The mention of Indiana University Coach Bob Knight's name usually evokes emotion and opinion. However, reaction to Knight being named coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team has surpassed the normal borders of response.
Hispanic organizations, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, are organizing a campaign to force the removal of Knight as coach of the U.S. team, contending Knight is a racist who insulted Hispanics while coaching the U.S. team in the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico in 1979 and in remarks made last fall in Gary, Ind.
" . . . He has no place in a delegation from the United States to the Olympic Games," said the 11-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus in a letter to William Simon, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Mr. Knight certainly cannot in good faith say he represents the more than 15 million Americans of Hispanic heritage in this country upon whose dignity he has recklessly trampled time and again."
Said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, in a letter to Knight: "The fact that a man of your insensitivity has been nominated to be coach of the U.S. basketball team for the 1984 Olympic Games is reprehensible . . . Your ability to serve as a symbol of fair play and honesty for the youth of America is, to be kind, abysmally lacking."
Yzaguirre predicted anti-Knight demonstrations before the world media gathers in Los Angeles to cover the Games if the appointment is allowed to stand, and Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said it's likely there will be retaliations on Capitol Hill against the USOC.
At the heart of the protests are the 1979 Pan American Games incidents in which Knight was reprimanded for unsportsmanlike conduct, convicted of assaulting a police officer in San Juan after an altercation at a practice site and who was described in court testimony as having referred to members of a Brazilian women's team as "dirty people."
He was quoted last fall at a dinner dance in Gary as saying that, as his plane left Puerto Rico after the 1979 games, "I stood up, unzipped my pants, lowered my shorts and turned . . . to the window of that plane--because that's the last thing I wanted those people to see of me."
Knight, who in 11 years at Indiana has won the national championship twice and made it to postseason NCAA play seven times, would not discuss the issue other than to say that criticism of his appointment "does not bother me one bit." He said he was pleased and honored to be named U.S. Olympic basketball coach.
Simon, while admitting that Knight's behavior could occasionally be improved, insists he will remain as the Olympic basketball coach. "We've heard from all these people, and I just don't think all the criticism justifies dismissing Bobby," he said by telephone from his office in New York. "I am not apologizing for Bobby's poor judgement. We accept his frailties."
Simon said the USOC approved Knight's appointment only after a full discussion of the incidents in Puerto Rico. According to Simon, the altercation with the policeman in Puerto Rico was provoked by the policeman, who testified later during Knight's trial in absentia that Knight had told him, "Get your dirty hands off me, nigger." Knight has denied making any such statement.
"That is not to say Bobby is not a volatile character. He certainly is," said Simon. "But he is going to be our coach at the Olympics in Los Angeles and that's it."
In a letter to Yzaguirre, Simon said, "The USOC does not condone what Bobby Knight has done. But it also must be remembered, and we underscore remembered, that Bobby Knight did not provoke the incidents in Puerto Rico."
At Knight's trial in absentia several weeks after leaving San Juan, the coach was convicted of assaulting the policeman, fined $500 and sentenced to six months in jail. The governor of Indiana refused to extradite him.
George Raveling, a black who is the basketball coach at Washington State and who will be one of Knight's assistants for the 1984 Olympics, agreed that Knight was not at fault in the Puerto Rico incidents. "I knew all the players on the Pan American team. I talked to a number of them when Coach Knight was not around and they all felt he got a very bad rap . . . "
But Yzaguirre says he doesn't accept such explanations.
"What we're going to do is continue our effort," said Yzaguirre, who is seeking support for the anti-Knight movement from local chapters of La Raza, which he describes as a Hispanic equivalent of the Urban League. "I would expect that people would make their feelings known at the '84 Olympics. Los Angeles has a lot of Puerto Ricans. I would be surprised if they did not conduct peaceful, legal demonstrations. I don't think the world needs to see that. The foreign media will be there. They will pick up a racism that is not what the Games are about."
Said Garcia, "There is no question that Bob Knight is a genius in coaching. But when you talk about the Olympics, we want to present our best not only as it pertains to sports but also as it pertains to human relations. There is no question that his personality leaves a great deal to be desired in the human relations end. He truly insulted the people of Puerto Rico."
If the appointment stands, said Garcia, "we have no choice but to take our case to the floor of Congress." Most Olympic funds, Garcia said, come from corporate or private sources, but occasionally the Olympic committees are before Congress with requests for legislation.
"As these measures come before us, we will take every opportunity to remind our colleagues that there is this coach who is not fit to coach," said Garcia.
Knight was first nominated for U.S. Olympic coach last summer by a subcommittee of college basketball coaches who endorsed his nomination unanimously. At that time, Puerto Rican Gov. Carlos Romero-Barcelo wrote to Olympic officials to protest. The issue remained dormant until Knight's remarks in October as guest speaker at a dinner dance for employes of the Methodist Hospital in Gary.
The master of ceremonies, in jest, presented Knight with a one-way ticket to Puerto Rico, and Knight described his exit from the island. In the audience at the time was Carmelo Melendez, a Puerto Rican member of the hospital's board of directors.
Melendez, whose account was verified by the hospital's public relations office, described the incident for Hispanic Link, a news service distributed in English and Spanish to about 75 newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Since, the governor of Puerto Rico has renewed his protest, the Hispanic Caucus and La Raza have become active, bills have been introduced in the Puerto Rican Senate and House calling for Knight's dismissal, and the National Puerto Rican Coalition and the Congressional Territorial Caucus have demanded Knight's removal.