On the Brink
November 24, 1985....The day was no different from any other that fall. A cold rain had been falling steadily all morning and all afternoon, and the wind cut holes in their faces as they raced from their cars to the warmth of the lobby, and then into the locker room a moment later. This was Sunday. In six days, Indiana would begin its basketball season, and no one connected with the team had any idea what the season would hold. The only thing everyone knew for certain was that no one could live through another season like the last one.
Bob Knight knew this better than any of them. The 1984-85 season had been the most painful he had lived through in twenty years as a coach. Nine months after what might have been his most glorious night in coaching, he had suffered through his most ignominious. He had gone from Olympic hero to national buffoon, from being canonized in editorials to being lampooned in cartoons.
In the summer of 1984, Knight had coached perhaps the best amateur team in the history of basketball. His U.S. Olympic team had destroyed every opponent it faced on the way to the Olympic gold medal. And yet, because of the Soviet boycott, Knight could not feel, even in his greatest moment, complete satisfaction.
He had returned to coach at Indiana and had experienced his worst season. He benched starters, threw his leading rebounder off the team, and generally acted like a man who was burned out scorched out might be a better term. Some friends urged him to quit, or at least take a year off. But Knight couldn't quit; he had to prove himself again.
At age forty-five, Knight was starting over. Not from scratch, but not that far from it. He knew by the end of the previous season that he had to change. He knew he could not lash out at his team every time it failed. He surely knew that he could never again throw a chair during a game as he had done in February during a loss to Purdue. He had to work harder than he had worked in recent years. He had to be certain that he still wanted to coach and act that way. He had to get his team playing the way it had played during his six years at West Point and during his first thirteen years at Indiana. Above all, he had to be more patient.
For Knight, the last was the most difficult. Bob Knight was many things: brilliant, driven, compassionate but not patient. His explosions at players and officials on the bench during games were legendary. To those who knew him, his eruptions in practice and the locker room were frightening. Friends worried after he threw the chair that he was destined to end up like Woody Hayes, the Ohio State football coach whose career had ended when he slugged an opposing player in frustration at the end of a bowl game.
Knight had come to practice on October 15, eager to begin again. Players and assistant coaches noticed right away that he was teaching more, that he spent less time talking to buddies on the sidelines and more time caught up in the work. He was more patient. He seemed to understand that this was a young team, an inexperienced team, a fragile team. It was a team that had to be nurtured, not bullied.
Now, though, the season was just six days away. When Knight looked onto the floor he saw a team that in no way resembled the great teams he had coached in the mid 1970s or, for that matter, the team he had coached in 1981, when he won his second national championship. They couldn't attack defensively the way Knight liked to attack. They couldn't intimidate. Worse than that, he thought, they could be intimidated. Every day he came to practice wanting to see them get better, looking for hope. Some days he found it: Steve Alford was a brilliant shooter, a gritty player who could score against almost any defense. Daryl Thomas, the 6-foot-7-inch center, and Andre Harris, the 6-6 forward recruited out of a junior college, were superb athletes, blessed with great quickness around the basket. Rick Calloway, the rail-thin freshman, was going to be a wonderful player some day.
But all of them had up days and down days. And the rest of the team was too young or too slow or too small. The vulnerability preyed on Knight's mind. The last thing in the world Bob Knight ever wanted to be was vulnerable. He had felt vulnerable, beatable, mortal the previous season when his team had finished under .500 in Big Ten play (7-11) for the first time in fourteen years. The NCAA had invited sixty-four teams to its postseason tournament, more than at any time in history. Indiana wasn't one of them.
Knight was incapable of accepting failure. Every defeat was personal; his team lost, a team he had selected and coached. None of the victories or milestones of the past mattered. The fact that he could quit right then and know that his place in history was secure didn't matter. Failure on any level all but destroyed him, especially failure in coaching because it was coaching that gave him his identity, made him special, set him apart.
And so on this rainy, ugly Sunday, beginning the final week of preparation for another season, Knight was angry. He was angry because as his team scrimmaged he could see its flaws. Even playing perfectly, following every instruction he gave, this team would be beatable. How could that be? Knight believed and his record seemed to back him up that the system he had devised over the years was the best way there was to play basketball. He always told his players that. "Follow our rules, do exactly what we tell you and you will not lose," he would say. "But boys, you have to listen to me."
The boys listened. Always, they listened. But they didn't always assimilate, and sometimes, even when they did, they could not execute what they had been told. That was what frightened Knight yes, frightened him about this team. It might do everything it was told and still not be very good. He liked these players; there wasn't, in his view, a bad kid on the team. But he wondered about their potential as basketball players.
Today the player bothering him most was Daryl Thomas. In Thomas, Knight saw a player of huge potential. Thomas has what coaches call a "million dollar body." He was strong and wide, yet quick. He could shoot the basketball with both hands, and when he went past bigger men to the basket, they had little choice but to foul him.
