Duke

Why Tommy Amaker was a such an important part of Mike Krzyzewski’s success at Duke

Harvard coach Tommy Amaker shakes hands with North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks following the Tar Heels’ 67-65 victory on March 19, 2015 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker shakes hands with North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks following the Tar Heels’ 67-65 victory on March 19, 2015 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Harvard had a mere seven seconds to go the length of the court for a chance at defeating Wofford in a recent men’s college basketball game at Richardson Indoor Stadium. Without using a timeout, the Crimson executed its coach’s plan to perfection and moved the ball into the hands of its best post player who got the shot he wanted near the basket.

The shot missed and Harvard lost, 63-62.

No one who has followed the 21-year coaching career of Tommy Amaker was surprised at how flawlessly, with great calm and precision, that his Harvard team did everything right on the final play. Amaker’s teams, first at Seton Hall, then at Michigan and now in his 11th season at Harvard, have been known for being prepared, applying pressure defense and for playing smart basketball.

This is the same Tommy Amaker who arguably was the most important player in the building of Duke’s 32-year run as a basketball kingpin under Mike Krzyzewski.

He’s as valuable a person as we’ve ever had in our program, especially when we started. Tommy was amazingly important for what we’ve been able to build.

Mike Krzyzewski on Tommy Amaker

“He’s as valuable a person as we’ve ever had in our program, especially when we started,” Krzyzewski says. “Tommy was amazingly important for what we’ve been able to build.”

There is a chance Duke might have eventually won five NCAA championships, played in 12 Final Fours and captured 26 ACC regular-season and tournament titles under Krzyzewski had Amaker played elsewhere. There also is a chance the program never would have taken flight had Amaker elected to play collegiately at his first-love, Maryland.

“We needed him. His maturity right away and his knowledge of the game made him really an extension of the coaching staff out on the court,” Krzyzewski says. “You knew that your game plan was going to be followed. He was so poised.”

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Duke coach Mike Krzyewski gives a pep talk to guard Tommy Amaker (4) in Cameron Indoor Stadium in 1984. rwillett@newsobserver.com 1984 News & Observer file photo

Krzyzewski had broken through with his first big recruiting class for the 1983 season, his third at Duke. Guard Johnny Dawkins and frontcourt players Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson formed the nucleus of a highly rated class that provided Krzyzewski with everything except a point guard.

Enter Amaker, who proved the following year to be the necessary mortar to the bricks Krzyzewski already had placed in his program’s foundation. When Amaker signed with Duke, Krzyzewski could move Dawkins to his more natural shooting guard position.

Three seasons later and Duke was playing in the national championship game, where it lost to Louisville. Amaker’s four seasons culminated in being named the national defensive player of the year as a senior. Despite averaging a paltry 8.5 points in a 138-game career, Amaker’s leadership and ball handling skills remain perhaps unmatched in the program’s history. He finished with 708 assists to 336 turnovers.

It all might not have happened if Amaker had not believed in a young coach who taught him during recruiting the difference in the words “need” and “want.”

“He thought a lot of people truly wanted me,” Amaker says of Krzyzewski. “But he talked about how much he and Duke really needed me.”

He thought a lot of people truly wanted me. But he talked about how much he and Duke really needed me.

Tommy Amaker on Mike Krzyzewski

Amaker had attended several Maryland basketball camps as a youngster, and his idol growing up in Falls Church, Va., was the Terps’ All-American guard John Lucas. But as Maryland began to show more interest in guard Keith Gatlin, who eventually had an outstanding career for the Terps, Amaker swung his allegiance to Duke.

Some believed it was a gamble for Amaker in going to Duke because there were doubts whether Krzyzewski could build a winning program in Durham.

“It’s always been important for me to believe in something, and I wholeheartedly believed in him,” Amaker says. “Never once did I ask myself or ask him (about winning) because it never dawned on me that maybe we wouldn’t win. I just didn’t think of that.”

It’s always been important for me to believe in something, and I wholeheartedly believed in him.

Tommy Amaker on Mike Krzyzewski

After going 21-34 in the two seasons before Amaker’s arrival, Duke won 108 of 138 games with him playing point guard.

“We established the identity of the program going forward, what (Krzyzewski) really wanted and he believed in, the philosophy of how he wanted to play,” Amaker says. “You play a certain way, kids believe in it and have success at it, then you start to recruit toward that.”

Amaker says he has employed the same principles in guiding Harvard to four Ivy League championships and the same number of NCAA tournaments. Those principles were on display at the end of the recent game against Wofford.

Duke basketball coach talks about retirement during a 2016 interview with The News & Observer.

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