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Brandyn Curry returns to Harvard, basketball after a year off following cheating scandal

NCAA Harvard Vanderbilt Basketball
Matt York - AP
Harvard guard Brandyn Curry, right, a former Hopewell High star, drives past Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins during a 2012 NCAA tournament game.

Brandyn Curry had been in the spotlight before, but never like this.

He drew attention in Charlotte while leading Hopewell High to a Top 25 national basketball ranking in 2009, and even earned a note in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” section that year.

Curry then committed to attend Harvard for the quality education he would get and the chance to help a rising basketball program under coach Tommy Amaker, a former Duke star.

As a junior in the spring of 2012, Curry helped the Crimson to its first NCAA tournament berth in 66 years. The New York Times called the achievement “a source of uncommon athletic pride on campus.”

But within six months, Curry was part of another story getting national headlines. This time, it was for a cheating scandal at Harvard which was called “unprecedented in its scope and magnitude” by Jay Harris, the school’s dean of undergraduate education.

Only two students were mentioned in the stories: Curry and Kyle Casey, roommates and the basketball team’s co-captains. No other names got out.

Curry was preparing for a basketball team trip to Italy in mid-August 2012 when he got an e-mail from the Harvard Administrative Board telling him that he was being investigated.

His stomach dropped.

Soon, he learned, he would have to make a choice.

Stay or sit out

The scandal centered on about 125 Harvard students who were being investigated for academic dishonesty after allegedly collaborating in groups of different sizes on a take-home exam in a single spring class: Government 1310.

The school said students were being investigated for everything “from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism.”

Curry learned that any student found guilty of cheating could be forced to sit out a year before being eligible to apply for readmission.

Students could start the 2012-13 school year as they normally would. If found guilty, they could be forced to withdraw immediately. As a result, athletes could lose a year of eligibility.

Another option was to withdraw voluntarily before the school year started, then reapply for admission in the fall of 2013.

Curry said he was told he had until 5 p.m. on Sept. 11 to decide. With his future uncertain, Curry lived out of his duffel bag rather than unpack. He talked to coaches, administrators, and his family as he debated his options.

Ultimately, both Curry and Casey decided to withdraw in order to protect their eligibility. They tried to keep the news quiet but it took less than a day for media outlets to report the story.

Curry isn’t sure how many reporters swarmed his dorm. He always went out the back way to avoid them.

Before leaving campus, the co-captains talked to the rest of the basketball team. Players were shocked they were leaving, Curry remembers. Walking out of the team locker room after the meeting, realizing he was done for the year, was one of Curry’s toughest moments, he said.

Curry packed his things into a moving truck and drove 13 hours from Boston to Charlotte. The long drive presented his first chance to think back over everything that had just happened.

“It was like, ‘Wow, I am really going home,” Curry said.

Making an impact

Selina Curry-Hall had always stressed excellence in the classroom. She saw her son’s potential and wanted to make sure he achieved it.

Curry was told to get straight-A’s or risk losing time with friends. From fifth grade through high school, he got just two B’s – and he was punished both times.

In 2005, Curry moved with his mom, his two brothers and his sister from Matawan, N.J., to Huntersville after Curry’s parents divorced. She later remarried.

The move was tough for Curry. He was already practicing at quarterback with his hometown football team, playing for a school his family had attended for generations. He left just weeks before his freshman year.

Curry ended up at Hopewell High. He quickly made a strong impression.

“We have 2,700 kids and it’s pretty hard to stand out here,” Hopewell Principal Louise Jones said in 2008 Charlotte Observer story. “But he does. He’s just exceptional. I couldn’t think of anyone better to represent the school in any capacity.”

Curry gained the nickname “Cheesecake” for his love of the cafeteria dessert. Cafeteria workers began to leave some for him and students wrote “Cheesecake” on posters at basketball games.

