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The Knight I knew.


Coach Knight had called practice for Sunday afternoon, but we arrived at Assembly Hall to find the locker room empty. I mean empty. There were no chairs, no signs on the walls, no managers, no assistant coaches. We milled around in the hallway for a few minutes, unsure of what to do. Then Coach showed up.

"You don't belong in that locker room," he told us bluntly. "A lot of great players have dressed in that locker room, players who earned the right. You aren't in that class."

He then led us down the hall to the visitors' locker room, where he had set up the VCR. For two hours we sat in the darkness, suffering through replays of the Purdue game. Coach was brutal in his criticisms. If anything, he seemed angrier than the day before, when the loss was still fresh.

The next day, Monday, we discovered that we were no longer worthy of even the visitors' locker room. Our chairs were lined up in the hallway, our gear and uniforms piled up on top. I found a few teammates in the training room, taping each other's ankles. Again, no managers, no trainers, no assistant coaches.

Coach arrived at three. Alone.

"The assistant coaches won't be here," he said. "I told them not to come in. You didn't put enough effort into the Purdue game to deserve coaches and managers."

He looked strangely distracted, as if he had more important things on his mind than basketball, things like picking up the laundry or returning his library books.

"I'm going to do some things on my own," he went on, "then I'm going home. The assistants might be here tomorrow, they might not. You want to come tomorrow, you can come tomorrow. I really don't care. But I'm not doing anything to prepare for the game. If you can't get fired up to play Purdue, then I've got no interest in you. I've got no interest in coaching players who won't put out the same effort as the coaches."

Having said that, Coach walked to the other end of the building; then he got on a stationary bicycle and started pedaling.

Chuck Franz and Dan Dakich, a couple of upperclassmen, were not as stunned as I was. They had seen variations of this hands-washing routine before. Coach had walked out of practices before, only to return the next day. On the other hand, he had always left his assistants to coach the team. This time, there were no assistants.

It was totally silent in the gym, except for a nervous dribble or two. Finally, Chuck and Dan took command. Someone said, "Let's get started," and we began our usual drills.

Down at the far end, Coach pedaled away on his bike. He looked our way from time to time. Finally, he left, stopping just long enough to inform us that there would be no training table after practice. He said we didn't deserve to be fed by the university, either.

Practice limped to a half at about five o'clock. We dressed in the dark hallway and then walked out into the cold and blustery night, wondering what new surprises Coach Knight would have for us the next day.

Tuesday's practice turned out to be much like Monday's--no coaches, no managers, no trainers. Coach pedaled away on his exercise bike.

This time, on his way out, Coach informed us coldly that the assistants had left a tape of Michigan State for us to watch--if we wanted to. Beyond that, there would be no scouting reports, no game boards, no game plan.

"By the way, Chuck--" He turned to our only senior. "The plane is not going up tomorrow. You'll have to get buses. Oh, and you'd better arrange for a hotel for the team in Lansing, and you'll need to schedule court time if you plan on a shoot-around. And you'd better make arrangements for meals."

We were stunned. Apparently, Coach had canceled all the arranagements for our trip.

When Coach was gone, Chuck looked at Dan in disbelief. "Dan, what in the world is going on?"

More than any other player, Dan understood Coach's mind games. "You know as well as I do," he told us, "that the plane's going up tomorrow. No matter what Coach does, the game is gonna be played on Thursday. If we win that game, everything's gonna be back to normal."

His face hardened. "We've got to win the next game."

Chuck and Dan brought practice to a quick halt and rushed off to take care of their new duties. Maybe Coach was just bluffing, but they couldn't take a chance that he wasn't.

Chuck found one of our senior managers and got a crash course in travel agenting. Before the evening was over, he had chartered buses to take us to Lansing, booked motel rooms there, reserved court time for practices, and scheduled banquet rooms for our meals. Dan took charge of the VCR, the Michigan State tapes, the medical supplies, the balls and equipment, and all the other stuff we took on trips.

As a mere freshman, I had no new responsibilities. Marty Simmons and Todd Meier and I got something to eat and went back to the dorm, where we sat on our beds and laughed about the day's events. It was the only way to keep our sanity.

The thing taht struck us, though, and kept us from panicking, was that the upperclassmen seemed to take everything Coach did in stride. They had been through a lot of strange stuff with him in previous seasons, and they swore that Coach knew what he was doing, even if he seemed totally off-the-wall. There wasn't a hint of rebellion among the upperclassmen--just the usual bewilderment and awe.

I hadn't been through a full season with Coach Knight, so I was less confident. When I went to my room that night and tried to study, I couldn't concentrate. Was Coach really going to let us travel to Lansing without him? Would he throw away a game against a Big Ten opponent just to make a point?

I pushed away my books. What was I reading, anyway?

For the second night in a row I slept poorly, but I'm sure Chuck slept worse. He was two nights away from coaching his first Big Ten game.

As it turned out, Dan was right. We got word the next afternoon that Coach had changed his mind: we could use the plane. The assistants were back too. But things were hardly back to normal. Coach did not board the bus at Assembly Hall, and he was not waiting for us when the bus pulled up to the plane at the airport. Daryl Thomas, Todd, Marty, and I got out and started carrying the luggage and gear to the plane, traditionally a freshman duty. We expected Coach to drive up any minute, but he didn't.

