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Harvard basketball preview

Crimson relish favorite’s role

Amaker behind program’s ascent

Kyle Casey (left) and Keith Wright are two important reasons Harvard is a near-unanimous preseason selection to win the Ivy League. Kyle Casey (left) and Keith Wright are two important reasons Harvard is a near-unanimous preseason selection to win the Ivy League. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / November 10, 2011

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Kyle Casey had to be sold.

When the call came from a Harvard assistant basketball coach letting Casey know that the Crimson were interested, Casey was with a friend.

He heard the coach out, from the part about the new coaching staff to the part about wanting to come to Brimmer & May to see the 6-foot-7-inch forward at practice. Casey shrugged it off. As soon as he hung up, he laughed the call off.

He turned to his friend and said, “No chance of that happening.’’

Casey was getting looks from Stanford, Vanderbilt, George Washington, Davidson, and a few Patriot League schools.

Harvard was Harvard. No trips to the NCAA Tournament since 1946. Not even an Ivy League title. When they were trying to recruit him, the Crimson were in the middle of a 14-14 season. And that was considered being on the uptick.

“Harvard was bad when they first started recruiting me,’’ Casey said. “So they definitely had to sell me.’’

Casey kept the door open, if only slightly. Head coach Tommy Amaker came to his school to make the pitch.

“I knew Coach Amaker and I knew his background,’’ Casey said. “But I also knew Harvard was very bad.’’

Amaker got straight to the point.

Casey recalled, “One of the first things he ever said to me was, ‘Kyle, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. But I’ll curse your ass out.’ ’’

Casey was stunned, but impressed. Amaker told Casey he had a vision for what the program could become and wanted Casey to be part of it. He told him that coming to Harvard wasn’t a four-year decision. It was a 40-year decision.

“I appreciated it because he was real from the start,’’ Casey said. “He didn’t waste my time. He came at me really hard and was really determined with what he wanted to do and who he wanted to get in the program. Getting a sense that I was one of the guys he really needed in the program really gives you confidence and it really gives you comfort, furthermore, in a coach and in a program and in his vision.’’

Casey visited Harvard with Brandyn Curry and Dee Giger. Juniors now, they talked then about how they could make that vision real.

On the eve of the season opener - home tomorrow against MIT - it’s happened quicker than they expected. In three seasons, Harvard basketball has transformed from Ivy League afterthought to front-runner. Stealing games from Boston College at Conte Forum were warning shots. Last season, the Crimson went 23-7 and split the Ivy League crown with Princeton. While they were doing it, they had an alum, Jeremy Lin, earning NBA minutes with the Golden State Warriors. This season, they’re the preseason Ivy favorite, and have no intentions of sharing again.

“That was one of the neat things for me about taking this job, to be a part of something that’s never been done before,’’ Amaker said. “For us to win the Ivy League and make history, that was very moving for us.’’

Right kids, right reasons

From the time he transitioned from power-conference hoops at Michigan to Harvard, Amaker faced skepticism.

There were peers who told him to try to rebound at Harvard until something else came along. There were coaches who wondered how he could be successful with all the limitations. No scholarships. Tight admissions.

“So many things that could be detriments in so many ways,’’ Amaker said. “But I looked at them all as positives.’’

He banked on the notion that he was essentially selling the Mercedes-Benz of higher education.

“People would be willing to give their right arm to go to Harvard,’’ he said.

One thing, though.

“I never use ‘sell,’ ’’ he said.

He calls it “presenting the Harvard option.’’ An opportunity to walk the hallowed halls, network with some of the world’s most powerful people, and leave with one of the most valuable degrees in the country.

“It’s a powerful one,’’ Amaker said. “And we’re hopeful that if we present it to the right kid then they will be very interested for the right reasons.’’

Keith Wright bit.

He spent two years at Princess Anne High School in Suffolk, Va., and two at the Norfolk Collegiate School, a private school in Norfolk. He still remembers coughing and sneezing when his mom told him Harvard had called.

She said, “Harvard’s on the phone.’’

He said, “Harvard’s on the phone? I’m there.’’

“It wasn’t even a question,’’ he said. “I think Harvard speaks for itself. After that ball stops bouncing, what are you going to do?’’

Amaker painted Wright the same picture.

“It was a dream that was pitched to us,’’ Wright said. “Being recruited was making history, not just being a part of the history that other schools had already established, but doing something that’s never been done. It really wasn’t a tough decision.’’

What sold him were the non-hoops residuals.

He said, “Now when people say my name back home they say, ‘That’s Keith Wright. He plays basketball . . . for Harvard.’ ’’

Game-changers sought

Amaker has bigger plans. He was asked to speak in front of faculty recently and one of the professors asked him about college players who leave for the professional ranks after spending just a year on campus.

It’s commonplace in the college basketball landscape, but not at Harvard.

Amaker responded, “If we had a player that could be a game-changing kind of kid, that could fit the profile of this school, that could be special, but yet happened to be one of the best players in the country, that’s awesome. I don’t see anything wrong with that.’’

That image is what has the gears working in Amaker’s mind.

He thinks of players like North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes or Kyrie Irving (who played one year at Duke before jumping to the NBA) and asks himself, “Why not?’’

“I’m hopeful that we can get a kid that can be good enough to come to Harvard and leave early,’’ Amaker said. “I like that. I want that. I already know what I want him to say when they ask the question. ‘I want to do what Bill Gates did. I want to do what Mark Zuckerberg did.’ Why not?

“If they’re the kids like Bill Gates and Zuckerberg, but they happen to be that talented basketball-wise, I think we’d kill to have them. Why wouldn’t we? We want game-changers. We want special, bright kids. Just because he happens to be a ballplayer as opposed to someone doing something else across the river in a different capacity, we want those kinds of kids.’’

Exposure always helps

There’s an Ivy League championship banner hanging in Lavietes Pavilion. On the wall in the lounge that overlooks Harvard’s court, Lin’s Golden State jersey hangs framed. At concerts, Jay-Z wears Harvard varsity jackets. ESPN the Magazine spotlighted the Crimson’s turnaround. Those things make it easier to convince recruits to come.

“I think it’s easier for us to present some of these things to other kids now because these aren’t sight unseen things anymore,’’ Amaker said. “They’ve seen us play on ESPN. They’ve seen us have some success. They’ve seen some of the other kids talking about us in recruiting. I think it’s something that’s become pretty cool.’’

Now, Casey’s a salesman, telling recruits that coming to Harvard isn’t a four-year decision, it’s a 40-year decision.

“We really preach to them that it’s a life decision,’’ Casey said. “We have a competitive schedule. We’ve had success and this program is looking to sustain its success rather than build its success. So it’s more comforting for a recruit to see a banner, see wins, see competition, see a person in the pros.’’

They can see a program building brick by brick.

“It’s awesome,’’ Casey said. “A lot of people have put in a lot of sweat and tears into this program to get us where we are. Everyone in this program is reaping the rewards.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.


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