Curry led the Titans to an undefeated regular season before losing in the 4A state semifinals in 2009, his senior year. He was a two-time MECA-7 Conference Player of the Year and was named to the All-State team as a junior and senior.

Recruiting expert Dave Telep ranked Curry as the second-best point guard in the state, behind only future No. 1 NBA pick John Wall of Raleigh Word of God.

Curry’s success on and off the court drew the attention of many college coaches, including Amaker, who had taken over the Harvard program in 2007.

Curry had doubts about the school’s basketball facilities and lack of historical success. But his mom saw the opportunity Harvard offered.

“I just thought a black man with a Harvard degree will go farther,” Curry-Hall told The Observer in 2012. “I wanted him to be a part of something different. Harvard had not (made the NCAA tournament since 1946) and I thought he could help turn it around. I said to him, ‘Once Harvard becomes big, you’ll see articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.’”

Meeting Harvard’s other recruits – Kyle Casey, Dee Giger, and Christian Webster – during a visit to the school helped convince Curry that Cambridge was the right place for him.

“We just hit it off real fast,” Curry said. “I was like, ‘Wow I could definitely see myself being with these guys for the next four years.”

Transition game

Curry fit into the college game well.

Despite battling a torn patellar tendon in his left knee as a freshman, he finished his first season by winning Ivy League Rookie of the Week two weeks in a row. That year, a senior named Jeremy Lin, who would later become an NBA sensation, led the Crimson to a record-setting 21 wins, including one over a ranked team for the first time in school history.

But off the court, Curry struggled to keep up.

Curry graduated from Hopewell with a 4.65 GPA as a member of the National Honor Society and the NCHSAA Scholar Team. Like most incoming freshmen, he knew Harvard’s academic rigor would be challenging.

“I was really, really nervous about that,” Curry said. “Every question I asked (during recruitment) was, ‘How are the classes?’ ”

Traveling with the basketball team as a freshman, Curry missed his Friday economics class four times and then performed poorly on the midterm.

He reached out to his coaches, who helped him find a tutor.

“I had never needed help with any class before in my life so that was a really tough moment,” Curry said. “They were like, ‘Don’t be scared to ask for help. Don’t get there and think you are going to do it by yourself.’ ”

Curry said he was able to turn his grade around in that class and quickly learned how to manage his time properly while making sure to create a balanced schedule each semester.

As a sophomore, he made the Academic All-Ivy team. As a junior, he was one of two Crimson players to be named to the National Association of Black Coaches Honor Court. He was also named an Academic All-American, with a GPA over 3.5

With his academics under control, Curry thrived as a basketball player. During his sophomore season, Harvard won a share of its first Ivy League title, though it missed out on an NCAA bid after a one-point playoff loss to Princeton.

Curry’s junior year, the Crimson earned an NCAA bid on the final day of the Ivy League season when Princeton lost to Penn.

Harvard lost to Vanderbilt in the first round. That spring, Curry and Casey were voted co-captains and Curry was awarded the team’s Floyd S. Wilson Sportsmanship Award.

“Talk to anybody around his environment,” Amaker said of Curry in 2011, “from family to schoolteachers, and everybody is doing cartwheels about this kid and how special he is.

“As a student athlete, he clearly represents the best of those two words, student and athlete.”

That offseason, the Crimson added another strong recruiting class. The team was set for an August trip to play in Italy. Then, Curry received an email that said he was being investigated.

“Proud of the team for going 4-0,” Curry tweeted on Aug. 27. “Glad to see the sophomores really step up this trip. Can’t wait to get the whole team together.”

But the team’s point guard already knew that might never happen.

A ‘teachable moment’

Curry and several other basketball players had signed up for Government 1310 for the spring 2012 semester. Needing to fill out their schedule during the season, they sought a class that wouldn’t demand too much time and heard that Intro to Congress was a “lax class.”

The class syllabus was slightly different than Curry expected, he said, with four take-home midterms instead of four papers. The midterms were due on Mondays and the players usually did them on the bus during weekend road trips. Almost all Ivy games are played back-to-back each Friday and Saturday of the conference season.

