Fleming kids race around after home games, recognizes the importance of Donald's wife, children, and family back in New Haven. "If you were to ask me what was the greatest thing Donald has done, I'd probably say his family life."
As captain this season, Fleming's outside commitments became, if anything, more difficult to handle. The way he handled the position, however, reflects his general personality and outlook on life. According to guard Calvin Dixon--Fleming's closest friend on the team and the only other Black player--"you would never know he was married by the way he conducts himself. He never lets those pressures affect him or affect the way he deals with people."
Potentially, one of those pressures was being--along with Dixon--the only two Blacks on the team. But the squad remained a close group, especially off the court, and the race question never explicitly came up. "It didn't affect things as far as the team is concerned," Fleming said, "but it is different that if there were six or seven Black guys on the team," Kyle Standley, a freshman guard, said. "There really wasn't any friction. People didn't have to act differently around them [but] people were definitely aware." According to Dixon, "we joked about it more than anything else."
He approached his position as captain quietly, attempting on a squad occasionally characterized by minor on-court squabbles to "create a team atmosphere where the guys are depending on each other."
"Donald is a very reticent leader," Dixon said. "He leads by doing more than by going out there and posing as a rah-rah kind of person. The mark of a great individual is that their actions speak louder than words."
As captain, he called just three team meetings, "usually after something drastic had happened." Mostly, however, he worked on the court, both by simply playing well and making helpful comments. If there was a problem with his performance as captain, it came when his example suffered as he tried to fit into McLaughlin's motion offense, which streaked passing and getting the ball inside. Under this strategy, Fleming did not foot comfortable taking the shots he normally would have taken. This my have been responsible for his early season slump.
According to Duckett, "He started doing things he was 'supposed' to be doing, and he just wasn't being Donald." Fleming broke out of his dray spell as the Ivy League season started in earnest, but his example wasn't enough to overcome a host of other problems--notably the lack of quickness and a lack of drive--which the Crimson faced.
Fleming remains philosophical about the Crimson's lack of success in the Ivy campaign. If the squad didn't win, he at least accomplished his other goal: "If nothing else good happened this year, at least the guys feel close to each other. If that had happened in pre-season, it would have been better." His leadership and personality were in large part responsible for this change, which saw a team overcome its petty on-court bitterness and, develop into more cohesive unit.
Dixon, who perhaps more than any other player will miss Fleming when he graduates in June--if not because he's the only other Black player on the team then because he's the only one who can fill the lane on a fast break--says, "I'm really happy for Donald. I love him like a brother. There's a lot of cliches you can use, but they all apply.