Kamala Harris (center) greets fans Credit: Aman Kidwai

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The game started with plenty of buzz. That’s usually the case when the Howard men’s basketball team plays Harvard. Vy Higginsen’s Gospel Choir of Harlem performed energetic renditions of the national anthem and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in front of a mostly full crowd. The bleachers shook with excitement. And a fast-paced first half had fans on their feet.

“It’s a big day,” Bison head coach Kevin Nickelberry told City Paper. “Howard and Harvard on Martin Luther King [Day] on this historic campus is always something special … You don’t have to give a speech for this game.”

And then, during the halftime break, the stands started stirring even more. People inside Burr Gymnasium pointed to a figure walking among the crowd.

It was Kamala Harris, a Howard alumna who had just hours earlier announced her decision to run for president in 2020. The arena erupted with cheers.

“I marched with Howard students to the Capitol to make Martin Luther King Day a holiday, so it’s very dear and close to my heart,” says Donna Wood, a former Howard women’s basketball player and 2016 Bison Hall of Fame inductee, of the occasion. “To have an opportunity to see Kamala Harris today, a woman to be running for president, is a great honor.”

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It was a meaningful day for the players and coaches in both locker rooms, too. Tommy Amaker and his Harvard team had a chance to visit the MLK, Lincoln, Vietnam, and World War II memorials on Sunday and he and his players felt the gravitas of the two schools meeting in D.C. on the holiday, which ended with a 84-71 Crimson win.

“It was an awesome experience to do as a team,” Harvard guard Justin Bassey told City Paper. “To celebrate on this day, and have this game in particular, and go to MLK’s monument … is something that Coach Amaker talks about being meaningful for him and honestly it is for a lot of us players as African American students.”

At Harvard, Amaker has built one of the most competitive Ivy League teams in the modern era. Howard is looking to leverage its academic reputation and desirable urban location to similar athletic heights.

The two schools seem to benefit mutually from a continued scheduling arrangement. They will also compete on the gridiron as well in 2019 and 2020.

“We’re pleased that Howard is interested in continuing this with us,” Amaker says. “We say all of our games matter, but this one is really meaningful to celebrate and honor [Martin Luther King’s] legacy in the nation’s capital here at Howard University, playing the game of basketball, that can bring people together.”

He wasn’t too surprised by the fact that a 2020 presidential candidate was in attendance.

“That’s the pull of a Howard vs. Harvard here in D.C.,” Amaker says, “I think it’s pretty neat.”

Wood, the former Bison hoops star who marched for Martin Luther King Jr. Day to become a national holiday, will cherish the day and the moment Harris walked into the arena to loud cheers.

“It touched my heart,” Wood says. “I’m glad I could see history.”