Teamwork and defensive brilliance defined the high school and college basketball careers of Tommy Amaker, a 1983 Woodson grad. His basketball mind took him from Woodson to Duke as a player, and from Duke to Seton Hall to the University of Michigan as a coach.
"Tommy Amaker is the best pure point guard to ever play in Northern Virginia," said Red Jenkins, the former Woodson coach, and one of the winningest coaches in high school basketball with more than 600 wins.
"He was totally unselfish," added Jenkins, "and his philosophy was team first, me second."
Jenkins said Amaker had no weaknesses. He was ambidextrous, and he could dribble to his left as well as he could to his right. He added that Amaker was a very good shooter, but that he rarely took shots. Instead, he would much rather dish off an assist to one of his teammates.
However, his shot was not always that good. "His shot was terrible when we first got him, but he is a very fast learner," said Jenkins. "You would tell him to improve one thing, he would come back two days later and have it down."
In January of 1987, his senior year at Duke, Amaker told the Connection: "I've always strived to be a perfectionist. My mother always taught us to do your best and never be satisfied, or become complacent."
How the brilliant point guard who lived in Falls Church ended up at Woodson was a bit controversial in and of itself. Amaker's mother was a Fairfax County teacher, and as such she could choose which school her son would attend. She chose Woodson, knowing that her son would play on the varsity team as a freshman, because Jenkins had been impressed with Amaker's performances in summer league games since the time Amaker was ten-years-old. The County changed the rules about where teachers can send their children to school partly because of Amaker's dominance at Woodson.
BEFORE AMAKER BECAME THE dominant point guard that he was, he had to find a way to get around certain basketball disadvantages. Not only was his shooting a mess, as Jenkins said, but Amaker came into Woodson at 5-foot-7, 108 pounds. In 1987, Jenkins told the Connection that when Amaker first came to practices at Woodson, the bottom of his uniform would hang out of the bottom of his shorts, and one could barely see the top of the 1 and the 0 on his back. However, Amaker was a natural, recalled Jenkins.
Amaker shined the first chance he got to be the team's point guard. It was his freshman year, and Woodson was playing in a Christmas tournament in Pennsylvania, against national powerhouse basketball schools. Woodson's senior point guard, Steve Hass, got injured, and Amaker had to step into the role from the bench. "He ran the show like he'd been doing it for years," recalled Jenkins.
Jenkins said that perhaps the most memorable moment he has from Amaker's career at Woodson is a summer league game the Cavaliers played against perennial national powerhouse, DeMatha. He said Amaker single-handedly beat the favorites with 36 points and 12 assists. The following day, Red Auerbach, the legendary Boston Celtics president, said in the newspapers that Amaker was the best high school guard he had seen in at least ten years.
During his time at Woodson, Amaker led the Cavaliers to four straight Northern District titles. A McDonald's All-American, Amaker also earned the Wooden Defensive Player of the Year award in 1983, awarded to the nation's best high school defensive player. He averaged almost 18 points, and contributed 7.5 assists and 3.5 steals per game while at Woodson. In December of 1992, the Connection named Amaker to the Connection Dream Team, as a point guard.
Former Fairfax coach Steve Henry told the Connection then: "[Amaker's] leadership stuck out and he was a competitor. He made everyone around him better."
The former Lee and Robinson coach, Charlie Thompson, echoed Henry's words: "He understood the game so well. It was hard to throw up a defense that would fool him or slow him down."
On top of his basketball abilities, Amaker was also considered a strong role model for younger basketball players. In 1987, Jenkins told the Connection: "If all of our young people could emulate Tommy Amaker, then we wouldn't have any of the drug problems or ego hangups that we have with young people today." Amaker, who said he never drank alcohol, said in the same article: "I don't feel it's necessary to take things that can harm your body. I view people as positive and negative role models. I look at the reasons why some people are successful and why others are not."
FROM WOODSON AMAKER CHOSE to play basketball at Duke University, under coach Mike Krzyzewski. He was a four-year starter at point guard for the Blue Devils. He played in 138 games, averaging 33.8 minutes, 8.5 points and 5.1 assists per game. He recorded 259 steals, among the best in the program's history. Duke made the NCAA tournament all four of those years, boasting a 108-30 record, and finishing as NCAA runner-ups in 1986. Amaker was selected to the All-NCAA team. He was the team captain and the team's most valuable player in 1987, the same year he was voted the National Defensive Player of the Year. In 1986, Amaker represented his nation, winning the gold medal at the World Championships.
In 1987, Krzyzewski told the Connection: "We won all those games without a big man. Because Tommy puts so much pressure on the ball, it makes everybody's job a little easier." Krzyzewski added, "He has an outstanding basketball mind. He has a great feeling for the game, not just as an individual but in a collective nature."
Duke's only returning starter from the NCAA runner-up 1986 team, Amaker commanded a lot of respect from his teammates in 1987.
"When you're out there [on the court] with Tommy, he radiates a certain calmness that eases your mind. There's something about him that makes him a natural leader. He doesn't say a whole lot on the floor, but when he does say something, everybody's eyes are on him," said sophomore Quin Snyder (The Connection, 1987).
Questions arose whether Amaker could make it into the NBA. The NCAA Defensive Player of the Year stood at 6 feet and 155 pounds, and some considered him too small for the physical league. Krzyzewski thought differently, "Someone who has an appreciation for him as a player will make a very wise decision," he said in 1987. Amaker was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics, but never made it out of the team's training camp. Jenkins said Amaker should have had a ten-year NBA career. Seattle instead picked another guard, George Mason University's Ricky Wilson. Jenkins recalls watching Amaker and Wilson battle in summer camps in Fairfax. "Tommy would dismantle him in camp," said Jenkins.
Jenkins added that Amaker's size should have never impacted whether or not he would get a chance in the NBA. A true measure of that, according to Jenkins, is that Amaker played over 130 games for Duke, and was never injured. He said Amaker could have played in the lower leagues, but instead chose to go back to school and get a master's degree.
WHILE ATTAINING A DEGREE at Duke, Amaker helped Krzyzewski coach the Blue Devils. After two years as a graduate assistant, Amaker was promoted to a full assistant coach position, where he remained until the 1997-98 season. Amaker was given the head coaching job at Seton Hall University, where he made three NIT and one NCAA appearances in four years, boasting a 68-55 record. In 2001, Amaker took over the head coaching position at the University of Michigan. In his five years there, Michigan has made two NIT appearances, but has yet to make an NCAA tournament appearance - for which Amaker has received some criticism. Amaker holds a record of 86 wins and 71 losses at Michigan.
"He's been winning," said Jenkins, "but Michigan is used to being a top-ten school." Jenkins added that the team should win 23 to 24 games next season, and run deep into the NCAA tournament. He said Amaker has to do so this year.
Amaker is currently overseas, coaching a foreign tour team, made up of players from the Big Ten schools.
Tommy Amaker is 8 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.