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Obituary - Tom Emma

Tom Emma, Long Island Basketball Legend, Dies at 49

Manhasset is in mourning having lost one of its greatest athletes.

Tom Emma, a former Manhasset High School basketball great who during the years of 1976-1979 set a Long Island record of 1,983 points scored, died last Wednesday in Manhattan. Emma was 49.

During his years at Manhasset, Emma received national attention for his stardom on the hardwood. As a high school star, he claimed inspiration from another Long Island basketball legend, Julius Erving. He also earned a scholarship to Duke University, where he played for Mike Krzyzewski during the latter’s early years at Duke, where he was in the process of building a basketball dynasty. Emma played his own role in Duke’s ascendancy to the top of the college basketball world. Emma played four years at Duke, averaging 7.1 points, 2.3 assists and 1.8 rebounds in 110 games. During his freshman year, Duke won the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) title. Emma was a starting guard in his first three years and in honor of his consistency and seniority, Krzyzewski named Emma captain of the 1983 team. Emma was drafted by the Chicago Bulls as the 210th player in the 1983 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft.

At the time of his death, Emma was president of Power Performance, Inc. a Manhattan-based company that assisted young athletes in the latest training techniques. Toward that end, he authored a book, Basketball Player’s Comprehensive Guide to Strength Training.


Hailed By Coaches, Rivals, and Teammates

Emma’s death was a shock not only to Manhasset and the rest of Long Island, but also to the entire basketball community, both professional and collegiate. He was remembered by former coaches, teammates, and friends.

“Tom was just a very polite young man,” said former Manhasset High School basketball coach Fritz Mueller in a statement to the media. “[He] never had a bad word to say about anybody. And he just loved basketball, and he enjoyed being around everybody.”

“He was a good man and fine representative of Duke University,” said Coach Krzyzewski in his own statement. “Our hearts go out to his family and friends. He will be missed.”

One of Emma’s closest friends was Matt Doherty, the East Meadow native who like Emma traveled south to play college ball, this time at Duke’s archrival, the University of North Carolina, where Doherty helped the Tar Heels win the 1982 NCAA national title. After learning of Emma’s death, Doherty, now head basketball coach at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, recalled how Emma had tried to recruit him to attend Duke and that the two remained friends despite the fierce rivalry between the two schools.

“He was always an upbeat, positive, friendly guy,” Doherty told the media. “Here’s a guy who was one of the best players to ever come out of Long Island and he could have been a stuck-up, snobby guy. But he was so down-to-earth, the nicest guy I’ve ever met.”

The most poignant tribute came from Emma’s former teammate at Duke, Jay Bilas, himself one of legends of Duke’s All-American-laden basketball program. Bilas is currently a commentator for ESPN and he issued a stirring tribute last Thursday on his blog.

 “A lot of things passed through my head when thinking about Tom,” Bilas related on his blog. “I had known him for almost 30 years. He was one of the first two players I met on my official visit to Duke, and he was one of my hosts. He was a senior captain of the Duke basketball team my freshman year. He was like a big brother to me. He was my teammate. He was my friend.

“As a teammate, Tom had great empathy for others,” Bilas continued. “When I arrived at Duke and first got to know Tom, I was part of a hyped, No. 1-ranked recruiting class that was supposed to come in and change everything in 1983. Tom was a senior starter whose role was expected to be diminished. There could have been tension, but Tom made sure there wasn’t any. He reached out, always kept things in perspective and always lightened up the mood of the toughest situations. But, he also competed. Tom was a starter that had hit the first three-point basket in ACC history in 1982.

“Midway through our difficult 1983 season, Tom got the team together before practice,” Bilas recalled. “After a few difficult losses, Tom’s experience told him that this would be one hellacious practice. He said it was going to be the type of practice where a fight could break out. He told us to play our tails off but keep our cool and not let anything get out of control and start swinging at each other. He was right. Practice was brutal. Late in practice, a fight did break out. And Tom was right in the middle of it, swinging haymakers. After practice was over, I needled Tom about his speech about keeping our cool. Tom said something to the effect of, ‘I was talking about you guys hitting me, not me hitting you.’

“Tom was a really supportive teammate and friend,” Bilas continued. “He knew when you were struggling, and he always seemed to say the right thing. More important, he always seemed to be there. Like all of his teammates, I just wish that I could have been there more for him.

“Since Duke, I kept in touch with Tom,” Bilas concluded. “He worked in New York on Wall Street and started his own company specializing in sports training. He wrote a book on strength training for basketball and called me to ask if I would read it and, if I felt comfortable, provide an endorsement for the book. He said he had been meaning to ask me for awhile, but he didn’t want to bother me. I was incredulous and told him he knew that he could always call me. He then said, ‘OK, I was busy calling people more famous, but they turned me down. You were just the next one on my list.’ That was vintage Emma.

“Tom Emma was my teammate and my friend. I was lucky to know him and have him in my life.”