Crimson high tide

Serene yet intense, Tommy Amaker sat on a leather couch in a lounge above the basketball court at Lavietes Pavilion late Sunday afternoon. His Harvard University basketball team had won yet again, polishing off Seattle University, 80-70. With the Crimson now 8-0, Amaker was willing to deviate from his usual laser focus on the present and take a glance at the road ahead -- as well as a peek in the rearview mirror.

Sure, he said, if Harvard made it into the Top 25 in the next day's polls, that would be great. It had never happened before for the Crimson, and in The Associated Press poll, no Ivy League team had been ranked since Princeton way back in 1997-98. "Our players would be very excited," said Amaker, "and I would be very, very proud if that were to take place. If not, the sun will come up and we'll get ready for the next one." (Said next one is on ESPN2 Thursday night at No. 9 Connecticut against the defending national champs.)

Looking back, he said, he never doubted he would one day be charting this uncharted territory.

"I believed in it," he said matter-of-factly. "I really whole-heartedly believed in the vision, in the plan, in the thoughts of what a lot of our folks around here wanted to see happen: We want to make Harvard basketball matter. We want it to be significant."

Back when Amaker took the coaching job in 2007, two worlds coexisted at the nation's oldest college. There was Harvard, and there was Harvard basketball: excellence and the exception.

For all its many areas of renown, men's hoops at Harvard was -- there is no gentle way to put this -- an embarrassment.

Just how bad were the Crimson? Since their program began in 1900, they were 274 games under .500. They had losing records in four or more consecutive seasons eight separate times. In the late 1940s and early '50s, the Crimson endured nine straight losing years. From the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s they beat that record with 10.

They had won 20 games in a season exactly zero times. Only once -- in the days before the Ivies formed a league -- had Harvard played postseason ball. In the dream season of 1945-46, the Crimson finished a glittering 19-3, two of those losses coming in the NCAA tournament. It was the defining moment in the history of Harvard basketball, but it's only fair to point out that in that postwar season, three of the official victories came against the Chelsea Naval Hospital.

The last 11 coaches before Amaker -- including Boston Celtics legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Satch Sanders -- finished their Harvard careers with losing records.

In the Ivy League the Crimson were easy pickings. They were the only member of the so-called Ancient Eight never to win or share a league title. In the 51 years that the Ivies had formally competed as a league, Harvard had won at least one title in all the other 16 men's sports. (In some of the more refined athletic disciplines, no one could touch the boys from Hahvahd. In squash, in tennis, in rowing -- the Crimson were dominant.)

The so-called atmosphere at Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard's home court since 1982, was nonexistent. Though Lavietes seats just 2,195, it rarely came close to capacity. Harvard students, busy with things like creating Facebook, wanted nothing to do with the mess.

On the cinder-block walls of the arena to this day are black-and-white photos of most of the Harvard basketball teams that have represented the school since the building first opened in 1926. (It was used originally for indoor track.) Those team photos showcase young versions of men headed for greatness. A couple of Rhodes Scholars. A neurosurgeon at Mass General. An editor at The New York Times. A history professor at Harvard.

Tommy Amaker knew a thing or two about the history of Harvard hoops. During his playing days at Duke in the mid-'80s, the starting point guard helped build Mike Krzyzewski's résumé with four victories over Crimson teams that featured Arne Duncan as one of the star players. (Duncan is now the Secretary of Education for a basketball-loving alumnus of Harvard Law School, Barack Obama.)

People at Duke like to refer to the school as "the Harvard of the South." But when it came to men's basketball, one thing was abundantly clear: Harvard was no "Duke of the North."

In 1989, Amaker became a full-time assistant coach for Krzyzewski. In the first game of that season the Blue Devils hosted the Crimson. The final score on the board at Cameron Indoor Stadium that night was 130-54.

For Harvard, of all the losses over all the years, none of them was worse than that.

Still, when Amaker took the reins at Harvard in 2007, he claimed to be a believer. In a Boston Globe story on the day of his first game, Amaker said, "There aren't too many things that have never been done on this campus. The accomplishments are so lengthy at this institution. This is a chance of a lifetime to be the first coach to help bring an Ivy League championship here."

That night the Crimson played at Stanford. The Harvard of the West won, 111-56.

