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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Virgil's Aeneid. Homer's Odyssey. We go to Harvard. We took Literature & Arts C-14. We know the Classics.
But for a group of 13 male undergraduates, Classics has another meaning. When they showed up at the MAC last November to try out for Harvard's Classics, they left their Homer at home and brought something else--their high tops. For these guys, Classics means the chance to play basketball--good basketball.
"It's a great way to compete in a sport you really enjoy, within a team atmosphere but without the pressure of an intercollegiate team," Classics rookie Peter Arrowsmith said.
"Classics? It's a bunch of guys with an interest in basketball getting together and having some fun," teammate Rob Patton concurred.
The Classics is a club basketball team at Harvard that started more than two decades ago. Its level of play falls somewhere between the play of the varsity men's basketball team and that of intramural sports.
But back in the 1970s, the players claim, the team could beat the varsity squad.
"The teams have fluctuated in ability," two-year veteran Matt Newlin said. "Some years we're really strong, other we're weaker. Last year we beat the JV team. We usually do."
This year, the Classics game mysteriously was axed from the JV schedule. Classics players said their victorious history in the annual match-up led to the omission.
The Classics' popularity in Harvard basketball circles has snowballed since the team's inception. Their yearly tryouts in November bring 40-50 upperclassmen to the MAC for three days--two hours a day--to play some of the best pick-up games of the year.
"Tryouts are really competitive," Seppi Winkler said. "It's hard to make the team because since the returning players are automatically on, there are very few spaces for incoming people."
Because the team has no official coach, returning players watch and evaluate potential hoopsters. The players/coaches make preliminary cuts after day two and final ones after day three.
Although the system leaves them vulnerable to cries of favoritism--and the players admit that knowing someone in the club can't hurt--they argue that everyone has equal opportunities at tryouts.
"It helps to know the players, but you usually know everyone before you even get in there," Newlin explained. "You've played JV or intramural basketball with these guys for years."
"There is an element of who you know," Arrowsmith added. "[The selection process] depends on who you're friends with to a small extent but to a larger degree on how you play."
Nice Guys Need Apply
Classics players also concede that skill isn't the only criterion for making the club.
"Friendships and strong relationships help foster a team spirit that might not ordinarily be there without a coach or regular practices," Arrowsmith said.
"We want a nice bunch of guys. If we had two people of the same ability and one was a nice guy and the other wasn't, we'd take the nice guy," Mike Caulfield said. He is one of this year's four returning players and judges of incoming talent.
Age is another influential factor in tryouts. Of the thirteen Classics players this year, seven are seniors--Newlin, Patton, Marc Pino, Peter Bassett, Dell Arvayo, Tom Callahan, and David Price--and four are juniors--Arrowsmith, Caulfield, Winkler, and Steve Brown. Only two--Traudy Vaughn and Tchad Robinson--are sophomores.
Freshmen and the Classics
Freshmen aren't allowed to participate at all in Classics so they will experience Harvard's varsity/junior varsity programs. As Patton points out, "We keep it something to shoot for--an upperclassmen thing."
In fact, all of the players on the Classics team have played JV or varsity ball for the Crimson or have played for another Harvard sports team. Newlin, Pino, Caulfield, Arrowsmith, Arvayo, Patton, Price, and Brown have all played JV hoops for Harvard, and Robinson played varsity last year.
Of the remaining five, Callahan and Bassett play Crimson football, Vaughn plays soccer and Winkler plays football and runs track.
"I really benefitted from playing JV," said Pino, "but my senior year I wanted a more relaxed atmosphere, and Classics is more fun."
This year's roster is unusual, because it has fewer Crimson athletes involved in other sports than past teams. Football players Mark Bianchi and Tim Perry, and volleyball captain, Brian Ehrlich, have graced the courts for the Classics in past years.
"Basketball has been a big part of these people's lives," Caulfield said. "Everyone played in high school, and it's really good not to have to give that up in college. Classics gives them the chance to play good basketball on a regular basis."
The players create the Classics schedule with help from Recreation Director John Wentzell. The team plays JV teams from other colleges, and teams from a local adult league against players like ex-Celtic M.L. Carr and Patriot Andre Tippett.
Do Not Pass Go
But this is far from the highlight of the Classics' schedule, when the team boards a bus, does not pass go and goes directly to jail--to two jails, actually, Concord and Walpole, the latter of which is a maximum security facility.
"Whenever I drive home to Pennsylvania, I always pass a maximum security prison," Winkler said, who played his first prison game last week at Walpole. "I've always wondered what it would be like to go inside. Now I finally got the chance."
All of the players admit that the experience is intimidating, especially having to go through six or seven locked doors and several checkpoints to be frisked, not to mention nearly 70 "fans" on the sidelines.
The predominant fear, though, is that once they're in they'll never come out.
"At Concord State, they stamp your hand so they can identify you, and so you can get out after the game," Caulfield said. "The whole time I was playing I was hoping my sweat wouldn't wipe it off."
But in spite of the intimidation factor--which most of the players admit affects the aggressiveness of their game--the players said that the prison games are the tamest games the team plays.
"The prisoners are really excited to play," Patton said. "And they know that if they screw up, they won't get to play again. The prison games are definitely one of the best experiences of Classics."
Only one mystery remains about Harvard Classics--the name. Although there are rumors that members of the Classics Department started the team, none of today's players will admit its origin.
"It's a secret," Arrowsmith said. "Only Classics players are allowed to know."
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