With Jeremy Lin‘s sudden rise to the NBA out of Harvard being one of the more intriguing storylines of the summer, Crimson basketball has been getting a lot of attention it may not be used to. Not only did Harvard graduate Lin to the League, but they also recorded the most wins in their history (21) this past season and received a verbal commitment from Kenyatta Smith (one of the top centers in the country). Recently I caught up with the head man in Cambridge, Tommy Amaker, to talk Lin, academics and Coach K.
Dime: Many basketball fans have only seen Jeremy Lin in Summer League or Harvard’s out of conference games. You saw him for three years every day. What can the Warriors expect out of him?
Tommy Amaker: What you see is what you get. That’s what you can expect. He’s fearless. He’s competitive. He’s hard charging. He’s passionate and he has an incredible work ethic. Anyone that has seen him play in any of those games you mentioned, he was that way every day in practice. He was no different. That’s a huge positive that he brings to the table. He was incredibly consistent.
When people saw him in NBA Summer League do what he did that didn’t surprise us here because that’s who the kid is. He’s just a consistent, tough, hard-worker and he’s a more athletic kid, with more speed and gears, than people think he is. Jeremy is an NBA player. We talked about the NBA for a long time when he was hear at Harvard and he’s kept working and plugging away. Jeremy will be the first to tell you that for things like this to happen in life, you’ve got to be good and you’ve got to be lucky. He’s both.
Those are the kind of things you can expect from Jeremy Lin. He is who he is, what you see is what you get, and you’re going to see that on a consistent daily basis, and that’s a characteristic I don’t pass out very lightly.
Dime: What is it like seeing one of your own players recognize his dream of playing in the NBA?
TA: I’ve mentioned this before but I’m thrilled for him and his family. I’m incredibly proud of him as well. Also, as a coach and as a teacher there is nothing better than seeing one of your students or players reach the heights of their dreams that they’ve worked incredibly hard to achieve.
On top of that, it’s so gratifying to see these type of things happen for people, who’ve you had a chance to be involved with, that have really paid the price and done a lot of things along the way to put themselves in a position to deserve these moments. We don’t always get what we deserve, but it’s nice to see it happen to a terrific person like Jeremy.
Dime: What attracted you to the Harvard job when you took it back in 2007?
TA: The main thing was a vision I had for Harvard. Harvard is a magical name, when you mention that name to anybody whether here in Massachusetts or globally, it’s a separator. Having said that, it’s a wonderful area here in terms of the Boston community and the New England area in terms of a place to live, coach, and teach. The Ivy League is just a tremendous conference with incredible institutions.
Then, on top of that, it’s a place where this has never been done before having a great basketball team. That was very attractive because we think it is totally possible to get Harvard to a point where it wins the Ivy League and goes to the Tournament every year. The potential and possibilities are just endless when you think of the name Harvard. That’s what we think of today and what we thought of then about this institution.
One of the things that has always been attractive to be is to be a part of a school, a community where maybe you can have a small impact and help an institution or school or achieve something that they’ve never had happen before. We are on the path of doing that and to be able to say you can be a part of something like that at this great place in Harvard has a great, special meaning.
Those are the things that excited me about it. Also, having a chance to work with the administration, and bosses that are committed. When you see the name Harvard on anything they want to be the best whether that’s in our engineering, business, or medical programs or in the school of education, or whatever it is. So when you see Harvard on our jersey that standard extends to when we play basketball also. We want to be the very best at it.
Dime: You have been a head coach in the Big Ten and Big East and now the Ivy League, what is the biggest difference between coaching in conferences that are basketball powerhouses and the Ivy League?
TA: Well there are some obvious differences. The kids that play in bigger leagues the magnitude is higher, the BCS type of leagues that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, playing in 15 or 20 thousand seat arenas every game definitely is different. But those things in mind, I’ve never been in it for those purposes. They really are insignificant because at the end of the day what I’ve learned and always known I guess is that you are still coaching and teaching 18 to 22 year olds that are passionate about the sport of basketball.
We still have 20 hours a week to practice, and get one day off mandatory. Kids everywhere are still student-athletes who have to live in a college environment that are trying to learn, develop, and grow into productive young men. You are trying to teach the kind of lessons that can help them learn to do be their best. So there are really more similarities than differences.
