Tom Hamel has dibs on the last seat on the benchby Martin Kessler January 31, 2014
On a November night in the underbelly of Boston’s TD Garden, seated in rows of folding chairs facing an elevated table at the front of the makeshift pressroom, a group of reporters listened to Tommy Amaker. The Harvard head coach, credited with transforming an Ivy League also-ran into a national competitor, delivered his post-game statement. His Harvard team had just played its season opener on the home court of the Boston Celtics in the Coaches v. Cancer Tipoff, beating Holy Cross.
“First off,” Amaker began, “it’s such a wonderful opportunity for us to participate in this Tipoff Classic.”
The reporters didn’t care; instead they wanted to know why Kenyatta Smith was on the bench in a foot brace rather than starting at center.
“Kenyatta will be out indefinitely,” Amaker said. “It’s probably going to be a bit longer than we’d like.”
Amaker exited, and the reporters turned off their tape recorders, satisfied.
No one from the media corps asked about Tom Hamel. No one queried why the 6’9” senior wasn’t in uniform. No one wondered when he would be healthy again.
A Snowy Saturday
When I meet Tom Hamel in Harvard Square five weeks later it’s 14 degrees. The winter’s first snow is falling, and Hamel is bundled in a puffy overcoat bearing a Harvard basketball logo—the same logo appearing on his sweatpants. (His Nikes, though bright Crimson, are logo free).
Hamel pulls on his hat, and we head south toward the Charles River. It’s exam period, and for a Saturday afternoon Harvard Square is unusually empty.
We reach the river and cross the Anderson foot bridge, our destination Harvard’s training room. It’s a destination with which Hamel has become all too familiar.
Most days, he spends 90 minutes in that room— which is exactly 79 more minutes than he has accrued in playing time in four years on the Harvard basketball team.
Hamel opens the backdoor into an empty hallway. The door to the training room is closed.
“Maybe we can sneak in,” he says.
I’m not sure, but I think he’s serious. Before I can find out, though, the door swings open, and a doctor appears. The training room, he says, is closed. Exam period.
Hamel and I start for the exit. Then he stops.
“I should check when it’s open again,” he says, turning back. Hamel disappears behind the door.
Hamel returns with the bad news: the training room is closed the next day, too. Amaker has given the team—and its trainer—the weekend off from practice. But Hamel has talked his way into rehabbing with a trainer from the women’s team the next morning.
Content and with time to kill now before leaving for his brother’s high school basketball game, Hamel leads me next door to Lavietes Pavilion. For a program landing top-100 recruits and receiving top-25 votes, a program with a Nike deal and a big-name coach, Harvard’s gym—with its 2,195-seat capacity—serves as a constant reminder: this is still the Ivy League.
But on this afternoon, the gym feels big. The stands are pulled back, revealing a hardwood floor that stretches from wall to wall.
Hamel picks up a stray basketball and hoists it at the rim, pushing with his arms, his right leg stiff. It misses. He turns and smiles.
“I have no legs,” he says, walking off the court.
Hamel joins me in the front row of bleachers, looking out over the empty court, his empty court. I turn on my tape recorder. I’m hoping Hamel can explain how this became his gym, how he went from being that freshman who Tommy Amaker had never met to this senior Amaker says he needs on his team. But, even more perplexing, I hope he can explain why he keeps coming back here.
A Fall to Forget
As a freshman Tom Hamel played eight minutes. Sophomore year he played one. Junior year, two.
This year he will play none.
Tom Hamel knew that right away. The doctor didn’t have to tell him.
It happened during a preseason sprinting drill. The team was doing shuttle runs at Palmer Dixon, Harvard’s Strength and Conditioning center, running up and down a narrow stretch of track. Hamel reached the end line and tuned at the same time as the guy in the next lane—only they turned toward each other. Their legs tangled. Suddenly Hamel lost control of his 6’9” frame. He’s not really sure what happened next.
“We both fell,” Hamel says, “and I don’t know if I fell on it funny or if he fell on it funny.”
But he did know something was wrong. His knee hurt too much. As a freshman, he had torn his meniscus, but this was a different kind of pain.
X-rays later showed he had blown out his knee, severing the tissue connecting his thigh and shinbones.
For three years, Hamel had fought to prolong his basketball career. And for three years he had won. But this was a fight he couldn’t win. Five days later, Tom Hamel underwent season-ending surgery.
The doctors say he should be back to his old self—or at least close to it—by the summer. Hamel just wants to be pain free again.
After recounting the story of his injury, Hamel lets out a short laugh.
“I mean, honestly,” he says, “it’s not like I have a professional contract waiting for me anything.”
Two nights later I’m sitting in the press box above the stands at Boston’s Matthews Arena watching Harvard beat Northeastern. A couple of seats to my right is a scout from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Below, Tom Hamel is in his usual spot: the last seat on the Harvard bench. He’s had dibs on that spot since his freshman year. The scout from the Oklahoma City Thunder doesn’t know that, though. His attention is elsewhere, on Kyle Casey and Wesley Saunders—two guys that Amaker persuaded to play in a tiny gym in the Ivy League instead of in the SEC or Pac-12 at high-major programs like Vanderbilt and USC.
