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At Harvard, bond strong between coach and player

Siyani Chambers is a candidate for the Cousy Award (nation’s top point guard) and has a special bond with Harvard coach Tommy Amaker.

barry chin/globe staff

Siyani Chambers is a candidate for the Cousy Award (nation’s top point guard) and has a special bond with Harvard coach Tommy Amaker.

Sometimes, during one of his high school or AAU games, Siyani Chambers would take a quick glance up at the bleachers, see Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker, and wonder whether Amaker had anything better to do.

“He would come to the games that didn’t really matter,” Chambers said. “Like at 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock in the morning. He was there, the only one there, just sitting there reading his newspaper and watching the games.

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“Sometimes I was there, like, ‘Wow, why are you here? Like, I kind of don’t even want to be here right now.’ ”

Amaker made it a point to be at all of Chambers’s games. Sometimes the games would be crack-of-dawn early, and since Chambers grew up in Golden Valley, Minn., most times it was see-your-own-breath cold.

But for Amaker, there wasn’t anything more important. He had been watching Chambers since he was an eighth-grader. It started with the six degrees of serendipity that come with college recruiting.

Amaker originally traveled to Minnesota five years ago with his eye on two guards. One was Trent Lockett. The other was Raymond Cowels. But the player who caught his eye was Chambers, who couldn’t have been more than 5 feet, 5 or 6 inches. Even though he was young, Chambers was already playing varsity basketball.

“He was precise,” Amaker said. “He took pride in what he did.”

After that, Amaker kept coming back. Chambers’s basketball schedule essentially became his own. It didn’t matter where the game was or what time. Chambers would look up and see Amaker in the bleachers.

“More than any other coach, he was there,” said Chambers. “That also showed that he really cared about me and he cared about my game and how I was as a person. He’d be there early, maybe two or three games before my game, just to make sure he was there for my game.”

Amaker called after almost every one. If not that day, then within the week. He wanted Chambers at Harvard, but he wasn’t just making a sales pitch or stroking a young player’s ego.

“He was a person that kept it real,” Chambers said. “He said, ‘You’ve got to work on this and you’ve got to work on this.’ Even though he wasn’t my coach at the time, he was still hard on me and he didn’t really care how I took it. He just wanted me to become a better person and a better player.”

Lockett wound up at Marquette (by way of Arizona State), Cowels at Santa Clara. But Chambers, as a freshman, has become the jewel of a 17-7 Crimson team trying to win the Ivy League for a third straight season.

Averaging 13.0 points and 5.9 assists, he is a candidate for the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard, but moreover, he is Amaker’s brain on the court, largely because of a relationship forged long before he ever got to Harvard.

In the same mold

Between Chambers’s junior and senior years, he and his family took an unofficial trip to Boston and made stops at as many schools as possible: Boston University, Boston College, Providence, and Harvard.

Before they left Harvard, Crimson assistant Brian DeStefano stopped Chambers’s mother, Elice, and said, “Wow, Siyani really, really reminds Coach Amaker of himself when he was young, when he was playing. You need to check him out. Go Google him.”

So they did. It was uncanny.

Amaker wore No. 4, the same number Chambers wore in high school. Their mannerisms were the same, their style of play was the same.

“Siyani was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Elice said. “I was just sitting there like, ‘Oooh, this is kind of scary.’ ”

She didn’t know it at the time, but Siyani texted his younger brother, Kamali, back in Minnesota and told him to check out the video.

“I think at that moment is when Siyani made his decision,” Elice said. “He didn’t make it public, but his brother knew.”

Some 30 years ago, there was a point guard creating a loud buzz in northern Virginia. It was loud enough that Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach took notice. The way the story goes, Auerbach said this point guard was the best he’d seen in 10 years.

But the buzz only carried so far.

When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski came up from Durham, N.C., to mine a Washington summer league for talent, he was looking for Johnny Dawkins. He had to be persuaded to give another player, a point guard, a look. When he did, he knew that was the kind of player he wanted.

That point guard was Tommy Amaker.

He wasn’t big, by any means, just 6 feet, 150 pounds. But he was talented.

And from the moment he arrived at Duke, Amaker was Krzyzewski’s brain on the court. He started as a freshman, and he went on to set almost all of the school’s assist and steal records. After testing the NBA waters, Amaker cut his coaching teeth as one of Krzyzewski’s assistants.

“I think Tommy being a point guard himself at that major college level, playing for Duke on a national championship team, I think Tommy sees himself in Siyani,” said Rene Pulley, head of the AAU program Chambers played in. “I think Tommy sees something in Siyani that he probably had to overcome himself being a smaller guard.

“Tommy told me, ‘This is my No. 1 recruit.’ A lot of coaches didn’t want to believe when Tommy saw Siyani that that was his No. 1 recruit, but I believed him.

“He saw something in Siyani that a lot of other coaches didn’t. A lot of coaches were intrigued by Siyani but they just weren’t sure.”

Change of plans

The plan was not for Chambers to play nearly 38 minutes a night his first year (which he is doing). When Amaker got Chambers to commit, he already had Brandyn Curry, a senior cocaptain, at the point, which would have given Chambers time to learn as an understudy.

But when Curry and forward Kyle Casey withdrew from school — reportedly after their involvement in a cheating scandal — everything changed.

“Honestly, there was no plan here,” Amaker said. “We just said this is the hand we’re dealt and we’re going to continue on. What I mentioned to our kids, who knows how this is going to shake out, but I mentioned to them from Day 1, we may not have what we had, but we have enough.”

Chambers was thrust into the starting lineup, and he has been there for all 24 games this season, seeing teams like Connecticut, Massachusetts, Saint Joseph’s, Memphis, and California for the first time, with the expectation that he play above his years.

“I was a little nervous,” said Chambers. “But I just have to credit my teammates and coaching staff for saying, ‘We’re going to work with you. There’s no pressure, just go out there and do what you do. We’ll back you up on whatever you do.’ ”

Amaker didn’t think twice about giving Chambers the keys.

“I had no worry whatsoever handing him the ball, no worries he would lead our team, be in charge of our team, even as a freshman,” Amaker said. “He had to learn the things that I wanted and what we wanted for our program, but that didn’t take very long.

“Now, he’s been a guy that we’ve had to say, ‘Hey, you’re our quarterback,’ and he’s capable. He didn’t blink an eye.”

Early on, Chambers would find himself going over to the sideline while opponents were at the free throw line just to check in with Amaker. They’d ask each other what they were seeing on the floor.

Now, they barely have to do that anymore.

“It’s gotten to a point now where sometimes even when I go over to the sidelines, I already know what he’s about to say and we talk about it,” said Chambers. “He basically tells me something on the sideline and then he wants me to reiterate to everybody else on the court what he just told me.”

They talk before and after practice. Sometimes Chambers bounces basketball ideas off his coach. Sometimes Amaker bounces life questions off his freshman point guard.

“I consider him like a best friend now,” said Chambers.

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