Bobby Knight is a positive force. The rest is small stuff. He kicked a chair. He grabbed a player by the shirt and jerked him toward the bench. He raised holy hell with striped-shirt incompetents. He went man-to-man against Puerto Rico. All this is hot copy, and I, with a blush, confess my sins of having used it to paint Bobby Knight in sensational caricature. He deserves better, for the small stuff is as nothing measured against the powerful positive forces he brings to college athletics.
A nice Knight story . . .
Late in the second half of Tuesday night's Indiana-Notre Dame game here, Digger Phelps bounded past midcourt, arms flying, mouth in gear, to shout at one of his players.
A referee noticed the coach clear down in front of the Indiana bench -- a no-no -- and sternly pointed toward the Notre Dame side. Get back where you belong, the referee said.
Here came Bobby Knight, joining in. The Indiana coach crooked a finger toward Digger. Come here, Digger. Come here, Mr. Referee. The three of them met at mid-court, and lip-readers caught Knight saying, ". . . my end of the floor . . ."
Knight was warning them, right? Wasn't the ogre warning the oficial, in angry tones, to keep Digger off his land? And wasn't he telling Digger, his intrastate enemy, that he didn't appreciate the hot-doggery?
Digger Phelps, laughing: "Bobby was telling the referee, 'If he wants to come down to my end of the floor and yell at his kids, let him do it -- because if I want to yell at one of mine, I'm going to go down there .'"
Bobby Knight, smiling: "You never know where I'm going to go. I wanted to make sure I could go down there without anybody impeding my progress."
Yes, something nice is happening with Knight these days. At 40, a big-time coach for 15 years, winner of three of every four games, a genius whose imagination changed basketball's offense and defense -- Indiana's undefeated 1976 national champions defined forever the beauty of his game -- at 40 and sure of his place, Bobby Knight no longer is at war.
He went a couple seasons without taling to the press. He had one or two sentences mimeographed and handed out after games. Sports Illustrated never was certain if Knight meant it when he said he would throw one of their reporters through a second-story window outside his office; just in case, the magazine never sent a reporter knocking at his door. Last year, when SI wanted to shoot a cover picture of Knight with a stop sign to symbolize his defensive mastery, Knight advised the inquiring editor to cut up the stop sign and do a painful thing with the pieces.
He had his reasons. He thought the press was preoccupied with the small stuff that had nothing to do with basketball.
Knight still is no Digger Phelps doing a show biz act for the ink-stained wretches. He has declared a truce. At postgame press conferences, he answers the questions he deems worthy. Most telling of a change in attitude is his cooperation with Sports Illustrated on a full-length profile.
Free of the small-stuff baggage, Knight is appealing.
He loves country music. He'll talk you silly about baseball, fishing and hunting. Knight checks the scores in the paper to see how his buddies in coaching are doing (11 former Knight players and assistants are now head coaches). He chewed out Phelps recently for not being more active in coaching organizations.
Knight pushes his players. "Your opponent is yourself, your potential," he says. "The whole thing to me now centers around the orchestration of the game; how well are we playing? To me, as a coach, the whole incentive is the beauty you see in a game where you've played well. I really believe if you see that beauty, you're going to win the league and you're going to win championships."
His aggressive, overplaying, denying-the-pass defense is standard procedure now for teams that pretend to greatness. His motion offense is a model of patience, discipline, stamina and skill. The beauty born of hard work at both this offense and defense is reward immediate, reward lasting. Steve Downing, the center from Knight's first Indiana team, says, "I love Coach Knight because he pushed me to limits I never thought I could reach. He was hard, but they were the two most important years of my life. Once you play for him, you can do anything."
Notre Dame won that game the other night, 68-64. When Knight walked into a press conference, stopping first to shake hands with Phelps, he said, "Digger's been working on my p.r. So I'm here to answer questions."
Indiana had two 20-point scorers in the game, but no one else scored much. So someone asked if that worried Knight.
Knight didn't like the question. Not because it was a stupid question; it was too close to the truth that Indiana can't be good team with only two scorers. Very sharply then, Knight said, "If we'd had four guys scoring 25 points, we'd have won."
Roy Damer, a sportswriter from the Chicago Tribune, piped up. "Three guys with 25 and you'd have won."
Silence. Would Knight bite off Damer's wise-guy face?
Knght turned to a blackboard. He wrote, "Damer 1, Knight 0."
And he smiled.