Bob Knight loves bringing his Indiana teams to New York City to play in Madison Square Garden because it reminds him of a time, the late 1960s, and a place, the U.S. Military Academy, that are special to him. Back then he was a boy-wonder coach at West Point, making do with players who would go on to become officers in Vietnam rather than stars in the NBA. He made less money in his first year at Army than he now collects for one motivational speech, but, god, how he loved coaching at the Point. He remembers the thrill of being interviewed for the first time by Howard Cosell, who was impressed when this brash kid called him "sir."
Yeah, those were the days, all right. After practice at West Point, he would stop by his favorite deli for a sandwich and a milk shake and then head down the thru-way to the Garden. Sometimes he would go there to scout a team on the Cadets' schedule, and other times he would go just to pick the brain of one coaching legend or another. The old-timers liked the kid, too, because he was one of the few enthralled by the game's history. He remembered them, made them feel important, when so many others had forgotten.
He even had this little ritual with Joe Lapchick, the great old coach from St. John's. Before coming out on the floor, Knight would check out where Lapchick was sitting in the Garden and would be sure to catch his eye. Upon spotting Knight, Lapchick would put a thumb under his chin and push it up. Another legend, Clair Bee, who had earned fame both as the coach at Long Island University and as the author of the Chip Hilton sports books, would give Knight one piece of advice whenever the two met. "He said it was really important for us to play well in the Garden," says Knight, "because he belonged to the generation when the Garden was college basketball."
Too bad Lapchick and Bee and the others weren't around last week to see the Indiana team that Knight brought to the Garden for the Preseason NIT. They missed two swell performances by the fourth-ranked Hoosiers, an 81-78 overtime win over No. 7 Florida State in the semifinals and a 78-74 defeat of No. 6 Seton Hall in the final. Maybe now Knight will take down the posters in the locker room in Bloomington, the ones that remind his players of how poorly they performed at times last season. Maybe he'll even give up his favorite put-down of his players: "You haven't won anything yet." After all, his Hoosiers beat four likely NCAA tournament teams—Tulane and Murray State were the other two—en route to the NIT title. When he left the Garden, Knight was pleased. He was also a bit sad, because the win over Seton Hall had come at the expense of old friends.
The championship was Indiana's first in an early-season tournament since Knight arrived in Bloomington from West Point in 1971. However, winning the NIT wasn't as important to him as how the Hoosiers won. Although last season's team went 27-7 and advanced to the Final Four before losing to eventual NCAA champion Duke, Knight believed that given its talent and potential, it should have done better. After all, when current seniors Calbert Cheaney, Greg Graham and Chris Reynolds and redshirt juniors Pat Graham and Todd Leary arrived in 1989, along with the since-departed Lawrence Funderburke (who's now at Ohio State) and Chris Lawson (Vanderbilt), they were advertised as the college game's latest, greatest recruiting class. But Knight thought this group of players lacked the mental toughness, the arrogance, that always characterized his best teams. In other words, these players were not a reflection of their coach.
"We've got the nicest bunch of kids imaginable," Knight told an IU Varsity Club audience at a luncheon on Nov. 17. "Maybe we need somebody like me playing. We need somebody who isn't quite as nice to everybody as our kids are."
Case in point: After catching 6'9" sophomore Alan Henderson walking down the floor during a scrimmage in early November, Knight made Henderson stand on the sideline while his teammates ran wind sprints, baseline to baseline. Knight didn't want the players to get mad at him but at Henderson. Instead, nobody said anything to Henderson until, finally, Reynolds, instead of getting in Henderson's face, said mildly, "Gee, Alan, we would appreciate it if you would hustle, so the rest of us won't have to pay for it."
The team's best player, Cheaney, has contributed to the Hoosiers' soft image. Most of the time the willowy Cheaney is a scoring machine, filling the nets with feathery lefthanded jumpers from the perimeter or maneuvering inside for tough, body-twisting hoops in the paint. Sometimes, though, Cheaney disappears for stretches, standing around instead of using the intricate picks designed to get him shots in Indiana's motion offense. "Cheaney's going to end his career as the leading scorer in Big Ten history," says Knight, "but if he had worked as hard to get his shots as [former Indiana guard] Steve Alford did, he would have scored a lot more."
After the Hoosiers' win over Florida State on Nov. 25, a game in which Cheaney poured in 34 points, Knight said, "Cheaney scored a lot of points and didn't play a very good basketball game in terms of things like the blockouts he missed and the screens he didn't set." Reynolds readily agreed with Knight's assessment, pointing out that he had had to get on Cheaney's case late in the game. "For us to be good," said Reynolds, "Calbert's got to be more ball-hungry. He's our All-America, and it's no secret that he has to be our horse down the stretch."
Two nights later—after a Thanksgiving Day respite during which the Hoosiers rode the subway, took a bus trip through Greenwich Village with Knight acting as tour guide and attended the Broadway hit Jelly's Last Jam—Cheaney showed a charged-up Garden crowd of 14,338, most of whom were rooting for Seton Hall, what he can do when he's at his best. He torched the Pirates for 36 points and earned tournament MVP honors. "I really think he played a great basketball game tonight—and I use the word great sparingly," said Knight. "He was hard to guard, and he has not always been hard to guard. He moved well, and he didn't just slide outside, relying on his jump shot. Tonight I don't think I could have guarded him."