As the Harvard men’s basketball team begins its fourth consecutive NCAA trip, its following is at an all-time high. Back in Cambridge, fans are gathering at Kennedy’s on the Square to watch, while in Jacksonville, Fla.—the site of the team’s first round-game against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels—alumni have gathered for what has become a semi-annual reunion for the closest fans.
“Basketball has brought together fans from disparate alumni segments,” said John Wang ’88, who flew into Jacksonville Wednesday. “Personally, I have met and developed friendships with alumni fans from all over the country. It also helped me reconnect with Harvard.”
Wang, who attended last year’s second- and third-round contests in Spokane, Washington, noted that the team’s following reminds him of that around Harvard hockey in the 1980s, when Harvard annually competed for the national championship.
Rob Edwards ’83 pointed to the platform the NCAA basketball tournament provides. Unlike in football—where the Crimson are barred by Ivy League rules from postseason play—Harvard competes on the hardwood with national powers like Arizona, Michigan State, and North Carolina.
“There are lots of different storylines here,” Edwards said. “[However] to me the biggest storyline is that we can build a first-rate basketball team at a first-rate university and not compromise the mission of the university, which at the end of the day is teaching young people to be leaders in society.”
Fellow alum Mitchell L. Dong ’75 unashamedly noted that it was Harvard’s ability to compete on the largest stage that drew him to the team. Although Dong—like many of the team’s newest fans—did not follow the team at school, its surge under coach Tommy Amaker caught his attention.
“I like following winners, that’s what I do in my business,” Dong said. “I think of myself as a talent scout because you want to hire and follow the winners. They started winning and I started following them.”
Dong said that wherever the tournament has taken the Crimson—Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Spokane—“easily 100 alumni” have come to cheer on the team. Like many of his fellow fans, he now blocks off the tournament on his calendar at the beginning of the year.
Former player Vince Lackner ’72 says that the reaction has been the same among former players. Lackner said that 30-40 alumni come each weekend for the team’s Alumni Basketball weekend, with more than half playing in the Alumni Game and many owning season tickets.
“We’ve had enough fans that we were able to make 18 stops during our three nights of pub crawls,” Lackner said. “We’ve dubbed our pub nights as ‘Crawlitas.’ I’ve got that domain name locked up for the next couple of years.”
This year, however, Dong, Lackner and the Crimson were both nearly left home for the spring. After Harvard lost to Yale on March 7, it needed the Bulldogs to fall the next night in Hanover to have any chance at a bid. However, the dominoes fell Harvard’s way—the Bulldogs blew a five-point lead to Dartmouth with less than 30 seconds remaining, and the Crimson triumphed in a playoff a week later.
“It’s not just a great year for Harvard athletics, but a great year for Harvard against Yale,” Dong said.
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at email@example.com.
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