Before Wesley Saunders knew it, his parents were thinking ahead.
It started with playing cards.
Edward and Ramona Saunders would place them face-down on the table and play “Concentration” with their son.
If they could help it, they didn’t want him staring at the television. They wanted him to pay attention to things, to remember them, to think about them.
Eventually, they were piecing together jigsaw puzzles as a family.
“Gosh, he’s probably been putting puzzles together — old-fashioned puzzles together — since he was a baby,” said Ramona. “Since he could pick pieces up and put pieces together.”
They played Monopoly and Triopoly and Scrabble.
“Wesley was quite the competitor,” Ramona said. “He just got a kick out of beating us in all the games.”
But when Wesley’s father sat him down in front of a chessboard, it was for a reason.
“I did it just to try to force him to concentrate and learn complex strategy and thinking two and three moves ahead,” Edward said.
Edward was planting a seed.
So when years passed and Saunders came to a fork in the road — one way leading to college basketball powerhouses, the other to an Ivy League underdog — he thought through all the possibilities.
“It influenced a lot of things,” Edward said. “It influenced him going to Harvard and looking at sports from a perspective, like chess, as to how it can make your life better in the long run, not so much just going there with only the ‘Hoop Dreams’ mind-set that a lot of young athletes do and they make bad decisions based on trying to get to the NBA.”
When Saunders committed to Harvard two years ago, the decision was easy to second guess.
Before Saunders became the centerpiece of a Harvard team that won the first NCAA Tournament game in program history this year, he was an All-California sectional co-player of the year at Windward School in Los Angeles. And even though the Crimson were coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons, it was hard to compare their newfound success to the Pac-12 big-box operations like Southern Cal and Stanford that were tugging at him.
“A lot of people were touting him to have pro potential and he needed to be playing at a school with the exposure of the Pac-12 and they wanted him to play at a more basketball-oriented school,” Edward said.
But Edward Saunders knew about such decisions, such chessboard moves.
In the 1970s, Edward played defensive back at Iowa during some of the Hawkeyes’ darker years. He grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where Big Ten schools were brand names. Michigan. Ohio State. Purdue. Bowling Green. And he had hopes of playing professionally.
During his four years at Iowa, the program was going through turmoil, and he never saw a winning season. He started seeing the game differently. During his own recruiting process, he had gotten letters from Brown, but the idea of the Ivy League was foreign to him.
He had an offer from Ohio State, but he would have been staring up at an All-American and an all-conference cornerback on the depth chart.
Then he suffered an injury midway through his college career.
“That changed my whole perspective on sports and really forced me to get dedicated to the books,” he said. “Just being in the position of having to make that kind of a decision and all the things that go into it, I think it helped me in trying to help him make what I think was the best decision.”
Along with USC and Stanford, Colorado was looking at Wesley and one of his best friends, Spencer Dinwiddie. As it happened, Dinwiddie was also on the radar of Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. Dinwiddie’s father mentioned Saunders to former Harvard assistant Yanni Hufnagel. Once Hufnagel got a look for himself, he passed the word on to Amaker.
“That’s when it started,” Edward said. “He came to the school, and we had him to the house and he gave us the Harvard spiel. But just meeting him and him having this sincerity, I felt comfortable with Tommy. I liked that he was very sincere and player-oriented.”
Dinwiddie ended up at Colorado. Saunders chose Harvard.
“When he made that choice, I heard it from everybody,” said Edward. “Some people didn’t even know Harvard had a basketball team. I got all these, ‘Why are yous?’ ‘Why are you letting him go there?’ ”
Last March, when the Crimson stunned New Mexico in the first found of the NCAA Tournament, they didn’t have to ask.
After averaging 16.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists as a sophomore last season, Saunders is putting up 15.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.6 points for a Crimson team that’s off to a 8-1 start.
He has a natural ability that makes getting to the basket look like performance art. But his approach to the game is logical and thought-out.
“Wesley’s instincts and his feel are as big a part of his repertoire as anything,” Amaker said. “When you have instincts and feel and then you have skill level, now you’ve become a really, really good player.”
Last season, Amaker practically lost count of all the things he asked Saunders to do, whether it was guarding the other team’s best player, carrying the scoring load, creating offense for others, or hitting the glass.
“Sometimes I felt like, ‘God almighty, I’ve got to pull back a little bit. My gosh, he’s just a sophomore and here he is carrying us in a lot of different ways,’ ” Amaker said. “But you know what he’s capable of giving.”
He also knows that the load never seems heavy. Saunders’s demeanor is constantly calm.
“I think that’s something that’s just always been natural for me,” Saunders said. “I try not to let my emotions get too involved in the game.
“Just try to be a calming presence on the court, because I know a lot of things are going on so there always needs to be somebody who can try to keep everybody just calm and not too over-hyper or too excited in certain situations.”
Every now and again, Saunders and his father will still break out the chessboard.
“He thinks he can outsmart me,” Wesley said. “But I get him sometimes.”
“He’s got me as of late, put it that way,” said Edward.
When they look at the way things have played out at Harvard, they can agree it was the smart move.
“I think everything’s really worked out the way we envisioned and it’s really a blessing to be able to go to this university,” Saunders said.
His parents see the success on a larger scale.
“The most satisfying thing that’s really very positive about this is really just the impact it has had on other players and parents who have boys that are playing basketball,” Ramona said. “They come up and just congratulate us that he’s at Harvard and what a decision he made.”