In the spring of his junior year of high
school, Rasheed Dunbar’s life changed.
Dunbar was a prospect with tremendous potential. The 6-foot-2
guard from Marist High School in Bayonne, N.J., was poised to
become one of the great college athletes of his class —
ranked as the top junior in New Jersey by hoopscoop.com. His
performance against top recruits in spring leagues in 1999 had
college coaches buzzing with excitement.
Dunbar received several college scholarship offers during his
junior year, including an offer from then-Seton Hall coach Tommy
Amaker. While he had yet to decide on a college to attend,
Dunbar’s future as a student-athlete looked bright.
Then, in late April, Dunbar and a friend were blindsided at a
major intersection in Westfield, N.J. While his friend experienced
only minor injuries, Dunbar suffered a punctured lung, broken ribs,
swelling of the head and a fractured jaw.
In an instant, Dunbar went from being a hot commodity to being
unsure if he’d ever be able play basketball again.
“There were some schools that pulled back their
(scholarship) offers because they didn’t know how I was going
to turn out to be,” Dunbar recalled.
Seton Hall wasn’t one of those schools. Even though Amaker
knew that this prospect would probably not play basketball for him,
he didn’t give up on Rasheed Dunbar the person.
The Seton Hall coach chose to honor his scholarship offer to
“The fact that he still stood by me, in the condition I
was in — I felt really good, because he was interested in me
(not just) as a player,” Dunbar said.
“I think that’s a great example of Tommy’s
character and his commitment to people,” recalled Fred Hill
Jr., who served as an assistant coach to Amaker at Seton Hall for
three years. “(Rasheed) had a scholarship, and he was going
to be part of our family, and we were going to help that young man
get an education and grow and develop as a human being.”
Dunbar ultimately opted not to attend Seton Hall. He went to
Memphis, where he never played basketball, and is currently
attempting a comeback at Division III William Patterson University.
But the fact that he had the opportunity to attend Seton Hall is a
testament to Amaker’s character.
When coach Mike Krzyzewski recruits
players to Duke, it’s like selling them a pristine
convertible. It looked good a few years back, looks good now and
will look good for years to come.
For Amaker, selling a product like Michigan in 2002 — a
former premier basketball school in the process of rebuilding, but
at the time, under NCAA scrutiny — was like selling a broken
down sports car. Sure, it might look pretty nice down the road, but
in its present condition, it’s somewhat of a gamble.
The NCAA sanctions presented a huge test to Amaker’s
recruiting skills — a test he passed with flying colors.
Even though the program was dragged through the mud by the Ed
Martin scandal, Amaker landed three top-100 freshman recruits
— Dion Harris, Courtney Sims and Brent Petway —
combining for a class commonly listed in the top 20 nationally. And
none of these recruits decommitted, even after Michigan was slapped
with a post-season ban.
“He’s done a great job, especially with all the
stuff that’s going on,” said Krzyzewski, Amaker’s
mentor and former coach. “First of all, he’s never made
an excuse; he’s handled everything with class (and) dignity.
And he’s recruited well, fielding a really good
As part of his 2003 recruiting class, Amaker lured Harris, Mr.
Basketball in the state of Michigan, away from Missouri and
Louisville. This marked the first time a Mr. Basketball from
Michigan became a Wolverine since Robert Traylor in 1995.
Harris’ decision to become a Wolverine effectively ended
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s tyrannical reign over
recruiting in Michigan.
Sims, a 6-foot-10 recruit from Roslindale, Mass., could have
gone to Syracuse, North Carolina, Connecticut or Kentucky.
But Sims chose Amaker. He chose Michigan.
“If he wasn’t here, I probably wouldn’t be
here, either,” Sims said.
Senior J.C. Mathis, a transfer from Virginia, also chose
Michigan because of Amaker.
Amaker unsuccessfully tried to recruit Mathis to Seton Hall
years ago, but that didn’t end their relationship. They kept
in touch throughout the years, and Mathis’ connection with
the coach was still so strong that the 6-foot-8 forward transferred
to Michigan last year, unsure of whether he’d even get a
chance to play in the NCAA Tournament as a Wolverine.
Just playing for Amaker was a reward in itself.
“I trusted Coach Amaker, and that’s why I came
here,” said Mathis, who is eligible to play after sitting out
last season. “I like the fact that he believed in me, and
he’s very honest, very truthful.”
Harris, Sims and sophomore guard Daniel Horton also raved about
their coach’s honesty — a quality that has been
important to Amaker from his days as a player at Duke to his
coaching position today. Amaker went through the recruiting process
himself as a prospect more than 15 years ago and said that, at the
time, what he wanted most out of coaches was for them to “be
straight” with him. Remembering this, Amaker makes sure to
tell all his recruits the truth about the situation they are
entering and their futures at Michigan.
