They played a basketball game at Burr Gymnasium on the Howard campus Saturday afternoon, a rare January nonconference game, but one that had special meaning to both schools, both teams and to both coaches.
Harvard won a competitive battle, 69-61, but the 40 minutes of basketball was the climax of a process that began years ago.
“It just made so much sense given what the two schools stand for,” Harvard Coach Tommy Amaker said just before his team practiced on Friday afternoon.
“When I was a kid growing up in this area, the academic respect Howard had in the African American community was off the charts. People always called it, ‘the Harvard of the HBUCs’ [historically black universities and colleges]. So, when Kevin got the Howard job, I thought it made sense for us to play one another: HU vs. HU. Harvard north vs. Harvard south.”
Kevin is Kevin Nickelberry, who is in his sixth season at Howard. He took the job, at least in part because Amaker — whom Nickelberry had grown up playing against in the Washington area — encouraged him to do it.
“I called Tommy when I had a chance to get the job because he had been at Harvard for a couple of years and was starting to have some success,” Nickleberry said Friday afternoon. “I wanted to know: can you win at an academic school where you’re competing against schools that take a lot of JUCOs and transfers?
“He was honest. He said, ‘Look, I can get in the door most places just by saying, ‘I’m from Harvard.’ Then the rest is up to me. He told me, within the African American community, Howard should have the same kind of respect — but it would take time.”
Nickleberry, who at 51 is six months older than Amaker, took the job. The irony was that not only was Howard doing poorly on the basketball court at the time, its players were doing poorly in the classroom. The school was on probation because it had fallen below minimum average scores in the Academic Progress Rate minimums, the NCAA’s annual measurement of whether college athletes are meeting academic benchmarks.
“That was the first thing I had to straighten out,” Nickleberry said. “That just can’t happen at a place like Howard. The administration said to me, ‘You’ve got nine sophomores. Make sure they all graduate. Then start to worry about winning.’ ”
Nickelberry did that. Howard lost 20-plus games each of his first four seasons, extending its string of 20-loss seasons to six. During that time, Howard played a guarantee game at Harvard to add a few dollars to his budget. That was when Amaker started talking about coming to D.C. to play at Howard.
“Not yet,” Nickelberry said. “I want to play you down here when we can compete with you.”
That time finally came on Saturday. It began though, with Nickleberry’s successful recruitment of James Daniel III out of Phoebus High School in Hampton, an area Nickleberry knows well because he spent four years coaching at Hampton.
“There were bigger schools recruiting him,” Nickleberry said. “He’s only 5-11 but he definitely could have gone to VCU or Richmond or a place like that and he would have played. But I said to him, ‘Look, do you want to be Batman or Robin?’ Fortunately for me, he decided he wanted to be Batman.”
Holy turnaround. Daniel is averaging 28.5 points per game to lead the country in scoring, though he missed Saturday’s game with an elbow injury. The Bison, after going 16-16 a year ago — their first non-losing season since 2002 — are 8-10, including a 2-1 start in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play. That’s despite a rash of injuries including Daniel, as well as second-leading scorer James Miller being sidelined with a broken hand.
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