These are Tom Hamel’s teammates. Their roads to Tommy Amaker’s team, though, couldn’t have been more different. Tom Hamel didn’t have scholarship offers from high-major programs. He didn’t have scholarship offers from mid-major programs. He didn’t have scholarship offers from low-major programs. He didn’t even start for his high school basketball team (more on that in a bit). All he had was a plan that was completely nuts. Just ask his parents.
The thing about 300-yard shuttle runs at the Institute of Performance Fitness in Andover, Mass., is that they’re not 300 yards. They’re actually 1,050. Not until you’ve already sprinted 25 yards, then 50 yards, then 75 yards, then 100 yards, then 25 yards, then 50 yards, then 75 yards, then 200 yards, then 25 yards, then 50 yards, and then 75 yards—then you get to the eponymous sprint.
Tom Hamel says the 300-yard shuttle runs were the worst part—those or the bike sprints. Neither was as bad, though, as, getting out of bed four days a week for an entire summer at 5 a.m.
Of their son’s plan for the summer before his first semester at Harvard, Cathy Hamel and her husband were skeptical.
“We were just like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty crazy,’” she recalls.
If you ask him now, Tom Hamel will admit it was a little crazy.
“That was kind of…” Hamel pauses. “I guess a little bit dumb in hindsight.”
Maybe a little—when you consider that Hamel was training to play for a coach he had never met.
But that’s what Hamel decided to do after he got into Harvard and his dad made that joke that turned out to be not such a joke: you’re way too tall to be done playing basketball.
“It kind of sunk in,” Hamel recalls, “and I thought I might as well give it a shot.”
Nobody on the Harvard basketball team or its coaching staff knew Tom Hamel would be giving it a shot.
They didn’t find out until he showed up at Lavietes Pavilion one fall afternoon in 2010 and said he wanted to try out.
Tom Hamel played high school basketball at Philips Andover—just 20 miles north of Cambridge—but nobody on the Harvard staff knew about him or had seen him play. But they saw he was 6’9”, and, fortunately for Tom Hamel, they were short on numbers in the frontcourt.
From the previous year’s team, two forwards had graduated, one had quit, and three had suffered injuries, leaving the Crimson with just three healthy big men for parts of the preseason. This made intrasquad scrimmaging a challenge.
So Hamel was offered a chance to play informal pickup with the team, at least for a couple weeks. Then the staff would reevaluate.
Tom Hamel’s Harvard basketball career got off to a rocky start. His first run with the team, Hamel was assigned sophomore Jeff Georgatos, a reserve forward. Hamel remembers Georgatos scoring on him five or six times in a row that first day.
“I was just shaking my head like, ‘I cannot stop this kid,’” Hamel remembers thinking.
But he showed up again the next day, and he kept showing up.
To Oliver McNally, at the time one of the team’s captains, that consistency stood out.
“He gave really good effort and loved the game,” McNally remembers. “He was the guy that every program needs in college.”
Tom Hamel admits he was probably the worst player on the court. But with time he grew comfortable.
“He could finish around the rim,” McNally says. “He held his own just fine.”
Before the coaching staff made a decision on Hamel’s future, they wanted to hear from the players. McNally remembers visiting Amaker’s office after one pickup game.
“I just told [Amaker] how it was,” McNally recalls. “[Hamel’s] a big body who played hard.”
Amaker liked what he heard.
“They all talked of him as a guy that was always there, was always working, was always positive,” Amaker says.
Over the weekend, Hamel got a call from Harvard assistant coach Brian DeStefano. There was a spot on the team for him.
“I remember texting and calling my parents,” Hamel says. “Just kind of this feeling of giddiness, like, ‘Holy crap this actually worked.’”
When he got the message, John Hamel thought his son was kidding.
But this was no joke—something Tom Hamel learned fast. One week into his Harvard basketball career, after the team did poorly on a sprinting test, the coaching staff scheduled a brutal sprint workout at 5 a.m.
“One of the harder ones I’ve ever done,” Hamel says.
That morning a question crossed his mind. Do I really want to do this?
But Hamel showed up again the next day. And since that morning, Hamel has run countless sprints, he’s spent every January on a cold, empty campus, he’s missed every spring break, and he’s scored zero points. But since that morning, Hamel says he’s never again thought about quitting.
Former Philips Andover coach Leon Modeste didn’t find out that his former player had walked onto the Harvard basketball team until he received a call from a friend who had gone to Lavietes and seen Tom Hamel in layup lines. None of this surprised Coach Mo: That’s just Tom. He had spent enough time with the guy to know that he wasn’t one to draw attention to himself—kind of like that time Tom Hamel lost his starting spot.
