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Sunday, February 26, 2012
Jeremy Lin gives Harvard assist

By Jack McCluskey
Special to ESPNBoston.com

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Tommy Amaker isn't shy.

Since he arrived in the Ivy League five seasons ago, the Duke Blue Devils alumnus (as a player, assistant coach and associate head coach) and former Seton Hall and Michigan head coach has recruited for the Crimson as if he never left the big leagues.

Spike Lee
Seeing Jeremy Lin excel on the courts of the NBA and Spike Lee in a Harvard jersey likely will open some recruits' eyes to the Crimson.

Though he doesn't have the same advantages as schools that can dangle athletic scholarships (which Ivy League schools don't offer), he hasn't hesitated to recruit high-level athletes. He sells them on his program and on the lifelong benefits of a Harvard degree.

Recruits have bought in. According to ESPN RecruitingNation, Harvard has signed four three-star recruits since 2010, more than the rest of the Ivy League combined (two, one each for Penn and Yale).

"What he was able to do while he was here [was] kind of establish an identity with this program," Amaker said recently. "Jeremy was as big as any piece of the puzzle for us to start the music."

Jeremy, of course, is Jeremy Lin, the former Harvard star who's become a sensation with the New York Knicks after bursting onto the NBA scene this season as an undrafted, twice-waived free agent.

"He was a joy," his former coach said. "There's no way around it. Jeremy Lin was a special kid here, on and off the floor. He was not only our best player, but he was also our hardest worker. And when you have that combination, you know you have something special. And Jeremy was that and then some."

Harvard's Lavietes Pavilion has become a place of pilgrimage lately, with supplicants coming to seek the genesis of Linsanity.

Amaker is happy to oblige.

"We saw a guy that had a passion for basketball who was a hard-charging, passionate, athletic player and who was a dynamic playmaker," he told an assembly of media members before a recent practice at Lavietes. "What we're seeing now [with the Knicks] is what we saw on our level here for quite some time. So it's nice to see that he hasn't changed and he's in a system that allows him to be who he is."

The Crimson have a signed, framed Lin jersey hanging in the lounge at Lavietes, from his stint with the Golden State Warriors. Amaker has joked that they may need to update that now that Lin is starring in New York City.

Every performance on the big stage at Madison Square Garden raises the profile of the program that produced Lin. And it doesn't hurt for recruits to see Spike Lee courtside in a crimson Harvard jersey.

Will the Crimson get a recruiting boost from Lin?

"Well, we'll find out," Amaker said. "It's so neat to be able to have a player of his stature, his caliber, but also the quality of character that he brings as well. I think the world is finding that out about Jeremy Lin. It's a neat thing."

Showing that Harvard can develop NBA-level talent can only help, ESPN.com senior national recruiting analyst Dave Telep said.

"They can sell that Lin came to Harvard as a nobody and left as a guy who can play professional basketball," Telep said. "I think Harvard has something they may not have had to sell before: 'We walked a guy from start to finish and put him in the NBA.'"

Amaker acknowledged that the perception of the Harvard program hasn't necessarily helped in the past.

"It's one of the barriers at times when you're recruiting, or trying to recruit, a high-level basketball player, a high-level athlete wanting to become a professional athlete," he said. "Obviously, some of the other schools and conferences have a way of promoting those kinds of things, that they've produced those type of athletes and 'You need to come to this school' or 'You need to come to this conference in order to get to that level of where you want to go.'"

Now when Amaker sits down in the living room of a high-level recruit, he can tell him and his family that it's possible to earn a Harvard degree and make it to the NBA. And while Lin is the example to point to, it certainly doesn't hurt that the program has turned into an Ivy power.

With 20-plus wins in each of the past three seasons, Harvard has set, then broken its record for wins three times. It has claimed a share of the first Ivy title in program history (in 2010-11), and this season looks poised to play in the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1946.

Tommy Amaker
In addition to selling recruits on going to one of the top schools in the country, Tommy Amaker also can point to a program that's a consistent winner.

"The kids we have in the program have bought into the system, the style, the philosophy, the vision that we've been able to bring here from Day 1," Amaker said. "They've implemented it. They've done it. They've been able to go execute it. And we've had fun.

"I think that's a big part of what we're trying to accomplish here, is to represent arguably the No. 1 school in the world and play a good, fun style of basketball, have fun while we're doing it and win a few games along the way. So far, so good."

Ultimately, Telep cautions Crimson fans to keep perspective. Harvard is not Kentucky, and Linsanity won't suddenly turn Harvard into Kentucky.

"I don't think Jeremy Lin is going to change the landscape of Harvard recruiting," he said. "I don't think they're going to beat a bunch of BCS schools because of him."

This is not to say it won't help Harvard land some of the best prospects it targets. Telep drew a comparison to Davidson, which he said enjoyed a boost after sharpshooter Stephen Curry burst onto the scene in the NCAA tournament and moved on to star for Golden State.

The Wildcats aren't suddenly stealing recruits from the high-major blue bloods, but they're getting the "upper echelon" of prospects from the pool they select from, Telep said.

That may be the surest way Lin's star turn helps Harvard.

"Big picture: Anytime you're recruiting against [other schools], you're looking for something to differentiate yourself," Telep said. "There isn't another program they're recruiting against that can point to a success story of this magnitude."

No one knows for sure how much Lin's story will help Harvard recruiting, but having a Harvard alum making headlines on the NBA hardwood certainly can't hurt.

Asked if the current Crimson are enjoying Lin's ride, Amaker said, "Of course they are. They love Jeremy and are watching and cheering for him every step of the way."

Amaker paused for a moment, then continued.

"And also dreaming and hoping that something as magical as what's happened to Jeremy can someday happen to one of them as well."

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.