The games are played in an actual gymnasium. There is no architectural bubble to find when you go to a Harvard basketball game, no state-of-the-art arena with theatre-style seats that might be used by Ms. Miley Cyrus or Mr. Jay-Z on a business visit to campus. The gym is a gym.
It is called the Lavietes Pavilion, but for years it was the Briggs Cage. Built in 1924, the Cage had a dirt floor for the first two-thirds of its history. The track team worked out there on one of those round-and-round tracks that hung off the walls. The baseball team worked out there in the dirt. The Red Sox worked out there on rainy days. Ted Williams worked out there.
"I was an undergraduate then…" former Harvard athletic director Billy Cleary once said. "When it was raining, we'd all go down there to watch Ted."
He described a situation that came straight out of "The Natural." Some of the kids started razzing Williams for taking so many pitches in the batting cage, said they were strikes. Williams muttered that they were balls. He maybe muttered a few other words, too. A pitch finally arrived that Williams liked and he swung, hit the ball so hard that it burst through the netting at the ceiling and crashed into a light, sending down sparks and glass. Everyone ducked.
"That was a strike, goddammit," Williams said.
For the longest time, that was the most memorable athletic moment that ever happened in the place. Maybe it still is.
The basketball court -- and Harvard points out that this is the second-oldest building used for Division I basketball in the country, behind only Fordham's Rose Hill Gym -- didn't arrive until 1982. This happened mostly because some esteemed graduates put up money to build a modern track and tennis facility. The basketball team was given the hand-me-down gymnasium.
Prior to this, it had played in the Indoor Athletic Building, now called the Malkin Athletic Center. This was probably the most unique Division I gym of all time because the basketball court was located on the fourth floor. The swimming pool took up the first floor, then some other sports in between, and, yep, basketball was on the fourth floor. Breathe deeply. Enjoy the game.
There was some long-long-ago history to the place -- the teams went to the NCAA tournament in 1946, and George Hauptfuhrer, a 6-foot-3 Harvard forward, was the Boston Celtics' first draft pick in 1948 -- but the big moments were supposed to arrive in the early '70s. That was the school's only other venture toward the big-time before now.
Two grand recruits were pulled out of Washington, D.C. One was a kid named Floyd Lewis. The other was James Brown. That is the same James Brown who now sits at the end of that CBS Sports Desk and talks with Dan, Coach, Shannon and Boomer before NFL games. Well, used to talk with Dan and Shannon.
Lewis and Brown were blue-chippers who could have gone to any school in the country. They were joined by a supporting cast that included two more high school All-Americans. The coach was a guy named Bob Harrison, who had played nine years in the NBA as a no-nonsense guard always assigned to try to whack Bob Cousy into submission. The pieces for possible success had been assembled…well, except this was college, and these were the early '70s, which were still basically the '60s in mood and temperament.
The black guys had huge Afros, and the white guys had headbands and hair halfway down their backs, and Harrison had a Midwestern mentality that appreciated the Bobby Knight School of Discipline. This did not work in this place, at this time of peace and/or love.
"They don't listen," Harrison would lament. "They don't listen."
The imported team never won more than 16 games, never won an Ivy League title. Lewis and Brown and the other big recruits graduated in 1973 when the team finished 14-12, 7-7 in the Ivy, and Harrison was fired.
He was replaced by former Celtic Satch Sanders, who put in four years on the fourth floor before retiring. Frank McLaughlin came along, and the team moved to the Lavietes Pavilion (12-14 in that first year in the new second-hand gym, 4-10 in the Ivies). Then Peter Roby came along. Then Frank Sullivan took over for 16 years. Nobody could get the show moving. There were no Ivy titles. There were no post-season tournaments.
"Box out," Peter Roby shouted at his players at the end of one game. Harvard was ahead by a point with maybe a minute to go, ready to pull the upset as a kid from somewhere else, maybe Princeton, prepared to take his second foul shot of a one-and-one to send the game into overtime.
"Box out," Roby's assistant Tom Thibodeau -- yes, that Tom Thibodeau -- also shouted.
The play was a part of the continuum. The Princeton kid's foul shot clanked off the rim. No one boxed out. A Princeton kid laid the ball into the basket. Princeton went from there to win the game. Again.
This was the situation that Tommy Amaker inherited when he arrived at Harvard in 2007. The biggest moments in Harvard basketball history had come from its women under longtime coach Kathy Delaney-Smith. They had won 11 Ivy championships, played in six NCAA tournaments, and were known for their 71-67 upset over Stanford in Palo Alto, the only time in NCAA history a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed. Amaker was handed a team that had finished 12-16 a year earlier and took it to an 8-22 record in his first year.
Everything has grown from there. The Jeremy Lin years. The first modern NCAA appearance two years ago. The first NCAA win last year. The second NCAA win on Thursday, a 61-57 grind over fifth-seeded University of Cincinnati. It is all heady stuff.
There will be jokes before the next game on Saturday against favored Michigan State about famous Harvard graduates (all those Kennedys) and about the size of Harvard's endowment (huge) and about the gold-plated Wall Street futures ahead for the players, no matter what they do on the court. There will be a buzz about Amaker's coaching future, about whether he will stay or leave.
There also should be some talk about the gym. It seats 2,050 people for a sellout. It looks like a gym. It smells like a gym. You can hear the squeak of sneakers on the floor. You can hear the sound of a good, hard foul. You can hear the funny comments from the stands. You can hear the free-form band.
There will be some talk that these kids from Harvard have come from nowhere. They have not come from nowhere. They have come from the dim basketball past in Cambridge, Mass., to play in the bright lights of the basketball present in Spokane, Wash.