In the last few days, Bobby Knight turned 50, the beginning of the end for an enfant terrible. He marked the anniversary by once again refusing to be considered for the Basketball Hall of Fame. But, with florid faces this time, the curators have refused his refusal. Chairs may soon be whizzing all over the museum.
When Knight did not go in on the fly in 1987, his 25th season in the industry and first year of eligibility, he declined ever to go in on the bounce. He is famous for such obstinance and pride. Still, whenever or however Knight arrives at the taxidermist, he belongs with Pete Newell, Clair Bee and Henry Iba, not to mention John Havlicek.
Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Larry Siegfried were the eminent players at Ohio State when Knight began to construct his Hall of Fame display out of pine. An irrepressible gunner, a willing but inept defender, Knight was the kind of player he would never tolerate.
But he was worth a few points from the bench. He still is. And he had the respect of the best athletes. He still does.
Dangerously, Knight began his coaching career at West Point. The biggest clue to him is there yet. In a hazing atmosphere, under frenzied head coach Tates Locke, Knight developed a system of discipline that continues to be military.
Exactly like a drill instructor -- quite a bit like Red Blaik and Vince Lombardi -- he breaks down the Indiana boots and rebuilds them to the strenuous requirements of the second half of a Big Ten season. The ones who survive end up liking themselves a lot and loving him a little.
Like Don Shula, Knight has a practical talent for terror. Paul Brown showed Shula what a handy tool fear can be. If Knight is beginning to sound like a football coach out of place, this is not the impression one gets from viewing his teams.
Basketball only seems to be a simple game, where everyone's offense is a pick and everyone's defense is perspiration. "There are only two great plays," the old coach and referee Charlie Eckman used to say. "Put the ball in the basket and 'South Pacific.' " Although the setting is more intimate than with other games -- the spectators are on top of the players, and the players are racing around in their underwear -- basketball can match football nuance for nuance.
Many people who appear to know basketball really only know the jargon. The latest jargon is easy. For instance, you never say "dribble;" you say, "he puts the ball on the floor." You never say "forward" or "center;" you say, "the guy up front," "the man in the hole." Or you use the numbered shorthand that has recently become hip. "For a 'four' man, he certainly knows how to put the ball on the floor, and he sure can fill the lane."
Most often, the speaker has no idea what "filling the lane" means.
If you ever are lucky enough to sit beside someone who does understand this game, someone like Newell, through their eyes you may start to see the geometry. Watching Knight's teams, the ball becomes a distraction. Away from the ball, he has created intricate little side games, weaves of mystery and mischief, usually culminating with some unwary soul crashing into a lamppost.
Knight has produced three distinct kinds of champions at Indiana. The Kent Benson crew was the best team comprised of the best players. The Isiah Thomas group had the single best player only. The Steve Alford collection had neither. Except for a second or two at the close of each half, Syracuse would have been the national champion of 1987. That's when Knight ran a little play, arranged a little shot, kicked in his few points from the bench.
What kept him out of the Hall of Fame three years ago must have been all the chair throwing and shirt pulling. In the manner of Woody Hayes, George Patton and most other undisciplined disciplinarians, Knight has been as scrupulous about getting all the little things wrong as he has about getting all the big things right.
He's a teacher. As a teacher, he pretends to write off incorrigible students. "The state of Indiana pays the corrections officer one salary and me another," he says. "Let him work with the incorrigibles." But the truth is, he reaches out for scoundrels.
In a curious development, Knight quietly has taken to reforming, actually reclaiming, old cheaters. His former Army boss, Locke, went woefully wrong at Clemson. Knight brought him to Bloomington as an assistant, showed him how an honest coach can still win and pointed him to Indiana State.
Meanwhile, the longest-awaited freshman in both mythology and memory finally has taken residence. By Jerry West out of Frank Merriwell, Damon Bailey first attracted Knight's attention when he was in the eighth grade. "He could play for me now," Knight was heard to mutter. (The coach's normal tone of voice is a mutter.)
Well, Bailey has reached 6 feet 4 and college age. He's in for a hell of a hard and wonderful time.