In his element

Former Indiana player Tom Abernethy tells a story to a group of children attending his basketball camp. Staff photo by Jeremy Hogan.
Former Indiana player Tom Abernethy tells a story to a group of children attending his basketball camp. Staff photo by Jeremy Hogan.

CARMEL — Coach Tom Abernethy pulled an 8-year-old aside in the middle of a game this week for a 10-second lesson on shooting layups.

He gave the smiling boy a gentle pat on the head, then the two of them raced to catch up with players on the other end of the court.

"That's it. That's great," Abernethy called out as a youngster pulled down a rebound and threw an outlet pass to get a fastbreak rolling.

Abernethy is a 6-foot-7 bundle of relentless encouragement as he roams two courts filled with players, many barely half his height. The former Indiana standout has clearly found his calling in operating the Indiana Basketball Academy after giving up a prosperous real estate career.

"He's amazing," said IU sophomore Matt Simpson, a coach at the academy. "He really has a heart to teach basketball skills and character. The kids learn about honesty, working hard and being a better person."

Simpson said working at Abernethy's youth camps is a summer job that makes him look forward to getting up every day.

Abernethy was a starting forward for IU's undefeated 1976 national championship team. He played pro basketball for seven seasons, five for the NBA Lakers, Warriors and Pacers, and two in Italy. After his basketball career ended, he made use of his IU business degree. He did well financially, but his life and priorities changed as he and his wife, Susie, became Christians.

"I had a lot of success in real estate, but it wasn't this satisfying," he said. "Eight or nine years into it, I was saying, 'Is this really the best match for me?'"

Abernethy imagined a career that capitalized on his knowledge of basketball and commercial real estate, and his love for children. In 1996, he bought land and built the Indiana Basketball Academy, which now serves more than 1,200 children a year, ages 4-14. Abernethy's academy has been profitable from the start. It operates with the simple philosophy that basketball should be fun for all kids, not just those who are gifted players.

"It's sort of how God made me — to encourage people," he said. "This has given me the opportunity to encourage lots of kids and their parents. To make them realize they don't have to be a great athlete to have value.

"In society, the top athletes are put up on pedestals and overly encouraged. I try to encourage the average athlete."

During summer, Abernethy hosts a morning group of campers and an afternoon group every weekday. In addition to playing five-on-five, campers do drills. They slide across the floor in a defensive stance, run up the court bouncing two balls at once, shoot repeatedly from designated spots and attempt layup after layup. "I'm a big believer in layup drills," Abernethy said.

The South Bend native believes his best coaching skill is spotting things that need correction and immediately demonstrating proper technique, a method he learned from IU practices with coach Bob Knight. But camp isn't just about work on the court. Abernethy roared and pawed with imaginary claws Thursday as he told a group of 4-year-olds a story about a lion that plays basketball.

"Your character is more important than your basketball," he reminded a young boy. Later, he handed out NBA basketball cards to excited campers. "Jonathan Bender is still available," Abernethy said. "Here's Lamar Odom — this guy is going to be an all-star next year."

"Thomas Knowles, we've got a Thomas Knowles card," Abernethy joked as a delighted Thomas Knowles, 8, jumped up and down. One mother said her 6-year-old has improved tremendously during one week, now dribbling the length of the court. The father of a 7-year-old laughed about his son rising early every morning, itching to arrive at camp half an hour before it starts.

"You see the kids grow emotionally," Abernethy said. "They go from afraid and unsure to confident and more mature. That's very rewarding."

The basketball academy is a family affair. Abernethy's three sons, all current or former college basketball players, have worked as camp coaches. His wife handles accounting and his daughter-in-law manages the front desk. Each year, Abernethy sees more repeat customers. A couple of 12-year-olds have attended every year since they were four. With the academy offering camps and leagues throughout the year, Abernethy's job is demanding. He hopes that eventually one of his sons will take over for him.

"Lord willing, if we can keep this going, it would be great to see kids that have come here get married and bring their own kids here," he said.<


  • IU coach Mike Davis and former assistant John Treloar made a much-appreciated assist last year in helping Abernethy's youngest son, Todd, who was set to play basketball at Wright State until its coach was fired. Davis and Treloar contacted friends on the coaching staff at Ole Miss to recommend Todd Abernethy. He went on to start every game for Ole Miss last season and earn SEC all-freshmen honors.

  • Abernethy's locker in two years playing for the Lakers was right next to Kareem Abdul Jabbar's. At the time, Jerry West was head coach and Pat Riley did play-by-play for Laker TV broadcasts.

  • While playing for Golden State, Abernethy was one of several Warriors to have a role in the 1980 movie, "Inside Moves."

  • Abernethy is also listed in the credits for "Hoosiers" as a technical adviser. He got the chance because the movie's writer, Angelo Pizzo, and its director, David Anspaugh, were friends with Abernethy's brother and with the IU player's friend Spyridon "Strats" Stratigos, a fellow South Bend native who moved to Bloomington. Abernethy helped with basketball-related wording for the movie and with selecting actors for the Hickory High team.

Former IU basketball plakyer Tom Abernethy gives Mick Vyzral, 7, a tip during play at Abernethy\'s Indiana Basketball Academy in Carmel this week. Staff photo by Jeremy Hogan.
Former IU basketball plakyer Tom Abernethy gives Mick Vyzral, 7, a tip during play at Abernethy\'s Indiana Basketball Academy in Carmel this week. Staff photo by Jeremy Hogan.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: In his element