On Tuesday evening, I was waiting for a ride to the airport when I received a phone call. One gets phone calls all the time and thinks nothing of it, but this was a phone call unlike any other I had received. It was from a reporter asking me for comment on the death earlier Tuesday of my friend and former teammate Tom Emma.
A lot of things passed through my head when thinking about Tom. 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.
I wasn't aware of Tom's passing earlier Tuesday, nor how he had died. I just felt like I had been punched in the stomach, and I didn't know what to say. The reporter was kind enough to allow me some time to gather myself, and he informed me of the circumstances of his death; that Tom Emma took his own life Tuesday at the New York Athletic Club.
The reporter was calling for a comment from me on Tom. I know the drill, but this was different. How do you describe what a person means to you in a quick and useable quote?
I did the best I could under the circumstances, but it could not be enough to adequately describe Tom Emma, or what he meant to me as a friend and teammate, or what he meant to his other friends and family.
After that call, I didn't really know what to do. I had never lost a teammate before and had no frame of reference. I called some of my former teammates, ostensibly to make sure they knew, but more to just hear their voices. We talked about Tom and made sure each other was OK. We are all stunned and saddened beyond words. Nobody could have predicted how his life would end, but all of us are especially saddened that Tom was in so much pain; pain that we could not ease.
Perhaps the people that didn't know Tom Emma will only remember the circumstances of his passing. For those of us that did know Tom, we will remember so much more. We will remember a great teammate, and a great friend.
Tom Emma was a really good basketball player, and he could really shoot it. A two-time all-state performer from Manhasset, N.Y., Tom was an outstanding scorer and shooter that had broken Wayne McKoy's Long Island scoring record before committing to Duke and then-coach Bill Foster.
At Duke, Emma played on an ACC championship team his freshman year and was a starting guard for Mike Krzyzewski's first three teams after he took over at Duke.
Tom was very engaging and funny, and had a really good feel for people. He wasn't shy, but he also didn't insert himself into just any situation. He picked his spots.
As a teammate, Tom had great empathy for others. 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 3-point basket in ACC history in 1982.
Tom and fellow senior Chip Engelland were like older brothers to us freshmen and helped us figure it out. But Tom could not just be the guy that put his arm around you and showed you the way. He had to get something out of it, too. And usually that was a laugh.
Before our first practice, Tom gently told us naive freshmen that one of the players on our team had a skin condition that could be transmitted through sharing soap, and quietly advised us to bring our own soap to be safe. The next day, after each freshman had gone to the student union to buy his own bar of soap and identical plastic soap cases with the Duke logo on them, the entire team was there laughing at our gullibility as we entered the showers. Tom was in the back, giggling. Of course, there was no disease, and one would be hard pressed to imagine any disease transmitted by soap. But we all fell for it anyway. Even today, it is difficult for me to pass a locker room shower without thinking about Tom's "safety in the shower" speech.
Midway through our difficult 1983 season, Tom got the team together before practice. 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."
There was rarely a time that Tom didn't have something funny to say to lighten up the situation. In airports, he would page one of his teammates, and it was always of an embarrassing nature. If you said or did something stupid, which we all did, Tom was quick with the needle. However, he always did it in a way that had you laughing harder than anyone else, but more importantly had everyone laughing together.
Tom was a really supportive teammate and friend. 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. 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 a while, 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.
I can't adequately put Tom Emma into words, not in an interview and not in an article.
Tom Emma was my teammate and my friend. I was lucky to know him and have him in my life.