We all boarded the plane like strangers on a commercial flight. Coach's usual front seat, facing us, remained empty for the entire trip.

We were met on the ground in Lansing by Coach Chuck's bus, which drove us to the motel. He got us checked in with amazing efficiency. The evening meal awaited us too, along with a motivational talk from Steve Downing, a Hoosier all-American for Knight in the early '70s. Steve evoked the Indiana basketball tradition and tried to explain to us why Coach was so upset--although nobody has ever satisfactorily explained Coach's moods.

After the meal, we gathered around the VCR to watch tapes of Michigan State. The Spartans had lost three straight games since winning their Big Ten opener, but one of their stars, Sam Vincent, had been out of the lineup. He was expected to play. Chuck and Dan, who knew most of their players fairly well, gave the rest of us the benefit of their experience. It was sketchy stuff. Never before had an Indiana team faced a major opponent with so little preparation. We had no game plan, on strategy. The defensive match-ups were made as though we were playing a pickup game: "Who you wanna cover, Steve? . . . I'll take number 20, Chuck. . . ."

Of course, we knew that Coach had to have his reasons for letting us play unprepared. "Coach is telling us that our winning or losing here has little to do with Michigan State," Chuck said, "and everything to do with us."

Dan nodded grimly and repeated what he had said the day before: "We have to win this game."

The next morning, we had our usual walk-through, but it was a quiet and somber affair. Coach did not attend, and the assistants just watched and offered little advice. We went over the Michigan State offense, based on the previous night's tape session. "It doesn't matter what Michigan State Does," Chuck reminded us. "It matters what we do."

The bus picked us up at the motel at 5:30 and drove us to the field house for the game. Coach didn't ride with us. Neither was he with us in the locker room while we dressed and got taped. (Tim Garl, our trainer, was back, thank goodness.) We watched the clock anxiously. When the time came to take the floor for warmups, there was still no sign of Coach. We went our alone.

Back in the locker room, we sat with the assistant coaches and waited. The managers leaned against the walls. Chuck paced nervously. The clock on the wall inched to 7:25. Ten minutes to tipoff.

I looked at Uwe Blab, our recruit from West Germany, who stared vacantly across the room. What was he thinking? That America was the land of the insane?

At 7:27, the door opened and Coach Knight walked in. He immediately gave some perfunctory instructions for the game. He didn't raise his voice. He didn't look anybody in the eye. His posture said, "I'm here because I have to be here." When he was through, he said, "O.K., let's go," and walked out. We followed him to the floor, grim and determined. We were met with rousing boos from the MSU fans.

Chuck and the four freshmen (including me) startled the press at courtside, not to mention our opponents. Michigan State won the tip and scored a basket, drawing a roar from the crowd. We brought the ball down and looked for the good shot . . . and looked . . . and looked. There was no 45-second clock in operation that year, so we could be as patient as we wanted. We ran nearly three minutes off the clock before we got the shot we wanted. It was a jump shot from the key, and Chuck buried it.

That set the tone of the game. We controlled the tempo and played for the high-percentage shot. On defense, we scrapped and fought for position.

Coach? Legend has it that he sat on the bench and watched, not lifting a finger. Actually, he handled all the time-outs and substitutions as usual. The mind games were over. He wanted to win.

The game was tight from tipoff to horn. Uwe, who had struggled of late and hadn't played much in the game, came in near the end and missed a couple of foul shots. But then he hit two huge free ones that sent the same into overtime. In OT, we grabbed a quick lead and then stalled the game away, hitting our closing free throws for an eight-point victory.

When the final buzzer went off, we celebrated as if we had won the conference, hugging each other and jumping around. For the freshmen, especially, it was a thrilling win. We had 52 points out of our team's 70.

Coach was jubilant in the locker room. He told us he was proud of us for overcoming adversity. He thought we had met a great challenge. "This just proves what you can do as a team," he said. "This is what I mean when I talk about mental toughness. Without it, you aren't worth a thing. With it, you can do great things."

It had been a truly weird week, but it had the effect of pulling us together and bringing out a total effort--just as Coach must have figured it would. It was the first time that I really understood why people called Coach Knight a genius. No matter what he might do the rest of my career, no matter how far-out or wrong he might appear, I would always have to consider the possibility that there was a method to his madness.

Coach was just going out the door when he turned and looked back at Chuck Franz--the senior who had had the whole of Indiana basketball dumped in his lap. "Hey, Chuck!" he yelled. "You did a great job tonight. Do you want to coach the Michigan game?"

Chuck grinned and shook his head. "No, no, Coach," he said. "I don't think I want to."

Chuck didn't have to. We had our old coach back.

From Playing for Knight, by Steve Alford with John Garrity. Copyright [C] 1989 by Steve Alford, John Garrity, and Super Talents Ltd. Reprinted by premission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Editor's note: The season was off to a shaky start. Bob Knight's 1984 Indiana University basketball team had just been crushed on the home court by its archrival, Purdue. The Hoosiers' next Big Ten opponent was Michigan State, but between the clashes was to be what the shooting ace Steve Alford still calls "one of the strangest weeks of my basketball life." He recaps the bizarre events in his new book, Playing for Knight, to be released thi November.
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Title Annotation:Bobby Knight
Author:Alford, Steve
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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