Watching the final minutes of Harvard’s historic NCAA men’s basketball tournament win on ESPN International, Staples founder Tom Stemberg was gripped with anxiety.
First, he worried that 14th-seeded Harvard would suffer a late-game collapse. Then, with a 68-62 victory over third-seeded New Mexico secure, the Harvard alumnus and diehard fan worried about missing the team’s second-round game.
Traveling in Australia on business, Stemberg celebrated by e-mailing family and travel agents, trying desperately to book a return trip from Sydney to Salt Lake City in time for Saturday’s 6:10 p.m. (EDT) tipoff against Arizona.
“If I thought they were going to the NCAA Tournament, I would not have agree to be at a board meeting in Australia when the tournament started,” Stemberg said. “That’s how surprised I am. I’ve been following this team for 40 years, and it’s incredible. I’m still tingling.”
Stemberg has cheered and fund-raised for the program since the early 1970s. The Crimson’s first NCAA Tournament victory represented the fulfillment of a long-held dream for him and other alumni closely tied to the men’s basketball team.
From far and wide, alumni took to social media and congratulated the players. Jeremy Lin, who graduated from Harvard in 2010 and plays for the Houston Rockets, tweeted “Yyyyyeeeeesssssssss!!! Harvard winssss!!! hahahaha I told you.”
With most Harvard students away on spring break this week and with sports not as central to student life as at other universities, the reaction on campus was more subdued. Fresh from a pickup basketball game at the Malkin Athletic Center, wearing shorts in 35-degree weather, Harvard junior Daniel Cooney of Westchester, N.Y., said he was among a half-dozen students who watched the game on television at Leverett House, which is on campus. He heard the most enthusiasm from alumni on Facebook.
“I saw a lot of alumni commenting that it was the first time they could act proud to be a Harvard grad without seeming pretentious,” said Cooney. “As a student, it lets you be proud about Harvard in a way that you don’t have to lie and say, ‘Oh, I go to school in Boston.’ ”
Grabbing a bite to eat at a Harvard Square restaurant, sophomore Leila Hofer of Ann Arbor, Mich., said she didn’t follow the men’s basketball team, but knew there was a big game Thursday.
“It’s a big deal for some people, probably more the athletes and sports communities,” said Hofer. “I’m somewhat removed from those communities.”
Alumni who once played for the Crimson, who saw the program through the years between its first NCAA Tournament berth in 1946 and its second in 2012, viewed Thursday night’s victory as “another step.” Joe Carrabino, Harvard’s all-time leading scorer, said the victory was what “former players all dream about.”
“All the guys who played at Harvard came with the same goals: to win the Ivy League title and play in an NCAA Tournament,” said Carrabino. “Unfortunately, we never made it. So there’s great joy among the former players and great pride in the program and what [coach] Tommy Amaker and the boys did, and not just for what they did against New Mexico. Tommy has gotten it into these kids that, ‘Hey, we can compete with the best, if we believe in ourselves and work hard enough.’ There’s no reason you can’t compete at the highest level, just because you’re in the Ivy League.”
In six seasons under Amaker, Harvard has grown into a nationally respected program capable of competing against top teams. Without athletic scholarships, Amaker has sold talented recruits on the Crimson’s potential to be perennial Ivy League title contenders and regular NCAA tournament participants. Thursday’s upset was part of his vision.
However, after Harvard lost senior cocaptains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry because of an academic scandal that involved as many as 125 students, its first tournament win was not expected this season. Without Casey and Curry, many Ivy League observers figured the Crimson wouldn’t even defend their league title. But younger players seized the opportunity. With Casey and Curry expected back next season, expectations are high for the Crimson’s future.
The win over New Mexico “was the national coming-out party for Harvard basketball,” said Carmen Scarpa, who played for Harvard in the mid-1980s. “Last year, they were happy to be there and more nervous. This year, from the very beginning they competed. It looked like they belonged. They were as good as New Mexico from the opening tap. It’s given us great exposure, but it might be bad because it’s given people more exposure to Tommy.”
There may be no truer sign of a college program’s arrival in the big time than interest in hiring away its coach. For now, however, former Harvard players and team supporters are enjoying the attention and embracing the rare role of underdog.
Thomas Mannix, team captain in 1981, attended the Crimson’s first-round game and said the squad “quickly became the darling of the crowd.” During the postgame reception at the hotel the team was staying at, Mannix was impressed by the number of alumni who traveled from around the country to watch the game live. “It made Harvard feel like a tight-knit community,” he said.
But Mannix understands why the team doesn’t generate widespread student interest.
“Do you wish that Harvard was more of a basketball school?” said Mannix. “Sure. But everybody is absorbed in what they’re doing, and they should be. They’re very good at what they’re doing, too. It’s been nice that there’s been a pretty loyal student section at games. The players may get noticed around campus a little more because they’ve now received national attention.”
And they got international attention, a call between Amaker and Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust.
“I did get a call from the president — president of Harvard,” said Amaker. “President Faust did call from Korea. She was there traveling, and it was neat to get a call from her, a message from her. News had traveled very fast, so she had been able to find out about the score of our game and wanted to say congratulations and wanted me to be sure to mention it to our players — she was so very proud of our team and our program.”
At Friday’s pickup game, Cooney was joined by two friends from basketball-mad Indiana. Now, they can truly join in the college hoops conversation.
“All my friends back at Indiana University and Purdue always talk about the games,” said Abhi Chintapalli, a junior from Fort Wayne, Ind. “It’s nice to finally say, ‘Oh, look, Harvard is on a channel that you watch.’ I can say to my friends, ‘We’re Harvard and we’re on national TV.’ ”
Chintapalli plans to order some chicken wings and watch Saturday’s game on the television at Leverett House with his friends.
Hofer, however, won’t be tuned in to the second-round contest.
“I’ll be at a ballroom dance competition,” she said.Michael Vega of the Globe staff contributed from Salt Lake City. Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.