The season had ended by the time Curry and others took the final take-home exam, which included multiple choice and free response questions.

After a grader found suspicious similarities in 13 of the Government 1310 final exams, a summer-long investigation began. There were over 270 students in the class. The exams of about 125 students, nearly two percent of the student body, were called into question.

Roughly half of the students investigated would ultimately be sent home for their involvement, according to the school.

The Harvard Crimson wrote that the scandal was the result of a systemic problem. “The institution and the community condones, if not promotes, academic dishonesty, emphasizing prestige over intellectual growth,” The Crimson claimed.

Harris, the dean of undergraduate students, was quoted in news reports as saying he hoped to use the accusations as a teachable moment.

The college added a new position to address academic integrity just before announcing the investigation, though officials said the position had been in the works for months. Faculty members were asked to ensure that collaboration policies for their classes were clear. In the spring, an honor code was proposed by a committee created to look into the possibility.

Government 1310 was not offered again in 2013, though the professor still teaches other courses.

Harvard officials declined to comment for this story, a school spokesperson said.

Curry declined to comment about the specifics of his case and its outcome. But he says he’s responsible for his actions.

“We were in that situation for what we did,” Curry said. “I know the gray areas. We can say what we want, but at the end of the day we are in it because of what we chose to do. There are another 125 (other students in the class) who didn’t get in trouble at all.”

Curry still isn’t sure how his and Casey’s names were leaked. The school declined to release or confirm the name of any student under investigation, citing privacy laws.

Curry knew his involvement would affect the ongoing debate about athletics at Harvard.

“There is definitely a split with people who feel that athletes shouldn’t be (at Harvard) because they... just got in because of their sport,” Curry said. “I put pressure on myself to do well in the classroom just to show that athletes do belong there too.”

“It just gave them fuel to the fire and it didn’t help our case at all.”

Curry said Amaker was initially disappointed by his players, but quickly turned his focus to helping them figure out what to do next.

Meanwhile, those who knew Curry reached out to him.

“We really got overwhelming support from professors, teachers, coaches, past coaches, alumni, recruiters,” Curry said. “That was great for me to see because it showed the perception people have of me. I worked hard to get that reputation.”

His mother was receiving similar words of encouragement back home.

“They know Brandyn and that was not Brandyn,” Curry-Hall said. “And that’s the support he got. We got phone call after phone call and texts saying, ‘Tell Brandyn we love him.’”

Season selling life insurance

To be eligible for re-admittance, Curry needed to find a job. The school requires students who take a leave of absence to work full-time for at least six months.

By October 2012, Curry was a registered life insurance salesman. He spent his days making sales calls – and failing.

“I struggled the first couple months,” Curry said. “It was very frustrating: having people say no to you, deny you over and over, people hanging up on you.”

At the same time, Curry was dealing with the ongoing investigation. He turned in a written statement after getting home and later Skyped into an hour-long interview with three school officials.

Curry watched from home as his Crimson team started the 2012-13 season. Nov. 10, Harvard participated in the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, playing Massachusetts at 10 a.m.

“It was hard to watch,” Curry said. “To not be out there, to hear the announcers talk about it, and I wanted to play UMass so bad.”

The Crimson lost that game, 67-64, after the Minutemen hit a 3-pointer in the final second.

Once, Curry said he was in a Gastonia home on an insurance call when he mentioned to the customer that he went to Harvard and that they were playing Princeton on television. The client turned on the game just in time to hear the announcer mention Curry’s absence.

“Wow, you aren’t lying,” the man said, according to Curry. “And I guess they need you.”

Harvard lost that day, but won its final two games to capture the Ivy League title and advance to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.

Meanwhile, Curry said he was getting better at his job. He said he improved at speaking on the phone and handling conversations, and that he came to relish the hang-ups.

