BACK IN THE EARLY 1980s, Tommy Amaker was a celebrated high school player in northern Virginia — legendary Celtics boss Red Auerbach called him the best point guard he had seen in 10 years — who had his heart set on attending the University of Maryland. That’s where his sister was enrolled at the time, and also where his idol, John Lucas, had gone.
But everything changed one night at the Jeleph Summer League in Washington, DC, when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski flew up to watch a game featuring Johnny Dawkins, a star player he was hoping to recruit to play for the Blue Devils. Krzyzewski had intended to head back to North Carolina after the contest, but Amaker’s coach talked him into sticking around for the second game to watch Amaker. Krzyzewski obliged. He was so enthralled by what he saw that he told Amaker’s mother, “Your son is going to look great in Duke blue.”
Amaker became a fixture in the Duke backcourt, starting 138 games over four years. He established school records for assists and steals (both since broken), and was a key member of the 1986 team that advanced to the NCAA title game, only to lose to Louisville.
“Tommy has always been a student of the game,” says ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who played with Amaker for three years at Duke. “When we played for USA Basketball [in 1985], a coach came into our room to talk about our next opponent. Tommy had already seen them play, and he finished every sentence the coach started. It was crazy. Here we were, 21-year-old kids in Taiwan, and Tommy was already thinking ahead of everyone else.”
After college, Amaker was drafted by the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, but didn’t make the team. After that, he spent three days trying out for the Wyoming Wildcatters of the no-longer-operating Continental Basketball Association before deciding to return to Duke to work for a year as a graduate assistant under Krzyzewski. That was the beginning of a nine-year apprenticeship under arguably the most celebrated and successful college basketball coach of his time.
One of Amaker’s first tasks as an assistant coach was to go hard after top recruit Grant Hill, who was weighing offers from all of the best college programs. Hill eventually chose Duke, where he went on to become an All-American.
“He has this ability to connect with guys in recruiting, which is one of the big parts of having a successful Division I program,” Hill says. “You have to be a salesperson, to convince them to come and then to buy into your beliefs and into one another. He had that.”
By 1997, Amaker was ready for his own gig. He accepted a job at Seton Hall, a school in the powerhouse Big East conference. At 31, he was the youngest coach in the league, and he was an immediate success, leading the Pirates to the Sweet Sixteen of the 2000 NCAA Tournament. He also showed his ability to attract top talent by signing Eddie Griffin, the nation’s number one prepster, and pulling in the country’s best-rated recruiting class.
All of that led to a job offer from Michigan in the Big Ten conference. When Amaker accepted after such a short stay at Seton Hall, abandoning his recruits, he was criticized and criticized heavily, quite possibly for the first time in his entire basketball career. To one New Jersey columnist, Amaker had “crawled out of here on his belly, a reptilian bust.” Another wrote that “he seemed so charming and sincere, but he slipped out to Newark Airport on his way to Ann Arbor so much less.”