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At Harvard, education through athletics (and vice-versa)

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — When Harvard sophomore Seth Towns awoke in his riverside dorm room Wednesday morning, he had options.

He could work out at the gym to prepare for the upcoming Ivy League basketball season. He could slog downstairs for another dining hall breakfast with his roommates. Or he could head over to Harvard Square to eat instead with civil rights activist Harry Edwards, sportscaster James Brown, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and philosopher Cornel West.

Towns chose to stretch his mind instead of his muscles.

“It’s the kind of thing you come to Harvard for,” the 6-foot-7 forward for the Crimson basketball team said. “Growing up, I would have never thought that I’d have these people to look up to and talk to. I’m just acting as a sponge, and taking it all in.”

At a monthly event dubbed the “Breakfast Club,” tucked away in the private dining room of a Harvard Square hotel restaurant, Towns and senior Chris Egi joined coach Tommy Amaker this week to mingle with a few dozen leaders in the city’s financial, political and intellectual communities.

Later that afternoon, Edwards spoke to the whole basketball team about a life at the intersection of sports and activism, from John Carlos and Tommie Smith — not to mention Malcolm X — to Colin Kaepernick.

Amaker arranged the talk for a simple but somewhat quaint reason: As long as his paycheck comes from Harvard, he plans to take his role as an educator seriously.

“We’re teaching, we’re engaging, we’re exposing. We’re hopefully enlightening,” Amaker said. “I’m not sure how much they know about Dr. Harry Edwards. But we’re going to give them an education about that. I promise you that.”

The oldest and most prestigious university in the United States, Harvard has produced more than its share of U.S. presidents and Nobel laureates, along with national champions in sports like hockey and crew. But the highlight of the athletic year has always been the football team’s century-old rivalry with Yale known as The Game.

The Crimson basketball team had never won an Ivy League title, beaten a ranked team or cracked The Associated Press Top 25 before Amaker arrived in 2007. But the former Duke point guard, who previously coached at Seton Hall and Michigan, knew he had something else going for him.

“How amazingly powerful the brand and the calling card of Harvard is,” he said. “It’s a powerful pull.”

While other schools built barbershops or miniature golf courses for their athletes, Amaker name-dropped Harvard’s academic credentials to attract top talent, landing a 2016 recruiting class that was ranked in the top 10 nationally — unheard-of for an Ivy school. He has also used it to lure politicians, Hall of Fame basketball players and coaches, and business and thought leaders to speak to his players on issues more important than bounce passes or boxing out.

“I tell them, ‘You’ll forever be able to say you lectured at Harvard,'” he said, half-joking. “They all like that.”

Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke to the team last year, two weeks before the presidential election — not about his basketball records or titles, but about the rising tide of racism that concerned him. Edwards’ talk on Wednesday put Kaepernick’s national anthem protest in the context of athlete activism over the decades.

Amaker also shuttles his team to local plays with social justice themes. At an annual “Faculty, Food and Fellowship” dinner, they might hear from a cabinet secretary, a presidential candidate or a dean. And the Breakfast Club allows them to connect with prominent Bostonians and others with Harvard ties, many of them African-American.

“Their motivation is the full-rounded commitment to the people who play ball for them,” said Clifford Alexander, who played freshman basketball at Harvard and went on to serve as the first black Secretary of the Army.

“(Amaker) does not think that just because you can shoot and pass, that’s the end of his responsibility,” he said. “If you can find three other places in the country where the football or basketball team gets that kind of talk, I’ll buy you dinner.”

At last week’s breakfast, Towns sat down to eggs and French toast served family style a few seats away from orthopedic surgeon Gus White, the first black graduate of Stanford’s medical school, who this June gave the commencement address there 56 years after he spoke at his own graduation.

To Brown, the arrangement was a formula for success: “The teams I’ve seen that are successful are a mix of veterans and younger players,” he said.

Along with Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, Amaker started the Breakfast Club as a sort of “kitchen cabinet” of advisers when he first arrived on campus as the only black head coach among Harvard’s 32 varsity teams.

But Amaker has also turned the mostly — but not entirely — African-American gathering into a network for his players, inviting them to meet potential mentors in law and business and medicine and politics, as well as authors and occasionally an athlete with something interesting to say.

“It’s one thing to read about riding a bicycle or swimming. It’s another thing to get in the pool,” Edwards told the group last week. Towns watched the luminaries file out after breakfast and said: “I’m in the pool right now.”

Then-Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas spoke last year, and two Massachusetts governors have dropped by the gathering. Egi said he met a professor at the Breakfast Club that led to an independent study and a research project that is now in its second year.

“Just being exposed to people who’ve done important things, and getting to hear about their life stories — it’s an inspiration,” the senior forward from Canada said.

And that, Amaker said, pays off on the court.

