Ivy 60 for 60: Donald Fleming

Donald Fleming was a rare force on multiple fronts as a student-athlete at Harvard. He was a husband, father and three-time first-team All-Ivy selection. (Harvard Varsity Club)

Ivy Hoops Online announces the next entry in Ivy 60 for 60, our series running through 60 of the greatest players in Ivy League men’s basketball history after a hiatus to continue celebrating six decades of modern Ivy League basketball. An Ivy 60 for 60 for Ivy women’s basketball will follow.

It’s hard to be an Ivy League student. It’s tough to be an Ivy League athlete. It can be a challenge to be a devoted husband. It’s an incredibly difficult responsibility to be a father at a young age.

Donald Fleming did all four at the same time.

Fleming and his wife Jean married in 1979 after their freshman years at Harvard and subsequently raised two children while still at Harvard, Darrell and Tamelia.

Meanwhile, Fleming worked his way to becoming Harvard men’s basketball’s all-time leading scorer before graduating in 1982.

Fleming was a rare three-time All-Ivy first-team selection, averaging 16.8 points per game for his career. He remains ranked second in program history in points scored (1,797).

But Fleming’s greatest accomplishment wasn’t excelling at basketball but balancing the sport with raising a family while attending the one of the most academically rigorous universities in the world.

So how did he do it?

“Christianity and getting married,” Fleming explained to the Harvard Crimson in 1982, “are what kept me here.”

From an illuminating Crimson feature on Fleming as his Harvard basketball career came to a close that year:

Tom Stemberg ’71, president of the Friends of Harvard Basketball and a very close observer of the program, recalls Fleming at the 1978 Rainbow Classic: “My recollection of Donald,” Stemberg said recently, “is of him getting on a little mini-bus in Hawaii with a Bible. He read the Bible the whole trip. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I probably never will again.” As Fleming himself will be the first to say, his religion–a non-denominational but highly devout form of Christianity–has been a “tremendous help” in balancing the disparate pressures of family life, finishing school, and playing varsity basketball.

Fleming told the Crimson in 1982 that being the school’s all-time leading scorer was “just an honor,” adding that “all my talents I attribute to Christ.”

Fleming’s Christian faith informed how he treated other people.

“If somebody gets knocked down I’m always one of the first guys over to help him up, even if he’s on the other team,” Fleming told the Crimson back in ’82. ” … I consider other guys on other teams as friends, this is just a game. They’re not opponents in life I’ll help them, even help them on the court. I Think a lot of guys on other teams feel that for me.”

Twenty years later, Fleming reflected on his Harvard hoops career upon being inducted into the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame:

My Harvard experience was bittersweet.  Trying to balance educational requirements, rigors of varsity basketball, marriage, and raising a family all at once.  It was a very difficult and trying task.  I contribute my success in these areas to the help of the Harvard faculty, Coach (Frank) McLaughlin and his wonderful coaching staff, the much needed support of my wife Jean, my faith in God and our local church and friends. … I believe that a person can only achieve success by the unconditional love and support from their loved ones.  If it were not for my parents and family being there every step of the way, I would not be receiving this award at all.

Thirty-seven years since Fleming’s time with Harvard basketball ended, his humility and belief in something much greater than himself shine far brighter than even his gaudy individual statistics. The power of the example that Fleming set as a student-athlete at Harvard is that he lived his faith, recognized that our successes come either directly or indirectly from the support of others and by all accounts gave at least as much support as he received.

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