The moment the clock ticked down and Yale turned out the lights on Harvard’s 2016-17 season way before any of the Crimson were expecting, everything was a blur for Bryce Aiken.
He didn’t see Yale coach James Jones come across the court to shake Tommy Amaker’s hand after another dramatic and emotionally draining chapter in a storied rivalry. He didn’t see the players from the Bulldogs’ bench flood the court to celebrate advancing to the final of the first Ivy League basketball tournament. He barely saw any of his teammates, shellshocked by a season cut short.
Aiken found a chair on Harvard’s bench and carried the weight of the loss as he buried his tear-soaked face in his hands. The Ivy League’s Rookie of the Year had tried to single-handedly will the Crimson to a win, throwing 28 points at Yale. He remembered senior guard Matt Fraschilla and freshman forward Henry Welsh trying to console him.
Fraschilla told him, “You’re all right, bro. It’s all going to be all right. You’re good.”
But in the moment, Aiken was too hurt to hear it.
“I felt terrible,” he said. “I invest everything into this game, so just to have the season ending and not have our team maximize our potential and reach our goals that we wanted to, it felt terrible. I just felt a heavy weight on my shoulders.
“Everything was just in through one ear, out the other. I was distraught. I was just like, ‘Wow, man. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t do enough.’ I felt a weight on my shoulders because I felt like I should’ve done more.”
Not long after the game, Aiken got a call from a couple of friends he considers brothers since he was a freshman in high school: Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum.
It was essentially a hoops wellness check.
Tatum and Aiken got close through their travels on the AAU circuit.
“I just said it was a great effort and keep your head up,” Tatum said. “Just kind of remember that feeling so when the next time comes around, you know what it feels like.”
Irving had held Aiken closely under his wing since the first time he saw Aiken play at Pope John High School in New Jersey before he transferred to The Patrick School, where Irving played his high school ball. Aiken’s skill, his attention to detail and fundamentals, and his slick dribble reminded Irving of himself.
“When I saw him play, I was like, that little kid right there — he was a tiny little freshman — and he was just extremely talented,” Irving said. “From that point on, it’s been kind of, that’s my little brother. He’s part of my family. My whole family brings him in. So just understanding that any time you can give help to a young individual like that that has that mind-set — you could tell he was really competitive, wanted to win — he just really had that fire inside of him.”
Irving also saw some parallels in how much weight they put on themselves. So when Aiken was at a low point, Irving reached out and gave a reality check.
“Man, that dude puts so much pressure on himself,” Irving said. “It reminds me of myself as well. Just thinking that that one shot is going to dictate whether or not you should be happy for the next 14, 16 hours. I’ve been in that position. I’ve had sometimes worse positions where I’ve walked off the floor, game-winner on a last-second shot, and I’ve had some other professional obligations that ended up biting me in the [butt].
“You try to be great as much as possible in the game, but once you leave it, you leave it there. You pick yourself back up, you work on your game continuously, you don’t forget that moment and you carry it with you to the next thing. But you don’t want to stay in that moment and let it linger on because you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
Aiken stewed over the loss for about a week.
“Then after that I just had to move on and continue the journey,” he said. “I just got back in the gym and started grinding again.”
After becoming the first freshman to lead Harvard in scoring in 30 years, Aiken knows the keys to the Crimson program are in his hands. Last season, he had senior floor general Siyani Chambers as a mentor. Now Aiken will be asked to carry the scoring and play-making loads while also developing into a leader for a Crimson team picked as the preseason favorite in the Ivy League. It’s a role he says he’s ready for.
“I think naturally just because Siyani’s gone, I do have more on my plate,” Aiken said. “I do have more responsibility to lead this team and be one of the best players in the country. I think I’m ready to embrace it. I have. And I know that I’m not by myself. That’s the main point. I have teammates. My teammates are going to be fighting alongside me each and every game.”
To Amaker, the lesson Aiken learned his freshman season was devastating but also necessary. Aiken averaged 14.5 points and 2.8 assists last season, but if the Crimson are going to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, Aiken and the rest of the team’s young core will have to mature.
“With Bryce, because of how hard he worked and how talented he is and how well he played in that game, it was crushing for him and I think that’s a huge growth moment for people and certainly young players to recognize that you can do all you can and give everything you have and it still may not sometimes be enough. So what do you do next time?” Amaker said.
“I think as he’s worked this summer, I think he’s been more willing to think about how much other players are going to have to help for us to reach certain goals and talking to guys through the summer and the spring and making sure we get our workouts in. So I think those are the moments where you get outside of yourself. It’s not just golf or tennis where it just matters what you do. It matters what we do. Going through it like that for a tough moment, it hits home and I think for Bryce in particular, he’s driven to drive us not just drive himself.”
Aiken spent the offseason around the game and, at several points, around Irving. They ended up at UCLA where a cluster of NBA players were working out. Irving, Carmelo Anthony, and Tony Snell were all running a pickup game.
“For some reason, they let me play, too,” Aiken said.
As the summer went along, the stars started aligning. In June, the Celtics took Tatum with the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA Draft. In August, Irving, Tatum, Aiken, and a group of friends took a trip to the Bahamas for vacation. Two weeks later, the Celtics swung an out-of-nowhere deal to bring Irving to Boston from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I was like, ‘Wow, my brother’s coming to my city with me!’ ” Aiken said.
The coincidences weren’t lost on Irving, either. He was coming to a city where he’d be closer to two friends he considers brothers. Funny enough, the nickname for The Patrick School is the Celtics.
“It’s just crazy,” Irving said. “Some would call it fate. But the guys are here and it’s just great having those guys around.”
More important though, was the strength of a basketball bond between a player carving his identity as a franchise cornerstone, an NBA rookie getting his bearings, and a college player who wants to be where his friends are and is taking the path less traveled through the Ivy League.
“It’s very valuable,” Tatum said. “When you’re that close to somebody on that superstar level and for him to have that open door for you to talk to him, ask him any questions, is extremely helpful.”
For Irving, the brotherhood is a way to pay forward the experience he’s gained. His father Drederick, a Boston University Hall of Famer and a playground legend, was the template he went by. But the value of having someone in the NBA to pass along that knowledge is immeasurable.
“I’m seven years in the league, but I also understand what it’s like to be 19, 20, 21, being a high draft pick, understanding family obligations, understanding professional obligations, your body, taking care of just different things that you have to be aware of in terms of being great in this league,” Irving said. “It’s so much at first, you’re living alone, pick up a dog — Jayson got two bulldogs right now — first time getting six-digit checks, it’s just a lot at once and you’re 19 years old and you’re experiencing all of it.
“So you just want to be as much in control as you can and I try to prepare those guys as much as possible for what life throws at them whether it’s NBA or college. The expectations other people try to put on you, you can get lost. People sometimes get lost and sometimes they can’t find themselves after that and I’m here to kind of just direct as much as possible.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.