At Harvard, Tommy Amaker's ‘Breakfast Club' brings important work to the table


Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker and his team gather every month for breakfast in a private room at Henrietta’s Table, a cozy restaurant in Cambridge’s Harvard Square.

But the topic discussed over French toast and fresh fruit isn't basketball. In fact, this “team” isn't comprised of basketball players.

“It was initially referred to as ‘Tommy’s Kitchen Cabinet,' " Amaker recalls with a smile.

The group consisted of mostly Black Harvard faculty members -- led by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree -- whose goal was to help Amaker acclimate as the only Black varsity head coach on campus when he was hired in 2007.

“We had the largest athletic department of any college or university in the country,” Amaker said, referring to the Crimson’s 32 varsity teams at the time. (They're now up to 42.) “So, thinking of our athletic department not having any African-American head coaches was something of concern.”

Fast forward 14 years later, where "Tommy's Kitchen Cabinet" has evolved into the "Breakfast Club," a monthly meeting of diverse minds that includes faculty members, current Harvard players, local business and community leaders and a who’s who of notable guests.

Former Mass. Governor Deval Patrick, current Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh all have stopped by. So too have recent U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush, Ron Christie and now-U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock.

Boston Celtics legend Satch Sanders, recent Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, ex-Celtics coach Doc Rivers and former NFL coach Tony Dungy also paid visits, although Rivers and Dungy attended via videoconference as the club went virtual in 2020 due to COVID-19.

“When people are running for office or they want to get something out there for the community to know about, they’ve asked to come through the Breakfast Club,” Amaker says.

“It’s an amazing array of incredibly talented, brilliant individuals throughout the whole Harvard and Boston communities. It’s been one of the more meaningful things that I’ve been a part of in all of my coaching career -- not just in my time here at Harvard.”

The Breakfast Club has taken on a new meaning over the past calendar year, as America's two pandemics -- COVID-19 and racism -- have come to the fore. Amaker’s assembled leaders address these current events every month, and their dialog has helped educate the Harvard players who rotate through the sessions.

“It absolutely inspires our student athletes to understand,” Amaker said. “We talk about this a lot: We would all be so much better if we tried to understand before wanting to be understood. We want our players to understand what has happened in our country, how we’ve gotten to where we are and who we are.

“These are the moments that these kids are absorbing and gaining so much at a time when we need them so much.”

But conversations about race in American history were prevalent at the Breakfast Club -- and in Harvard's locker room -- well before George Floyd’s murder last May sparked nationwide protests against racial inequality.

“We’ve had a number of our former players reach out and say how proud they were to be members of our program because we always were involved in conversations about social justice, civil rights and history,” Amaker said.

“My role, more so than as a coach, is as a teacher and an educator. And we were involved in these kinds of discussions to expand their way of thinking well beyond what’s happened in the last number of months. That’s been a fabric of our program."

In some cases, those discussions have led to action. One day after his virtual graduation in May 2020, Harvard forward Seth Towns joined a protest of Floyd's murder in Columbus, Ohio, and was briefly detained by police. 

Former captain and 2018 graduate Christopher Egi, inspired in part by Towns' activism, collaborated with friends to launch "No More Names," a task force working to give young Americans a platform to address issues of criminal justice reform and police brutality.

Who will inspire Harvard's players at the Breakfast Club in February? Amaker doesn't reveal future attendees, but he'll have his own message to share to the group about Black History Month.

“The month of February has always been a time for us to be intentional about acknowledging and celebrating the significant contributions of Black culture, Black excellence and Black history -- which is American history,” 

“The intentional part of it is fabulous, because there’s a lot to celebrate. (Black history) becomes American history. … We have a lot of work to do, but it’s still an amazing country.”

That work will continue this month on Amaker's videoconference of luminaries -- and soon, over a breakfast buffet spread back where it all started at Henrietta’s Table.

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