Too often, he said, colleges are forced into a false choice between education and athletics, between grades and winning games. But creating well-rounded, thinking citizens also makes them better players, he said.

“This isn’t something that’s happened because we’ve won a few games,” Amaker said. “I’m saying to you: This is how we won those games.”

And the wins have come.

In Amaker’s tenure, the school earned the first five Ivy League titles in its history, making four trips to the NCAA tournament and twice advancing as a double-digit seed. Harvard grad Jeremy Lin became an NBA star (though somewhat meteorically).

Amaker himself now occupies an endowed coaching position and is a special assistant to Harvard President Drew Faust. The school’s basketball arena, first built in 1926, is being renovated at a cost of $12 million, according to the architectural firm.

More importantly, there are off-the-court success stories, too.

Corbin Miller, who came to Harvard from Utah, said a faculty talk with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen led him to a tech startup where he’s worked since graduating last spring.

Like Towns, he had options.

“You could kind of look around and see that each person in there had been affected in there in a pretty deep way,” Miller said. “Apart from the athletics and apart from the academics, it was a life lesson. It’s really a setup for the rest of your life, whether it’s basketball immediately after or not.”

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Charges dismissed against suspended South Carolina guard

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Assault charges against suspended South Carolina guard Rykym Felder have been dismissed.

Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said Felder’s charges were dropped by the city prosecutor. Felder had been charged with third-degree assault and battery stemming from a bar fight. It was Felder’s second arrest since joining the Gamecocks.

Felder is a 5-foot-10 point guard from Brooklyn, New York, who played a pivotal role in the Gamecocks’ Final Four run last spring. He was expected to have a significant role in the backcourt since the team lost three starting guards in Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier.

Felder played in 36 of 37 games last season. He had 15 points in South Carolina’s 88-81 upset of No. 2 seed Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

UConn’s eight newcomers already competing for playing time

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STORRS, Conn. (AP) — The competition to earn playing time is already in high gear at UConn, where eight newcomers have joined the Huskies.

So far, it’s been just pickup games, limited workouts with coaches and on Thursday, their first media session.

But 6-foot-9 freshman forward Josh Carlton said everyone knows they have a chance at playing time and everyone is looking to impress.

“The minutes are out there,” he said. “There is no real solid lineup in stone right now, so everyone is going hard. I think that could be an advantage.”

The roster includes just two players who saw significant action during last year’s 16-17 campaign — guards Jalen Adams, who led the team in scoring at just over 14 points a game, and Christian Vital.

The Huskies no longer have guard Rodney Purvis, who played out his eligibility. Big men Steven Enoch and Juwan Durham and wing Vance Jackson, three players who were expected to have big roles this season, all transferred.

Three others, junior transfer Terry Larrier, and redshirt freshmen Mamadou Diarra and Alterique Gilbert are back after sitting out most of the season with injuries.

There are four true freshmen — forwards Carlton, Tyler Polley, Sidney Wilson and Isaiah Whaley. They join junior college transfers Eric Cobb and Kwintin Williams and graduate transfers Antwoine Anderson and David Onuorah.

“We did a lot of bonding over the summer,” said Onuorah, who graduated from Cornell this spring, where he averaged 3.4 points and 4.7 rebounds. “We all know each other. There’s no need for name tags or anything like that.”

The team won’t have any player over 6-9. But Williams, who is listed at 6-7 and 211 pounds, said that doesn’t mean the team will struggle in the post.

“Some of us are a little better at rebounding, some of us are shooters and some are 6-9 guards,” he said. “Right now we’re getting it all figured out and I believe we’ll have a great season and we’ll be really fast as well.”

The Huskies are waiting to hear whether Wilson, who transferred from St. John’s after taking a single summer school class, will be allowed to play. The 6-7, highly recruited wing is seeking an NCAA waiver to play this season rather than sit out a year as a transfer student.

“The NCAA is something that I can’t control,” he said. “If they grant me the waiver, I’m happy. If not, I’m just going to cheer my teammates on and wait till next year.”

Fans will have to wait a while to see all the Huskies on the court. The annual First Night celebration, marking the start of practice, has been cancelled this year because of ongoing work to replace the roof of Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies will have their first full practice on Sept. 30. The game schedule is expected to be released on Friday.

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NCAA title game top scorer Booth returns healthy for Villanova

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VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — Phil Booth can live with hitting only Villanova’s second-biggest buzzer beater in a national championship game.

Let’s throw it back to April 2016 in Houston.

“Five seconds to go in the half. Booth. He has time. Looks up, puts it up. And got it!” TBS announcer Jim Nantz said.

“Big time dagger. Booth!” analyst Bill Raftery said.

Just like that, Booth’s jumper at the horn cut North Carolina’s lead to 5 at halftime.

