This Bob Knight-hates-Puerto Rico stuff has taken on a life of its own, with only the most deceiving relationship to truth. Because of it, some people say Knight shouldn't be the U.S. Olympic basketball coach in 1984. It is time someone rose up on his hind legs and shouted, "The guy was railroaded. Get off his case."
Cover your ears, dear readers, because there will be more shouting here today, some from your mild-mannered typist and some from Knight, who yesterday said, "I'm tired of this. If we lose tonight because I've spent so much time on this Puerto Rico thing this week, I'm going to be sicker than I've been in a long time."
Knight's Indiana University team would play Iowa shortly after he talked by phone about the latest storm thundering around his ears. (Indiana did lose, 58-57). Or maybe the lightning is dancing on the back pockets of his jeans, for it was a report of his moon-over-San Juan joke that breathed life into what seemed a dead issue.
Three years ago at the Pan American Games, Knight was arrested and convicted in absentia of a misdemeanor--assaulting a police officer. Should he return to Puerto Rico, he faces a $500 fine and six months in jail. As any red-blooded American would do, Knight crossed Puerto Rico off his list of vacation sites.
And why not? Every member of the U.S. basketball delegation testified that Knight only pushed away a cop who had put his finger in the coach's eye. All agreed the cop provoked the incident.
None denies Knight's anger. Knight had lifted his voice to reason with the finger-pointing policeman, who in turn lifted his handcuffs.
This was early in the Games, shortly after some Puerto Ricans cut down eight U.S. flags and burned two by way of saying have a happy day. This was in a place where anti-U.S. sentiment ran so hot that Knight remembers, "At the Cuba-U.S. women's basketball game, everybody cheered for Cuba."
Two days later in a Cuba-U.S. men's game, a Cuban sucker-punched Kyle Macy, the Kentucky all-American. Macy's jaw was broken.
Back home in Indiana, Knight asked Gov. Otis Bowen if he should write a letter of apology to Puerto Rico Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo. "Gov. Bowen said no," Knight said. "But I wrote it, anyway."
Knight's letter said his problem was with one man, not the warm and dignified people of Puerto Rico. "I offer my most sincere apologies through you to them if anything I have done or said has been interpreted as being offensive to the people of Puerto Rico," the letter said. Knight said Gov. Romero Barcelo never answered the letter.
"I'm done, as of now, talking about Puerto Rico," the coach said. "I did nothing wrong. I apologized if anybody thought I did. I don't think I need to say another thing. It's ridiculous. I've never directed any remarks at any group, religious or ethnic. This un-American crap--I'm as American as anybody can be."
Back in 1979, masters of ceremonies started giving Knight one-way plane tickets to San Juan.
At a hospital benefit dinner last fall, Knight said no thanks to the joke/ticket. He also said he dropped his drawers and mooned Puerto Rico as his plane left. "That's the last thing I wanted those people to see of me," Knight said, and everyone laughed, as people have laughed for three years now.
"People have done that to me 500 times," Knight said. "Major league baseball players, Puerto Ricans, have kidded me about it. Chi Chi Rodriguez needled me in front of 200 people, and I thought it was funnier than hell and so did he, and we hugged and that was it. The governor of Indiana, President Ford and U.S. senators have needled me. It was always done in fun, and I've given as well as I took. Don Rickles gets paid big money for saying the same things."
Difference is, Rickles won't represent the U.S. in the Olympics, a politically sensitive arena where diplomacy and tact not the kindest of insults, should cover every situation.
Knight's mooning joke is "incredibly tasteless," to quote an editorial in The Washington Post that called for Knight's replacement as the Olympic coach. Soon, Puerto Rico politicians raised a clamor for Knight's dismissal, as did the Hispanic caucus in the U.S. Congress. These critics see Knight as a crude, racist bully who misrepresents the Olympic ideal of sportsmanship, brotherhood and fair play.
Knight is a great coach whose honesty does honor to his university. We can pick nits with lapses in judgment (whereas editorialists and columnists are without flaw). But for every little debit, there are a dozen large credits.
What the Olympics needs is not fewer Bob Knights, but more. Our last two Olympic coaches back Knight.
"Bob is a man of integrity and great intelligence," Dean Smith said. "I'm not at all worried. He will represent the U.S. very well."
Dave Gavitt said, "I'm very comfortable with Bob. The events of Puerto Rico will have nothing to do with these Olympics. He will be coaching the U.S. in Los Angeles."
One thing more. The San Juan Star's editorial pages of Jan. 27 carried a lawyer's article entitled "The issue of corruption." Juan M. Garcia Passalacqua said corruption in Puerto Rican government is "without precedent."
The lawyer detailed corruption charges touching the government's banking, housing, public works, drugs, electricity and financial departments. "The Police Department is under investigation by a federal grand jury for corruption and Mafia connections in high places," he wrote.
Bob Knight said, "It sounds like they have a few things more pertinent to do than mess around with a basketball coach."
He said it loudly.