Priceless

Meg Geoghegan
Aram Boghosian
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker knows quality on and off the basketball court

As the team doctor for the Duke University men’s basketball team, Mel Berlin talked mostly about sore muscles and sprained ankles with members of the Blue Devils. 

But Tommy Amaker had something else on his mind. 

Whenever Dr. Berlin showed up at practice, Amaker, the 6-foot 1-inch star point guard from Falls Church, Virginia, a future Duke Hall of Famer, All American, and National Defensive Player of the Year, would make a beeline out of the training room to check out the 1971 Mercedes 280SE 3.5 parked outside. The coupe was a beauty and had been previously owned by pop and country singer, Patti Page. 

“I actually told him my freshman year, ‘I’m going to buy that car from you,’” Amaker said. 

Five years later, Amaker was fresh out of college, 108 career wins at Duke and a national runner-up finish in 1986 under his belt. Aiming for a career in basketball, he was working as a graduate assistant on the coaching staff when Dr. Berlin called his former player to see if he wanted to make good on the promise. 

“He said, ‘I only want this car to be with someone I know who loves it. If you want this car, come over here and I’ll give you a great deal,’” Amaker recalled. 

Amaker has been been admiring, collecting, and driving Mercedes-Benz automobiles ever since. 

In his blood

Today, Tommy Amaker is the head coach of the men’s basketball team at Harvard University, an Executive Fellow at the Harvard Business School, and a Special Assistant to the Harvard President. He’s come a long way from his 20-something days, working long hours on the sideline and scraping together savings to buy his dream car, but the enthusiasm he felt for Mercedes-Benz back then hasn’t waned. 

It’s a part of who he is. 

He bought the 280SE 3.5 in 1989, a milestone in what has been a truly lifelong love for the marque from Stuttgart. When his father, Harold, left military service, he worked at a Mercedes dealership in Bethesda, Maryland. His dad’s personal passion for cars fueled his career in the industry – and it rubbed off on his son. 

“I do get it honestly in that regard,” Amaker said. “I always fancied myself as knowing a little bit about cars, but all that came through him.” 

Harold was a Jaguar guy, personally, and owned an XKE, but when he brought a young Amaker to the lot, it was the Mercedes-Benz models that captured the son’s attention. Still, when Berlin made the offer to sell the 3.5, Amaker knew he needed to get his father’s opinion. He asked if he could test drive the car for the weekend before making a final decision. Unbeknownst to Berlin, he drove the car four hours to Washington, D.C. to show his parents. 

It was a memorable weekend across the board. Harold gave his stamp of approval on the 3.5 as a worthy investment, and Amaker’s mother, Alma, gave her stamp of approval on Amaker’s girlfriend at the time: Stephanie, now his wife of 28 years. 

"My mother loves cars, but meeting Stephanie was such a moment, for sure,” he said, laughing at the memory of that first meeting – the first of many such special occasions over the years involving his cars. 

Double trouble

When Amaker bought the 3.5, it was silver gray with a black interior. The vehicle drove like a dream, but Amaker had something else in mind when it came to the look of the car. To make the 280SE his true dream car, Amaker brought it to a restoration specialist in Durham, North Carolina, who took a great car and customized it to perfection, updating it with a tobacco exterior and Palomino leather interior. 

In 1997, Amaker left North Carolina for the head coaching job at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, his first head- coaching gig. A few years later, following an NCAA Sweet-Sixteen appearance at Seton Hall, he took over the men’s basketball program at the University of Michigan. The storied sports history in Ann Arbor includes the 1989 NCAA men’s basketball national championship. 

And there’s a bit of a storied automotive history nearby. “The car world at one point revolved around Detroit so that was pretty neat,” he said. 

