When most people think of the opening night of college basketball they think of the Champions Classic or their own team’s opener. But no game will mean more than the one going on at the edge of the Charles River on Tuesday night.
The Harvard Crimson will play its first game in 612 days after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the 2020-21 athletic season for Ivy League institutions. Instead of its usual opener against rival MIT, Coach Tommy Amaker and his team will play Morehouse College, a Division II HBCU out of Atlanta.
“We have a lot of Morehouse connections at Harvard,” said Amaker, “I can’t tell you how fired up the Morehouse alums are, and proud and excited to have the opportunity to compete against another incredible brand in all of higher education.”
One of those very connections is civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 at the age of 19, and just four years later would take philosophy classes at Harvard as a “special student.” Others with connections to both universities like Senator Raphael Warnock and Spike Lee have been notified that the game is happening.
“We are hopeful that people like Senator Raphael Warnock, he’s aware of it. Spike Lee, aware. It’s a really cool thing sport can do and specifically what we’ve tried to create with the thought and vision through Harvard basketball,” said Amaker.
Amaker has succeeded with that vision. To put it in context, Dr. King would spend another year at Harvard, leaving in 1953, but it would take another 43 years for Harvard to play an HBCU in basketball, and another 17 after that to schedule one. Amaker made a point to change that starting in 2013, when he scheduled Howard.
Howard is another university close to the heart of Dr.King, as he visited the proclaimed “Harvard of the HBCU’s” plenty of times, and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in the very city of Washington D.C. in August of 1963.
Since that matchup in 2013, the schools have faced off four more times, two of which took place on MLK Day weekend. For many of Harvard’s white players, it was their first time on an HBCU campus when they played at Burr Gymnasium.
“I’ve had some of our white players say to me after it was over, how grateful they were that we played this game,” said Amaker.
Playing in Washington DC, there will always be a large alumni base for the opposing team in town. In the January 2019 matchup between Howard and Harvard, then-Senator and now-Vice President (and Howard alum) Kamala Harris was in attendance. Earlier in the day, she had announced her candidacy for president of the United States.
Another time, former Dean of Harvard Law and current Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, invited the Crimson to the Supreme Court, and they took up that offer.
“It was a moving moment,” said Amaker, “It was just incredible. She came to the Howard game.”
Not only does Amaker hope to make more of those memories for his players, but that series has opened the door for many other institutions to play at Burr Gymnasium and make its own memories on MLK Day weekend.
This season, the Bison will host Notre Dame on MLK Day in a nationally-televised game on FOX. They were supposed to play last season with Howard alum Gus Johnson on the call.
“That’s a big deal,” a choked-up Johnson said in an interview with Fox’s Titus and Tate, “I’m looking forward to watching the Bison beat up on Notre Dame.”
Harvard plans on making more memories like that as the Crimson plan on playing a return game at Morehouse over the next few seasons. Along with that, Harvard’s staff is in talks to set up more games like the Morehouse ones with fellow non-Div. I HBCU’s.
They have started this venture with Phoenix Suns point guard, Chris Paul. Both his parents attended an HBCU at Winston-Salem State, and he is currently taking classes there himself.
This season he has scheduled an HBCU Tip-Off Tournament in Uncasville, Connecticut with Morehouse, West Virginia State, Virginia Union, and his parents’ alma mater. Amaker hopes to play a couple of those schools in the future.
“We’re trying very hard to partner with Chris Paul,” said Amaker, “So we’re trying to get two games in. Like when we play Howard, we play GW or American.”
The return game for Morehouse has yet to be announced, but the Maroon Tigers will have faced the two major schools in Georgia before this matchup, Georgia Tech and Georgia.
Morehouse lost against the Yellow Jackets on Halloween by a score of 89-52. JUCO transfer Tavares Oliver Jr. scored 16 points off the bench, and interim head coach Douglas Whittaker is trying to make him into a sixth man.
“He’s a midrange assassin,” said Whittaker, “But the kid can play, he’s quick as a cat. I told him today that he’s gonna be Lou Williams for us.”
Another key player for the Maroon Tigers is a transfer from Kent State, Kalin Bennett. Last season, he was the first athlete with autism to score a point in a Division I college basketball game.
“We were lucky to get him,” said Morehouse interim head coach Douglas Whittaker.
Bennett scored 11 points in his Golden Flashes career, starting a game against Buffalo. On Halloween against Georgia Tech he scored six points in six minutes.
At Lavietes Pavilion on Tuesday, it will truly be Dr. King’s dream and the beginning of something beautiful that Tommy Amaker has built. As Dr. King said, “one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Instead of Alabama, it will be happening in Massachusetts between two of the most prestigious universities in the United States.