August 10, 2020 

Patience, commitment, and a bet on herself led Harvard transfer McKenzie Forbes to the Ivy League

The former Cal guard will reunite with her brother Mason at Harvard

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Since last fall, over 400 Division I women’s college basketball players have decided to transfer, and 230 schools have had at least one player leave. Transfers are often accused of being disloyal or flaky and leaving as soon as they hit a bump in the road. As David Cloninger, a writer for The Post and Courier, put it last year, “Presented with an easy way out and a chance to experience the love of the recruiting cycle all over again, players sticking it out with one school and earning a place on the court is becoming a foreign concept.”

However, for at least one recent transfer, her path to her new school required a whole new level of commitment and loyalty.

McKenzie Forbes, a 6’ guard from Folsom, California, was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and began her college career at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2018. Playing for head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, Forbes averaged 5.3 points, 1.5 rebounds, and 1.4 assists and was an honorable mention on the Pac-12’s All-Freshman Team. She also showed her versatility, earning minutes at point guard, wing, and power forward throughout the season.

At times during her freshman year, Forbes thought about transferring, but the idea was nothing more than “an entertaining thought” until Gottlieb left the program in June 2019 to take a job with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

“I started to reconsider what I wanted to do basketball-wise,” Forbes told The Next. A week after Gottlieb’s departure, Forbes announced that she would enter her name in the transfer portal “to explore my options moving forward.”

Harvard University was immediately on Forbes’s list of possible destinations because her brother, Mason, plays on the Harvard men’s basketball team. She hadn’t considered the Ivy League out of high school, but transferring to a strong academic school was important to her. “That was kind of an underlying thing in choosing Berkeley,” Forbes said, “… but I think as I got older, I realized how important academics were to me.”

Harvard is a mid-major program in women’s basketball and often perceived as a lower level than Cal or another school on her list, Duke, but that didn’t matter to Forbes. For one thing, then-No. 14 Cal lost at home to Harvard in Forbes’s freshman season despite her career-high 22 points. Forbes saw that day that, in her words, “These [Harvard] girls can go and they’re well-coached, they’re disciplined, they can shoot it. So I always admired that even though they’re classified as a mid-major.”

Last fall, Forbes decided she wanted to play for Harvard. “Harvard’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “And I knew that it was gonna be hard and I was gonna have to take a different type of route than [others] … But it was just something that I really felt like I had to take a shot on.”

That route required a lot of waiting: Harvard’s admissions deadline for the 2019-20 school year had passed, so Forbes would have to apply as a transfer student for 2020-21. On average, Harvard accepts a dozen transfer students per year out of over 1,500 applicants—an acceptance rate of less than 1%, compared to 4.5% for freshmen in the class of 2023.

“I went the whole year without even knowing if I was gonna get into Harvard. I didn’t find out [that I got in] until May 8, I think,” Forbes said. “So … that was definitely a feeling of relief hearing I got in. And it was kind of like, okay, now we can finally say this is for real. I can be in a team meeting. And I can announce that I’m going there.”

Forbes spent the past year working out, taking classes at a local community college, and coaching girls’ teams with her oldest brother. On the court, she focused on consistency and getting herself into the best shape possible, admitting that her fitness could have been better at Cal. In the classroom, she took a full course load at Folsom Lake College and plans to study sociology at Harvard.

Her experience coaching under-9, under-12, and under-13 teams also cemented coaching as a potential career path after graduation.

“I definitely love coaching,” Forbes said. “… [It has] helped me see the game from a different perspective, obviously, through a coach’s eyes … They’re young and they’re fun and they just love basketball, so I think that definitely keeps you motivated to get back out there, but on the opposite hand, almost makes you miss it even more.”

But while Forbes enjoyed coaching young players, her long-term goal is to coach professionals, inspired in part by Gottlieb.

“I’m interested in looking at the NBA and trying to get my way in there,” Forbes revealed. “… [Gottlieb] left for the NBA job, so that was definitely inspiring to me, just seeing a woman in close proximity to me achieve that and be that for me. So I talk to her a lot about that. And then Allison Feaster, who’s actually a Harvard women’s basketball alum, is the director of player development for the Celtics. So that’s definitely something that I strive for and plan on doing after basketball.”

Forbes, now a member of the Crimson’s class of 2023, is eligible to play this season and will have three years of eligibility at Harvard. She describes herself as a “positionless” and “multifaceted” player with a high IQ, which she expects will be a good fit for head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith’s read-and-react offense. Delaney-Smith also noted Forbes’s versatility in announcing her addition to the roster: “She has an outstanding all-around game as well as the ability to score on all three levels. We are very excited about what we think McKenzie can accomplish.”

Forbes believes her game will particularly complement that of rising senior forward Jadyn Bush, who hosted her on her campus visit. She is also excited to play with shooters such as rising sophomore Lola Mullaney and incoming freshman Harmoni Turner, whom ESPN ranks as a top-50 player in the high school class of 2020. “I think being surrounded by shooters will be a great environment for me,” Forbes said. “I love to share the ball. I love playing with shooters. I think it makes the game easier, spreads the floor out. And I think I’ll thrive in that spacing as well.”

Forbes is one of six newcomers on the Harvard roster and will look to elevate a Crimson team that went 15-12 last season and 6-8 in the Ivy League. Forbes is particularly looking forward to playing against two former AAU teammates in Princeton’s Neenah and Nicole Young. Harvard is also set to host the 2021 Ivy League Tournament, giving the Crimson an added incentive to make the four-team field. 

Perhaps most of all, Forbes is thrilled about going to school and playing basketball alongside her brother. “I honestly can’t think of anything cooler,” she said. “[We] are very close. So I think it’ll definitely be a super fun time. I think it’ll help me adjust to living across the country. I’m super excited to see them play. … And I’m really just excited for everything that has to offer.”

Likewise, Mason told Gold Country Media that he is “beyond excited” to have McKenzie at Harvard with him. “It speaks to her determination. She’s worked hard, and she’s inspiring to me,” he said.

However, McKenzie and Mason will both have to wait a little longer to officially suit up for the same school, as the Ivy League announced on July 8th that none of its teams will compete through the end of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That effectively eliminates the nonconference portion of the schedule in women’s basketball, and the conference schedule is still very much in doubt.

“That one really hit me because I’ve been training all year, [I’m] ready to get going, and then it’s like, got to do it all again, kind of,” McKenzie said of the League’s decision. “… I definitely was pretty hurt by that and had to take some time to regroup … I’m just trying to take it slowly, one week at a time, one month at a time, and focus on short-term goals to keep myself going.” She is pessimistic about the odds of getting to play basketball at all this season, but she and Mason have been working out together four days per week.

If Harvard opens its season on the first possible date, January 1, 2021, it will have been 649 days since Forbes last competed in a Division I game. Far from being the easy path, Forbes’s transfer instead represents the best of betting on oneself and fully committing to a decision. The result is that Forbes gets her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and Harvard gets one of the most talented women’s basketball players it has ever recruited.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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