Coach Tommy Amaker, a Washington area native, has led Harvard to its greatest run of success in his nine years at the school. (John Raoux/Associated Press)
Columnist

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?

Coach Kevin Nickelberry led Howard to its best record since 2002 last season, his fifth at the rebuilding program. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

“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.

Once he had recruited Daniel and could see light at the end of the tunnel that wasn’t a train, Nickleberry was ready to play Harvard in D.C. Amaker didn’t want the game to be played in November or December, though. He wanted it played on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend. Nickleberry agreed.

And so, Amaker brought his team to town Thursday night so he could take his players to the King memorial on Friday, which would have been the civil rights leader’s 87th birthday. They walked around, took photos, posed with other tourists and read many of King’s famous quotes.

“I quote him all the time,” Amaker said. “My favorite is, ‘The true test of a man is not where he stands in comfort or convenience but where he stands in challenge and controversy.’ When the players saw the plaque with that quote they all started saying, ‘Hey Coach, we thought you said that!’” Amaker said with a laugh. “I guess I’ve repeated it a few times.”

Amaker showed another King quote to his players that he thought was worthy of discussion in today’s politically polarized world: “We may have all come here on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”

Amaker has completely turned Harvard’s program around since arriving at the school almost nine years ago. The Crimson had been to the NCAA tournament once — in 1946 — prior to his arrival. It has reached the tournament the last four seasons in a row —pulling upsets in both 2013 and 2014 to reach the round of 32 — and, even though star point guard Siyani Chambers is out for the season, may have a chance to win or share the Ivy League title for a sixth year in a row.

In short, Amaker has Harvard in the place where Nickleberry would like to take Howard.

“I was lucky because I learned a lot about recruiting to an academic school when I worked [as an assistant coach] for Ralph Willard at Holy Cross,” he said. “What you’re selling is simple: You can play good basketball, winning basketball and walk away in four years with a degree that means something. We have no seniors on this team. We have a great recruiting class coming. I think we’re going to be a factor in March for a while.”

Howard has played in the NCAA tournament twice, in 1981 and 1992. Nickleberry thinks that’s going to change soon.

“All five first-team MEAC players last year were underclassmen,” he said. “The only one who didn’t transfer to a bigger basketball school was James. He likes the education he’s getting. And I know he wanted to play this game against Harvard. It means a lot to all of us.

Amaker and Nickleberry graduated from high schools in the D.C. area 33 years ago—Amaker from W.T. Woodson in Virginia; Nickleberry from Central in Maryland. In a sense, both came full circle on Saturday afternoon.

And enjoyed every second of it.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.