We deal with financial aid, need-based financial aid. At the other schools I’ve dealt with you got a full scholarship. In Ivy League schools it’s all based off what you need. If you don’t have the money to pay to come here, Harvard says we are going to give it you. So that’s how things work and some differences but at the end of the day it’s still coaching, recruiting, developing, motivating, inspiring, strategizing, and competing to win and be the best you can and obviously keeping a perspective being on a college campus.
Dime: How does Cornell’s run to the Sweet 16 put Ivy League basketball back on the map so to speak?
TA: I think Cornell what they have done is win and be competitive, obviously outside of our league. They won our league and went to the NCAA Tournament. I think the exposure the past year was a unique year for the Ivy League. In addition to Cornell, obviously their run was tremendous but this was the first year in the history of this great league that we had three teams win 20 or more games. You had Cornell, Harvard, and Princeton all win over 20 games this season.
We had a ton of exposure throughout the year and people were even speaking of our league as possibly getting more than one bid to the NCAA Tournament which never happened before. Cornell’s success, I think the success of Princeton bringing their basketball program back to where they’ve always been, and for us to come and make some historic runs. We won 21 games this past year which is more than we’ve ever won in the history of our school and we are the oldest school in the country so that’s really saying something.
All three schools, in addition to what Cornell was able to accomplish, have given our league a huge shot in the arm, and it’s opened the eyes of some kids I’m sure who may not have really thought about this as a possibility but certainly can see it now with not only Cornell but with Butler and George Mason. Those are teams that have had sensational runs and been very successful but haven’t necessarily come from the large, BCS kind of schools.
People like Jeremy Lin playing incredibly well in the NBA Summer League and signing an NBA contract with the Golden State Warriors. Those are the kids that things see and they say that we don’t have to sacrifice basketball because we want to go to a great school like Harvard. You can get all of that by choosing a place like Harvard or any other Ivy League school.
These things are literally possible, you can point to it now, you don’t have to imagine it now you can see here it is this is the pros.
Dime: What are your expectations for the team this year, can you win more than the 21 games you won last year?
TA: Well we have a very tough schedule this year. The toughest schedule in the history of our program here and the degree of difficulty has certainly increased and it will be incredibly challenging with the people we are slotted to play against. Without Jeremy it is going to be very, very daunting for us to have the kind of year we are hoping for. But you know what, we have a good nucleus returning, a nice young ballclub. We lost Jeremy and three other seniors, obviously Jeremy being the main one of those but we are hopeful.
For the kids I think they are believing, they are competing and they are hungry, and another element we have established is that we are hungry. But you know what we are going to need to be lucky in addition to being good. I think for teams to have really good years you have to have some of both those elements to achieve the kind of level you want for yourselves.
Dime: What players will need to step up with Lin now gone?
TA: It’s very hard to say and predict those kind of things. With Jeremy, one of things thing that is really interesting for us, to be completely honest about it, is that most of the time, not all the time, but most, they specialize in certain skills, but not Jeremy. Like if you lose a big guy, he was maybe your top rebounder or one of your top scorers. If it was a guard he was maybe our best playmaker. If you lose a wing player, maybe he’s your best outside shooter, but the thing with Jeremy is he was “E,” all of the above.
He did all of those things for us. We are not just losing one aspect of our stat line here, if you look at our stats he was truly an amazing player for us. It will be very challenging for us to pick up the pieces in a lot of different categories. We are going to need everyone to improve and step forward because Jeremy led us in points, he led us in rebounds, and he led us in assists, in steals, free throws attempts, minutes played. He led us in so many areas, and was the leader in most if not all of our major statistical categories.
We have a lot to kind of replace and it is going to be a challenge for us to do that in a year when we probably have our most difficult schedule to compete against.
Dime: Obviously you played under and coached under Coach K at Duke, what parts of your coaching style and philosophy are most similar to his?
TA: Well, obviously not enough. I’m trying to emulate him now more and more. When I look at the success and the brilliance of his career it’s like it’s almost not even real. I look at the numbers, the championships the success, the winning, pro players, graduating guys it is an amazing career that has no end in sight, thank goodness.
The thing I’ve always admired the most about Coach K as a former player and also as a former assistant for him is his ability to communicate. I think that’s the basis of so many things, allowing to develop and to maneuver. His ability is to communicate, and to teach and to lead his teams and his program. It’s hopeful that I can try to start there by being a really good communicator with our players to let me know goals and what we want to accomplish. Building relationships is another area that he is absolutely tremendous in.
There are so many things I can say I’d like to do but I’d be talking forever, so I try to hone in on a couple of things. The ability to communicate, teach, and lead is something that is vital and I’m trying to become better at.
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