Once upon a time there was a 6-foot-7-inch power forward from St. Joseph High School in South Bend, Indiana. Forty-nine years, an undefeated NCAA basketball season, and a five-year NBA career later, Tom Abernethy is doing what he genuinely loves, shaping youth through the game of basketball.
In 1976 Abernethy and the Indiana University basketball program had one of the most historical seasons in NCAA history under legendary head coach Bob Knight. After Gonzaga’s loss in the championship game of the NCAA tournament earlier this year, the undefeated Indiana University team remains as the most recent team of only seven to ever have a perfect season.
In an interview with the Campus Citizen, Abernethy talked about what it felt like to play on such a historic and successful team while also giving insight into his thought process during the season.
“It was awesome… You know when you’re doing it, you’re not thinking about setting records, you’re thinking hey we got to do this today in practice and we have to do it in the game,” said Abernethy.
Abernethy received a First-Team All-Tournament nod as he played outstanding in the NCAA tournament up until he was sidelined with an injury in the tournament semifinals. He was one of four players from the team to be drafted in the ‘76 NBA Draft alongside names such as Scott May, who was drafted with the second pick by the Chicago Bulls, and the Indiana Pacers very own play-by-play announcer, Quinn Buckner, who was drafted with the seventh pick by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Abernethy was drafted to the Los Angeles Lakers where he went to the Western Conference Finals in his rookie season playing with NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He continued for another season on the Lakers before he went over to the Bay Area when he signed to the Golden State Warriors for two and a half seasons until he was traded back home to the Indiana Pacers where he finished the season and then retired from the NBA.
After the NBA, Abernethy went into commercial real estate where he had a successful and profitable eight-year career before he realized that something from his life was missing.
“God used that [his career in real estate] to help me see my need to prioritize things in life,” said Abernethy. “During that period of time, I became a Christian and once I put my faith in Jesus, I looked at my job in real estate and looked at my experiences and what I came away with was you’ll need something to help manifest [build up] other people, especially kids.”
In 1996 Abernethy gave up his lucrative career in real estate to use his time and talents in basketball to help the development of the next generation of players by opening the Indiana Basketball Academy, or IBA for short. The IBA is located on the northside of Indianapolis and currently has over 450 active players in their various programs, a personal record for the gym.
The IBA is home to two different travel teams that play in some of the most competitive tournaments around the state and also hosts camps focused on player development and building character through the teachings of Christianity. Abernethy has spent 25 years attempting to help shape young athletes by giving them the support and attention they need to develop into not only better basketball players but more well-rounded adults.
“It’s God’s work, he brings all of the kids and families to the IBA and they come for different reasons, we are just there to encourage kids and we are all about encouraging them to be the best they can be,” Abernethy said proudly. “Basketball is a small part of a life and if they can use the things they learn in sports, and in basketball, and at the IBA to develop good character, then they will be ready to roll when they’re older.”
Abernethy currently doesn’t run the day-to-day operations of the gym and spends some of the year in Florida, but when camp season begins, he always makes sure to make time for some story-telling to the campers. One of the camps most unique qualities is the way that Abernethy can pass down his insight and knowledge about basketball through his immersive and fun story telling.
While Abernethy uses his stories and experiences to teach the fundamentals in basketball to help develop his campers as players and people, he also tells several stories to preserve the history of his generation of the NBA. The story he is probably most famous for telling at his camps is about the time his two front teeth were knocked out by legendary big man, Moses Malone.
Malone, who played for the Houston Rockets at the time, is described by Abernethy in a booming, deep tone as having “tree trunks for arms.” He uses his storytelling ability to illustrate the intimidating stature of the 6-foot-10-inch center, keeping the kids on the edge of their seat with each detail he describes to help teach them the rich history of his era.
With Abernethy stepping away from running the daily operations in recent years, Andrew White, a long time coach at IBA, has since taken over the reins. While Abernethy does not run the gym like he used to, his vision of a space for young athletes to come and be supported not only lives on but has thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we did that was really neat, we did IBA Zoom advanced private training and the feedback we got from that was incredible, not just with basketball, but as you know everyone handled COVID differently,” said White. “For these kids to be kind of isolated, this IBA zoom gave them an outlet and helped their self-confidence, self-esteem, and anxiety.”
In mid-March of 2020, IBA was shut down by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though things were looking bleak for their industry, White and his staff kept a positive attitude and pushed through.
“I’m a pretty glass half full kind of guy by nature, so I was pretty optimistic through it all, and thankfully it wasn’t as long as what we anticipated,” said White. “I think June 19 is when the governor cleared live play and that was honestly sooner than I thought and that was a blessing through it all to be able to open up when we did.”
Although athletes were unable to meet in person for camps and practices, White and his staff did everything they could to figure out every viable way they could help the kids during this stressful time in a safe way that adheres to COVID-19 protocols.
Abernethy has also adapted by getting on Zoom calls to continue his mission of developing young athletes into successful adults… and to also tell the Moses Malone story.
“With my basketball background and experiences with the great coaches that I’ve had that coached me through the years in college, the NBA, and high school, I just felt like I was being led to build the IBA,” Abernethy said proudly. “That’s what really led me to do it, to use my unique gifts for not my glory, but God’s glory.”
With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to loosen as more individuals get the vaccine, White has his mind set on developing the gym’s new normal by focusing on the safety of their athletes.
“We are a Christian business, and even if we weren’t we would still want to protect our kids and families,” said White. “We’ve stayed really cautious and all of our coaches still wear masks for practices and games and we really just want to go above and beyond the call of duty.”
With summer right around the corner, Tom Abernethy, Andrew White, and all of the employees at the Indiana Basketball Academy are looking forward to another successful year of doing what they love, shaping youth through the game of basketball.