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With 21 seconds remaining and a victory in Saturday’s game versus Brown out of reach, Harvard coach Frank Sullivan called for a substitution and ended Brady Merchant’s Crimson career and likely his life of playing basketball.
As the senior captain walked off the court to a standing ovation, he couldn’t contain the emotions of the moment. Merchant cried as his teammates embraced him, leaving his tears fittingly on the floor with the blood and sweat of all those years.
Cheers cascaded from the Lavietes bleachers—almost as if cued to produce a cinematic effect—as the voice of the public address announcer feebly tried to broadcast the significance of Merchant’s school-record 45-point accomplishment.
But the crowd that night didn’t need a reminder of the special effort Merchant had wrought. Whether the fans fully knew it or not, the deafening chant of “Brady! Brady! Brady!” at game’s end was the appropriate expression of gratitude for a performance never seen in over a century of Harvard basketball.
And yet, Merchant’s legendary night was the epitome of bittersweet—a valiant, heroic charge in a lost battle. The hope of victory and the dismal reality of defeat on Saturday night was a perfect encapsulation of the Crimson’s disappointing roller-coaster season and the tumultuous four-year careers of the team’s four seniors.
But although these four men may have lost tough battles now and again, it is unmistakable that they won the war on their own terms and in their own resilient way. This will be their legacy to the program and they were right to leave the court that night with heads held high.
Before the game, the four seniors were honored at half-court as part of the annual Senior Night tradition. Typically, this sort of display goes without record in the print of this paper, but Saturday night’s ceremonies seemed to carry more weight than usual and they explain exactly why the Class of 2003 should not be too troubled by regret and disappointment.
Coach Sullivan admitted as much after the game, saying that the departure of the four seniors—the cornerstones of a program he has helped to build to respectability—was a difficult sight to swallow.
“This was, emotionally, tougher than most years, especially to see them walk out the door together,” Sullivan said. “I couldn’t be more proud of a group of guys.”
Pride and emotion were in ready supply that night, as the players’ families were in attendance to witness the closing of a chapter in the lives of their loved ones.
Marliss Prasse, the mother of the most prolific point guard in the history of the Ivy League, had flown in from Seattle, Wash. to watch her son, Elliott Prasse-Freeman, play in his final game.
“It’s the most special night,” Prasse said. “I’ve been watching him play since he was six and I can’t express how glad I am to be here at his last game.”
Two rows up sat Clare Sig, the comparatively diminutive mother of seven-foot center Brian Sigafoos. She had also flown across the country—in her case, from San Diego—to watch the culmination of her son’s long climb to the top.
“He’s worked very hard to get where he is,” Sig said of her son’s journey from the junior varsity squad to the varsity starting lineup. “He’s a terrific person and I couldn’t be more proud.”
A few seats down, the family of Sam Winter watched the game with the quiet knowledge of true basketball aficionados—what else could you expect from Kansans? Mit Winter III, Sam’s dad, spoke about how hard it was to see his son play in his final game in between loudly cheering and clapping as the Crimson surged ahead of Brown for the last time in the game.
“It’s hard, really hard,” he said. “Luckily, we’ve been able to come to 10 games this year and see Sam play a lot more than usual.”
But perhaps the most moving story in the stands fittingly belonged to the parents of the game’s hero. Dave and Carol Merchant were positively beaming as their son kept draining three-pointers and having a night for the ages. As they reflected back on Brady’s playing days, though, the emotion was almost too much to handle.
Last year, Dave Merchant retired after nearly 30 years as Lebanon High School’s basketball coach—a job that allowed him to coach his sons as they matured—just so he and his wife would be able to travel from Ohio to see each of Brady’s games.
“It’s certainly been worth it,” Dave Merchant said, fighting back tears. “Carol and I have just had a ball.”
Dave Merchant still teaches English at Lebanon High, though he admits he’s had to take some creative absences to make the weekend Ivy games.
“Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of cases of the ‘Friday Flu’,” he explained with a wry smile. “But when I haven’t taken any days off in 30 years, I think I deserve it.”
When asked of Brady’s record-setting performance, Carol Merchant replied that it was phenomenal, but that the important thing was winning.
“You can tell she’s a coach’s wife,” Dave quipped.
Yes, and after Saturday night, we can tell that Brady Merchant is a coach’s son. After a historic achievement, the younger Merchant was still sore that his team did not pull out the win and probably secretly sore that his career had to end on such a bittersweet note.
And that commitment to winning in spite of all obstacles and distractions, in the end, is what the senior class leaves behind as its legacy. Far from the most successful class in the program’s history, the Crimson seniors nonetheless showed an uncanny determination to excel and improve as individuals.
As Sullivan suggested after the game, perhaps the seniors are “guilty of having tried too hard.” Perhaps they wanted to do so well that they forced some unnecessary and unhealthy pressure on themselves.
This could be true. But more likely, the seniors just cared about the game and this program so much so that they were not afraid of letting all the blood and producing all the sweat necessary to win and seek that ever-elusive Ivy championship.
And on Saturday night, the tears joined the blood and sweat on the floor of Lavietes for the last time for these four men. They should know that the court—and their beloved program—will never be the same.
—Staff writer Daniel E. Fernandez can be reached at email@example.com.
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