Bernard Tomlin had just finished playing in an early 1970s University of Utah basketball game when he was approached by a man and his young daughter. He said she wanted to know what it was like to be black.
He said she just wanted to meet you because youre black. Shes never been close to a black person, Tomlin, a 1971 graduate of Malverne High School, said Friday. Then she touched my face and he just handed her to me.
Another person might have been outraged, but Tomlin said he thought the question came from love . . . It was her fathers opportunity to say to her, This man breathes and he walks; hes the same as you. I think that was the reason he let me hold her.
Tomlin has preached that thoughtful kindness to a legion of young African-American players in his 28 years of coaching college basketball.
He is 411-340 as a head coach, the last 18 at SUNY Old Westbury, where he led the Panthers to the NCAA Division III Tournament in the 2015-16 season.
But Tomlin, 66, a resident of Lakeview in West Hempstead, is not just about coaching.
He talks about his history and African-American history with his players.
I think the most important thing is that they realize that everything wasnt always the way it is now, he said. And they do have to not take for granted some of the opportunities that they have. Its such a big job in between all these things becoming what we would perceive as normal. This [month] is a time for them to think about that . . . They should know that there was a struggle for some of the things right now that are there to enjoy.
Tomlins former players are his disciples. Hes always going to think positive and look for the glass half full, said Anthony Bryant, who graduated from Old Westbury in 2003.
Stephon Odle, a special education instructor for the Longwood school district, said: He is a man of good class in any situation that hes presented with. Thats what he preached with us, playing with class.
Tomlin grew up in the South Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium. His late father, Samuel, was a supervisor for Joyva Candy Company for 50 years. His mother, Minnie, now 94, worked for the New York City Department of Welfare.
Tomlin idolized Mickey Mantle and Oscar Robertson. He said he did not see color and hoped no one saw it in him.
Growing up in the South Bronx, we lived in different locations, he said. I was in the projects for a couple of years. My background gave me the opportunity to experience living in every situation and with kids that had issues. I was fortunate that I had two working parents, but at the same time, I know exactly where these guys are coming from.
It was good training for counseling the young athletes he would encounter in his coaching career.
Tomlin coached locally at Adelphi and Stony Brook before Old Westbury, where he is 285-203. In terms of basketball, his most successful graduate was 6-8 Lester Prosper, who lived in a group home while attending the college, with NBA scouts eyeing him in the schools Clark Center. Prosper, now 30, has had a long professional basketball career overseas.
Prosper was prepared when his Tomlin moment occurred a few years ago in, of all places, his church in Miami.
A couple came up to me and said they had never liked black people, Prosper said last month from London. Something just told us to come over and sit with you. The way you treat people, you made us look at people differently.
Prosper took the comments as a compliment and said he had Tomlin to thank for that.
He helped me to carry myself as a man with poise, he said. Carry yourself in public with poise. Theres still a lot of prejudice out there, of course, but you deal with it.
Nathaniel Vaughn, now in marketing, is another of Tomlins many success stories.
He wants me to speak to his [Old Westbury] team, Vaughn said. I dont want to sugarcoat anything. Ill let them know there will be struggles along the way. Its inevitable, you may not be treated fairly all the time, but nonetheless push through. Have the intestinal fortitude to overcome these adversities that you undoubtedly will face.
STAR ON THE COURT
Tomlins Malverne record of 45 points in one game lasted until 2009, when Dashawn Moorer scored 56 in an overtime game.
Tomlin, a guard, transferred from Utah to Hofstra, where he had a 42-point game in the 1974-75 season. In 1976, he played on the first Hofstra team to make the NCAA Division I Tournament.
Tomlin was taken in the sixth round of the 1976 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Jazz. He did not make it to the NBA but played briefly for Brooklyn and Wilkes-Barre in the Eastern Basketball Association. He then assisted at Hofstra, Duquesne, St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island under fellow Malverne graduate Al Skinner.
Tomlin thought he was on track to become a Division I head coach when he was hired at Stony Brook to begin the 1991-92 season. Stony Brook was making the transition to D-I, but Tomlins teams went 100-109 and he was let go after the 1998-99 season just before the program was fully elevated.
You cant carry these things, Tomlin said. As a Christian man, were taught to forgive. Forgiveness is a critical part of living, I think, a happy life. So I forgive, but I didnt forget it in terms of career opportunities. I deserved to have that chance to coach that team as a Division I coach.
Richard Laskowski, Stony Brooks athletic director at that time, said last month that the decision had nothing to do with race.
I knew he would be disappointed. But I felt we needed to change, to go with a coach that had experience in Division I, who was known as a Division I coach, Laskowski said. I wanted to go with who I thought was the best person at that particular time. Not a color.
Laskowski eventually hired former Fordham coach Nick Macarchuk for the mens team and Trish Roberts, a black woman, for the womens team.
Tomlins former players at Stony Brook were upset that their coach was not retained.
We busted our butts on the court to get that D-I position for him, said Kwa Hollywood Gibbs, who coaches Faith Preps elite team in Manhattan. We thought it was already mapped out because we were beating D-Is as a D-II.
Ron Duckett, who played for Tomlin at Stony Brook, said his coach taught him to persevere. Duckett went on to become an author of cookbooks under his pen name, Ron Douglas. He had a New York Times bestseller, Americas Most Wanted Recipes, in which he created foods that duplicated or even improved the taste of meals from popular eateries such as Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Duckett said of Tomlin, Hes a very professional role model and father figure. He spoke eloquently. He was just somebody you could aspire to be as a young athlete. The way he conducted himself, the way he treated other people.
Tomlin guided Duckett down the right path. For someone like me, I didnt have a father growing up, you look at your coach as a role model when you dont have a dad, Duckett said. He was definitely a person like that for me. He always told me to stay with my studies and keep my grades up. Being black and being in the entrepreneurial world, there is a self-confidence, self-esteem issue still amongst young black people in this country.
The time is approaching when Tomlin will step away from coaching, he said, to devote his energies to his newly formed faith-based clothing line entitled Gods Prepared Athlete. Its message clothing, he said.
Tomlin has made a career of delivering the message.