February 15, 2022
Even in defeat, Kathy Delaney-Smith’s legacy at Harvard shines through on KDS Day
‘Nothing compares to being a part of that literal empire that Kathy's built’
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – As the final seconds ticked off the clock on Saturday evening at Lavietes Pavilion in what are the increasingly few moments left in the career of head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, Harvard guard McKenzie Forbes grabbed an offensive rebound and circled back toward the top of the key in search of a 3-pointer. Enter guard Lola Mullaney, a 34.3% 3-point shooter positioned well behind the arc. Bang.
When that shot hit the bottom of the net, tying the game at 75, it was pandemonium in the arena. The Crimson bench erupted, and a row of alumnae filling the courtside seats across from the Harvard bench hugged and chest bumped each other. A few even bowed down to Mullaney, not quite believing what they had just seen.
Indeed, the fact that the Crimson even had a chance to tie the game was remarkable, as the Penn Quakers had led by as many as 17 points in the first half and by 11 entering the fourth quarter. But buoyed by a raucous crowd on hand for “KDS Day”—a celebration of head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith’s unparalleled 40-year tenure at Harvard that will conclude this season—the Crimson clawed all the way back before falling in overtime, 87-78.
There are no moral victories at Harvard, which has won 11 Ivy League championships and made six NCAA Tournament appearances under Delaney-Smith. But the comeback against Penn, more so than the final score, reflected the best of what the Harvard program has become in the past 40 years and who Delaney-Smith is as a competitor and coach.
As one alumna who has watched the program grow for decades told The Next, Delaney-Smith has always managed to figure things out, on and off the court. She and her team did that again on Saturday with a 35-point fourth quarter, even though they couldn’t quite seal the deal.
“We were playing for Kathy; we play for Kathy every day, too,” guard Maggie McCarthy told The Next. “So I think we wanted to win for her and we tried to pull it out, but we didn’t.”
Before tipoff, the woman of the day could scarcely be found. Delaney-Smith didn’t watch her team warm up from the bench or make small talk with her Penn counterpart, Mike McLaughlin. She didn’t watch the stands fill up with fans toting free red T-shirts reading “Act As If”—her famous slogan—or see the Harvard cheerleaders, band and dance team arrive. Instead, she briefly stood near her team’s locker room about a half hour before tipoff and did not appear on the court again until just a few minutes remained.
In the meantime, over 70 alumnae packed the stands, most sitting courtside or in the bleachers behind the team’s bench. Many had changed into their red T-shirts and carried wooden sticks with glossy photos of Delaney-Smith’s face on them. They had come from as far as California and crossed the border from Canada to attend, and when the public address announcer introduced Delaney-Smith with the Harvard starting lineup, they were ready, screaming her name and waving their Delaney-Smith cutouts wildly.
“Y’all gonna make me lose my mind!” blared the famous DMX song, and the alumnae standing courtside began to sway back and forth. The party was on.
It continued throughout the first half, despite the Quakers racing out to an early lead. When Forbes hit Harvard’s first 3-pointer, it was unclear who was more excited: the courtside alums who leapt to their feet or the three Crimson reserves who pantomimed fainting and being resuscitated. When a Penn player traveled, one alum made a rolling motion with her hands, her feet spread in a lunge.
Their exuberance contrasted with Delaney-Smith’s relatively understated presence on the sidelines. Clad in all black, she paced the sidelines throughout the game, occasionally turning to mention something to a player on the bench or chide an official. She folded her arms across her chest when she had to call a timeout down by 13 points. But in the privacy of the halftime locker room, she let her full displeasure show.
“I remember being angry. I’m not usually that angry,” Delaney-Smith told reporters after the game. “… They got reamed at halftime.”
“She just was not happy with how we were playing,” senior co-captain Tess Sussman told The Next. “… [She] didn’t feel like we were playing like ourselves, felt like we weren’t showing out and just weren’t going up to our potential, which was true.”
The Crimson responded—cutting a 15-point deficit to seven in the first 4:40 of the third quarter—and so did the fans. They shouted “Defense!” and stomped their feet, creating a drumbeat on the wooden bleachers, and alumnae hugged and spilled onto the court for nearly every big Harvard basket. (If they had been on their team’s bench, they surely would have received a technical foul for their spillover.)
