NEW ORLEANS — Did you know Bobby Knight is writing a newspaper column? One of those quickie syndication deals. So 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 better than 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.
“Bobby,” a reporter began, “do you–?”
“Before I answer,” Knight interrupted, recognizing the guy, “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,” the reporter joked.
“Yeah?” said the coach. “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 after tonight? 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 they marvel at it. And this year, of course, he’s winning big, and his Hoosiers are in tonight’s NCAA championship final against Syracuse.
So, what are we saying? If Knight wins the national championship, hundreds of budding high school coaches will buy that book tomorrow 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, trying to squeeze Bobby Knight into a series of paragraphs is like trying to squeeze a 747 into a milk carton. Having said that, let me end this paragraph by stating that Bobby Knight worries me. And so do people who admire him.
That includes sports writers — and there are quite a few, because when Knight likes a reporter, he’ll let him know it, he’ll put his arm around him, he’ll mention his name (“Why can’t you write like such-and-such?”), and this makes certain guys feel special, part of the “in” crowd, and so they write how Bobby the Tyrant is misunderstood.
Frankly, I don’t care if he is or isn’t. I do not know what’s in 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 his 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 the locker of a player who 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 columns read. All the mad stuff on one side. “He has produced winners” on the other side. Do you think it’s an even balance? Yes?
That’s what worries me.
On Sunday afternoon, Knight, 46, and his 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. Someone asked a question about his coaching methods being
“unyielding,” and this is how he answered:
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. There was laughter. Knight smiled. He had charmed his way out of it.
End of question.
Two minutes later, someone asked Alford, the star senior guard, how he felt after his freshman season 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.
Now, I don’t doubt there are kids who respond to Knight. So what? Kids also will respond to electric shock.
That doesn’t make it right. This is basketball we’re talking about. College
basketball. True, many ex-players 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 is one of the finest people I’ve met in sports. He refuses to talk about Knight now. No comment. And if he had something good to say, he’d say it.
Yes, Knight’s laundry list of coaching feats is impressive. 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
ever left without winning at least one Big Ten championship. So he delivers.
That was never in question. Nor was his 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 without it ever getting into the newspapers.
But that stuff should be tacked on the end of his list of tirades, tantrums and insults — not held up against it. If I write slanderous lies in this column, but donate a typewriter to an orphanage, does one cancel out the other?
There is a story about Bobby Knight — which is kind of like saying,
“There is a story about Howard Hughes’ will” — in which, in a fit of anger during a game, 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. There are all these caveats about Bobby Knight. He can get away with all this stuff — “You understand why I did it” — because he believes 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.
Kick megaphones. Smash tabletops. Embarrass players. Win basketball games? The biggest danger in all this is victory. If Indiana wins tonight, there will be a thousand hosannas thrown to Knight tomorrow, a sentiment that “he was right all along,” he knows what it takes, and that there is somehow a nobility in stalking like a madman and having carte blanche to whittle your players’ self-worth down to zero.
Here is a quote from “Season on the Brink.” It is Knight talking to Daryl Thomas, then a junior forward: “You know what you are, Daryl? You are the worst bleep bleep I’ve ever seen play basketball at this school. The absolute worst bleep ever. . . . You are a bleep from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. An absolute bleep bleep.”
Here is Bobby Knight on motivation: “The greatest motivator in the world is your ass on the bench. Ass meets bench, bench retains ass, ass transmits signals to the brain, brain transmits signals to the body, body gets ass off bench and plays better. It’s a hell of a sequence.”
Here is Bobby Knight’s career coaching record: 467 wins, 169 losses.
Scary, isn’t it?
Now I can hear you. Let up on the guy, you say. I saw him on TV. He was funny. He was charming. Exactly. Knight is clearly witty, quick and extremely intelligent. Which is also what worries me. You can go in prepared to hate the man and walk away feeling light and empathetic. I believe this is the way Knight wants it. Control.
“Do you regret allowing John Feinstein (the reporter who wrote the best-selling book) access to your program now?” someone asked him.
“I haven’t read the book,” he said curtly.
“Do you have any interest in reading it?”
End of answer, his shortest of the day. He hasn’t read the No. 1 best-seller about himself? It doesn’t matter. He won’t admit it. The book is vulnerability. It shows the backside of the winning program. He could have lambasted the guy who wrote it, but that would only call attention to it. Knight knows this. Control.
“No questions about books,” he said. “Who has a question about basketball?
. . .
Well. OK. Here was a question about basketball. How, after all is said and done, does he explain his explosive behavior on the basketball court?
This is how he answered: “Let’s say you guys get a bad typewriter, the keys stick, it doesn’t work, and you say, ‘This g–damn typewriter,’ and you get so mad, you chew out somebody’s ass, somebody who was supposed to deliver something for you or whatever.
“Well, I do exactly what you do. The difference is, you don’t do it in front of 18,000 people.”
Well. There are a few other differences. For one thing, a typewriter is not a college student or a referee, no matter how long you look at it. And besides, if I smashed too many typewriters or chewed out too many messengers, I don’t think I’d hang on to my job very long. No matter how many winning columns I wrote.
But then, Bobby Knight is different. And one day he might have my job. After all, he ends his press conferences these days with, “Always a pleasure to meet with my fellow writers. . . . “
So here’s my thought. If he can play my game, I can play his. I’m thinking about getting my own college basketball team. I will coach my players hard and try to win, but mostly I want them to study and graduate and have some fun 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. This is only a game, and I am only a coach, 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 then, I don’t read his column.