Off the court and in practice, the Crimson are led in large measure by senior co-captains Katie Gates, a three year starter who once hit a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to defeat Dartmouth, and reserve guard Laura Barnard. Gates is a government major who grew up in Overland Park, Kansas as a Kansas University fan; Barnard is a psychology major who grew up in Hinsdale, Illinois as a fan of the Chicago Bulls.
Tuesday afternoon, Gates and Barnard took their lunch hour to speak with Thad Williamson about playing college basketball at Harvard and their upcoming game against the Tar Heels.
TW: What's it like to play basketball at Harvard, where no sport gets a lot of attention, and you have pretty small crowds at most of the games–is that something you knew would be the case coming in? What's it like playing in that situation?
Gates: I think it's something that everybody knows about coming in--it's almost the reason a lot of us chose to go here, because we don't see ourselves as basketball players but as women who play basketball. So while sometimes we have less fans and we have less money in our program or we don't get to travel as much, it's a trade off, because we have people who are in social clubs, or are writing theses, or are doing stuff that has nothing to do with basketball. I think when you give up some of the fanfare you gain a lot of well-rounded person-type activities.
TW: Do you feel like you've been able to take advantage of everything Harvard has?
Gates: No–it's still hard, you still practice three or four hours a day. Take like the IOP (Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government), I've never heard anyone speak there because we're always practicing and stuff like that. You have to sort of find your niche, you can't do everything.
TW: Do you know if there are going to be a bunch of fans coming down for the game?
Gates: A small group...
Barnard: Like four people! Parents, the loyal parents.
Gates: Some friends might drive down, but it's a long drive.
TW: I was looking at your bios and you both had a lot of awards as high school athletes, did you have a chance to go to scholarship places instead of coming here?
Barnard: I think everyone in the recruiting process decided between scholarship and non-scholarship, but you know that coming to Harvard it's not going to be like this powerhouse. I mean, in terms of the Ivy League, yet it is, it's a great basketball school. But you have a tradeoff where you're taking the academics over the purely athletics--you definitely sacrifice certain things but it's ultimately worth it.
TW: What was your reaction, first in clinching the Ivy League, and second seeing your name on the tournament board?
Barnard: Definitely relief, a lot of relief, we were just overjoyed. We waited basically four years for it and to have it all happen in such an ideal way–to go to UNC was great, we were definitely thrilled to be able to go down there, it's a great basketball town. It's going to be a lot of fun.
TW: Last year, at one point, you were 1-10...
Gates: I don't remember that!
TW: ...but since then you've been doing really well–how does it happen to go from being 1-10 to being Ivy League champs, 23-5 the next year?
Gates: We had this power structure on our team last year where if you look at our scoring, clearly our scoring was coming from our younger classes. And we had a senior class that had been injured a lot and had a lot of stuff going on, so not a lot of them played all the time. I just think it was difficult having an influx of very talented freshmen, trying to reconcile it with seniors who, even though they wanted to, couldn't always lead by example. It just created this weird atmosphere–I think everybody was trying really hard, trying to figure it out, and eventually it just happened. After we went home for Christmas, I came back just angry. I think everyone decided this is enough, it's too miserable, it's too much time out of our day to be doing this and to lose. A lot of it has to do with people getting used to their roles and figuring out how to win with what we have.
Barnard: I think with our class there's a little bit of a sense of urgency, this is our last chance to win a ring, and I think that seeped down to the rest of our team, that urgency, that attitude. We were of a different mindset this year, it was just like this determination to win that was there before but wasn't as pressing.
TW: You are both captains, but you don't score the most points or get the most rebounds. So what does the role of being a captain mean, and why were you two picked for it?
Gates: I think if you look at our class, our point guard Jennifer Monti is probably our most visible team leader. She plays the most minutes on the team and has the most assists and steals. I think maybe we were picked because we could sympathize with both playing and not playing. That's really important, because when you have 15 people on your team who were all the best player in their town coming together on a team, only five can play at once. But you could have easily picked all five of us (seniors) to be captain, and it had to be just two.
TW: Is playing basketball at Harvard a year-round commitment or during the summer do you do what you want?
Barnard: [The coaches'] reach is pretty far, they send us mailers and stuff and we definitely do workouts during the summer, within certain guidelines, and some do more than others. In the spring we play and lift–not that we're super-organized in the spring but we definitely have workouts. We basically start from when we get to school and go all the way through spring break, then when we get back it's a little easier.
Gates: It's like six days a week from the beginning of September on. In the summer, the one thing that we're lucky is that we're not required to stay here, like I'm sure the UNC girls were probably there all summer taking classes and working out. So even though we have a lot to do, we don't have to do that kind of stuff, they trust us more.
TW: Didn't the two of you go to Spain one summer?
Gates: After sophomore year–we worked out. We played picked up basketball in Spain...
TW: How much time during the season do you have to be a regular college student?