Amaker has an eye for quality – on and off the court. He would occasionally bring the 280SE 3.5 to car shows in Michigan. Soon he had the itch to add to his collection. He began researching interesting post-war Mercedes-Benz models; time and again, he kept coming back to the 280SL. With its powerful engine, classic look, and roadster appeal, Amaker knew it would be the perfect addition to his garage. He found a 1970 European model painted in light ivory with a bamboo interior, and soon Amaker was dividing his driving time between the two classics. 

“I just love the look of the roadster. It has a great history behind it. It’s a really fun car to drive,” he said.

In 2007, Amaker headed back east to take the head coaching job at Harvard, which has proved a strong match for both. He has taken the basketball program to unprecedented heights, racking up Harvard's first and now seven Ivy League championships, making four NCAA tournament appearances, and earning three NIT berths. 

But lately, it’s Amaker’s work off the court that has been making headlines. For the past 13 years, his program philosophy has been “Teach. Lead. Serve,” and he has devoted as much time and energy to developing his athletes into future leaders as he has to building their basketball prowess. He launched a Breakfast Club initiative with renowned Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree where student athletes get to meet notable business leaders and social activists like Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and basketball legend and social justice champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

“I believe coaches should be teachers and educators first. I have a responsibility and obligation to see my players as future leaders, so if I’m doing my job, they’re going to be developing and learning and growing beyond the 94 by 50 [feet of a basketball court],” Amaker said. 

That approach landed him a leadership role as a Board member for the National Association of Basketball Coaches, where he co-chairs the Committee on Racial Reconciliation. He’s also a force behind the recently launched John McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative, which is designed to give young people of color more opportunities to work in athletic departments throughout the higher education landscape. 

The initiative, and Amaker’s leadership as a coach and educator who prioritizes social justice at a critical time in America, has kept him busy. Too busy to spend much time at car shows, but not too busy to enjoy his collection. 

“The SL is a head turner. The 3.5 is a showstopper,” he said. “I enjoy cruising, not trying to feel like I’m on a racetrack. The true joy is driving them.”

The cars are also great conversation starters. Though Amaker opts for a practical Mercedes GLE SUV or his wife’s C300 for driving in Cambridge during the school year, his summer home on Cape Cod is the perfect backdrop for the classics. When they’re not in the garage, surrounded by Mercedes-Benz posters and memorabilia, they’re out on coastal New England roads, eliciting honks, waves, and questions from other drivers. 

Questions that Amaker is more than happy to provide answers for. “It’s a lot of fun – people love the cars and so do I. I’m just a big fan of the Mercedes-Benz brand and products,” he said.

 On the road again

Amaker shows no signs of slowing down. Many years of coaching still lie ahead, but that doesn’t stop him daydreaming about the role Mercedes-Benz will play in his life once he leaves the sideline. He’s a proud member of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America and loves researching different models. Both the iconic 300SL Gullwing and the 300SL roadster are on his ultimate wish list. "The Gullwing is one of the more famous cars of all time. The SL roadster is very glamorous – it was a Hollywood car,” he says.

Amaker also wants to take part in more car shows and Mercedes-Benz events, and has always wanted to visit the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

Who knows, he says, maybe he’ll even riff off Jerry Seinfeld’s web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” with Coaches in Cars, or take on an ownership role at a Mercedes-Benz dealership like his football counterpart, University of Alabama coach Nick Saban. Most people know him as a basketball player and coach, so Amaker would love for them to get to know some of his personal pursuits, especially his passion for cars. 

The possibilities are endless. But one thing Amaker can say without hesitation is that he has no plans to sell his prize automobiles. He’s been approached before, but he’s never entertained the question. He couldn’t part with his cars.

“To me, it’s everything about Mercedes-Benz – it's their history, the star, its elegance, even the name itself. Mercedes-Benz has always exuded elegance, luxury, and quality, and that resonates with me,” Amaker said. “I view them as artwork, and like a piece of art, it’s the value you place on it that matters most.”

As far as Tommy Amaker is concerned, his Mercedes-Benz cars are priceless.