Since the 1995-1996 season, the Harvard men and women’s basketball teams have collectively raised 14 Ivy League championship banners in Lavietes Pavilion, the second-oldest Division I basketball facility in the nation. For all who have donned a Crimson jersey from Allison Feaster ’98 to Siyani Chambers ’17, one part of their college careers remained the same: the basketball facility had not changed since its $2.1 million facelift in 1995.
After several years of debate and planning, Lavietes Pavilion welcomed another chapter in its history in the fall of 2017, expanding and modernizing the home of Harvard Basketball with a renovation costing upwards of $15 million dollars. The new amenities include a 5,000 square feet expansion to accommodate a new entrance lobby, ticketing areas, and locker rooms, as well as a new state-of-the-art scoreboard, bleachers, and skylight/roof replacement.
These significant upgrades to Lavietes Pavilion were seen as much-needed and vital to the continued development of the basketball programs, according to several donors and coaching staff. Additionally, there currently no longer appears to be a definitive plan to move forward with the construction of a new basketball arena, as originally proposed in the 2013 Institutional Master Plan.
In that proposal, a 3,000-seat basketball facility in the Barry’s Corner District of Allston was outlined as one of seven envisioned projects to be completed by 2023, which would encompass 60,000 sq. feet of space alongside an additional 10,000-30,000 sq. feet for retail use and over 200,000 sq.feet of university-owned housing. The arena would be situated on university-owned property at 175 North Harvard Street, then home of the Education Portal.
"Major renovation of the Lavietes building, Harvard's current basketball venue, was considered and, while feasible, was not viewed as the best means of achieving the goals stated above."
The assessments by the Harvard Planning & Project Management Office at that time stated that existing facility renovations to Lavietes Pavilion would not be the preferred option to meet the University’s needs, commenting on page 137 in the 2013 IMP:
“Major renovation of the Lavietes building, Harvard’s current basketball venue, was considered and, while feasible, was not viewed as the best means of achieving the goals stated above. This 1925 facility is considered undersized, and would require extensive building system improvements, and if renovated would still not produce a basketball arena comparable to that of the planned new facility.”
Although specific details of the proposed new arena were not explicit in the plan, the basketball facility and accompanying retail/housing space were envisioned as a new centerpiece for the development of the Barry’s Corner District. The basketball facility promised to bring “comfortable seating with excellent sight lines and acoustics” that would “optimize event atmosphere for athletes and Harvard community in the spirit of Ivy League competition.”
Following the announcement of the IMP in October of 2012, Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker stated that this Allston expansion would, if successful, “make this environment that much better for all of our students, employees, and faculty” and attract “even higher level recruits.”
In 2012, Director of Athletics Bob Scalise echoed similar sentiments and further expressed his optimism for the potential new basketball venue.
“This is a master planning project, and what we’re trying to do is make sure we have things that might happen in the next 10 or 15 years in the mix,” Scalise said. “[But] it’s really too early to say. It’s such a preliminary scope out of what it would be right now, but it’s nice that [a new stadium is] being considered in the Allston plan.”
In the years following this announcement, it appears that the University has taken an alternative direction and that those around the basketball program are pleased and satisfied with the ultimate decision to renovate the existing facility. As to the official tabling of the new basketball arena construction proposal now halfway into the ten-year span of the original 2013 master plan, the University has as of May 20 declined to comment directly on whether or not the Mixed Use Facility and Basketball Venue is out of picture.
“Harvard’s 2013 10-year Institutional Master Plan includes a Mixed Use Facility and Basketball Venue, and this project remains an aspirational one for the University,” University spokesperson Aaron M. Goldman wrote. “The successful renovation of Lavietes Pavilion was necessary to rehabilitate and add to the existing space, to provide a great experience for students and spectators alike, and to keep pace in a competitive recruiting environment.”
Despite the arena project continuing to be aspirational, there have been no indications within internal discussions to suggest that a new basketball facility will be in consideration by 2023.
Despite the arena project continuing to be “aspirational”, there have been no indications within internal discussions to suggest that a new basketball facility will be in consideration by 2023. When choosing to renovate Lavietes, it appeared that this decision was an agreed-to upon alternative but that there was a not a plan to move forward with both projects.
Women’s basketball head coach Kathy Delaney Smith was inside several of those decision-making sessions alongside Amaker and ultimately favored preserving usage of the existing Lavietes Pavilion.
“I appreciate that we were involved in all the planning and it was interesting going into a whole new facility, or keeping the history of Harvard,” Delaney-Smith said. “I was leaning toward the history of Lavietes. I was very much in favor of that.”
Joe Carrabino, Co-Chair of Friends of Harvard Basketball, confirmed that no discussions were raised as to potential fundraising for a new facility as of April 2nd.
“The only project the Friends were asked to assist in was the renovation of Lavietes Pavilion,” Carrabino wrote in an email.
“I am not aware of any discussion whatsoever in terms of the new arena," said William Mannix '81, a fellow Co-Chair. "I don't think that is on the table."
