The Interview: Harvard Basketball Coach Tommy Amaker

Teach, lead, serve. These are the words Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker lives by. Now he’d like a few words with you.

Portrait by Ken Richardson

Bostonians likely first heard about Tommy Amaker as an All-American guard at top-ranked Duke University—where 30-plus years ago he played under the legendary Mike Krzyzewski. Today, the Harvard basketball coach is not only one of the nation’s most respected teachers of the game, currently at the helm of the Ivy League’s predominant team, but also a local power player who hosts regular influencer breakfasts at the Charles Hotel. As NCAA basketball season kicks off this month (fingers crossed!), the famously media-shy coach opens up about his most unusual season yet, racism in Boston, and why you won’t find him shooting hoops in the driveway on weekends.

What’s the strangest or most different thing about living in Boston for somebody who grew up in Virginia?

Being from the Washington, DC, area, and obviously on the Virginia side, it’s similar to here. The Charles River runs between Cambridge and Boston, similar to the Potomac, which kind of meanders through the DC metropolitan area. So I’ve found it to be similar, and I’ve fallen in love with Boston and New England. It’s a little colder a few months of the year, but one of the neat things about this area that’s similar to Washington is that even though it’s a major metropolitan area, at the end of the day, it really is a small town.

Have you found Boston to be racist?

I have not. Even before I lived here, when I visited, I’ve always found it to be very inviting and welcoming. Now, I’ve talked to many people who are from here about their experiences growing up, back in the ’70s and ’80s. And they’ve said it was a very polarized city. But we’ve made wonderful friends throughout the community: Black, white, and very diverse.

What, logistically or personally, has been the hardest part of getting Harvard’s basketball team ready to start playing November 25?

The season has been approved by the NCAA to begin November 25, but having said that, in the Ivy League we have the Ivy rules, and we haven’t been told, as of today, what the next steps are.

What are you doing in the meantime? Are you practicing?

No, we’re not. We’re following campus protocol and guidelines. And right now, we are very limited as to how many students we have on campus, and exactly what we can and can’t do. There’s nothing we would ever do differently for basketball than for the regular student body. Right now, we have a very limited number of kids who have opted to come back to campus, and we don’t have any in-person classes. Everything is still online. We’ve been very cautious, and rightly so. And I’m very supportive of our administration and our leadership for the decisions that they’ve made in the best interests of our community.

When Harvard plays your alma mater, Duke, do you secretly root for Duke?

Well, we don’t play Duke. Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] never wants to play his former guys, so he would never schedule it. I’d always tell him, “When you say you don’t want to play your former guys, what you’re actually trying to say is that you don’t want to beat your former guys. I get it.” But I’m always cheering for Duke. It’s part of my DNA. I’m very proud of the school, very proud to be an alum, and incredibly proud to have been a player.

Coach K—best college basketball coach ever?

I’ve always said he was the best teacher that I had during my time at Duke. And that’s not any slight to the excellent academic faculty Duke has, and always had. So I’m always loyal. Although, I have to admit, when Duke played against Central Florida with Johnny Dawkins as the head coach, there was a bit of a loyalty switch to Johnny, just for that one game.

Biggest life lesson basketball has taught you?

There are so many, but for me personally, it’s what it means to be a great teammate. Maybe you’ll agree with this in some way: The older you get, the more you realize how many teams you really are on throughout your lifetime—with your family, your business, or wherever you work, your church. You’re part of a team. And I think that in order to be a really good leader, you have to first learn what it means to be a great teammate. What that means is being part of something bigger than yourself, being able to sacrifice. You’re not always gonna be at your best, or be great every day, but your teammates have a way of uplifting you, and hopefully you’ll do that for others as well.

There are so many different styles of coaching. There’s the guy who yells from the sidelines and jumps up and down, and the guy who’s always calm and supportive. How do you earn your players’ respect?

Well, I hope they recognize that I’m a teacher and a leader, not just a coach. I would hope that my players would feel the way I feel about Coach K one day. That would be really something. They’ve gone to Harvard, and maybe Coach Amaker was the best teacher they had. That would mean the most to me. The way I’ve tried to lead is reflected in the three words that matter the most to me: teach, lead, and serve. That encompasses everything I want to be and what I want to do.

What do you think your players say about you when you’re not there to hear it?

I give them a lot of articles and quotes, things to read. I think they’d probably say that maybe they’re tired of how many times I do that. They probably joke about, “Oh, here he goes again.”

How do you feel right now about college students going back
to school during a pandemic?

