Return to Smith center brings back memories for Amaker

The Harvard coach was a point guard for Duke in the first game ever played at UNC's home arena in 1986

Harvard coach Tommy Amaker shouts encouragement to his layers during Wednesday's game against UNC at the Smith Center (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

CHAPEL HILL — Wednesday’s visit to the Smith Center brought back plenty of memories for Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker.

Most of them aren’t very fond.

“I’ve been happier back in the area,” the former Duke star said after his team absorbed a 77-57 defeat at the hands of his old college rival North Carolina.

The result was a similar one to the first time Amaker — or anyone else, for that matter — visited the Smith Center two weeks shy of 33 years ago. As a senior point guard for the Blue Devils, Amaker helped christen the building in its first collegiate game on Jan. 19, 1986.

Asked Wednesday about his memory of that night, the now 53-year-old coach was understandably light on detail.

“We lost, I remember that,” he said. “Obviously during that time it was such a big deal … historic arena with Coach (Dean) Smith, the name and all that was involved in it.”

For the record, Smith’s top-ranked Tar Heels earned a 95-92 victory against coach Mike Krzyzewski’s No. 3 and previous unbeaten Blue Devils before a festive crowd of 21,444.

Amaker had a good game statistically, scoring all 15 of his points in the second half on 7 of 9 shooting, to go along with four assists and three steals. But he was also involved in a first half play that dramatically changed the complexion of the hotly contested game.

With 7:39 left before halftime and Duke holding a three-point lead, Amaker was called for his third foul. Not only did it cost the Blue Devils their best playmaker for the rest of the period, but it also led to Krzyzewski being called for a technical foul for arguing the call.

The momentum swing helped catapult UNC into a lead it never relinquished on the way to its victory.

“We’ve had some wonderful games,” Amaker said of the UNC-Duke rivalry. “That game in particular was such a moment because of the historic nature of opening this building. Both teams were really good teams at the time. I remember we lost.”

Amaker and the Blue Devils may have lost that first game at the Smith Center, but they got the last laugh that season by beating UNC in the rematch at Cameron Indoor Stadium a month later. They then went on to the first national championship game of the Krzyzewski era while the Tar Heels were eliminated by Louisville in the Sweet 16.

Amaker has gone on to a successful coaching career at Seton Hall, Michigan and now Harvard, which he has taken to the NCAA four times during his 12 seasons at the Ivy League school. Although his current team is only 6-6 after Wednesday’s loss, he said he enjoyed his return to the Triangle.

“It’s wonderful to be back for sure,” he said. “I have a lot of fond memories of this community and this area and folks that mean a lot to me and my wife. Certainly, we came here for an opportunity to hopefully get our team better … so we have a lot of work to do as you probably saw.”