Bob Knight made me promise not to write about it at the time, but that was four or five years ago. The incident has been forgotten by everyone except the most passionate critics of the Indiana University basketball coach. So I'll tell a story, changing the names, that adds ambiguity to the simplistic tales of despotism that Knight's detractors trot out from time to time.
You know the critics' stories: Knight grabbing a player's jersey and jerking him off the court; Knight obscenely haranguing a teen-ager for a basketball mistake; Knight kicking chairs in rage; badgering referees irrationally; getting himself handcuffed and arrested while representing the United States in Puerto Rico, insulting the commonwealth with every breath. Knight has been a bad boy.
Of course he has. At 38, he has room to mature. His friends have told him, politely, to grow up. They have told him he creates these incidents -- intentionally, if perhaps subconsciously -- to build the pressure that drives him and his players to exhausting pursuit of victory. They tell him he is good enough at his work to win without that false, and ultimately destructive, stimulus.
But he keeps doing indefensible things. At midcourt in front of 17,000 spectators, he once cuffed an opposing coach on the back of the head. He meant no physical harm, but the action was condescending and the other coach, Kentucky's Joe Hall, said he would never forget the humiliation. And Knight makes it all worse by warring with the media, which might overlook North Carolina's Dean Smith's transgressions but leaps at Knight's throat when, say, a player quits his team.
Let's call the player Bill Baxter. He was in all the newspapers when he quit Knight's Indiana team four or five years ago. Baxter said Knight was inhuman. He said Knight had reduced him to a basket case, all atremble at the sound of the coach's voice. If this is big-time college basketball, if it meant he had to live in fear, Baxter said, you could take it and stuff it.
All this went very badly for Knight, who the year before had made a big deal of recruiting Baxter. Now the newspapers printed Baxter's words, the very words that Knight's detractors in the media might have used in describing their relationship with the coach. It was all very neat. When asked to comment on Baxter's quotes, Knight refused to say a word in self-defense.
"Look at this," Knight said one day.
He handed me a folder with Baxter's name on it. The enclosed material was dated three months before Baxter quit the team. As part of a Knight experiment, a university psychology professor tested the Indiana players that summer. The folder contained the psychologist's summations of those tests.
Baxter, the psychologist reported, was a child in a man's body. He resented authority. In time he would rebel if driven by a demanding, authoritarian coach. Having rebelled, the psychologist concluded, Baxter would then lash out at the authoritarian figure in a childish attempt to exact revenge.
The affair was instructive of Knight's mentality. Knowing that Baxter, a gifted athlete, would rebel under the pressure of a demanding coach, Knight -- as demanding a coach as ever put on a sneaker -- refused to coddle the player. And when the inevitable consequences came due, Knight paid them without explanation. He allowed Baxter the last word. To Knight, it was important only that he be true to his coaching beliefs, not to what anyone thought.
Last week, Knight offered to resign at Indiana. That offer followed his conviction in a Puerto Rico court on a misdemeanor charged filed after an altercation with an off-duty policeman during the Pan American Games. Knight was sentenced to six months in jail, to be served in Puerto Rico if Indiana would extradite him. Both Indiana and Puerto Rico say they do not want to do that.
Knight's offer of resignation was, I believe, sincere. The man does not lie. He brooks no deviousness. There is a coach adored and sainted by the media, a coach most juniors address as "Mr. Raymond;" to make up a name. Knight believes Mr. Raymond to be a cheat and liar. "I refuse to call him 'Mr. Raymond,' " Knight said. "I call him by his first name, John. Let him figure out why."
The president of Indiana University, John Ryan, turned down Knight's offer to quit.
The cynical view is that the president is a politician answerable to the people of Indiana. The only thing those people love more than basketball is winning at basketball. Knight's record at Indiana is spectacular, including a national championship in 1976 with a starting team of five players so talented, and so well taught by Knight, that they all are still playing in the pros.
So the president couldn't let Knight quit, couldn't let a little island in the Caribbean bring down a coach who only shoved an officious cop after the cop allegedly first poked him in the eye. That would be bad politics.
It would also be bad for college athletics. Whatever Knight's faults, and this is not to minimize them, they are as nothing next to his strengths.
In a college athletic system in which corrupt coaches keep right on coaching, Knight is an honest man. No one has ever suggested Knight breaks recruiting rules.
He is a brilliant teacher. His coaching films are standard texts around the country. When he yanked an erring Jim Wisman off the court with a sharp tug of his jersey, Knight delivered no physical abuse. He simply turned the player around to face his screams. If a professor in a literature class can reduce a student to remorse with a stare or the rebuke of an extra moment's silence, it is understandable that in the explosion of sound and fury that is an Indiana basketball game, the teacher-coach might sieze the student/player's wandering attention however he can. Not admirable, but understandable.
"I know Coach Knight," said an unconcerned Wisman the next day when the Knight-pulling-his-jersey picture showed up on Page One of an Indianapolis newspaper. Wisman the next year was a starter for Knight, and a year later was Knight's team captain.
Last season, University of Kentucky boosters put on a 50th birthday party roast for Joe Hall, the coach who Knight once cuffed on the head.
Everyone showed up in tuxedoes, except for one man, apparently an intruder, who walked on stage in a golf sweater. The fellow took the microphone and said Hall was a great coach, a coach Kentucky could be proud of.
There's only one thing," the man said. "Why can't Joe behave himself on the bench like that nice guy they have up at Indiana?
The Kentucky fans loved it. Joe Hall was laughing when Bob Knight walked off the stage.