But Thomas was not one of those basketball players who like to get up on game day and eat nails for breakfast to get ready. He was a middle-class kid from Chicago, extremely bright and sensitive. Knight's angry words often hurt him. Other Indiana players, Alford for one, knew that Knight would say almost anything when he was angry and that the only way to deal with that was to ignore the words of anger and listen to the words of wisdom. Dan Dakich, who had graduated the previous spring to become a graduate assistant coach, had told the freshman Calloway, "When he's calling you an asshole, don't listen. But when he starts telling you why you're an asshole, listen. That way you'll get better."
Thomas couldn't shut off some words and hear others. He heard them all, and they hurt.
Knight didn't want to hurt Thomas. He wanted to make him a better player, but he honestly believed that some days Thomas had to be hurt if he was going to get better. He had used this tactic on Landon Turner, another sensitive black youngster with immense ability. Turner, 6-10 and 250 pounds, had emerged from a shell of mediocrity as a junior to play a key role in Indiana's 1981 run to the national championship. That summer he was crippled in an automobile accident. Knight, who had once put Tampax in Turner's locker, who had cursed him and called him names for three years, spent the next six months raising money to pay Landon Turner's medical bills.
Now, he was hoping that Thomas would bloom as a junior the way Turner had. Some days he cajoled. Other days he joked. Today, though, he raged. Practice had not gone well; after three straight good practices, the team had been sluggish. Intellectually, Knight knew this was inevitable. Emotionally, it drove him to the brink of complete hysteria.
First, he screamed at Thomas for playing carelessly. Then, he banished him from the scrimmage, sending him to a lone basket at the end of the court to practice with Magnus Pelkowski, a 6-10 sophomore who was not scrimmaging because of an injury.
"Daryl," he screamed as Thomas walked toward where Pelkowski was working, "get the f out of my sight. If that's the best you can give us after two days' rest, get away from me. There is absolutely no way you'll start on Saturday. No way. You cost yourself that chance today by f around. You are so terrible, it's just awful. I don't know what the f you are thinking about. You think I was mad last year? You saw me, I was the maddest sonofabitch you ever saw. You want another year like that? Just get the f out of my sight."
When Knight is angry, he spews profanities so fast they're hard to keep track of. In the right mood, he can talk for hours without ever using an obscenity. In this mood, every other word was one. Turning to his assistant coaches, Knight added, "F Daryl Thomas. Don't even mess with him anymore. We've worked three years with the sonofabitch. Use him to make Magnus a better player. At least he wants to play."
They played on without Thomas. Finally, after about twenty minutes, he was allowed to return. But he was tight. Some players react to Knight's anger with anger of their own and play better. Not Thomas; he tightens up. When Courtney Witte, a backup forward with far less natural ability than Thomas, scored over him from inside, Knight blew up again. "Daryl, get in the game or get out! Do you know you haven't scored a basket inside since Jesus Christ was lecturing in Omaha? Just get out, Daryl. Get him the f in the locker room. He hasn't done a f thing since we got out here."
Thomas departed. His teammates felt for him, because every one of them had been in his shoes at some point. Especially the better players; Knight rarely picks on the second teamers. The rest of the team lasted two plays before Knight blew up again and told them all to join Thomas in the locker room. Knight was genuinely angry, but he was also playing a game with his team. It was a dangerous game, but one he had played successfully for twenty years: put pressure on them now so they will react well to pressure from opponents later. But this was a delicate team and a delicate situation. Last year's team had folded under Knight's pressure. Knight knew that. Some days this fall he restrained himself because of that. But not today.
In the locker room, Knight ordered the assistant coaches to play back the tape of the day's practice. As often happens when Knight is angry, he began invoking the past. "I'd like to know when somebody in here is going to go up and grab somebody and punch them when they watch this bullshit. [Quinn] Buckner would have hit somebody by now. Do you know that? He just would have gone up and hit one of you f People I played with in college would have killed you people if you pulled that shit on them."
Quinn Buckner had been the captain of the 1976 national championship team. He was, without question, Knight's all-time favorite player. He had been a leader, a coach on the floor, but no one could remember him hitting a teammate. Part of that was because any time two players squared off in practice, Knight would say to them, "Anybody who wants to fight, you can fight me." No one wanted to fight Knight.
Knight stormed out, leaving the assistants to go through the tape with the players. The room was dark, almost quiet. The four assistant coaches, Kohn Smith, Joby Wright, Royce Waltman, and Ron Felling, gingerly began pointing out mistakes. With the exception of Felling, they had all lived through the nightmare of the previous year, and they didn't want a repeat, either. But no one was really listening as the coaches droned on about missed screens and lack of concentration. Everyone in the room knew Knight was going to be back. Most people get angry, scream and yell, and then calm down. Knight, more often than not, gets even angrier.