It was the start of Hamel’s junior season at Andover, and Hamel was supposed to be the team’s starting center. He had played JV as a freshman and had earned a spot on varsity as a sophomore. After a year as a reserve, it was his turn to step into the starting lineup.
“That was what I had, you know, worked for and planned for,” Hamel says. “I was focused on earning more playing time as I went up the ladder.”
Then Tom Palleschi enrolled at Philips Andover. The 6’8” bruiser from nearby Haverhill would not be climbing any ladders—he started at the top. The freshman was that good, and the coaches knew that, and Tom Hamel knew that. The starting spot Tom Hamel had been eyeing for two years disappeared.
“That was definitely tough to swallow at first,” Hamel admits.
“From a pride standpoint, you kind of feel like—” He pauses. ”—I worked my butt off for the last couple years and then here comes this freshman out of nowhere.”
If Tom Hamel was upset, Coach Mo didn’t notice. To him it just looked like Hamel started practicing even harder.
“From a selfish standpoint, it bothers you at least from the start,” Hamel remembers. “But then, as I said, it became apparent that it would help the team. That was definitely something that I was looking to do.”
Hamel changed his focus in practice. Instead of concentrating on his back-to-the-basket moves, Hamel worked on rebounding and setting screens.
By his senior season, Hamel showed he could play a facilitating role, and Coach Mo gave Hamel more minutes alongside Palleschi.
“Just trying to help with less glamorous aspects of the game,” Hamel explains. “Not everybody’s going to score 20 points a game, not everybody’s going to get 10, 15 rebounds a game, but everybody on the team has a role and a purpose in helping the team win.”
Earn Your Points
A few weeks after Hamel’s surgery and a week before our interview, I stood next to Hamel in the corner of Lavietes Pavilion. This time the gym was full; a Crimson practice was underway.
While we watched the team shoot free throws, Hamel and I chatted quietly. Every few moments, though, Hamel—dressed in street clothes—paused mid-conversation and shouted across the gym, egging on his teammates.
“You always hear his voice in practice,” Amaker says.
When Hamel was healthy, the Crimson’s post players more than heard him. They felt him, too. During low-post drills, you didn’t want to get paired with Tom Hamel—especially if the drill called for the defender using a foam pad designed for football blocking drills.
“I’d walk over for partner shooting, and [Kenyatta Smith] would look up and go, ‘Christ, not you again,’” Hamel says, smiling. “I would have the football pad and just be trying to beat the hell out of him.”
“It’s just trying to prepare people for game situations when it’s not going to be easy,” Hamel explains. “If you can make it as hard—or even harder sometimes—than what they’re going to face in the game then it’s helping the team.”
I pose one last question to Tom Hamel: personally, what did he consider a successful practice?
“I guess I felt like if I was, you know, gassed then I—” he says. Then he stops. “Let me rephrase that.”
“I felt like if those guys—if I could say that those guys earned their points against me, then,” he says, “I had done my job in practice.”
A Hell Of A Practice
At the end of his freshman season, before his end-of-the-year meeting with Coach Amaker, Hamel was nervous.
The Crimson was graduating no players, and a talented recruiting class was due on campus. Hamel suspected that his spot on the team was in jeopardy.
“They don’t owe me anything,” Hamel explains. “None of the coaches, none of the players owe me anything. As soon as I’m not doing my job, as soon as I’m not taking care of business academically, not taking care of stuff off the court, not taking care of my role on the court, it’s no skin off their back to just say, ‘Hey, we gotta move on without you.’”
Heading into that same meeting, Amaker was hopeful—hopeful that Tom Hamel wanted to come back.
“I never had any reservations whatsoever,” Amaker recalls. “We need individuals like Tom Hamel on our team. Guys that recognize that it’s not going to be about them playing in games but the camaraderie and the chemistry and the energy and all the things that go into having a championship team.”
So Hamel came back for his sophomore season, and then he came back for his junior season and his senior season.
This May, Hamel will graduate with a degree in Government. So what’s next?
He’s thinking about coaching—something he hadn’t considered before coming to Harvard.
“Dad always jokes and says, ‘Well, if you want to be a coach, you can run a hell of a practice now,’” Hamel says.
But his playing days might not be over quite yet. Hamel may enroll in law school or business school next year, and—since he won’t play at Harvard this season—he will have a year of NCAA eligibility left.
While the NCAA allows for one red-shirt season (Hamel would qualify for an injury red-shirt) the Ivy League, however, does not, meaning that Hamel’s days of donning a Crimson uniform will end this season. However, with the NCAA’s fifth-year transfer rule (allowing players who graduate in four years to play immediately as a graduate-transfer student) Hamel could play for a year as a graduate student at another institution.
“That definitely might be something that I pursue in terms of trying to walk on wherever else,” Hamel says. “I would love to do that if the opportunity presented itself.”
But until he gears up for his next fight to extend his basketball career, you can find Tom Hamel in his usual spot on game days.
“I feel like we have a pretty good record when I’m sitting at the end of the bench,” he says. “So I’m not going to mess with that at all.”