Read an Excerpt
Days of Knight
How the General Changed My Life
By Kirk Haston
Indiana University Press Copyright © 2016 Kirk Haston
All rights reserved.
If the Game Doesn't Fit ... Then You Didn't Commit
I once had the remarkable opportunity to be in the same room with the greatest basketball winner of all time, the eleven-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell. Of all the great Russell quotes, my favorite is about commitment: "Commitment in my mind is [what separates] those who live their dreams from those who live the rest of their lives regretting the opportunities they have squandered" (quoted in Hilberg and Falkner; see bibliography). Very early in my IU basketball career I learned a valuable lesson about this type of commitment from Coach Knight.
Dane Fife, Jarrod Odle, and I were the first guys to make it downstairs into the bowels of Assembly Hall one day for practice. We made our way down the hallway to our locker room and started to get dressed into our practice gear. As we entered our white-walled and red-carpeted locker room, everything seemed to be the same as usual. Our practice jerseys and shorts were there, ready and hanging in our lockers just underneath our individualized nameplates. As we three approached our respective lockers, however, we noticed there was something very out of the ordinary about one of the upperclassmen's locker stall. I'll just call this teammate Player X. Player X's locker stall had been completely cleaned out ... almost. His practice gear was gone, his basketball shoes were gone, all his personal effects had been cleared out, and even his nameplate had been removed from atop the locker. If it hadn't been for two conspicuous items that had been placed in this teammate's chair, his locker would have looked like it hadn't been touched all season long.
Those items were a tennis racket and a container of tennis balls.
None of us there fathomed what any of this meant. Giving Player X a call on our cell phones to see what was going on wasn't an option since there was no cell service in the lower levels of Assembly Hall. We hadn't heard any news that day about this player quitting or transferring, and that kind of news would have spread like wildfire across the Indiana University campus. My teammates and I talked a minute or two about the cleaned out locker, but eventually headed to the basketball court to get a few shots up before the start of practice.
About half an hour later most of the players and coaches were on the court and ready to begin the day's practice, including Coach Knight. Coach was on the opposite end of the court from where the locker room entrance was located. The only player unaccounted for as the practice start time neared was Player X. I was shooting with Ted Hodges, one of the basketball managers, at an auxiliary basketball goal that was behind the baseline of the main court and in close proximity to the locker room entrance. I was shooting some close-range hook shots when Player X came out on the court through the double doors leading from the locker room.
Player X was still in his street clothes. Of course he was; he didn't have any other wardrobe options in his barren locker. As Player X made his way to the edge of the main court, the distance from which I was shooting shots also began to stretch farther and farther away from the basket. I had quickly gone from shooting low-block hook shots to shooting long-range J's from the right wing so I could get a close-up look at the inevitable showdown that was going to take place between Player X and Coach Knight. Player X was now standing on the sideline of the main court. He just stood there for several seconds, staring toward Coach Knight, who was still at the opposite end of the court talking with his assistant coaches. Player X wasn't empty-handed as he stood at the edge of the basketball court. He was holding the tennis balls and racket that had been left in his locker. Suddenly, over all the sneaker squeaking and ball bouncing, Player X shouted in the direction of Coach Knight: "Hey Coach, what's this about!?!" Assembly Hall fell silent. Now was the time for the showdown. I could have sworn I saw a Wild West tumbleweed roll across half-court as Coach Knight turned and looked in the direction of Player X.
Coach Knight didn't say a word, or even change expressions. As he began the ninety-four-foot walk toward his disgruntled player, all the rest of us pretended to go back to what we were doing, though we were completely focused on the face-to-face meeting about to occur. Player X hadn't moved one step closer or further away as Coach Knight came to a stop two feet in front of him. Coach Knight spoke first and last. He didn't raise his voice; he didn't even point a finger. He just simply answered the question that had just been shouted at him from across the court. "You've shown you aren't committed to playing a team sport, so I thought you'd be better off taking up an individual sport instead. Now go on home."
Coach Knight wasn't talking about the "home" that was his apartment in Bloomington; he meant for him to get out of town and go to his real home. Player X didn't say a word back, but just turned, exited the court, and left Assembly Hall.
It didn't take me long once I got to IU to realize what commitment really meant. Playing basketball for Coach Knight required a level of commitment to work, to preparation, and to competition that could push you past your previous physical and mental limits and toward goals that you didn't even know were possible.
