Duke’s Amaker Has the Look of a Winner : As Blue Devils’ Only Returning Starter, He Is Key to Team’s Success
Mike Krzyzewski still loves telling the story. He gets this look on his face, the kind a proud parent wears at a graduation or a wedding. It is a fitting look because, in many ways, Tommy Amaker is the son Krzyzewski never had.
“This was the summer (1981) after my first year at Duke,” Krzyzewski begins. “I was at a summer-league game in Washington to watch Johnny Dawkins play. There was a guy in the stands named Reginald Kitchen, a local AAU coach. He asked me if I was recruiting Dawkins and I told him, absolutely. He said, ‘Well, coach, you might want to stay for the second game because there’s a kid playing who is just as good as Dawkins.’ I didn’t believe him, but I stayed anyway.”
He has never regretted it. “He was tiny, I mean really small,” Krzyzewski said. “But he understood the game so well, I was amazed. He had just finished his sophomore year in high school (W.T. Woodson in Fairfax, Va.) but you could see it. When the game was over I was introduced to his mother. I said: ‘Mrs. Amaker, your son is going to look great in Duke blue.’ ”
Amaker and Duke blue have gone well together for the last four seasons. In fact, with a win by the 14th-ranked Blue Devils against Maryland Wednesday night in Cole Field House, Amaker would become the winningest player in Duke history. Since he arrived, Duke is 95-23, including 11-2 now in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season.
For three years, he was the point guard on a team fueled by Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas. That group went 37-3 last season, won the Atlantic Coast Conference title and reached the NCAA final. The other four starters graduated, leaving Amaker behind.
“I really wasn’t sure what to expect this year because of the guys leaving,” Amaker said while sitting in the empty Duke locker room. “For three years I was always the kid, the little guy. I always looked up to those guys. Now, I’m the one the other guys look up to. I’m the one who has to be the leader, who has to get on them when they let down.”
He still looks like the kid Krzyzewski saw that summer night. He has a baby face, highlighted by soft brown eyes that light up when he talks about basketball. He may not be tiny anymore but, at 6 feet and 155 pounds, he still is small enough that people wonder about his pro future--Amaker included.
“I want to go as far as I can with basketball,” he said. “I’d like to give the NBA a shot. But if I don’t make it there, I’m not going to go to Europe or the CBA. My major is economics, and I’ve been interviewing with companies to be prepared.”
One person who is convinced that it will be a while before Amaker goes to work for any of those companies is Krzyzewski. “I think Tommy downplays his ability,” he said. “Someone in the NBA is going to make a hell of a pick and get him. You’re talking about a kid who has started every game he’s ever played here. His ball pressure has been the key to our defense the last four years. Name me a guard who has dominated him--ever. Tommy won’t have his uniform number retired or anything but, to me, he’s the best guard in the country--period.”
Those who look at statistics might dispute that. Before this season, with Dawkins & Co. playing by his side, Amaker averaged seven points a game. This season, asked to shoot more, he is averaging 14 points.
But some say his worth cannot be judged by numbers. One person who feels that way is North Carolina’s Kenny Smith, the consensus choice as the best guard in the country. “I think Tommy is the best,” Smith said after Amaker had hounded him for 40 minutes. “Anything you get when you play against him is hard work.”
The respect Amaker draws from opponents might have been illustrated best last season when Maryland went to play at Duke. Terrapins point guard Keith Gatlin couldn’t play that day because of a sore back. A few days later, someone asked Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell how Gatlin was feeling. “Oh, he’s fine,” Driesell answered. “He just had a case of Amaker-back.”
Driesell’s invented affliction can be applied to almost any guard who has to face Amaker’s full-court pressure an entire game. He is a competitor who hates losing and in that he is much like Krzyzewski, who was a kamikaze-type point guard himself when he played at Army under Bob Knight. Because they play the same position, because they take the same approach to the game, because Amaker has come to think the game the way Krzyzewski thinks it, the closeness between the two is much more like father-son than coach-player.
“I still remember his freshman year, when we played in the NCAA tournament against Washington,” Krzyzewski said. “We needed a basket to tie at the end and Tommy penetrated, looking for Dawkins or Alarie. They were both covered, so he shot. It was a good shot, but it just didn’t drop. We lost. Early the next morning, we were flying home. I went back to see Tommy. I just tapped him and said, ‘It was a good shot.’ He said he knew and then he asked if he could come see me when we got home.
“That morning, maybe six hours after we’re home, he’s in my office. He wanted to tell me, then, right away, what he needed to work on to get better for next year. That’s Tommy. He’s always looking ahead, to the next play, the next game, the next season. That makes him special.”
When Krzyzewski talks to Amaker now, it is on a peer level, the two of them sitting around analyzing other players on the team, upcoming opponents or Amaker’s own game. “I doubt if I’ve ever been closer to a player,” Krzyzewski said. “To tell you the truth, a lot of the time I start a sentence and he finishes it. That’s the way it is on the floor. He knows what I want sometimes before I know I want it. It will be hard for me next year to be fair to whoever takes his place because I know I’ll catch myself thinking, ‘Tommy would have known that.’ ”
Amaker admits he approached this season with trepidation, a little bit like the kid who watches his older brothers go off to college without him. “It didn’t really hit me right away because in September all the guys were here playing pickup ball and it was all the same,” Amaker said. “But then they all left for training camp. Then it got scary.”
It is much less scary now, especially with the Blue Devils playing better than anyone imagined. Picked sixth in the ACC and unranked in preseason, they already have beaten Alabama, Miami, Virginia (on the road) and St. Joseph’s. The two losses are to North Carolina, ranked third, and Illinois, ranked eighth.
“I never thought of Tommy Amaker’s senior year as a rebuilding year,” Krzyzewski said. “Fortunately, neither did Tommy.”
That was evident to Krzyzewski last April. On the night of the Duke basketball banquet, Amaker and Krzyzewski walked into Cameron Indoor Stadium together. Hanging there, in preparation for the banquet, were banners honoring the team that had won so often and the five graduating seniors. “Coach,” Amaker said, “I hope we can make next year special, too.”
So far, so good. “When he leaves,” Krzyzewski said, “the team will miss him. But not nearly as much as I will. He’s the kid every mother wants her daughter to bring home.”