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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

PARTING SHOT: What Would Tommy Amaker Do?

By Dennis J. Zheng, Crimson Staff Writer

An unrepentant packrat, I am now enduring the final edition of an annual ritual: the trashing of journalistic detritus. Packets of post-game statistics, media guides, yellowing copies of The Crimson—all warrant a moment of nostalgia before heading off into oblivion by way of recyclable container.

I do allow myself to hold onto a single guilty pleasure: my press credentials. Some are more cherished than others (Dear Cornell Athletics, Who is “Dennis Zhung”?). The most meaningful of all was also the last one to enter the collection. About the size of a postcard, its blue laminated plastic reads, “NCAA 2012 BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP.”

March Madness is unquestionably the Mount Everest of college sports journalism, and after years of exploring the cozy gyms of the Ivy League, I finally reached the peak. The all-access pass gave me just about everything I could have ever wanted, from a press conference seat to bottomless cups of soda.

But even now, I cannot shake the sense that I did very little to earn that credential. Without the help of an incredible number of parties, it surely would not have existed, let alone been mine to flaunt.

What follows, then, is an assuredly incomplete expression of my gratitude to the folks who truly deserve it.

*****

I owe no small amount of thanks to The Crimson’s Business board, which somehow helped fund my travels to Boone, N.C.; the Bahamas; and Albuquerque, N.M. No thanks for the trips to Ithaca.

Next up is the man himself, Jeremy Lin ’10—deserving of mention not only for hitting the most incredible shot I’ve ever witnessed live (see: William and Mary, 2009) but also for allowing me into his Bible study two years ago. We had previously only spoken in sound bites, but Lin never even batted an eye at my request. Week in and week out, I headed to his room in Leverett House, sat on his futon, and questioned him about God instead of basketball.

I likely owe the most thanks of all to whomever or whatever it was that secured me the men’s basketball beat as a freshman in the Class of 2012, allowing me a first-class seat on one of the most exciting rides this institution has ever seen. But this particular piece of writing would be wasted without devoting space to the man upstairs.

Indeed, I have more than once uttered the blasphemic phrase, “What Would Tommy Amaker Do (WWTAD)?” We basketball writers jest about the man whose office sits on the second floor of Lavietes Pavilion, but our humor only works because it is rooted in the truth—that this story would not exist if not for the decision of an unemployed man in 2007.

This is a man who, contrary to popular belief, no longer wears turtlenecks, though he does seem to recycle the same orphaned suit jackets every weekend. A man who once attended my House faculty dinner as my guest. A man I hope will never leave Cambridge.

*****

It must first be said that Tommy Amaker is an awful quote. Years of interacting with national media have trained him well to deal with greenhorn college journalists. Amaker has mastered the art of filling voice recorders while managing to say little of substance. One could design a full-fledged game of press conference Bingo around his standby phrases.

It might seem strange, then, for a reporter to praise him.

To fully explain, I must return to Dec. 4, 2008, when Boston University came to Lavietes. That evening, the Terriers soared above the rim from the first layup line, and the visitors’ athleticism helped them run away with a 16-point blowout.

It was my first time covering Harvard men’s basketball. I didn’t dress up. I took sloppy notes. And I sat next to the legendary Bob Ryan, who wasn’t impressed with the Crimson at all.

Accordingly, I had no appreciation for my reporting duties. Why trudge over to the far side of campus simply to see this, I thought.

My other early memory of sportswriting was the first weekly media session I attended. Amaker, in fact, asked me the opening question: “Where are you from?” It turns out that college basketball recruiting helps one develop an extensive knowledge of U.S. geography.

In the years since, I’ve had the chance to speak with Amaker outside the confines of the press credential, with the tape recorder shut off, on a number of occasions. It was in these moments of rare candor that Harvard basketball’s transformation became wholly unsurprising to me.

Outsiders may take issue with the man and his methods, but it is difficult to remain a cynic when he looks you in the eye and describes his long-term vision for the program, all the while cultivating a unique atmosphere of mutual respect for even a newbie reporter.

Six semesters after we first met, I saw Mr. Ryan in Albuquerque, where we both were donning those treasured blue pieces of plastic. Though it hit a bump in that second-round matchup, Harvard’s rise is nowhere near over. As I have tracked for the past four years, the stud recruits have come, and I expect them to keep coming—as long as you-know-who is at the helm.

*****

The Parting Shot usually consists of a rumination on Harvard sports and life. For the folks on The Crimson’s Sports board, the two are commonly one and the same—a philosophy of which my post-graduate plans may be the purest expression.

Along with two of my classmates, I have founded the African Sports and Scholastic Initiative for Students in Townships, a project combining the growing sport of basketball with academic mentoring and support to empower the youth of Alexandra, a Johannesburg slum.

After a foray into sportswriting—and one failed cameo at an Amaker coaching clinic—I’ll now be the one carrying clipboards and blowing whistles. My pupils may not have the vertical leap of a Kyle Casey or the quick hands of a Brandyn Curry, but they will match them in heart—and then some.

Something tells me that I’m not finished asking, “What would Tommy Amaker do?”

—Staff writer Dennis J. Zheng can be reached at dzheng12@post.harvard.edu.

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Parting ShotCommencement 2012