When he went recruiting his first year as Harvard’s basketball coach, Tommy Amaker found it difficult selling his vision for the Crimson program - one that had not won an Ivy League title nor appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 1946.
Amaker was swimming upstream against a strong undercurrent of skepticism.
So when he was met with questions of “Why Harvard?’’ Amaker was ready with the response: “Why not?’’
“That’s exactly how I would approach it,’’ said the fifth-year Crimson coach, who arrived at Harvard in 2007 with a strong basketball pedigree. He played and coached at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski, then served as a head coach at Seton Hall and Michigan.
“Having gone through some of the journeys of the past that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of, I can relate and I can understand and I also can be very honest and sit there and ask the question, ‘Why not?’ ’’ Amaker said. “Why wouldn’t you look at this as an incredible opportunity or an option to be a part of, arguably, the No. 1 school in the world?’’
And yet, it was one of Amaker’s top recruiting targets, Kyle Casey, who proved to be one of the biggest skeptics.
“Absolutely,’’ said the 6-foot-7-inch junior forward from Medway. “My process of being recruited here was not an easy one, I would say. I was actually a very big skeptic. There were a lot of questions in the air about it, a lot of uncertainty that I had in Harvard basketball, with their tradition and the success we could have.
“It was something that I had to believe in and start to see happen before I really committed here.’’
Recruited heavily by schools that billed themselves as the Harvard of the West (Stanford) and the Harvard of the South (Vanderbilt), the former Brimmer and May standout wasn’t certain what to make of his opportunity to play basketball at the real Harvard. When Amaker came calling with an offer to play for the Crimson, it required Casey to make a leap of faith. It required him to believe in Amaker’s starry-eyed vision for the program.
“I had a really good foundation and a good group of people talking to me,’’ Casey said. “The belief in what Coach Amaker wanted to do here and seeing it and having him tell me, it really meant a lot to me. So, yeah, this wasn’t the ordinary recruiting process.’’
So what sold him on Harvard?
“In the end, I really think it was Coach Amaker who really sealed the deal for me,’’ Casey said. “They’re all great universities, but the relationship I built with Coach Amaker through the recruiting process was just tremendous and I really believe in what he wanted to do here and I wanted to be a part of it.’’
Casey, the 2010 Ivy League rookie of the year, was rewarded for his decision this season, when he helped the Crimson (26-4) capture their first Ivy League title outright and their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 66 years.
Harvard learned of its NCAA seeding (No. 12 in the East), destination (Albuquerque), and opponent (Vanderbilt) on Sunday.
“I was talking [Saturday] night with some of the guys in my class who committed with me and I said, ‘The reason we came here is going to happen tomorrow,’ ’’ Casey said. “It’s been really surreal for me, just having a leader and a coach believe in a player like myself so much has really meant a lot to me throughout this whole process.
“Coach Amaker, he’s showed such great strength and leadership and belief in his vision and in his players that he incorporates in his system. And it means the world to me we were finally able to achieve what we came here to do.’’
Casey, who earned All-Ivy League first-team honors this season after averaging 5.5 rebounds and a team-high 11.7 points in league play (11.3 overall), leaped highest among his exuberant teammates after Harvard realized its NCAA vision quest; when Casey saw the Crimson would play Thursday at 4:40 p.m. against the Commodores (24-10), the irony of the matchup was not lost on him.
Casey said Harvard’s name had no sooner flashed on the screen when he received a text message from Vanderbilt 6-9 sophomore forward Rod Odom, a friend from Central Islip, N.Y.
What was Odom’s message? “He said, ‘I’ll see you soon,’ ’’ Casey said.
They could have been teammates.
“I’m tremendously pleased and happy with my decision to come to Harvard,’’ Casey said. “Once I made my decision, I didn’t have any regrets about it.
“You know, this is home for me and this is the college I’ll have in my heart forever, so I’m just very happy with my decision.’’
But Amaker was happier that he’s been able to overcome Casey’s skepticism.
“Kyle is a personality second to none. He’s a leader. He has a voice on this team,’’ Amaker said. “He’s one of our more respected guys in the locker room. He works hard and, obviously, he’s talented.
“But his presence and his personality are strong and powerful. He’s a guy who’s in the middle of everything and that’s why it was absolutely important for us to get him to come to Harvard because we knew he was a magnet.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.