CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — 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.”