Goodbye to a friend

First, I thank all of you for the kind words that I received over the past week.  Whether they were said to me in person, text message, email, or left as a voicemail, they were all very much appreciated.  And although I have not responded to all of them, I did listen to and read each one.

I was in the hallway of Our Lady of Lourdes High School when I received a phone call from a very close friend of mine from my high school years, Gary Kucich,  informing me that another very close friend of mine, Tom Emma, had taken his own life a few hours before. Gary, Tom, Rob Anastasia and I were as close as any friends could be.  Fortunately, I was in close proximity to the school principal, Father Lagiovane, who was able to help me deal with the situation at hand for the next few hours, and then days. Father Lagiovane had the difficult task of calling my wife to tell her, and then called my son Kyle into the office where I was, so that he could tell him, something I could not do.

My immediate reaction to the news of Toms passing was that a piece of me had died with him.  Since then, my emotional state has somewhat changed as I moved from mourning his loss, to consoling his family, and then to begin the healing and recovery process.  After being with his family, my family, and my friends, I no longer feel that a piece of me has died.  Here is why.

Growing up in Manhasset, it was hard not to know who Tom was.  He was the kid that scored 101 points in a CYO game in 5th grade, and then had a repeat performance as a 6th grader, where he only scored 99.  Gosh, I was lucky to score that many points in an entire season!  But the result was that Manhasset High School was waiting anxiously for Tom to grow up and attend High School.  When he arrived at Manhasset Junior High as a 7th grader, he was not allowed to participate on the Junior High team because of his age.  He did play as an 8th grader and created quite a buzz in the school as he led his team to an undefeated season. Everyone knew who he was, including me, but I did not know him personally.

One Friday night, I was at a typical high school party.  I was surprised to see Tom there. He was friends with the younger brother of my friend who lived at the house.  I was a 6’2” lanky, uncoordinated, skinny teenager, that was on the basketball team because I was tall. I didn’t invest much time into the sport other than occasionally shooting in my driveway.  Never played CYO and never went to camp.  Tom started a conversation with me and convinced me to meet him at Christopher Morley Park the next morning.  “Morley” was the park where hundreds of kids went to play basketball.

That Friday night was a life changing moment for me.  As most teenagers will experience, there are many roads that one can choose as they move through high school and into adulthood.  Some of those roads aren’t always the best ones to take.  I for one, was heading down one of the bad ones. After being dropped off at the park at 4am by one of my buddies, I fell asleep on a park bench and awoke to Tom nudging me with his sneaker about 5 hours later.  From that point on, Tom introduced me to the world of basketball.  I would realize later in life that in that world was a whole new group of friends, a sense of work ethic, a sense of commitment, a sense of direction.

I slowly became friends with, who was eventually going to be, the best basketball player and person I have ever known.  I trained with Tommy through high school and college for hours and hours and hours each day during the summer.  Played hundreds if not thousands of games of one on one.  I didn’t win many . . . if any, but I wasn’t alone.  If I did win a game on occasion, I always knew it was because he let me despite his attempts to make me believe that I earned it.  After an incredible High School career where he broke just about every scoring record in the school, county, and state, he went on to play for Duke University. He was named captain his senior year.  He was drafted by the Chicago Bulls but never played due to injuries.

Tom later earned his masters at Columbia University and then went into the commercial real estate business for a short time.  He founded Power Performance, a company that specializes in training athletes at all levels and is the author of five books in the field.  In addition, Tom was a well respected trainer in the NBA and was a consultant to many professional athletes.

On the morning of my wedding, Tommy, Gary, Robert, and a few of my other friends went to play some last minute ball.  I remember him telling me that we better not get hurt.  Well, he rolled his ankle, and although it was minor, I never heard the end of it.

This past Friday, after making the trip to Long Island each of the prior days since his passing, logistics prevented me from making it down that afternoon.  Needless to say, my son Kyle asked if we could go to the gym that night.  Although all of my kids were close to Tom in one way, shape, or form, Kyle had a special, unexplainable bond with him.  The two of us just needed to get to the gym.  Well, then Chris came, then Kelby, then Robbie, all for the same reason. All four of my boys needed to be in the gym together for me, and for each other. Two turned into three, and then four, and then five, and then before I knew it, we had a gym full of athletes.

Some did not know that Tom passed away or why we were there that night other than to just play some ball, nor should they have known since it was not unusual at all for us to be there.  No one said a word about it. We just played, it got competitive, and then I went down and sprained my ankle and tore the ACL in my knee.  A day before I was going to say goodbye to him, I injured myself doing something that I love to do, something that Tommy had given to me.  In hindsight, I don’t regret playing that night. . . and I don’t regret the injury either.

Both Tommy and Gary are board members for Edge and have worked with me to help develop my programs. Tom trained me for the last 5 years so that I could train others at a high level, and provided guidance to me in almost every aspect of my life.  He began working with Kyle this past year. He also trained Gary’s two kids, Nolan and Alec. Although our kids live a distance away and don’t see each other often, it was interesting to see the bond that Alec and Kyle began to develop with each other as a result of their loss.

For over 30 years, Tom was a personal inspiration to me.  To say that Tom was my best friend would be missing the point.  He is responsible for who I am and what I do today, and why my passion to teach our youth continues to burn.  I am proud to say that he was my idol. Although, at times, we didn’t talk for months because of our own busy schedules, there wasn’t a day that went by that I did not think about him or mention his name to someone else for one reason or another.  Most of the students who have been in my program have heard me speak of him.

The days since Toms passing have been long and hard.  I cannot say that I will ever fully recover.  However, Tommy’s presence in my life and my family’s lives is as strong as ever.  No . . . a piece of me did not die last week.  Instead, a piece of Tommy’s life will live on inside of me, and with my wife, my kids, and all of those that he touched . . . forever.

My prayers are with him, his mom and dad, his sister Liz and husband Mark, and his nephew Jack.

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  1. Ed Burke June 15, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Coach, I must say this is a great tribute to a friend. I hope every kid in the program gets a chance to read this.

  2. Margaret McDonald June 17, 2011 at 10:26 am

    That is such a beautiful, touching story. What a special person he was, and what a lifetime friend he found in you!
    Thinking of you and your family!

  3. Antonio & Elizabeth June 17, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Your story and friends are inspirational to Jack and the rest of my family. Our thoughts and prayers go out to you, Tommy and your families.

  4. Julie Recine June 21, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    What a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to your dear friend. You have been blessed to have had such an amazing person in your life and that you recognized just how special he always was to you. Know that you and your family are in our thoughts and prayers. The Recine Family

  5. Rob Donaldson June 26, 2011 at 12:20 am


    I am very sorry for your loss as I know how much Tommy meant to you and your family and always will. I never knew the whole story of your relationship with Tommy but this tribute to a friend explains it all. It explains why you are so passionate about what you do and why you do it so well. Thank you for being that Tommy in my life and I will continue to keep you and your family in my prayers as you go through this difficult time in your life.

  6. Patrick moore January 18, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    a death shows a mans qualities> this story put your best on narrative display> i am proud beyond words to call tom emmas friend my friend> somehow i know that tom knows that you have made a difference in so many lives> never to overlooked, my own son for whom you made it all blossom> sometimes it takes the right friday night>toms best lives in your passion, your teaching, your caring, your unbelieveable tenacity and your love>go lourdes>go in my peace my friend

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