NEW ORLEANS — Did you know Bobby Knight is writing a newspaper column? One of those quickie syndication deals. He loves it. Now he gets to sit up there in front of a ballroom full of reporters and say with a sneer, “Well, as a fellow sports writer, I think. . . . “
This, I suppose, is preferable to him punching you in the face. Or screaming until your hair turns white. Or brutally insulting your intelligence while your peers laugh along because if they don’t, they’re afraid he’ll turn on them next. Not that it ever stopped him before.
“Before I answer, let me say picking the seat you did next to those other two sports writers may have been the single biggest act of intelligence you’ve shown in your life. Maybe they can teach you something about basketball.”
“You should have seen the two seats I passed up before this one.”
“Yeah? One of them must have been oval with a hole in the middle of it.”
Hooh, boy. Hooh, Bobby. How big is this guy going to be now? Already the No. 1 best-seller in the country is “A Season on the Brink,” a reporter’s inside account of Knight’s 1985-86 season at Indiana; a season which, by pure won and loss standards, was nothing spectacular.
But it’s his behavior that fascinates people — and in the book, his behavior is one part decency, one part integrity, eight parts Adolph Hitler — and so they buy it to see how he acts, win or lose. And this year, of course, he’s winning big, and his Hoosiers are in tonight’s NCAA championship final against Syracuse.
So, what are you telling me? If Knight wins the national championship this evening, hundreds of budding high school coaches will buy that book tommorrow and use it as a training manual?
Step 1: Smash telephone.
Step 2: Smash chair.
Step 3: Recruit players
Well. OK. Let’s talk straight here. First of all, to try and squeeze Bobby Knight into a paragraph is like trying to squeeze a 747 into an orange juice container. Having said that, let me end this paragraph by stating that Bobby Knight worries me. And so do people who like him.
That includes sports writers — and there are quite a few, because when Knight likes a reporter, he’ll toss his name around often (“Why can’t you write like such-and-such?”) and this makes certain guys feel special, a member of the “in” crowd, and so they write how Bobby the Tyrant is misunderstood.
Frankly, I don’t care if he is or not. I don’t know what’s in the very core of Bobby Knight’s heart. I do know this. He has thrown chairs, he has smashed telephones, he has grabbed players by the uniform like a drunken sailor would grab a civilian in a barroom.
And he has produced winners.
He has used every curse in the book, he has insulted the players’ masculinity, their intelligence, their future, their character.
And he has produced winners.
He has needled fans and gouged reporters and reportedly once left a Tampax in a player’s locker whom he thought wasn’t trying hard enough, and he has scared people and intimidated people and when he throws players out of practice they are too frightened to leave the building in case he should change his mind, so they usually just sit there, staring at the locker room walls.
And he has produced winners.
That’s the way his debit and credit list reads. All the mad stuff on one side. “He has produced winners” on the other side. Do you think it’s an even balance?
That’s what worries me.
On Sunday afternoon, Knight and his five starters — Steve Alford, Daryl Thomas, Keith Smart, Rick Calloway and Dean Garrett — shared a stage in a press conference for the nation’s media. Knight wore the red sweater, the same red sweater he curls up over his belly when he’s stalking the court during a game. Never let them forget who’s in charge. Someone asked a question about his coaching methods being “unyielding” and he reached over and grabbed Thomas by the back of the neck and said, “Do you think I’m unyielding?”
And Thomas grinned sheepishly and said, ‘Uh, no, coach, no.” And then he reached across and grabbed Garrett and said, “Do you think I’m unyielding?”
And Garrett shook his head and everybody laughed. End of question.
Then somebody asked Alford, the star senior guard, about how he felt after his freshman year when he realized he still had three more years “under Coach Knight’s umbrella.”
And before Alford could answer, Knight looked over and said, “Just remember, you little son of a bitch, you ain’t never gonna be out from under that umbrella.” He grinned. “Now say whatever you want. . . .
Alford didn’t say a thing. N ow, I don’t doubt there are kids who respond to Knight. So what? Kids will respond to electric shock also.
That doesn’t make it right. True, there are many of his graduates who credit Knight with developing their character, the same way certain men credit the army. I know this.
I also know Isiah Thomas, who was Knight’s star player in 1981, the last time Indiana was in an NCAA final. Thomas refuses to talk about Knight now. No comment. And if Isiah had something good to say he’d say it, because that’s the kind of person he is.
True, Knight’s laundry list of coaching accomplishements is great. He has won the national championship twice already. He has an Olympic gold medal for directing the 1984 U.S. team. And not one of his four-year players at Indiana has ever left without winning at least one Big 10 championship. So he deilvers.
And, by all accounts, he has an honorable side. I do not doubt Bobby Knight’s integrity — at least when it comes to running a clean program. I do not doubt he has done many charitable things, that he has stopped to speak with a child in a wheelchair, that he has helped out former players many times without it ever getting into the newspapers.
But that should be tacked on the end of his list of tirades and tantrums and insults — not held up against it. If I write slanderous lies in this column, but donate a typewriter a an orpahange, does one cancel out the other?
There is a story about Bobby Knight — which is kind of like saying, there is a story about Yogi Berra or Bear Bryant — in which, in a fit of anger, he kicked a cheerleader’s megaphone. Only he kicked it into the cheerleader. He later called her into his office and said he was sorry. “But,” he added, “you understand why I did it.”
Ahhh. You see. That’s what scares me here. There are all these caveats about Bobby Knight. He can get away with all this stuff — “You understand why I did it” — because the ends justify the means. What ends? He wins basketball games? That’s the ends? Say that out loud and listen to how stupid you sound.
Here is how Bobby Knight justifies his explosive behavior to repoters:
“Let’s say you guys get a bad typewriter, the keys stick, it doesn;t work, and you get all mad and you say ‘This g–damn typewriter,’ and then you chew out somebody’s ass, somebody maybe who was supposed to deliver something for you or whatever.
“Well, I do what you do, but the difference is you don’t do it in front of 18,000 people. . . .
Well. I don’t know. If I kicked too many typewriters or chewed out too many messengers, I doubt I’d have my job very long. No matter how well I wrote.
The other day, Knight ended a press conference with this sarcastic remark:
“Always a pleasure to meet with my fellow writers. . . . “
Here’s my thought. If he can play my game, I can play his. So I’m thinking about getting my own college basketball team. I will coach them hard and try to win, but mostly I want them to study and have some fun and graduate and grow up to respect themselves. And when they come out of the game I’m going to pat them on the back and say “Nice try,” even if they played lousy. They should remember this is only a game, and I am only a man, and they will not be under my umbrella when they leave. And I will never call them bleeps.
I suppose Bobby Knight won’t think much of my team. But I don’t read his column.