In August 1998, Coach Knight had just gotten back from visiting his good friend Tony LaRussa, then the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. While Coach was in St. Louis, he watched the Cardinals play the Atlanta Braves. Coach Knight would often come back from such trips and tell us a story or two in the locker room after good practices — when he was usually in a good mood. This day he told us about the players he had talked with on this trip as he visited the Cardinals' and Braves' clubhouses.
Coach said he overheard a high-salaried player in the Cardinals' clubhouse complaining about the workload they were still carrying in practice, something to the effect of "When are they going to call up those minor leaguers so they can do this stuff instead?" There are few things Coach Knight detests more than a player who limits his own potential by not embracing the process of work.
The Braves' clubhouse, he said, "felt more like the championship [Cincinnati] Reds teams" he used to visit, the Bench–Morgan–Rose "Big Red Machine" teams of the 1970s. Coach said his primary reason for stopping by the Braves clubhouse was to talk with future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux. Coach told us how much he respected Maddux's game because of his detailed, intellectual approach to preparation.
Once Coach entered the Braves' clubhouse, it didn't take long for some of the big names of the Braves to find their way over to talk to "The General."
First up was Cy Young Award winner and eight-time All-Star John Smoltz, an avid sports fan who stayed current on several sports, one of them definitely being college basketball. He had been not only a top pitching prospect but also an all-state high school basketball player in Michigan, with a scholarship offer to play basketball for the Michigan State Spartans. Although he wisely chose baseball and never attended MSU, he was a big fan of the school's basketball program. So Smoltz had some fun: he came over to razz Coach Knight a little about some recent Michigan State and Indiana battles on the basketball court.
Tom Glavine was to be that day's starting pitcher about an hour and a half later, but he still made a point to come over to shake Coach Knight's hand, just before one of his Braves teammates, Chipper Jones, made an extremely dramatic move to get Coach Knight's attention. Instead of just going with the usual handshake, Jones chose to throw a chair toward Coach Knight — and this was the first time he had ever met him. As you can imagine, the whole locker room froze. What was going to happen next? Ever since Coach Knight had thrown one chair in one game in 1985 he had held the crown as the most famous chair thrower in sports history. It appeared that Chipper Jones had decided to use this moment with Coach Knight to stake his own claim for the title. Without raising his voice, however, Coach, turning to Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine, broke the silence in the room by asking, "How old is Jones? 25, 26? D_ _N! He only threw that chair across the room? I'm two times his age and I can put it through that wall!"CHAPTER 2
Tennessee Knight Game
Looking back at what the recruiting process was like for me in high school, it's amazing how close I came to not going to Indiana University to play basketball. To start with, I was about as close as you can get to never even being recruited by IU. Halfway through my junior year at Perry County High School in Tennessee, I was 6'9" and 220 pounds. I was being recruited by Ohio State, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Purdue (all of whom would eventually offer scholarships by my senior year). Everyone knew Coach Knight's recruiting focus at IU was usually on players from Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, so I felt far off IU's radar during the bulk of my high school playing days. My first encounter with Coach Knight really wasn't one at all. The summer before my senior year, we were both at a team camp in Memphis called the Steamboat Shootout. Our "encounter" lasted about ten seconds; he walked right past me in the doorway of the gym where my high school team was getting ready to play — not past me going into the gym to watch our game, but going out of the gym after he had evaluated another player.
I wasn't offended. At the time I had absolutely no interest and no intention of leaving my home state to play basketball. I guess it would be fair to say that I really wasn't too big a fan of leaving home for much of anything in those days. Two main towns make up Perry County, which has a total population of about 8,000. My hometown of Lobelville (3,000) is the smaller of the two towns. The other, Linden, is the county seat and site of the county's only high school, Perry County High. There has always been a friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) small-town vs. smaller-town rivalry between Linden and Lobelville. However, since students from both towns' middle schools feed into the same high school to play for the Vikings, it can make you feel like you're less from a hometown and more from a home county. As a junior in high school, I loved being close to home so much that it affected my approach to the recruiting process. If I deemed a school too far from home, I automatically crossed that school off my list. Looking back now, I was incredibly short-sighted and weak-minded in limiting my options so drastically for fear of feeling a little homesick.
