The hardest part was being at home in Minnesota, being away from his teammates at Harvard, and staring at the television.
Siyani Chambers had never been injured until he tore his ACL in summer workouts before the Harvard basketball team’s season even started a year ago. But the injury forced him to withdraw from school to keep his final year of eligibility, which meant once he underwent successful surgery, he would have to go back home to Golden Valley, Minn.
For five months, he wasn’t the 6-foot fireball point guard that won Ivy League rookie of the year and pushed the Crimson to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first three seasons.
He could barely get himself around his parents’ house.
It hit him when he flipped the channel to the Crimson’s first game of the season.
“The first game came on TV, and I couldn’t move,” he said. “I couldn’t be there to help. I was watching from home and it hit me like, “I wish I could be there.”
After a run of success never seen before in school history, Harvard had one of its more difficult seasons. They lost six of their first eight games and struggled to find an identity after losing not only their floor general but a core group of seniors.
Every game was like torture for Chambers, but he watched.
“When I was at home, I watched every game possible,” he said. “When they were on, I was sitting there watching.”
The plan always was to get back on campus when he was able to move around.
He couldn’t play. He couldn’t so much as grab a cup of water for his teammates.
“I could sit and watch,” he said.
But it was enough.
In the winter, he made his way back to Cambridge to start rehabbing his knee. To keep busy, he picked up a small job — as a babysitter.
He had a 3-year-old on his hands and a set of 12-year-old twins.
Taking care of children ended up being a lot more challenging than taking care of the basketball.
“It was a work in progress,” he said. “But I got the hang of it and it went pretty smoothly.”
But it gave him a chance to keep himself engaged in a program he meant so much to. The months he spent at home were “slow and lonely,” he said, but even if he wasn’t on the floor, he was able to be around the team.
“Even if I couldn’t participate in anything, it was a lot better than being at home and being isolated from everyone,” Chambers said. “When you’re away and you’re not part of the team, it still feels like you’re on your own even though people are trying to include you. So it was hard at first. As I got to slowly see progress start to happen, it got a little more hopeful.”
Now, with Chambers fully recovered, Harvard is hoping to bounce back from a fourth-place finish in the Ivy League. The Crimson brought in a Top-25 recruiting class, but their most significant addition will be having the experience and presence that Chambers brings to the floor.
“It’s tremendous having him back — not just around on the court, but around leading in the locker room,” said Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “He’s our undisputed leader, and it was evident in what we missed from him when he was not here. Now we have him back and we feel the difference.
“What’s that going to translate into on the court, that’s yet to be seen, but just there’s a presence about him. He’s a veteran point guard. He’s led our team since the day he stepped foot on this campus. And we’re just expecting him to do the same again as a senior.”
The first real test
From the time Chambers was a recruit to the years Chambers spent as Amaker’s brain on the floor, Amaker could relate to him, but this wasn’t a situation where the coach could talk to the point guard from personal experience. Amaker had never gone through a season-ending knee injury.
“Rehab was his No. 1 assignment, which is to get healthy,” Amaker said. “And he was diligent with all of that. With all that goes into rehabbing a season-ending knee injury, which I never had as a player, I can’t fully always try to put myself in all our guys’ shoes. But he went through that and went through as much as he possibly could.”
The rehab process was conscientiously slow. There was no reason to rush because Chambers wasn’t enrolled, but he was still back on the floor ahead of schedule.
In June, he started doing some spot shooting.
“I was rusty,” he said. “Very rusty.”
He knew he had work ahead of him. He stayed in Cambridge during the summer. He worked with trainer Craig Fafara. He rehabbed at Massachusetts General Hospital — “they did a phenomenal job,” he said. The focus was on rebuilding his confidence, regaining his strength in not just his knee but throughout his entire leg.
The first time Chambers was able to do anything full contact, he wanted one question answered.
“Just that confidence of falling and getting back up was a big thing I wanted to get over,” he said.
He didn’t have to look far to find a true test.
His brother Kamali Chambers, who was starting his first year at Boston University, wasn’t far away. If there was anyone who wouldn’t take it easy on him, it was his brother.
The answer came quickly.
They played a game of one on one. Kamali knocked Siyani down on the first play. He didn’t ask if his brother was all right.
“He said, ‘Get up,’ ” Siyani said.
That told Siyani everything he needed to know.
“Tough love,” Siyani said. “But I really appreciate him for doing that.”
When Chambers practiced for the first time this season, it was almost like an introduction.
The only players from the 2014-15 team that faced North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament were seniors Corbin Miller, Zena Edosomwan, Matt Fraschilla, and juniors Chris Egi and Zach Yoshor.
Familiar faces such as Wesley Saunders and Steve Moundou-Missi were gone.
“It definitely was different,” he said. “We built up a chemistry, we knew what everybody was going to do, so coming back and seeing new faces like Corey [Johnson] and Tommy [McCarthy] and our freshmen, like Robert [Baler] and Chris Lewis and all those guys.
In a way, Chambers had to reintroduce himself.
When he had the chance, he sat down with the players he didn’t have the chance to truly get to know last year.
He asked the small but important questions. How do you like to play? Where do you like the ball? What are your sweet spots?
“Just try to get an open dialogue,” Chambers said. “Because the more you know about your teammates, the easier it is to instinctively act on the court. So I just tried to do a lot of stuff off the court because it makes my job a lot easier.”
But the moment he stepped on the floor, the Crimson could see what had been missing a year ago.
A 13.1-point, 9.9 rebound, All-Ivy League second team season ended up being a bittersweet run for Edosomwan, who said the Crimson’s fourth-place finish in the Ivy was something he struggled with.
“It was great to kind of progress, but it was really hard not winning.
“But it obviously showed how much we missed Siyani and his leadership on the court.”
With Chambers out, Edosomwan had to deal with defenses scheming up ways to stop him for the first time in his college career.
“It was tough,” he said. “But it’s nice this year obviously knowing I have Siyani with me. I think that’s going to make my job easier and I know I’m going to get a lot easier baskets now just being alongside Siyani, because I know 89 percent of the time he’s going to make the right read.”
Miller, a marksman from 3-point range, had to pick up point guard duties last season with Chambers out.
“It was great to have him back,” Miller said. “Having him yell at you when he’s on the court is a lot better than when he’s off the court, so it’s been awesome.”
“He just brings a confidence for everyone. You trust him so much and him coming back and being as healthy as he is and doing everything that he’s doing, he didn’t lose much at all. He’s back at it and it makes everybody else on the court confident and comfortable in doing their roles knowing that he’s obviously going to bring it and do what he does.”
Practices are naturally louder with Chambers barking orders. There’s another weapon on the floor, one that makes all of Harvard’s other weapons fall into place. Now, it’s a matter of putting it all together.
“I just try to fit in,” Chambers said. “I’m still trying to work on coming back, a lot of new faces that I haven’t seen or played with before — not just the freshmen but also the sophomores. So I’m just trying to fit in where I can and bring what I know and have experienced and try to put it with what they’ve experienced and just try to make this a seamless transition. I just tried to add my voice.”