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Back where it started (cont.)

Posted: Monday January 1, 2007 2:06PM; Updated: Monday January 1, 2007 7:38PM
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Valuable lesson

After going 21-8 the previous season under Locke and losing in the NIT semifinals, Knight's first team went 18-8 and also lost in the NIT semis. The coach who went on to win 880 games was not victorious in his first contest however, losing 70-49 at Princeton while his All-America forward, Mike Silliman, sat out after an appendectomy. (The first win came in game No. 2, against Worcester Tech.) Knight did learn a lesson about pre-game ritual on that day, though. In his autobiography he said, "I wasn't sure what to do [in the locker room], so I thought we should say a little prayer. I said, 'Let's bow our heads and say The Lord's Prayer.'" Ed Pillings, the team trainer, came up to Knight as they were walking up the stairs and said, "For whatever it's worth, let me tell you: you and prayers just aren't a good mix." Knight took the advice. It would be the last time his team said the Lord's Prayer.

In his book Same Knight, Different Channel, 1966 reserve forward Jack Isenhour follows the Lord's Prayer story with a quote Knight used years later on Alford: "God couldn't care less if we win or not." (The second half of which is, "He is not going to parachute in through the roof of this building and score when we need points.") Isenhour's book, published in 2003, provides a thorough history of that '65-66 season -- but it also resulted in him being no longer welcome at Knight's yearly reunions, because of its frank commentary on Knight's temper. Isenhour believes that some of that temper and intensity was fueled by working with Locke, but not all of it. "He did take some cues from Tates -- those guys were like two peas in a pod," Isenhour said this week. "But Tates was charming, and Bob was never charming. He never tried to be charming."

Early success

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During Knight's record-tying win over Bucknell on Dec. 23, ESPN displayed a graphic with an all-time Knight team, and the first unit included one Army player: 6-foot-6 center Silliman, a former Mr. Basketball in Kentucky who went on to become Army's all-time leading scorer and the captain of the 1968 Olympic squad. Silliman, who died in June of 2000 of a heart attack at the age of 56, "got hidden somewhat at West Point, but he was the best player in the country [in '65-66]," according to teammate Bill Helkie. Knight said in his autobiography that Silliman "may still be the best player I've ever coached on a college team."

It was a coup that Silliman was at West Point. Locke had beaten out Bluegrass juggernaut Adolph Rupp for his services, and with Silliman leading the charge (averaging 22 points and 11 boards per game), Knight's team was 10-4 heading into a January home date against Rutgers, which featured a guard named Jim Valvano. Army played its Wednesday games at 4 p.m., to small after-class crowds, and Isenhour says the 5,000-seat bleachers at its field house were "all but empty" when the Scarlet Knights visited. Which meant there were very few witnesses for the first major setback of Knight's coaching career.

Helkie, a 6-3 sharpshooter from South Bend, Ind., who was the team's second-leading scorer and later went on to work with Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve, recalls what happened to Silliman as a "freaky" injury. "I can remember it vividly," Helkie says. "I drove up the court getting ready to pass the ball to Mike -- and I threw it and it went right over him, because he was on the floor, and there was no one around him."

Silliman, then a senior, said that he felt something snap -- and the diagnosis was torn cartilege in his left knee, which brought an early end to his college career. A somewhat distraught Knight called mentor Clair Bee that night. Bee, the legendary Long Island University coach, had been in the stands for the Rutgers game and according to Knight, his only advice was, "Okay, who are we going to replace him with?"

After losing Silliman, as well as starting guard Paul Heiner (due to academics), Knight would do more than salvage the rest of the year, going 5-2 to close the regular season with Helkie and Schutsky handling much of the scoring. "It was probably [Knight's] greatest coaching accomplishment that year," says Schutsky, who now works in Army's compliance office. "To lose his star player and have everyone come together to pick up the pieces, and have us play as well as we possibly could."

Getting defensive

In '65-66, Knight had yet to develop the motion offense for which he became famous. Helkie recalls that they ran a continuous set the coach called "reverse action" -- but he knew it was borrowed heavily from one of Knight's future mentors, ex-California coach Pete Newell. Why? "Because when we came down the court and started running it, other teams always called out 'California,'" Helkie says.

A lack of size (Army's starting lineup was made up of players 6-3 or smaller) and scoring power (with Silliman out) forced Knight to place emphasis on a brand of in-your-face D that wasn't common during that era. Isenhour says that, "In those days, if you had the ball far from the basket, the guy guarding you often was 4-5 feet away. Well, you could be out at the halfcourt line, and somebody [on Army] would be in your shorts. It was so different of a defense that some teams thought we were dirty."

Some of Murray's favorite moments of the season came in the second and third games after losing Silliman -- victories in which Army held Penn State to 39 points and Bucknell to 38. The Nittany Lions, who were 11-3 and coming off an NCAA tournament appearance the year before, were held to just seven first-half points on 2-of-24 shooting. As Murray recalls, "Their coach, John Egli, said to one of his assistants as he was walking off the court, 'It's a good thing we kicked the extra point.' That was the kind of defense we played in those days."

Two days after the Penn State win, a game against Bucknell brought out some vintage Knight. Murray says that Knight and Bison coach Don Smith, "were chatting before the game, and Smith made some disparaging remark about how Penn State only scored 39 points" -- which Knight took as a serious insult against the Army defense.

"Coach walked into the locker room and laid it on us," Murray says. "He was steaming. He said, 'I want you to show them what you did Penn State.' Well, Bucknell ended up with one point less -- 38."

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