On Joe B. Hall's telephone call-in show Thursday night, an emotional man pleaded with the University of Kentucky basketball coach to show mercy.
"Joe, you can't suspend those two now," the man said. Hall has suspended center Sam Bowie and quick guard Dirk Minniefield, forcing them to sit out tonight's game with Notre Dame as punishment for violations of what Hall calls "well-established training rules."
"We have to do it for discipline sake," Hall told his caller.
"But, Joe, we gotta beat Notre Dame, to heck with that discipline," the man said.
Not only has Hall suspended two important players. Another good one, flamboyant guard Dwight Anderson, has quit school "for personal reasons," Hall said. Anderson has not been heard on the subject, though a Louisville newspaper has been on his trail all week (the only report is that Anderson is visiting schools to which he might transfer).
The nation's second-ranked team is, on this evidence, in a heap of trouble, right?
Not at all.
In 1948 Adolph Rupp heard a player's complaint. For six jillion seasons, Rupp won seventy-eleven games a year as Kentucky's coach. When center Bob Brannum complained that he wasn't getting enough playing time on the war veteran-stocked Kentucky team -- after all, Brannum had been an All-American once -- Rupp, did not fall prostrate at the big guy's feet and beg him to please smile again.
Rupp announced Brannum's telephone number in the newspapers.
The coach explained, "Maybe some other school can use a center."
Brannum moved on to Michigan State, where he was an All-American again.
And Rupp's Kentucky teams, without Brannum, won the NCAA tournament three times in the next four years.
Hall told the man on his call-in show, "I also want to beat Notre Dame. But I want to win the next year, too, and the next year, and the next. To do that, you have to have discipline."
I am a hopeless case when it comes to college basketball. Some sunsets are nice. Ann-Margret is a joy forever. But when I want to sit and watch something beautiful for two hours, give me a college basketball game that involves a team whose talent is matched by its discipline. Give me Duke and Indiana and North Carolina and Kentucky.
Discipline on the court is hard to define. That's because discipline, at its most effective, is invisible. Discipline is the elimination of self-indulgence. If Darryl Dawkins carried one ounce of discipline, he would never shatter a backboard. Breaking a backboard is hot-doggery of the highest order, for it only can be done with malice aforethought; the baskets counts two points, whether the ball is thrown down with the forearms crashing into the rim or simply, gently, dropped into the net.
Disciplined teams make mistakes, as all teams must in high-speed games, but the mistakes are the product of effort, not vanity. When Mike O'Koren is assessed a charging foul, it comes on a strong move to the basket, not on a look-at-me-the-All America sideshow. What is discipline? Buy a ticket to a Georgetown University game. Never take your eyes off John Duren.
Or watch a team play defense. Teams with no discipline despise defense. Defense is hard work. That's why the pros so seldom play it. Defense is thinking and moving and throwing your body in front of great big guys trying to break backboards. Nobody notices defense. They don't put your name in the paper for it. Too bad. College teams that give up 75 points a game either have no talent or no discipline. They will fail in big games. (Flat statement, sure, I warned you I was a hopeless case.)
We know by reading the papers that college basketball coaches can fill their personnel needs in a number of ways, not excluding mail fraud. Discipline is a much tougher nut to crack. It cannot be forged and stamped with a seal taken from a New Jersey community college.
Joe B. Hall is a basketball master, as his record (both an NCAA and NIT championship) testifies. But to win at Kentucky he must be just as good at taking a passel of high school superstars and getting them to play as a true team in a community and state of people who literally want to kiss their sweet faces.
This morning, 10,000 people came to Freedom Hall to see the Kentucky basketball team do nothing but stand around and shoot baskets for 30 minutes.
That's 10,000 people for a nothing workout -- four times the number who paid to see the University of Maryland's first game in its own holiday tournament Friday night. Tonight's Kentucky -- Notre Dame game drew more than 16,000 paying customers. This is in Louisville, the home of a great college team itself, a city 80 miles from Kentucky's campus in Lexington.
"A little girl wrote to me last summer and asked if I could get her Kyle Macy's autograph," Hall said, naming his All-America guard. "I told her to come to our Louisville workout and I'd help her."
So the girl, about 13, showed up today and waved her letter at Hall, who invited her on the team bus to get Macy's signature. The girl then had Hall take her picture with the guard. And as she started to leave, the little girl said, "Coach Hall, can I kiss Kyle?"
The kiss was done.
"And, really, that's why discipline is so important to us," Hall said. "People in Kentucky think of this basketball team as theirs. They identify with it. They would be crushed if they found it out it was something phony. And it's my responsibility, to those people and to my players, to demand discipline off the court."
Bowie and Minniefield are not the first Kentucky players suspended by Hall, who believes off-court discipline is an indispensible requisite for on-court discipline. Among others, Hall has suspended Kevin Grevey.
Hall says he establishes certain rules of behavior -- curfews, no marijuana -- but operates mostly under a general "do good" rule.
"In your family, if you leave your kids alone when you go out at night, and they are 11, 10 and 9, there's no way you can make up rules for what they cannot do," the coach said. "No way you can say, "Don't stick a fork in the electrical outlets. Stay out of the back of the TV.'
"You just have to have taught them what's right. If you come home and find the carpet destroyed with water colors, you're going to tell them they did wrong. And then you determine a punishment."
Hall said Bowie and Minniefield, both freshmen, were guilty of very minor violations.
"But," the coach said, "they had to be dealt with very severely."
A one-game suspension may not seem severe to most people, but then most people do not want to kiss Kyle Macy.