Like me, my mom was an only child, which meant our immediate family was a pretty small group. My father left when I was four because of some personal problems he was struggling to overcome. Because of this, most of my childhood family moments included three people: my mom, Patti Kirk Haston, and her parents, Hoyt and Bettye Kirk. We did have a good-size extended family in Perry County, thanks to the close connections we had through Lobelville Elementary, the school where my mom was a fifth-grade teacher, and through the Linden Church of Christ, where my granddad preached. But by far the most influential people in my life were Mom, my granny, and my granddad. It's great to feel comfort and support from your family, but that feeling can be so comforting to a kid that it makes the unknowns and unfamiliarity of distance seem an intimidating obstacle to overcome. Unsurprisingly, the two teams at the top of my college basketball wish list were two in-state schools, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
By the start of my senior year I had been offered basketball scholarships from both. At the time I thought that this whole recruiting process was a piece of cake. I wanted to stay close to home, and I wanted to sign early. So in the fall of my senior year, with the early signing date quickly approaching, everything seemed perfectly in place. Vanderbilt was less than two hours away, so signing with Vanderbilt seemed a nobrainer to me. I was less certain of my backup plan involving Tennessee, mainly because of the distance from home to Knoxville, but since I wanted to stay in-state, UT was still solidly my second choice.
One slight problem developed. Vanderbilt and Tennessee both reneged on their scholarship offers to me.
Vanderbilt's head basketball coach at that time was Jan van Breda Kolff (whom I'll shortcut to JVBK from here on out). JVBK had been actively recruiting me during my junior year, but by the time the early signing period had arrived, his interest in me inexplicably dried up. I really don't know why, but he stopped recruiting me altogether. Then, after a phone call from my high school coach, Bruce Slatten, to the Volunteer coaching staff, I found out I wouldn't be heading to Knoxville, either. Kevin O'Neill, the UT head coach, called me later to explain that they still wanted me there, but that they no longer had a scholarship available to offer since they had a rush of recruits commit early.
Very suddenly, I was now officially being un-recruited. After a year of going through the recruiting process I suddenly found myself back to square one. I had some other scholarship offers on the table but none really intrigued me, so I chose to wait for the late signing period in April. I hoped my team and I would have a strong season and this might draw some new recruiting interest. Reality had forced me to realize that my two in-state safety nets were gone. It was time to focus solely on finding a coach who would push me to reach my potential as a basketball player, wherever he and his school were.
The first half of my senior season went smoothly. We were 16–0 and ranked no. 1 in Class A (the smallest of Tennessee's three divisions, though Coach Slatten filled most of our schedule with teams from the two larger divisions, Class AA and AAA). I was averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks per game. And this was when I got the chance to meet the Indiana Hoosiers' head basketball coach — well, actually, their future coach, Tom Crean. Michigan State's head coach, Tom Izzo, dispatched Coach Crean, his assistant, to watch one of our practices. He was the first coach from the Big Ten to come to Tennessee to watch me play or practice. By the midway point of our season, Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan State made up my short list of schools. Surprisingly, another coach jumped back into the recruiting mix around this time: Vanderbilt's JVBK. Coach Slatten told me JVBK called him, saying that he was again interested in signing me to play for the Commodores and that one of the reasons for this renewed recruiting interest was because some Vanderbilt backers wanted him to bring more in-state talent to Vandy's campus. I didn't find that the most convincing recruiting sales pitch of all-time. I passed on playing for Mr. Jan.
As our Christmas/New Year's Day holiday break came and went, my potential college options seemed locked in, and I thought it best to make a choice and commit to a school before we got into tournament play in February. In mid-January, however, Coach Slatten got a call from Bloomington, Indiana, which changed everything. He called me to his office in between classes to give me the news: Coach Bob Knight was interested in taking a look at me. In all honesty, I thought he was joking. As he related the details about how Coach Knight wanted to look at some game tapes and how an assistant coach from Indiana University was going to come down to one of our practices, it hit me that this was not a joke at all. It was a stretch to say at that point that the Indiana Hoosiers were recruiting me. They were more or less just doing their due diligence to determine whether or not they wanted to begin the recruiting process with me. I found out later that it was actually a tip from another college's head coach that had precipitated this interest from the Hoosiers — a friend-to-friend call to Coach Knight from Tennessee's Kevin O'Neill. He told Coach Knight he might want to take a look at a Tennessee kid they had wanted to sign but couldn't for lack of available scholarships.
Excerpted from Days of Knight by Kirk Haston. Copyright © 2016 Kirk Haston. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.