The governor-elect will be the Commonwealth’s highest officeholder come January, but the incoming attorney general has more game.
“Maura Healey was a much better basketball player than I was,” acknowledged Charlie Baker. “She was at a much different level. We joked about it a couple of times at parades.”
Baker is a Republican, Healey a Democrat. Baker is 14 years older and 14 inches taller. What they have in common are Harvard letter sweaters that they earned as varsity basketball players.
Baker was a power forward for the 1977-78 team that was amid what became a string of seven losing campaigns.
Healey was the playmaker for the 1990-91 Ivy League champions. She cocaptained the following season’s squad and went on to play professionally in Austria and try out for two US Olympic teams. “The springs are gone, and I lost the handle a long time ago,” conceded Healey, who still plays in a senior women’s league. “But it’s still fun.”
Baker, who always was a gym rat, still plays halfcourt games. “I haven’t played a lot of fullcourt,” he said, “because I lose my legs.” But the game, he says, “was a constant source of joy and entertainment.”
Baker was an all-conference performer at Needham High School, a big-body type who did most of his work near the basket. “I was one of those guys who played center in high school,” he said. “Set picks, rebound, short shots, play defense.”
He played for Harvard’s freshman team in 1975-76 but skipped his sophomore year to focus on his studies. “I played in a couple of summer leagues, and I kept thinking maybe that was a mistake, maybe I should do this again,” Baker recalled.
So he went to see Frank McLaughlin, who’d assumed the head coaching job from former Celtic Tom Sanders. “I said, what I really want to know is, are you going to give guys like me a look or not?” Baker said.
McLaughlin, who had inherited a 9-16 team, was looking at anybody who walked through the door. He gave Baker a uniform and brought him off the bench whenever he needed a bit of manual labor underneath.
“He was a defensive specialist, which means you can’t shoot,” McLaughlin recalled with a chuckle. “What I remember about Charlie was that he was a guy with tremendous enthusiasm and how hard he played.”
Harvard, which was in the middle of a lengthy reconstruction, was a popular opponent, which was why it was invited to the Motor City Classic during the holidays as an easy opponent for host Detroit. Nobody expected that the Crimson would be ahead by 14 points at halftime. “Everyone associated with the tournament was holding their breath,” Baker remembered. “If we won, it would have screwed up the whole thing.”
Detroit went on to win, but Harvard pulled off its upset later by beating Ivy champion University of Pennsylvania, which went on to make the Final Four a year later. “It was a signature win for the program,” said Baker, whose college career ended with the season. With freshmen eligible for varsity play the following year, McLaughlin needed to make space on his roster.
“Frank called me into his office and said you know, I have a whole bunch of freshmen I’m really interested in,” said Baker. “He was enormously polite. I said, ‘Message delivered, Coach — I get it.’ ” When McLaughlin suggested that he become assistant coach of the JV squad, essentially a freshman unit, Baker was happy to oblige. “The experiences I had playing and coaching are in many ways my fondest memories of Harvard,” he said. “I really enjoyed hanging around the players and coaches. It was a real center of gravity for me.”
When Baker’s basketball career was ending Healey’s was just beginning. She grew up in Hampton Falls, N.H., a town whose entire populace easily could fit into the Harvard gym. When Healey began playing youth basketball, she sported the same No. 14 that Celtics’ immortal Bob Cousy had worn.
“He was what I understood was the consummate point guard,” said Healey, who grew up listening to Johnny Most’s broadcasts from beneath her bedcovers. “He did things with the ball that had never been done before.”
After Healey led her summer AAU team to strong showings at the national tournament she found herself on USA Basketball’s radar screen and as a junior at Winnacunnet High School was invited to Colorado Springs to try out for the 1987 Pan American Games team that included the likes of Olympic gold medalists Anne Donovan, Katrina McClain, Cynthia Cooper, and Teresa Edwards.
“I was out of my league, but what a thrill,” observed Healey, who was the youngest (16) and shortest (5-4) candidate in camp. “I was this wide-eyed kid from New Hampshire. They let me go a couple of sessions and then they cut me, but it was great.”
Virginia and Penn State, among other top-tier programs, recruited her, but Harvard seemed a better fit. “To me it was the best of both worlds,” said Healey, whose roommates included Sandra Whyte, who won an Olympic gold medal with the 1998 women’s ice hockey team. “I got to play D-1 ball, I got to play an hour from home, my family could see me, and it was at a great school.”
Healey stepped in and began orchestrating things as a sophomore. “Maura was your consummate point guard,” said coach Kathy Delaney-Smith. “Ran the show. Quite honestly she was very undersized for Division 1. What she was superior at was her court IQ, her head.”
With Healey dishing off generously, the Crimson shook off a dismal start to win 14 of their final 16 games in 1990-91 and claimed their first outright Ivy crown. The next year, after the injury-depleted lineup dropped 10 of its first 13 outings, Healey directed an 11-2 finish and a winning season. “That was a run we were all proud of at the end,” she said.
After interviewing with Procter & Gamble and a few investment banks, Healey decided that she wasn’t yet ready for that much real life. “This is not for me,” she told herself. “I’m 21 years old, I just graduated from college, and I don’t want to do this right now. I wanted time off.”
So Healey put together some video clips, contacted a scout in New York, and ended up signing for $3,000 a month with the UBBC Wustenrot club in Salzburg, Mozart’s hometown. “It was idyllic, beautiful, ‘Sound of Music,’ and I had no clue,” said Healey, whose apartment was attached to a cow stall.
She couldn’t speak German and didn’t know the European basketball rules, which is why a rival dashed by her to score the winning basket in Healey’s pro debut while she was waiting for the referee to whistle a traveling violation. “It was a warm and wonderful environment and for a kid who grew up in a small town in New Hampshire a great way to see the world and take in experiences,” said Healey, who learned to ski along the way.
After a couple of Alpine seasons, Healey came back to coach her sister on Winnacunnet’s JV team (“Our relationship survives”) and went on to law school at Northeastern. She remained in uniform and in shape, though, and this year Healey paid a visit to the man who shared her number and who endorsed her candidacy. “It was such a thrill for me to meet Bob,” she said. “I went out to Worcester and we sat on the couch and I could have talked to him and listened to him for hours. It meant an awful lot to have that time with someone who was my hero growing up.”
Voters on the campaign trail who were unaware of Healey’s hoop resume had trouble imagining her drilling three-pointers. “They were shocked,” she said. “It’s hard for them to see me as a basketball player, but that’s kind of been nice.” But Baker’s old coach, who once figured that he could help wrangle a bunch of freshmen, said that he wasn’t surprised to learn that Baker would be sitting in the corner office at the State House. “Tell him I always knew he was a late bloomer,” McLaughlin said.