“It was really fun,” former Harvard co-captain Kaitlyn Dinkins Kincaid told The Next. “It felt like we were right back there [playing], and having so many of us who played together there … really just took me back. As you guys all saw, I was on the court.”
When Mullaney’s shot hit the net, the gym erupted in celebration, a sea of red rejoicing in a comeback befitting the woman who masterminded it. The celebration briefly paused, but didn’t stop, as the game slipped away in overtime—in fact, it was almost as if the fans bottled up their joy and appreciation and poured it out during the brief postgame ceremony honoring Delaney-Smith.
Throughout the evening, there had been reminders to stay after the final whistle, starting with the public address announcer mentioning the postgame ceremony before tipoff. That elicited a cheer loud enough that Delaney-Smith put her hand over her heart in acknowledgment. At every timeout, there were recorded videos of people talking about Delaney-Smith, beginning with the program’s most iconic player, Allison Feaster. Alumnae spanning three decades appeared in the videos, along with Ivy League executive director Robin Harris, Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics and tennis legend Billie Jean King. So it was no surprise that roughly half of the crowd stuck around, gathering on one side of the bleachers as the band played Harvard’s victory song—appropriate even in defeat to honor the woman who has defined Harvard basketball.
The Harvard players raced out of the locker room after their postgame talk, lining up parallel to the free-throw line as they do for the national anthem. Delaney-Smith soon followed, garnering a standing ovation as she walked to midcourt to stand next to athletic director Erin McDermott.
A short video played of Delaney-Smith’s career highlights, and then McDermott presented her with a framed collage of all 40 of her Harvard teams and a commemorative jersey with the number 40. The video ended with a clip from her postgame interview after famously knocking off No. 1 seed Stanford in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. “I love my job!” she exclaimed back then, a statement that holds true to this day.
As the video ended, Delaney-Smith put her hand to her face, wiped her eyes and waved to the roaring crowd.
“Who said coaching is easy? Anybody?” she said to open her brief remarks. “… This is very hard for me right now, very touching on many, many levels. So thank you.”
She thanked the Harvard staff who organized the event and then her family, unable to resist a patented jab at her son Jared, who was in attendance. “Where are you?” she asked. “I haven’t seen you in months.”
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She turned next to the alumnae, crediting them for her longevity in Cambridge. She choked up as she thanked “my beloved alumni” and again as she told them, “I love when you come back.”
“And last, but not least, my [current] team,” she continued. “Yes, I was very mad at halftime. But I think this is a remarkable group of student-athletes. I love coaching them. Thank you for your incredible comeback in the second half. And we’re not going to give up. This is a special group and this is a special year, and I am so glad I’m spending it with you. You know I love coaching you. Thank you.”
As the crowd applauded her again, she made a “no more” gesture with her arms before her team ran over for a group hug. The alumnae soon joined for a group photo and began to chant, “Ka-thy!”
“Nothing compares to being a part of that literal empire that Kathy’s built,” Sussman said. “And it’s an honor to be a part of the last team. You can see how much everyone loves her, how much she’s connected everyone. That’s why everyone comes back … It’s unmatchable.”
According to Forbes, Delaney-Smith told the players in the postgame locker room that the loss was “a heartbreaker, but it’s not season-defining.” Yet in every way but the final score, KDS Day did define Delaney-Smith’s career, attracting generations of players and community members to come pay homage to a true pioneer and legend.
“I feel like we saw … the entire spectrum of emotions,” former co-captain Erin McDonnell told The Next. “I feel like I saw her tearful at points. She was really enthusiastic on the court at other points, clapping and inspiring the team. There was definitely a sense of pressure in the gym, I felt like, because it was such a big deal for her to be retiring after 40 years that you could kind of feel that from the players because they wanted it so badly. …
“There was fire, passion [and] sort of an element of sadness, too, in the gym. But overall, it was a great atmosphere.”
“I just think it’s such a testament to what Kathy has done over these last 40 years,” Kincaid added, “how many people were there, how hard the girls were playing, and the heart we saw on the court in the fourth quarter … That’s the true Harvard spirit.”
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 and FanSided.