Thomas Emma, a Duke basketball team captain in 1982-83 who ushered the Blue Devils through a difficult transition after coach Mike Krzyzewski took over for Bill Foster, is dead of an apparent suicide.
Emma was 49. Police say he plunged from the 12th floor of the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan. His body was found at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday on a second-floor landing of the building on Central Park South.
Former teammates reacted with shock.
“This one’s especially tough,” said Jay Bilas, a freshman on the 1982-83 team, “because I didn’t know he was that bad off.”
Emma (No. 22, above, in January 1983) was drafted by the Chicago Bulls but never played in the NBA. He was a high-scoring high school standout in Manhasset on Long Island and enrolled at Duke in 1979, before Foster’s final season.
A 6-foot-2 guard, Emma started three seasons under Krzyzewski, scored 784 career points and made perhaps his most lasting contribution to the program as a captain during his senior season.
In 1982-83, Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Bilas arrived and immediately took over starting roles as one of the most anticipated freshman classes in school history in Krzyzewski’s third season.
The captain and lone senior starter, Emma prevented discord by accepting a less prominent role as Dawkins and Alarie, respectively, were Duke’s top two scorers.
“He did not play as much as he should have because. . .the players who were considered the future of Duke basketball were going to be given playing time,” Alarie said. “He was unbelievably gracious in accepting that role of captain and also, I call it ‘transition facilitator.’ ”
Bilas said Emma had a great sense of humor and kept everything light while he displayed extreme tenacity on the court. One day before practice Emma gathered the team to say that day’s session would be especially grueling and that a fight might break out if they didn’t keep their cool.
Emma cautioned his teammates to remain calm, but a fight did break out. Emma was right in the middle, and his teammates teased him about it afterward.
“Tom had a pretty good feel for the fact that with us coming in with all this hype and No. 1 recruiting class and all that, that there could be some tension between the older players and us,” Bilas said. “He made sure that there wasn’t.”
Emma (right) was drafted in the 10th round by the Bulls, and later became president of Power Performance, Inc., a company devoted to training young athletes.
The New York City medical examiner will determine the cause of his death.
Alarie said he kept in touch with Emma, reviewing a book he wrote called “Basketball Player's Comprehensive Guide to Strength Training," and talking about the good, old days when they were teammates at Duke.
“It’s really come as a shock to everybody,” Alarie said. “No inkling that there was a problem with depression or any issues like that. So it’s really a shocker.
“He just had a never-say-die, never-give-up attitude when he was on the floor, and we all respected him and admired him for that, and that’s why he was a captain, because he had that attitude, that kind of fight and competitiveness in him. He was a great teammate.”
David Scott has been with the Observer for 28 years and has written about ACC, SEC and other college sports in the Charlotte region. He covers Wake Forest, South Carolina and college soccer for the Observer and (Raleigh) News & Observer.
J.P. Giglio covers the ACC for the News & Observer, where he has worked since 1997, and the Observer.
Andrew Carter covers the North Carolina Tar Heels for the Observer and News & Observer.
Laura Keeley covers the Duke Blue Devils for the Observer and News & Observer. Follow her on Twitter.
Chip Alexander covers the Carolina Hurricanes and college football for the News & Observer, where he has worked since 1979, and the Observer.
Luke DeCock has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist for the Observer and News & Observer in August 2008.
Tim Crothers is an author and former senior writer at Sports Illustrated who is joining the sports staff to write a regular column during the rest of the college basketball season.