This transition away from a new arena construction first began in 2014, when the University commissioned program management firm Brailsford & Dunlavey, Inc. to offer a feasibility assessment for modernizing and expanding Lavietes Pavilion, with a then total budget cost of $5 million. The project’s goal, according to the firm’s website, was to “indicate excitement and energy, attract talent, and create a feel of a higher level of basketball, all while retaining the arena’s “historic charm.”
Fred Schernecker ’89, a co-chair for the Friends of Harvard Basketball, emphasized how the leadership and vision of Amaker was instrumental in the transition towards revitalizing Lavietes. Amaker, according to conversations with Schernecker, drew numerous analogies to Fenway Park in describing how an older facility can be renovated to cater to both history and modern expectations.
“We have been talking in a lot of different ways for a long time if it made sense to build a new basketball facility versus renovating the existing [facility],” Schernecker said. “The decision came down to trying to renovate the existing, and Tommy had a great vision for the facility.”
Schernecker added that the Mixed Use Facility and Basketball Venue was included in the 2013 Institutional Master Plan to allow the University to build a new facility if the basketball department decided it was the best course of action to take, but that there was never a definitive plan to move forward with the new facility.
“There wasn’t a plan to build a new arena. What there was was a placeholder in the Allston Plan to where a new basketball gym could go if that was the direction that was taken,” Schernacker said.
With the completion of the renovated Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard Basketball is now firmly established inside its new state-of-the-art facility. From the perspective of numerous players, coaches, and community members, the Lavietes Pavilion renovation has, from their perspective, been well-received and much-needed.
“It is by far the best in every regard,” Delaney-Smith said. “The locker rooms, the off the field rooms, everything is first class and I know the athletes love it. We are very grateful that we have it, because it is a lot of hard work and a lot of money from a lot of different people. We are very grateful to have it.”
Although Delaney-Smith jocularly added that “you don’t choose Harvard for the facilities,” Amaker acknowledged in a preseason press conference that the renovations will have some effect towards recruiting and the exterior image of Harvard Basketball.
“Certainly for prospective students coming in and taking it all in, you want it to excite and energize and I think it does exactly that,” Amaker said. “It will make it even better if we can win here. But we will see, we are see how it all shakes out but we are very proud of it and excited to have this opportunity to have this facility.”
For former Crimson players that previously played games in the sweltering heat of the fourth floor of the now-Malkin Athletic Center or shared turf space during the winter with baseball and lacrosse teams, the evolution of the basketball program has also been remarkable. Carrabino was part of the first team in 1982 to play inside Lavietes, and has thoroughly been impressed by the changes made within this facility.
“Over time, the facilities have gotten better and the fan experience better,” Carrabino wrote. “There is no comparison to what existed in the past—today the players playing and the fan watching are treated to a first class basketball environment compared to the fourth floor of the [Malkin Athletic Center.”
In reciprocating these words, many supporters of the program have cited enhancements in both in-game experience and the overall aesthetics of the arena. With the inclusion of the four-screen jumbotron, cheering attendees are often displayed on the new “Fan-Cam” or other interactive activities, such as doing the “Titanic” pose during timeouts. Prior to games, a video montage of the team is featured as the starting lineup is announced.
For long-time Harvard Basketball supporters, these in-game improvements have made an immediate impact in their overall experience.
“When I first went to a game there I was so blown away,” said Jiwei Sun ’18, a long-time student supporter. “Everything is just so much newer. It feels like there is more space in the bleachers too. I also like how they have the tunnel you can walk under to get around. And then the jumbotron it is super nice, it is awesome. It is fun having all the fam cams and stuff.”
Others have also appreciated the allusions to Harvard architecture inside the new building that provide a balance between the past and present of the program.
“I thought our coaches, the Athletic Department and the architects worked together to design a building that was once generic and, with the renovations, reflects the uniqueness of Harvard University,” wrote Prof. Kevin Madigan, Faculty Fellow for Harvard Women’s Basketball. “I see this, for example, in the lovely brick walls, which of course allude to our bricked walkways and bricked buildings. The scoreboard makes it easy to keep track of statistics, team fouls, and other numbers important for serious fans.”
Alongside honoring the history of the university as a whole, multiple players have cited the importance of dedicating this new facility to important alumni who have helped elevate the program. During the Feb. 17 win against Yale, former team captain Siyani Chambers ’17 returned to Lavietes during a midseason break from his professional team in Austria, BC Raiffeisen Flyers Wels. Following the contest, multiple Crimson players commented on Chamber’s legacy at the building.
“If anyone really deserved to reap the benefits of the renovation, I think [Siyani] was definitely one of those people,” sophomore guard Christian Juzang said.
“It would have been nice to have [Siyani] play on this new court and new renovation, but seeing him see us play on it is cool,” second-year forward Seth Towns added.
