For all the stories about what can go wrong in college athletics, there are still occasionally stories about what can go right.
One of those stories unfolded Saturday afternoon at Smith Center, when Harvard came to town to play George Washington. The Crimson pulled out a 67-62 victory to up their record to 12-3, rallying with its two leading scorers on the bench with injuries that occurred during the game.
Christian Webster, Landon Class of 2009, started at shooting guard for Harvard. He came into the game averaging 14.1 points per game, making him the second-leading scorer for the Crimson, and had eight points in 14 minutes when he felt a sharp pain in his hip during a scramble for the ball inside.
Even with treatment, he could barely walk back up the steps from the locker room at halftime, so he sat on the bench, eyes rimmed in red from the pain and from frustration at not being able to play in his homecoming game.
His absence didn’t deter Harvard, even after leading scorer Kyle Casey went down with a rib injury early in the second half.
But as Harvard rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit, no one cheered harder for the Crimson than Darryl Webster, Coolidge High School Class of 1982 and GW Class of 1986, proud father of the injured Harvard sophomore with the sweet shot and the calm demeanor. A few rows up from the Webster family sat Gerry Gimelstob, who Darryl Webster would tell you was largely responsible for his son being on the floor in a Harvard uniform.
“I was raised by my grandparents,” Darryl Webster said as people began to file into the gym. “My grandfather never got beyond the fourth grade. I was lucky to graduate from high school. I had a 2.0 grade-point average and bad SATs. But Gerry took a chance on me. I came here and got into the remedial education program before my freshman year.
“Even then, it was a struggle at first. Gerry had a rule we had to go to study hall every day or come here and run around the building at 5 o’clock in the morning. I went to study hall. Sometime my sophomore year, the light went on. I had never really like to read. All of a sudden, I loved to read. It changed my life.”
Gimelstob was in his first year as George Washington’s coach when he recruited Webster. “The school hadn’t really been recruiting the inner city in D.C.,” he said Saturday. “I thought to be successful we had to recruit there. There was too much talent right on our doorstep to not give it a shot.”
Darryl Webster was a bruising 6-foot-6 post player, a two-time All-Met who was getting recruiting looks from Maryland, Connecticut and Pittsburgh. When Gimelstob saw him play in a local all-star game, he decided to go after him.
“He told me I’d play, I’d help build a winner, I’d be going to a great school and I’d only be a few blocks from where my grandparents lived,” Darryl Webster said. “All of that sold me.”
Gimelstob had to fight to get Webster into school — even with the remedial education program, Webster was still an academic risk — and he had to keep after him constantly until the light went on.
“I remember going to his room once and he was crying,” Gimelstob said. “He said, ‘Coach, I don’t think I can make it here.’ I just told him I knew he could make it. I’m glad, for once, I was right about something.”
In a basketball sense, the next four years didn’t work out quite the way either Webster or Gimelstob had hoped. Although Webster started 23 games as a freshman, he never averaged more than 10 points a game during his career. Gimelstob, in spite of some impressive wins early, was fired after four years. Saturday was the first time Gimelstob had been at Smith Center since his firing; it was the first time back for Webster since graduation.
Even though he never became the star he had hoped to be in basketball, Webster graduated with a degree in sociology — and later got a Masters in clinical sociology at Catholic — and now works in the D.C. public schools counseling kids. “I tell the kids I work with not to make the same mistakes I made when I was young,” Webster said. “I told Christian the same things when he was young. Fortunately, he listened.”
It was Christian’s Jelleff League coach, Sam Potolicchio, who first recommended Landon to the Websters. Christian was a seventh-grader at Alice Deal Middle School and his father was hoping he would end up at either Gonzaga or Maret. Neither displayed much interest. Landon, which didn’t have nearly the basketball program at the time as some other private schools, was interested.
“It was a huge change for me,” Christian said. “I went from a public school in the inner city to a jacket-and-tie school on 75 acres of land that looked like a college campus. It was a big adjustment. There were mornings I woke up to go to the bus when I’d say, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go today.’ ”
But, like his father at GW, the light went on for Christian. He ended up leading Landon to the IAC title as a senior and was recruited by several mid-majors and just about everyone in the Ivy League and the Patriot League. But Harvard had the inside track from the outset.
“For me, it was Coach [Tommy] Amaker and the fact that they were the first school that really came after me,” Christian said. He smiled. “For my dad though, I think it was the fact that it was Harvard.”
Darryl Webster didn’t disagree. “When I sit and look at him in a Harvard uniform and I think about my grandfather, and then that I was the first person in my family to go to college and graduate from college, it’s just unfathomable,” he said. “I always used a metaphor with Christian: stay on the train. A lot of the kids he grew up with got off the train, got into drugs and trouble. I saw it, too, when I was young. When he went to Harvard, academically, the train had reached its destination. Now we’ll see where he goes next.”
Christian Webster’s next step is an Ivy League title, something the Crimson men have never won.
“There are no men’s banners in our gym, only women’s banners,” he said. “Every day we go in there to practice and look up at those banners, the fact that we have none motivates us. I want to be part of making history at Harvard — put a men’s banner up in our gym.”
After Saturday’s game, Amaker pointed out to his players that they had now beaten teams currently in first place in the ACC (Boston College), the Big 12 (Colorado) and the Atlantic 10 (GW). “Now,” he told them, “let’s be in first place in the Ivy League from start to finish.”
As Amaker walked out his locker room, he was greeted by Calvin Hill, the former running back for the Cowboys and Redskins. Calvin Hill often tells people that one of the major reasons he wanted his son, Grant Hill, to go to Duke was because he wanted him to some day be like Amaker — Duke Class of 1987. And so, as Hill hugged Amaker and asked about the health of the GW graduate, the 1969 graduate of Yale showed Amaker his shirt.
It said ‘Harvard,’ on it.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.