Sure enough, five minutes later, he returned. Thomas was on his mind. "Daryl, you know you are a f joke," he said. "I have no more confidence in your ability to go out and play hard than I did when you were a freshman. I don't know how you've f up your head in the last two weeks but you're as f up now as you've ever been. I wouldn't turn you loose in a game if you were the last guy I had because of your f head. This is just bullshit.
"Honest to Christ I want to just go home and cry when I watch this shit. Don't you boys understand? Don't you know how bad I want to see Indiana play basketball? I want to see Indiana play so bad I can f taste it. I want a good team so bad it hurts. I want to go out there and kick somebody's ass."
He looked at Winston Morgan, a fifth-year senior playing without a scholarship. "Do you?" Morgan nodded assent. "Bullshit. Lying sonofabitch. Show me out there and I'll believe it. I come out here to practice and see this and I just want to quit. Just go home and never come back."
Knight was hoarse from yelling. His voice was almost choking with emotion. He stopped. The tape started. It ran for one play. "Stop, stop it," Knight said. "Daryl, look at that. You don't even run back down the floor hard. That's all I need to know about you, Daryl. All you want to be out there is comfortable. You don't work, you don't sprint back. Look at that! You never push yourself. You know what you are Daryl? You are the worst f pussy I've ever seen play basketball at this school. The absolute worst pussy ever. You have more goddamn ability than 95 percent of the players we've had here but you are a pussy from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. An absolute f pussy. That's my assessment of you after three years."
Finally, with Thomas fighting back tears, Knight turned on the rest of his team. For ten more minutes he railed at them, called them names, told them they couldn't beat anybody. He told them not to bother coming to practice the next day, or the day after. He didn't care what they did. "Get them out of here," he finally told the assistants. "Get them the f out."
Knight walked out onto the floor. He was drained. He turned to Kohn Smith. "Go talk to Daryl," he said. Knight knew he had gone too far with Thomas, and undoubtedly he had regretted many of the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. But he couldn't take them back. Instead, he would send Smith, who was as quiet and gentle as Knight was loud and brutal, to talk to Thomas.
Thomas cried. Smith comforted him. Thomas was facing the same question everyone who comes in contact with Knight faces sooner or later: Is it worth it? Does the end justify the means? He knew Knight just wanted him to be a better player. He knew Knight liked him and cared about him. He knew that if anyone ever attacked him, Knight would come to his defense. But was all that worth it for this? This was Knight at his meanest. Every player who comes to Indiana faces the screaming, raving Knight at some point in his life. Some leave because it isn't worth it to them, but most stay. And most leave convinced Knight's way is the right way. But now Daryl Thomas wondered. He had to wonder; he wouldn't have been human if he hadn't wondered, if he hadn't cried.
They practiced early the next morning, but without Knight: he stayed home, not wanting to put himself or his team through another emotional trauma.
One morning later, Knight called Thomas into his locker room. He put his arm around Thomas and told him to sit down. He spoke softly, gently. There were no other coaches, no teammates in the room. "Daryl, I hate it when I get on you the way I did Sunday, I really do," he said. "But do you know why I do it?"
Thomas shook his head. "Because, Daryl, sometimes I think I want you to be a great player more than you want you to be a great player. And that just tears me up inside. Because there is no way you will ever be a great player unless you want it. You have the ability. But I can coach, teach, scream, and yell from now until Doomsday and you won't be any good unless you want it as bad as I do. Right now, I know you don't want it as bad as I do. Somehow, I have to convince you to feel that way. I don't know if this is the right way, but it's my way. You know it's worked for other people in the past. Try, Daryl, please try. That's all I ask. If you try just as hard as you can, I promise you it will be worth it. I know it will. Don't try for me, Daryl. Try for you."
Thomas listened to all this. Unlike some players who might not understand what Knight was saying, he understood. This was the way his coach coached; that would never change. Thomas was going through the same emotional swings that other gifted Knight players had gone through. One in particular, Isiah Thomas (no relation to Daryl) had come out of the Chicago ghetto and had lit up Indiana basketball for two years with his talent and his personality. He and Knight had fought for two years while Thomas starred for Indiana, and had continued to fight after Thomas left Indiana early to turn pro.
At a clinic once, someone asked Isiah Thomas what he really thought about Knight. "You know there were times," Isiah Thomas answered, "when if I had had a gun, I think I would have shot him. And there were other times when I wanted to put my arms around him, hug him, and tell him that I loved him."
Those words, perhaps better than any others, sum up the love-hate relationship between Knight and his players, even between Knight and his friends. To know Bob Knight is to love him. To know Bob Knight is to hate him. Because he views the world and everyone in it in strict black-and-white terms, he is inevitably viewed that way by others.
In less than forty-eight hours, Daryl Thomas had seen the black and the white. He had felt the full range of emotions. That Saturday, when Indiana played its first game of the season, Daryl Thomas was Indiana's best player. Not for Knight. For himself. But it was only one game. A long season lay ahead.
Copyright © 1986, 1987 1989 by John Feinstein