Alongside Chambers, numerous other alumni and basketball royalty have visited the renovated Lavietes Pavilion in its inaugural season. Jayson Tatum, the 2017 first-round pick for the Boston Celtics, was courtside during the Crimson Madness pep festivities in the re-opening of the facility in October. Former NBA veterans Lionel Hollins, Danny Ferry, and Grant Hill have also stopped by this season, among numerous other acquaintances of Coach Amaker.
In addition, Lavietes Pavilion has continued to function as a practice host site to visiting NCAA and NBA teams. Duke and the Philadelphia 76ers, for example, held closed-door practices in the Crimson’s facility when playing Boston College and the Celtics.
Besides offering a unique sunlight-open space for practicing, Lavietes Pavilion also features completely revamped locker rooms, a new film control room for video operations, a new film room, and coaches’ offices. When walking into the building, fans are greeted by a team store and various photo plaques commemorating former Harvard Basketball alumni.
Among the alumni who were responsible for funding for this project and the basketball program as a whole include Thomas G. Stemberg ’71, former Staples co-founder and longtime basketball supporter. Additionally, a donation of $1 million by Jeremy Lin ’10 was partially dedicated for the Lavietes renovation alongside undergraduate financial aid support.
“While we are all grateful for Jeremy’s support of the renovation and program, there were a large number of named and anonymous donors who supported the renovation,” Carrabino wrote. “Many of them are named on a plaque inside Lavietes. Significant capital was raised specifically in honor of Tom Stemberg, the original Chairman of the Friends of Harvard Basketball…. The fundraising for the renovation was a true team effort.”
Outside of the glitz and glamour that comes with the renovation, Harvard Basketball will still be measured by its on-court performance. On that note, both men’s and women’s basketball have given home supporters a tremendous deal to be pleased about this season.
Harvard women’s basketball went an undefeated 12-0 at home, including victories against top-seeded Princeton and Penn. The men’s lone defeat at home this season was Jan. 2 against Vermont, as it maintained an unbeaten streak at Lavietes Pavilion in conference play.
“We have such great crowds,” said sophomore point guard Katie Benzan after an 87-85 victory against Brown on Jan. 29. “Everyone’s coming and cheering, and the environment is just amazing.”
“Having the fans, just the crowd in the background, the home gym vibe,” added junior wing Corey Johnson after the Crimson win against Princeton on Feb. 9, in which teammate Christian Juzang scored a career-high 20 points. “We don’t like to lose at home and whenever somebody comes here we are always ready to play.”
This successful play at home may paradoxically have unintended consequences. Top-tier programs, as Amaker noted at the start of the season, may be intimidated to travel to play the Crimson on its home court. Without the financial leverage to “purchase” bids to host these teams, Harvard men’s and women’s teams could lose out on opportunities in its non-conference schedule. Although team strength is certainly a more relevant concern, such an impeccable home record may raise red flags for big programs in its non-conference scheduling.
Another factor that may affect hopes at hosting larger competitions: seating capacity. The current renovated Lavietes Pavilion has downsized from around 2,050 to 1,636 seats in order to facilitate the inclusion of new amenities, such as cushioned seating in the upper rows. The renovated Lavietes Pavilion, with the smallest seating capacity in the Ivy League, now seats 464 fewer people than the next smallest Ancient Eight basketball facility, Dartmouth’s Leede Arena.
With the newly cemented Ivy League Tournament raising discussions about future host sites, the decision to downsize may significantly impact the odds of hosting this tournament on Harvard’s campus. The postseason tournament in its first two years of conception have been played inside the hallowed halls of the Palestra, which seats a maximum of 8,722 people. With the conference final between Harvard and Penn this past season filling around 5,500 seats, it would seem highly unlikely for Lavietes Pavilion to be able to fulfill attendance demand. This was one significant downside, according to Delaney-Smith, of the renovation proposal.
“The one consideration that was negative, was when talking about the Ivy Tournament, the capacity they want facilities to have in order to be a host school,” Delaney-Smith said. “I would say we fall short, and that is upsetting. I don’t know what [is] the right capacity we need to have.”
Whether such questions about the future viability of Lavietes Pavilion continue to be raised will still nevertheless rest in the performance of the basketball teams. Having sold out 10 combined games in the past two seasons and seeing ticket prices rise to $30 for marquee games, interest in the men’s and women’s teams from a supporter and donor side remain strong. For now, members of the community, coaches, administrators, and players are all enthusiastic about the present as the renovated Lavietes Pavilion enters its second year.
“Being able to see it a couple years ago and walk in the gym for the first time makes you appreciate the fact that we have a new facility, a new locker room,” said senior captain Chris Egi. “Also, just appreciating that we are the reason that it’s been built. There’s a lot of people that contributed in terms of alumni and players who were here before and built the program into what it’s been. It just gives a little perspective of what we’ve done and where we want to go.”
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.
—Staff writer Madeleine R. Nakada can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @maddynakada.
—Crimson editors Joseph W. Minatel and Amir Mamdani contributed reporting.