When Amaker traveled to Gary, Ind., to visit with sophomore
Chris Hunter and his family on a recruiting trip, Amaker got up in
the living room and began to demonstrate defensive stances.
Hunter’s parents were so impressed with Amaker’s
honesty and passion for basketball that they became a big influence
on their son’s decision to go to Michigan.
“Coach Amaker is the type of coach that doesn’t just
deal with the players; he wants to get to know everybody, whoever
encounters the players,” said Andre Barrett, Amaker’s
point guard at Seton Hall. “If he knows you, he knows your
mom, your dad, how many sisters you’ve got, your brothers,
where you live … he knows everything.”
Players and fans alike find Amaker’s style refreshing in
several ways. By becoming very familiar with players’
surroundings, the current Michigan team would seem less vulnerable
to another Ed Martin-type scandal. In the 1990s, then-Michigan
coach Steve Fisher claimed he was ignorant to his players’
dealings while any wrongdoing had occurred.
By bringing honesty to the table, Amaker renews his commitment
to viewing his recruits as individuals and not as chess pieces in
the game of basketball. Amaker doesn’t want to bring recruits
to Michigan who won’t fit in with the program, and by being
upfront about everything, he is able to avoid doing so.
When Amaker speaks, his words come out so
eloquently it’s like he has rehearsed them beforehand, even
if he’s just been caught off-guard with a question.
He’s confident, calm and poised at every moment. When
things heat up, Amaker stays cool. The guy has probably never
broken a sweat in his life, except during his playing days at
Amaker even stayed cool in 2001, when his final season at Seton
Hall quickly turned from a promising start into a disastrous
finish. After a lockerroom altercation in which then-freshman Eddie
Griffin allegedly punched then-senior Ty Shine in the face, Amaker
managed to guide the Pirates through the situation.
While Seton Hall finished the 2000-01 season dropping nine of
its last 12 games, Barrett (a freshman at the time) attributed the
team’s downfall to the players on the court, not
Amaker’s coaching — something Amaker was criticized for
when he first came to Michigan.
“As far as Xs and Os, and the several plays we ran —
those worked, with people who wanted to make them work,”
Barrett said. “You have players on the team where sometimes
they feel like they’re being treated certain different ways.
When they step on the court, and they’re rebelling against
the coach, that’s when it’s no longer in the
coach’s control. It’s the players, and those players
need to be dealt with.”
Amaker knows that there will always be critics. He just does his
best to prove those critics wrong on the court, not by defending
himself with words.
“I’m very confident in my (coaching) ability and the
ability of our staff,” Amaker said. “Given what
we’ve done at Seton Hall, and what we’ve done here, I
think we’ve proven that we have the ability to take a
program, rebuild it, turn it around and win.”
When Amaker left Seton Hall in 2001 to take over as head coach
at Michigan, many Pirates felt deserted. It would have been easy
for many of Amaker’s former players — including
Barrett, who was close to his coach at the time — to hold a
grudge against any other coach who left them.
But not against Amaker.
“I think there were hard feelings, when you leave,”
Amaker said. “But I would’ve been even more
disappointed and hurt if (Andre) didn’t feel (that way), if
we didn’t cry together — which we did. That’s
when you know you have something special in a situation. It all
comes down to people, and so I’m very proud of the fact that
I still have a good relationship with Andre and other players that
I’ve had a chance to coach at Seton Hall.”
Not only did Amaker and Barrett’s relationship continue
when the coach left the Pirates, but the two actually became
“Any time that I need help with anything, I’m always
calling him, and I can rely on him to be there,” said
Barrett, now a senior. “Anytime where we’re playing,
and he sees that I’m playing well, or anything, if he hears
that I’m down, he’ll call me and talk to me.”
If not for being deterred by sitting out one season (as per NCAA
rules for transfer athletes), Barrett might even be a Wolverine
In addition to Barrett, former Seton Hall guard Shine also said
that his opinion of Amaker didn’t change after the coach left
the Pirates. Shine said that he understood the opportunity that
Michigan presented to Amaker’s career.
Forming relationships with recruits and maintaining
relationships with former players only begin to show what Amaker is
When Amaker looks at a recruit, he doesn’t see just a
basketball player. Through all his experiences, he knows that
basketball is just a game and that his players are made of more
than just what they bring to the court — which is why Amaker
is available to his players all off-season as well.
“He’s a year-round kind of coach,” said
Hunter, Michigan’s center. “You can go in and talk to
him about anything, whether it’s basketball or anything else.
I think it’s good to have a guy like that.”