Perspective | From Harvard to Howard: He’s the rare college hoops eighth-year senior

Perspective | From Harvard to Howard: He’s the rare college hoops eighth-year senior

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

A little more than 90 minutes before Howard’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day game against Morehouse, Seth Towns observed his teammates trickle into the Burr Gymnasium locker room with the look of a big brother watching his younger siblings arrive for an important event.

Towns is big in every sense: 6-foot-9, 26 years old, an eighth-year senior and the unquestioned leader of the Bison. He spoke with a nonstop smile, even when talking about difficult moments — of which there have been quite a few since March 11, 2018.

Then a sophomore at Harvard, Towns had just been voted the Ivy League player of the year a day after posting 24 points and 12 rebounds in a semifinal win over Cornell. Midway through the second half of the final against Penn, he went down grabbing his left knee. He had torn his ACL, and his life changed forever.

He needed three surgeries on his knees and then surgery on his back. He never played for Harvard again but graduated two years later with a degree in sociology. With three years of eligibility remaining — two for the injury, one for the pandemic season — he transferred to Ohio State, returning to his hometown of Columbus.

The day after he graduated from Ohio State, he took part in a rally protesting the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. He was taken into custody in handcuffs, and as he was led to the police van, he continued to shout, “Say his name!” He was in police custody for about six hours but never charged.

“We were about to be put on a bus to go to the county jail when someone came up and said, ‘You’re released,’ ” he said. “I’m still not sure what happened, but I wasn’t complaining.”

He was at Ohio State for two years but played only one because his knee just never got better. Two years ago, even with a year of eligibility left, he decided not to try to play.

“I just couldn’t come close to playing the way I wanted to play,” he said. “I spent my offseasons having surgery and trying to rehab. I never took pressure off my knee or my back. For a couple of months, I did nothing.”

The complete rest worked. By Christmas a year ago, Towns was feeling healthy enough to work out again. He went to Boston, where Harvard Coach Tommy Amaker set him up with former Celtics and Harvard strength coach Bryan Doo. By early spring, Towns knew he wanted to play again, and he knew exactly where he wanted to try.

“Howard,” he said. “I’d always wanted to go to an HBCU, and I couldn’t think of a better place to go. My attitude was if I got to play basketball, it was a bonus.”

Amaker called Howard Coach Kenny Blakeney, one of his former assistants.

“I jumped at the idea,” Blakeney said. “I knew who the kid was and what kind of person he was. If he had never been able to play a minute, having him around was going to be a blessing for this team. I knew he was a good guy. He’s turned out to be even better than I hoped.”

With Towns having an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a master’s from Ohio State, academics were not a concern. Getting on the court wasn’t nearly as easy.

Towns was asking for an eighth year to play a fourth season.

“Honestly, I thought it would be easy,” he said. “I mean, there was no doubt I’d only played three years, and academics certainly weren’t any kind of issue — except it was an issue.”

Towns enrolled in a doctoral program in English literature, went through preseason practice with the team and waited. Then he waited some more.

Finally, three games into the season, the NCAA granted his waiver to play. (According to the NCAA, Towns and Hawaii guard Juan Munoz, who spent five years at Longwood, are the nation’s only eighth-year players.) Because Towns hadn’t started a game in more than five years, Blakeney waited three games to put him into the starting lineup. Towns finally got his start against Mount St. Mary’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving and had 26 points and 11 rebounds in a ­double-overtime win.

He plays now with a heavy black brace that runs from the bottom of his uniform to the top of his socks. He isn’t as quick as he was at Harvard, but he still has the kind of inside-outside game that once made him an NBA prospect. He wants to play pro ball somewhere next year.

“I still have the basketball jones,” he said with a smile. “And I want to travel. My goal is to see 100 countries before I’m through, and right now I’m way behind. Too many surgeries, too much rehab.”

He entered Monday averaging 15.2 points and 6.5 rebounds. Towns is the only senior starter, and with injuries plaguing the young team, Towns has been a key for the Bison, who are 8-11 after Monday’s 78-72 victory over Morehouse — a team the Bison beat by 40 a year ago.

Like Blakeney, Towns believes if Howard can be healthy by mid-March in time for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, it is capable of winning a second straight title. Regardless, he has enjoyed every second of his year at Howard.

“The HBCU experience has been everything I hoped it would be,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the classes, but beyond that, I’ve really enjoyed just getting into discussions about everything that’s going on in the world. I’m learning all the time, and it invigorates me every day.”

Clearly, so does basketball. After a slow start, Towns hit three consecutive three-pointers Monday, then made all the key plays down the stretch — finishing with 27 points and 10 rebounds in front of an almost-full house.

“Some of this attitude stuff has got to stop,” Towns told his teammates in the locker room afterward. “It starts with me. We can’t be out there feeling sorry for ourselves when things don’t go right.”

No one better understands dealing with things not going right.

Towns isn’t sure what he’ll do after basketball, but he intends to follow the guidance of one of his favorite writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harvard Class of 1821: “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

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