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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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Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.