Barnard: Not a whole lot!
Gates: I feel like I see this person (Barnard) a whole lot–
Barnard: Pretty much when we have days off, they're filled with catching up with homework. My roommate says "I never see you."–definitely when we start traveling it feels like we're never on campus almost. It's "go to class, go to practice, I'm exhausted"–you get into a routine, you accept it because it's part of the deal. But when the season is over there is some down time which is nice.
Gates: The people on the team become your closest friends in a way that your probably never imagined that somebody could be. Even though you're with them in sort of stressful, practice situations, there's fun stuff that happens within the hard stuff.
Barnard: Yeah, if it wasn't fun, we wouldn't last very long in it.
TW: Katie, you're working on a thesis due this month–how many people are writing senior theses on the team?
Barnard: Two of the five seniors..
TW: How have you pulled it off?
Gates: Jen (Monti) and I both anticipated this happening all year, so we both put in ourselves to be in a position not to be freaking out the two weeks before the thesis was due, because we wouldn't have time to freak out. Hers is due after spring break so that gives her some leeway, and all my research was done in Mexico during the summer, so that gives me some leeway too, I have the research done and am just writing.
TW: What's your thesis on?
Gates: The effects of tourism on women in Mexico–that's the broad topic.
TW: Did either of you get the chance in camps during high school to play against a Nikki Teasley or someone of that high level?
Gates: Oh, yeah–I went to the Nike camp before my senior year of high school and saw Nikki Teasley. I showed up as this kid from Kansas and said "I'm lucky to be here, someone remembered me from some tournament when I was twelve and here I am at the Nike camp," and here comes Nikki Teasley just like all over the place [Gates imitates a crossover dribble with her arms] and shooting. She's just amazing, she's really fun to watch. You can't dispute her athletic talent, you can't dispute her ability, that's all there is to it. We're not thinking that we're better than her, we're just hoping to stop her.
TW: What style of play do you usually have, is it up and down or is it controlled?
Barnard: We tried to implement more of a running game this year, but we're pretty controlled, halfcourt, and I think that's what will work against these more athletic, run and gun teams. We'll slow them down, we play zone, and our zone has grown a lot this year and become pretty effective for us. We utilize our inside game, but now we're going to have to use our perimeter players just as much against UNC.
TW: Everyone talks about Harvard's win over Stanford in 1998–is that something that gets talked about ad nauseam to the point where you get sick of it–
Barnard: Rammed down our throats? (laughs)
Gates: A little–I think it's awesome, all power and glory to them for doing that, I think it's great, but at some point you have to start looking for another milestone–
Barnard: Like a second round win–
Gates: Yeah, like a second round win or something. I mean no one's bitter about it and saying "I hate that Stanford game", but it's like we weren't there and can't really relate to it, even though we all saw it–
Barnard: All of us watched it, we all had been recruited and we were going to Harvard, just to see it on TV was pretty cool, a taste of things to come hopefully.
TW: The biggest moment for UNC women's basketball was definitely winning the championship in ‘94–do you remember seeing that game as kids, the last second shot?
Gates: Yes–who did they play?
TW: Charlotte Smith hit the shot, and it was against Louisiana Tech.
Gates: And then Michael Jordan called her the next day and said "nice shot," right?
TW: Something like that–
Gates: I thought that was so good, that Michael Jordan called her or faxed her or something.
TW: Will you have any free time at all when you get to Chapel Hill to walk around and see the town?
Barnard: We'll be there early. We're leaving Thursday at noon and probably get in at 2 or 3, we'll have that afternoon, evening and all day Friday. We'll probably have too much time and have to try to distract ourselves somehow.
Gates: I don't know if we can get in, but I'd like to go the Duke games Friday, the Duke women's games Friday night. We'll see what happens.
TW: You may know that UNC men had their worst season ever, at 8-20–
Gates: I feel bad for them–
TW: You both have had the experience of going through losing and then coming back–what advice would you give to the guys on that team coming back?
Gates: Just keep at it–it's all about your attitude, man. You just have to start thinking in terms of winning. We have all the same things as last year–okay plus one Hungarian who has helped a lot (freshman Reka Cserny) too! It's just all about thinking you can win. A little luck too .You just have to win your first couple of games and get into the mindset that "we can win," and it snowballs. I feel bad for them.
TW: So if it doesn't work out for you in the WNBA, what are your plans?
Gates: I'm trying to get a job in California next year, I'm planning to go back to law school after a year or two.
Barnard: It's up in the air right now, I applied to law school but I'm waiting, I'm going to try to figure it out when basketball is over.
Gates: Everything in our lives is about "when basketball is over"–I'll do my assignments, I'll figure out my life out.
TW: Well, any bulletin board material you'd like to offer up to the Tar Heels?
Gates: We're going to...(laughs).. No way!
Thad Williamson is author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many" available at www.dollarsandsense.org/carolinabook.html and amazon.com.