“You got to want failure, that’s how you get better,” Curry said. “A no was just like missing a shot, you got to keep shooting if you want to make them.”

Curry watched his team on March 21, when it took on third-seeded New Mexico in the NCAA tournament. During the game, the television crew discussed Curry situation inaccurately, he says.

He said he and Casey had heard their situation misconstrued in the media many times. Some reported they had been kicked off the team, Curry said.

The portrayal of his teammates bothered Webster, their former roommate and the only senior remaining on the team. After being promoted to co-captain, he was left to answer questions about their absence.

“It got on my nerves,” Webster said. “It seemed like (Curry and Casey) were the only ones involved in it, but there were over 100-some students and that’s kind of annoying to think people would say that about them but that’s how it went.”

Curry celebrated as Harvard upset New Mexico, 68-62. As soon as the game ended, he texted Webster, then Amaker and then freshman Siyani Chambers, who had taken over Curry’s spot at point guard.

“I wish so badly I could have been there but I was so happy for them,” Curry said.

The next right move

In late May, graduation ceremonies were held for Harvard’s Class of 2013.

It was to have been Curry’s graduation, but instead he was back home in Charlotte when Oprah Winfrey took the stage in Harvard Yard to give the commencement address.

Amaker, who was in the crowd, was struck by her speech.

“I felt like she was speaking to me and what we just went through on our team,” he said.

“... The law of averages not to mention the myth of Icarus predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do I want you to know this, remember this: there is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.

“…Learn from every mistake because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more who you are. And then figure out what is the next right move.”

For Curry, the next move has always been clear. “I’m itching to get back,” he said.

On Tuesday, he received another email, this one saying he could re-enroll at Harvard.

Friday, he will move back into the dorm he left a year earlier. He says he’s changed dramatically.

“I don’t recognize the person I was before this year happened,” Curry said.

He’s changed some habits. He’s stopped watching television. He’s eating healthier and sleeping better too. He says he feels better than he has in a long time.

“I’ve gotten better about not wasting any moments, not taking any days off,” Curry said. “Literally, always doing something productive.”

Curry says working full-time gave him a perspective he couldn’t have gotten as a college athlete. He doesn’t expect to be buying any more expensive sneakers now, for instance.

“I realized how little that stuff really means,” Curry said.

Curry-Hall, his mother, says she sees the difference in her son.

“He had to learn life quickly. I believe that he needed this year to grow in other areas of life, which he did. He got around some inspiring people that taught him to see life differently. I don’t think he would have gotten that being a senior at Harvard and he needed it.”

“He grew,” she said. “He went from a boy to an adult.”

Curry says he understands that how he does in the classroom will mean more than ever. He’s looking forward to proving himself there, and also giving back to fans on the basketball court.

He thinks the team he will rejoin is capable of just about anything.

A year after winning an NCAA tournament game, Harvard returns four starters, and adds Curry, Casey, and four-star recruit Zena Edosomwan. ESPN analyst Andy Katz recently called Harvard, “a legitimate preseason Top 25 team.”

Curry said one of the team’s biggest challenges is making sure everyone gels. Adding three major contributors to a tournament team could create chemistry issues.

He hopes he can help pull the team together.

He’ll need to learn his new teammates and get to know the veterans again. He’s stayed in touch with most teammates over the last year.

In April, he texted his teammate and former roommate, Webster, as he often did during the year. They had become close friends. One of the hardest parts about withdrawing was leaving Webster, who was a senior this past season.

That night, Webster replied that he wouldn’t be able to check his phone for a bit. He had to run to a team meeting.

The Harvard basketball team gathered that April night to select its team captain. Webster says he told the players to vote for someone who would understand the system and what Amaker expected. Above all else, he told them, choose someone with good character.

Later that night, Curry checked his messages.

There was a text from Webster: You’re a co-captain.

Congratulations, he wrote. You deserve it.

Jacob Feldman is a summer intern with the Observer and a rising junior at Harvard.
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