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Tommy Amaker tries to navigate Harvard men’s basketball through the uncharted challenges of a pandemic

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 1/20/2022 Julian Benbow
Tommy Amaker wearing a suit and tie: Harvard men's basketball coach Tommy Amaker. © Gerry Broome Harvard men's basketball coach Tommy Amaker.

One of the first signs that the world was headed into uncharted territory came in March 2020 when the Ivy League canceled its postseason men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

As the first conference in college sports to suspend play, the Ivy League set the tone for what would come as sports at large went on hiatus in the face of a global pandemic. College sports would return in 2020, but the Ivy League didn’t restart until last fall.

Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker couldn’t help but notice the the optimism, the buzz, and the excitement on campus when students returned.

A year ago, little was known about the COVID-19 virus and the wide-scale ramifications it would carry across the globe. But by the fall, the Ivy was comfortable enough to move forward.

“Kids were excited to be back amongst their friends,” Amaker said. ”And then the fall sports, I thought it was an enthusiasm there.”

By the time the Crimson men’s basketball team reunited for the 2021-22 season, 20 months had passed.

“In some ways, you felt incredibly happy and grateful,” Amaker said. “And other ways you felt like, man, it felt weird. It just seems like you’re feeling a lot of different things and you’re trying to get a handle on it and you’re just kind of going with it.”

As the calendar flipped, the temperature ticked down and exam season revved up. At the same time, COVID cases began to spike and protocols began to tighten and that shine started to wear off.

“There’s a lot of pieces and layers to where it’s kind of worn off a little bit in terms of all the excitement and energy and gratefulness and all the things that you had when you started back school,” Amaker said. “That’s what I sensed. Everybody was like, ‘Wow, what a neat feeling everybody has to be back.’

“And then you start seeing things starting to spike. And then we’re getting indoors, and those protocols change. Things were different. And it has continually moved in a different place — in a place that’s not only different, but a lot worse.”

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For almost two months, the team came as close to a normal season as possible. The Crimson opened by hosting 1,282 fans at Lavietes Pavilion and beating Morehouse, then won five of their first seven games. They made it 12 games before having to deal with COVID as it once again surges.

They broke for the holiday after beating Howard at home on Dec. 21. When they returned, COVID testing results forced the program to shut down. Their trip to face No. 6 Kansas on Dec. 29 was canceled and their original Ivy League opener against Princeton on Jan. 2 was postponed.

The Crimson returned Jan. 7, but after a three-week hiatus, they dropped their first conference game to Brown, 84-73. A scheduled matchup against Yale two days was postponed to Feb. 9. They’ve won back-to-back games against Columbia and Dartmouth and have a trip to Ithaca to face Cornell set for Saturday.

“I think everybody’s trying to find a different rhythm or routine,” Amaker said. “And each time, you almost feel like, ‘OK, this is the way it’s going to be now.’ And then it gets ripped up again. You kind of find yourself changing and pivoting all over again. So we’ve tried to do the same thing with our team and our kids.

“We’re just trying to get our kids through the protocols and get them back to where we can be allowed to have them back on the court piece by piece, step by step. All the things that come with it, you try not to have any of it disrupt your spirit. Especially for the kids, they’ve got to see that, ‘OK, we’re moving forward.’ ”

In Amaker’s time at Harvard, he’s fostered an environment that looks at the world beyond basketball, but the pandemic has added a different element.

“This is all-encompassing for everyone,” Amaker said. “Everyone has been engulfed in it. I think for the kids to see that, that’s a little unnerving. This thing doesn’t discriminate. It’s just kind of encompasses everyone. And I think that can really put you in a spot where it can be very, very unnerving for younger athletes and for the younger generation.”

The Crimson got through their nonconference schedule with an 8-4 record. Before the COVID issues, the Crimson dealt with injuries that never allowed them to put their full roster on the floor. They’ve ostensibly played the first half of the season with no front court.

“It would be like in football if all your defensive linemen were out,” Amaker said.

Senior co-captain Mason Forbes a 6-foot-9-inch, 230-pound forward, has yet to play a game this season. Neither have 6-9 junior forward Ciaran Brayboy, 6-10, 255-pound sophomore Justice Ajogbor and 6-9, 285-pound first-year forward Bennett Pitcher.Josh Hemmings, a 6-9, 230-pound sophomore forward, has played just five games.

“We’re hoping that these guys get healthy and get back, but we haven’t had them,” Amaker said.

Building continuity has been a different process this season.

“That’s the part, as a coach, that’s been a little frustrating is we’ve gone much slower — we’ve had to,” Amaker said. “We haven’t had the normal routine of having everybody there, so it’s been fragmented and disjointed to say the least. So we’re still trying to put things in and still bring guys back.”

The Crimson were picked to finish second in the Ivy League preseason poll. Amaker has always avoided the “expectations” (an external pressure) in favor of “standards” (an internal bar). But the question coming into the season was what standards do you set under circumstances you’ve never seen before.

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“We’re not deviating, we’re not modifying them in any way, we still want them to be what they’re supposed to be and still striving for that,” Amaker said. “But we will recognize that there are some ways in which our world has pivoted and things have changed. But we don’t want them to stop striving for the level of standards that we’ve set.

“We get it, we know that the journey will be different and may even be more challenging, but we still can reach it and we’re trying to do that every day even though it’s a different way that we go about it.”

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