We want our kids to do what’s best for them. A tremendous amount of misfortune has been heaped on a lot of people in our country because of this pandemic. We want our players to do whatever is in their own best interest, without forcing or asking or influencing them to do anything they’re not comfortable with. We’ve made that clear to them and to their families. And I am all in, and supportive, of whatever decisions they make.

You host a monthly gathering for influential Bostonians, called
the Breakfast Club, at Henrietta’s Table in the Charles Hotel. What do you usually order?

They know that I’m getting half a waffle—soft, not crispy—with a small fruit cup and orange juice. Virginia, who runs the dining room, and Alex, who runs the whole hotel, are dear friends and take great care of us.

Portrait by Ken Richardson

When it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement in Boston, do you think we’re finally at a point where we’re really going to make substantive strides in terms of social justice?

Jonathan, I do. I wrote an op-ed called “2020 Vision.” I believe all of this has occurred in this year for a reason, because 20/20 has always stood for having clear or good vision. The pandemic has caused all of us, as a nation, to be at a standstill, to pause, and to see things differently. And now we’ve had this amazing outpouring, from all different walks of life—Black, white, young, old, whatever—who have wrapped their arms around this mission we have, to make our nation more just and more fair. We’re going
to make a difference. I absolutely believe there will be change. It’s a tremendous turning point for fairness, for justice, and for equality, and we’re doing a lot of things to make that a reality.

Speaking of which, tell me about the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative you’ve been working on.

John Calipari, the basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, founded it, and he and I have been kind of the anchors, if you will, of a group of college coaches committed to giving minorities opportunities within college sports. We have more than 80 coaches right now and have raised more than $1.2 million, all coach-driven and coach-funded. This isn’t coming from the athletic departments or the universities. We want to bring about change in making athletic departments more diverse, and this initiative is named for John McLendon, a great African-American coach and leader and teacher.

Do you still play basketball?

No, I don’t. I was lucky enough to come through my time as a player without any major injuries, and maybe if I had a different occupation, or a different career, I’d have a chance to miss it. But I never get away from it. I’m around it so much. My offices are in the gymnasium. So, in my downtime, I want to do other things.

What’s the rationale behind your desire to get rid of the SAT and ACT scores in athletic admissions?

Well, if you learn the history of why the standardized tests were introduced into higher education, it was to keep Black people from attending white universities. It was another exclusionary device. They’ve been proven to be racially biased and give an unfair advantage to the children of parents who had been very well educated, or families that had wealth. Now, so many schools aren’t even using them for college admissions, and we think they no longer have a place in higher education for determining who should be admitted to a college. It’s a tool that’s steeped in systemic racism.

You went through a difficult period during which you were accused of, investigated for, and eventually exonerated of giving preferential admissions. Have any thoughts on the Varsity Blues scandal?

I don’t, really; I didn’t follow it that closely. But what we specifically endured here was being accused of lowering standards to get students into Harvard to play basketball. We were recruiting kids who looked different than the ones who previously came to Harvard. It’s racist to think that because we happened to be recruiting Black kids, that’s why all of a sudden we were winning. I was livid about it, and so was Harvard. Professor Charles Ogletree, who is a legendary law professor at Harvard, really wrapped his arms around me about this and other things. This really rallied and galvanized the African-American community here at Harvard.

I found it insulting, because one of the things that was always a point of pride at Duke—where I also went to school—was that basketball players had to take a full course load and were cut very little slack when it came to academics, while still carrying on an incredibly grueling athletic career.

It was beyond insulting. This is Harvard, and one of the reasons I’m incredibly proud to represent this institution is how we go about doing what we do. Every kid on this campus deserves to be here. They have earned it.

What other sports do you follow?

I love tennis. My wife and I normally go to the U.S. Open on Labor Day weekend. It’s a little bit of a tradition. I used to play tennis, too. I’m also a big college football fan, and growing up in the DC area, you have to be a fan of the team formerly called the Redskins. Being here now, obviously, Boston is a tremendous sports town. I follow the Patriots, and certainly the Red Sox, and obviously the Celtics.

Your wife is a clinical psychologist. Does that inform your coaching at all?

Are you asking me if I’m first in line to get treatment? The answer is yes.

You’re generally very press shy and tend to avoid the media. Why did you agree to do this interview?

I think that’s a little overblown. My work through the years, obviously, has been public in a lot of ways. It’s a public position. I’m okay with that, but I’m not necessarily trying to court attention. I think I’m comfortable with having to be in the spotlight. It’s my duty, and my job, and what I have to do to build our program. I tell my players this: Don’t mistake visibility for importance.