"It was," said Amaker, cringing even four years later, "just an absolute onslaught."

THE TRUTH IS, there were questions about Amaker's abilities as a head coach.

At Duke, of course, his reputation was regal. As a player, he had started at point guard every single game for four seasons. He was a defensive dynamo, a team guy through and through. He helped lift Duke into the NCAA tournament every season, once all the way to the championship game. As a senior, he was a captain, an All-America selection, the national defensive player of the year. He was Krzyzewski's coach on the court.

And when he fell short of the NBA, Amaker came back to work for his mentor, quickly establishing himself as a rising star. He was a graduate assistant for one year, an assistant coach for six, the associate head coach for two more. Only once in that time did the Blue Devils fail to make the NCAA tournament. Five times they made it to the Final Four. Twice they won it all.

But when he launched out on his own, all that glittered turned to rust. In only one of his 10 years at Seton Hall (four) and Michigan (six) did Amaker's teams make the NCAA tournament, a Sweet Sixteen appearance with the Pirates in 1999-2000. Sure, he was a regular in the NIT (six appearances, including a championship with the Wolverines in 2004), but no college basketball player -- not even at Harvard -- grows up dreaming of winning the NIT.

After a 22-13 season in 2006-07 ended with a spanking from Florida State in the NIT's second round, Amaker was summoned into the office of Michigan athletic director Bill Martin. Amaker doesn't sugarcoat what happened. He doesn't claim he resigned, or suggest that the two men decided to part company, or that he decided to go in the proverbial other direction.

"I was fired," he said.

He was 41 and at a crossroads. There were some options, he says, outside of basketball. Maybe it was time to try something else. There was no shame in it. He had only two losing seasons, after all. Maybe he wasn't another Coach K. So be it. Who was?

BUT WHEN HARVARD came calling, the fire started burning. "There's only one Harvard," Amaker says. "It's a magical name."

This was, quite possibly, his last chance. He was determined to go down fighting, to do everything he could to make Harvard basketball matter, to make it significant.

On the court, that first season was mostly a disaster. There was the 55-point blowout to Stanford to start things off. There were two separate seven-game losing streaks. The Crimson were swept by Columbia. It was a galling 8-22 season, by far the worst of his life. Lavietes never sold out. The average home crowd was a paltry 1,250 -- worse even than the season before.

But beneath the surface, there were some stirrings of change. Jeremy Lin, who was a sophomore on that team, recalls being struck by how hard the coaching staff was working. "I'd go in the gym a lot," Lin said. "Sometimes I'd come in at 6 a.m., and their lights would be on. Or I'd come in to shoot at 11 [p.m.], or midnight, or 1 a.m., and they'd be upstairs working."

Amaker was building a vision for how the Crimson would play. They would be an up-tempo, transition, fast-breaking team, but one predicated on defensive pressure. They would play inside-out basketball. They would be unselfish. They would be relentless.

On the recruiting trail, he told kids that they had the opportunity to go to the premier academic institution in America, and also to be part of a great story -- the group that finally brought Harvard basketball to the top.

Two members of that first recruiting class are now two-year co-captains.

"I just believed in what he was saying," says Oliver McNally, a fundamentally flawless senior guard from California. "I believed that he was going to turn this program around."

McNally's roots in Cambridge sink deep. His great-great grandfather Herman T. Baldwin graduated from Harvard in 1891 -- the year basketball was invented on the other side of the state by James Naismith.

The other co-captain, Keith Wright, is a bruising 6-8 forward from Virginia. Despite scholarship offers from schools such as Illinois, he said he "chose Harvard because once the ball stops bouncing, I'll have a great education to fall back on. But the other reason is that I wanted to make history."

Wright admits it was a challenge to step into a program with such a losing heritage. At Lavietes, he said, it was embarrassing to look up at the rafters and see that all 11 banners hanging there were from the women's team. Departing from the rarefied Ivy lexicon, he said, "Coming to practice every day and seeing nothing but women's Ivy League championships, it kind of sucked."

