Tom Abatemarco has countless stories you’d like to hear. He’ll share them, but you’ll need to reach through the phone and twist his arm. You’re in your late 30s, looking back at a fascinating career. He’s 71, looking toward a more intriguing future. You mention his 21 coaching stops, featuring four Hall of Famers and one improbable national championship. The first-year Iona assistant brings up his current staff, the players, the administration.
“This is the last story about me. Seriously, this shouldn’t be a story written about me,” Abatemarco said. “I’m old-school. It’s about the players. It’s about Coach [Rick Pitino]. It’s all about winning and being a team.”
Abatemarco is entering his 12th NCAA Tournament, with the 15th-seeded Gaels. He reached the Sweet 16 with Lefty Driesell and Maryland. He went to the Elite Eight with Lou Carnesecca and St. John’s. He was part of one of the greatest upsets in history, winning the 1983 national title with Jim Valvano and N.C. State.
But he was out of coaching the past two seasons, living in a resort community after his latest run at Florida Gulf Coast. Abatemarco considered moving to California to be near his daughters, unsure if his calling would call him back.
“I was thinking about what I wanted to do, but I wanted to get back in coaching if the right opportunity came up,” Abatemarco said. “This was a home run. This is the best opportunity I could’ve come up with. … I’ve not had more fun than I’ve had this year working with Coach. I mean that with all my heart. It’s been a special, special time.
“I was with coach Valvano when we won the national championship and I’m more excited now. I literally went by myself and cried after the [MAAC Tournament] because of everything we went through and my relationship with Coach. It’s unbelievable what’s happened to us.”
The Long Island native started as an assistant at New York Tech, unsuccessfully begging Valvano for a job at Iona in 1975. At a local all-star game, Valvano learned multiple players were heading to NYIT’s low-level program. Then, he learned why.
Abatemarco, who had worked as a teacher, received a part-time gig with the Gaels, paying 20 percent of his previous $10,000 salary.
“So we lived on top of [my wife’s] aunt’s house,” Abatemarco said. “We didn’t pay much rent.”
Abatemarco’s relentless recruiting enabled Iona to land program-changing star Jeff Ruland. While prohibited from making direct contact, the young assistant constantly left notes on Ruland’s car windshield, helping beat out Kentucky and Indiana for his services. Ruland, who later coached at Iona, led the Gaels to their first two NCAA Tournament appearances and only-ever win in 1980.
“Jeff put the place on the map,” Abatemarco said. “Iona’s a special place. The only reason I left was because I couldn’t live. I was making $2,000.”
Abatemarco attracted future NBA talent (Dell Curry, Nate McMillan, Spud Webb, Buck Williams, Spencer Dinwiddie) wherever he landed, writing hundreds of letters per day to recruits. At a crowded Five Star Camp in Pennsylvania, he caught the attention of an “average shooter” and “incredible athlete” named Michael Jordan by jumping into a puddle and pointing to his Maryland sweatshirt. Jordan followed the coach’s car to visit the school on his way home.
“I’ve never seen someone so dedicated to recruiting,” Pitino said. “If I go to the restroom … and I see him in the hallway, he says, ‘Wait a second, I’ll put coach Pitino on.’ Every place I go….”
Abatemarco has worked at 16 different schools. He had a few cracks as a head coach (Lamar, Drake, Sacramento State). He had a six-year stop in the WNBA, a cup of coffee in the G-League and a stint as a broadcaster for the Sacramento Kings.
“It’s been a tremendous experience and I’ve learned so much,” Abatemarco said. “I’ve moved a lot of different places, but when I look back on it, my life’s been really exciting.”
Abatemarco still works out twice per day, but the gym in Iona’s Indianapolis hotel is closed. He shares his life’s details, as he runs up and down an isolated staircase. He is short of breath, but he continues climbing.
The end isn’t near.
“I just want to have fun and win. That’s all I ever wanted,” Abatemarco said. “It’s not I recruited him or him, that’s the new generation coming up. I don’t worry about that. If you look at my career, there’s been some good players that I’ve helped with … but I didn’t get those guys. The head coach did. I’m just a caddie. That’s all.
“I love being in college coaching and I love being an assistant. I love recruiting. I love the game.”