Nantz and Raftery are about as good as it gets in the broadcast booth, but let one of the stars of the game call this one.

“That was more of a scramble around. Clock went down. Josh (Hart) made a great block and I was just trying to find a spot. I was seeing guys coming down the court trying to catch guys in transition,” Booth said as he watched a highlight reel on YouTube . “I saw the clock running, so I had to make a play; either pass or shoot it, so I found a spot at the foul line.”

Kris Jenkins won the NCAA title with a 3 at the buzzer and stuffed trophy cases at Villanova’s state-of-the art complex.

But ask your friends at a local Nova hangout such as Kelly’s Taproom who was the leading scorer in that game, and you might win a round stumping them on Booth. Booth, now a 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior guard, averaged only 7 points that season and was scoreless in 12 minutes against Kansas in the regional final. Against the Tar Heels, Booth scored a career-high 20 on 6 of 7 shooting (two 3s) and 6 of 6 free throws.

“I didn’t really know or pay attention to how many points I had until I got to my phone and saw all the texts,” he said. “I had no idea. I just knew we won the game.”

Booth also knew he couldn’t play much more on a painful left knee that even ached in warmups against the Tar Heels. Booth has no idea how the knee was injured; he just knows it wasn’t the result of a direct hit and it started early in his sophomore year. He had surgery to repair a meniscus tear about a month after the national championship game and came back ready to help the Wildcats try and defend the title.

Booth felt an unrelated “flare up” on his left kneecap early last season and his year was cut to only three games. Booth against underwent surgery at the end of the season.

He missed Villanova repeat as Big East champions and was a helpless spectator when its season ended with a loss to Wisconsin in just the second game of the NCAA Tournament.

Booth is the only player wearing a suit, his hat backward and a T-shirt draped over his shoulder, in a Big East tournament championship photo that hangs in the hall of the basketball complex.

He’s a future pro if healthy, and considered the risk had he pushed through the pain last season. Booth did practice at the end of the season before he was shut down near the NCAA Tournament.

“It was all about the long-term thing. It could come back. It could not,” he said. “I decided to do the thing that was best for long-term playing.”

Booth, whose father, Phil Booth Sr., is a Philadelphia native who starred at Northeast High School and Coppin State University, and Jalen Brunson are the only returning players who started last season’s opener. Jenkins, Hart (a Lakers first-round draft pick) and Darryl Reynolds all left as part of the winningest senior class (129-17; 63-9 Big East) in program history. Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman and Jermaine Samuels, widely considered one of the top high school recruits in the nation, kept the Wildcats as Big East favorites and a preseason national championship contender.

Booth has finished his rehab but coach Jay Wright eased him back into workouts at the start of the semester. One day on, one day off. Wright, starting his 17th season at Villanova, said Booth will hit full speed with no restrictions next week.

“I’m as positive as I could possibly be right now,” Wright said. “He’s unique because I think he approached this with a long-term (view) to his career and his life.”

Booth insisted his knees are fine and he’s ready to help Villanova think long-term — all the way to the first weekend of April. His last basket against North Carolina put the Wildcats up 69-64 and had analyst Grant Hill raving: “How many times have we seen guys off the bench step in the finals and play big?!”

And that was on one bum knee.

With two good ones, Booth just may shine again in a title game.

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Field set for Never Forget Classic at the Prudential Center

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Seton Hall will face VCU and Florida will meet Cincinnati in the second annual Never Forget Tribute Classic.

The games will be held at the Prudential Center on Saturday, Dec. 9.

Florida is coming off an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament while Cincinnati reached the second round and Seton Hall and VCU were in the tournament.

The games are in support of the Partnership with Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund Renewed to Help Support the Education of Children Impacted By September 11 Attacks.

Established within one week of September 11, 2001, the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund provides education assistance for postsecondary study to financially needy dependents of the people killed or permanently disabled in the terrorist attacks. The Fund has already delivered millions of dollars in scholarship support, and will continue to offer education assistance through the year 2030, ultimately delivering more than $100 million to affected family members.

Arkansas senior basketball player Arlando Cook arrested

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas senior forward Arlando Cook has been arrested on accusations of first-degree assault, public intoxication and disorderly conduct.

Cook was booked into the Washington County Detention Center at 2:48 a.m. Saturday and was released just before noon on a $1,250 bond. Jail records do not indicate if Cook has an attorney.

A Fayetteville police report says officers found Cook punching a man who appeared to be unconscious outside of a restaurant. The report says the altercation involved a dispute over a woman. Officers say Cook had watery and bloodshot eyes and spelled of alcohol.

In a statement, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson described the allegations as “unacceptable behavior.”

The 6-foot-8-inch Cook averaged 2.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game as a junior after transferring to Arkansas from Connors (Okla.) State College.