During their freshman season, McNally and Wright played on a team that went 14-14. Then in 2009-10, Harvard vaulted to the next level. Led by senior Lin, Harvard soared to an unprecedented 21-8 record (10-4 in the Ivy League) and the program's first postseason play in more than 60 years (a loss to Appalachian State in the CollegeInsider.com tournament). Lin was a revelation. Though recruited by former coach Frank Sullivan, he blossomed under Amaker, becoming the kind of multifaceted threat the Ivy League had not seen in many, many years. He would go on to play for the Golden State Warriors last season, becoming the first Harvard player in the NBA since Ed Smith (1954), and the first Ivy Leaguer since Yale's Chris Dudley finished in 2003.

Conventional wisdom suggested that with Lin's departure, the Crimson would revert to form. He was, after all, a once-in-a-few-generations player at a place like Harvard. With Lin gone, and no seniors on board, how could the 2010-11 Crimson do anything but nosedive?

But Lin had passed the torch. Somehow, Harvard only got better. When the Crimson knocked off Princeton in the regular-season finale before a rousing sellout crowd that included Lin and Harvard president Drew Faust, they had improved to 23-5, and 12-2 in the Ivy League, good enough to clinch at least a tie for their first-ever Ivy League championship. It was -- for a moment -- unbelievably sweet.

The moment passed. Princeton won its final regular-season game at Penn to tie the Crimson for the title, setting up a playoff game for the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It would be Harvard versus Princeton at Yale -- a unique moment in the nation's academic and athletic history.

The nationally televised game lived up to every bit of its billing. It was hard-fought. It was intense. Though Harvard led at the half by seven and pushed the lead to 10 after intermission, the game went right down to the end. The Crimson led by one, 62-61, as Princeton inbounded from under its own basket with 2.8 seconds to go. The ball came in to Douglas Davis in the corner. He took two hard dribbles to his right and faked the shot, with McNally sailing past him to contest. Leaning back to the left and falling to the floor as he released the ball, Davis took his shot. It hit nothing but net at the buzzer.

It had been the best season in Harvard basketball history. A championship banner for the men's team would finally hang at Lavietes -- but it was arguably the most double-edged piece of fabric since Yale graduate Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. This didn't feel like a championship. Princeton was headed to the NCAA tournament for the 22nd time since the Ivy League was launched -- 22 more than Harvard. After the Crimson were wiped out by Oklahoma State in the first round of their first-ever appearance in the NIT, there were some huge wounds to lick.

Amaker said that at season's end, "I told our kids that I was really, really struggling with this past season because it was as rewarding, and as enjoyable, and as meaningful as any season that I've been a part of as a coach or a player. On the other side, it was as devastating and as crushing a loss and an ending as I've ever been a part of, including losing in the national championship game as a player. ... So I guess it was a full year."

At a certain point, though, the Crimson realized that there was a chance to convert the anguish to fuel.

"It's kind of storybook for motivation," said McNally.

And here in the early part of the 2011-12 season, the new juggernaut of the Ivies has continued to soar. After starting the season with three straight wins, the Crimson traveled down to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving for the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. There they wiped out Utah, shocked No. 20 Florida State, then upended a Central Florida team that had just defeated UConn. The Harvard Crimson hoisted the championship trophy.

They are winning within the system. No individual takes a lot of shots. Wright, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, leads the team in scoring with a very modest 11.4 points per game. Of the 10 players averaging at least seven minutes a game, four of them are freshmen. One of them, Jonah Travis, went off for 19 points and 10 rebounds on Sunday. The Crimson are one of only 14 undefeated teams left among the 345 playing Division I.

"They all share the ball," said Lin, readying for his second NBA season. "Their assist-to-turnover ratio is very high. And they play unbelievable team defense. I think that's just the right way to play basketball."

On Sunday, a spirited crowd of 1,896 arrived at Lavietes, many roused from the reading period before final exams. Granted, one of them came toting the Sunday New York Times. The Harvard band, all decked out in crimson sports coats, played songs like "25, or 6 to 4" and the theme song from "The Pink Panther." A dapper Charles Ogletree, a legendary professor at the law school who taught both Barack and Michelle Obama, sat at courtside cheering on the Crimson.

The next day they made their debut in both polls, No. 24 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll, No. 25 in the AP. Next stop: Ninth-ranked UConn, the defending champs.

"It's uncharted for us, but that's what we want," said Amaker. "That's the vision and the plan we had, to bring about something that can be unique and special at this very, very special institution."

Marty Dobrow is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. A professor of communications at Springfield College, he is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (2010, University of Massachusetts Press).