When the NCAA tournament was finally completed Monday night, the championship game played less than six hours after the shooting of the president, two figures overshadowed all others.
Bob Knight and Isiah Thomas: Knight, whose wisdom as a coach is unsurpassed; Thomas, whose precociousness and instincts at point guard belie his age, 19, and his experience; Knight, who has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and Thomas, whose sly sense of humor often helps his coach out of trouble.
Example: Sunday, amidst the furor over Knight's pushing on LSU fan against a wall and thence into a trash can Saturday night, Thomas was talking about Knight's temper.
"He does get mad a lot in practice," Thomas said, a beatific smile lighting his face. "Before the Maryland and the Alabama-Birmingham games he threw the whole team out of practice. You don't react to his temper, you adjust to it."
Thomas was asked if Knight had ever been angry enough to throw him into a trash can.
"No, not yet," Thomas said, "but then, I've never called him a bleep."
Everyone laughed and Thomas had taken a step toward bailing out Knight again. Twenty-four hours later he did the same thing in a basketball sense, dominating the second half as Indiana swept by North Carolina, 63-50, to win its second national championship in six seasons.
When it was over, as she watched her son atop the victory stand, Mary Thomas thought back. "I can remember him coming home from practice some nights not knowing whether there would be food or not," she said. "He always been a patient person, understanding."
Then she smiled the Thomas smile. "I always knew he was quick," Mary Thomas said, "because when he was little I'd always find cookies missing from the cookie jar but I could never catch him doing it."
Much the same could be said for Indiana's opponents in the tournament. They always knew Thomas was stealing from them, but they never could catch him. Thanks largely to a superb defense that Thomas keyed, Indiana completed a unique double with its victory.
By winning, the Hoosiers became national champions with more losses (nine) than any champion in history. At the same time, their 13-point margin gave them a five-game differential of 113 points, a record.
This was a team that so discouraged Knight in December that he wrote a friend a letter, detailing his frustrations, concluding by saying, "I'm just not sure we can pull it together."
But they did. "This was a group that went through a lot, went through some frustrating times but never lost sight of a goal, never quit on itself," Knight said."They have a lot to be proud of."
Knight was effusive, ebullient in victory, talking continuously about how people couldn't understand the tradition of Indiana basketball, how one had to be part of it to understand it.
At the other end of the spectrum was Dean Smith, who has tried so hard for so long to win the title. Smith hides his emotions as much as Knight shows them. His only release, it seems, is a cigarette. Often he will light one, drag hard on it twice, then stub it out. He always has a cigarette in his hand until the very moment he emerges from the runway into the arena prior to a game.
Monday night, Smith's face was a mask of nonchalance after his team's loss but it was just that: a mask. Inside, he is at least as intense as Knight. Watching Thomas and his teammates dismantle his normally cool, savvy team, was painful.
Still, the Carolina cool that is omnipresent in Chapel Hill remained. A school official at courtside, watching the Indiana celebration, shrugged his shoulders.
"Some nights you win, some nights you lose," he said. "Our baseball team has a game tomorrow."
No baseball game can blunt the memories of Philadelphia, though, memories that will be twisted for all who were there because of what happened in Washington six hours before the championship game.
For Smith, however, this was not an ending. He has had one of his best recruiting years and he will be back. But again on the final night, he was forced aside. The night, in a basketball sense, belonged to Knight and to Thomas.
Thomas was the catalyst, but the Knight system, the defense that eats offenses up and spits them out, was the anchor.
"We're never going to be the kind of team that does anything flashy, that beats you with one fast break after another," Knight said. "Our game is doing what we want to for as close to 40 minutes as we can. We try to stay with our defense, pressure the other guys relentlessly, be patient on offense and be in control toward the end."
That is what Indiana usually does. What made it special this year, though, was the flash that Thomas added, the quick basket off a steal, the superb pass in transition, the quick jump shot that leaves defenders feeling helpless.
And, when he had finished his demolition of the Tar Heels, Thomas still was helping make Knight look good. It started as he tried to pass credit to the steady, solid Randy Wittman.
"Randy was the key for us, really," Thomas insisted. "He did a hell of a job."
Knight, sitting next to Thomas, interrupted. "Watch your language," he said.
Thomas smiled, again recognizing the irony in his often profane coach's words.
"Gee coach," he said."I'm sorry."
Then, as usually happens with Thomas around, everyone smiled.
Outside, Mary Thomas was being asked about her son's relationship with his coach.
"I just want to say one thing," she said. "Thank God for Bobby Knight."
If Knight's mother had been there she undoubtedly would have said the same about Mary Thomas son.