When Knight's former players gather they always tell war stories. One night during the fall Steve Green, who had been part of Knight's first recruiting class at Indiana and a captain on the 31-1 1975 team, told about a game in which he made a huge mistake. "I came out of the game for a rest and I sat down next to Coach," he said. "Bad move. The next thing I know, the guys on the floor screw up a couple times and he starts yelling at me, 'Green, how can you let those sons of bitches play like that? What the hell kind of example are you setting? What kind of leader are you anyway?' "
Hearing Green tell this story, Dakich laughed. "Last year, when I was the captain, whenever we started playing badly he would say to me, 'Goddammit, Dakich, what kind of leader are you? Do you think Steve Green would ever allow his team to play that way? He'd have kicked somebody's ass by now!' "
Players learn to accept the fact that for four years they will be terrible basketball players most of the time. Ted Kit-chel, who graduated in 1983, sums it up best. "I played on [imitating Knight's voice] 'the four worst——teams in the history of Indiana basketball. The worst.' We won three Big Ten championships and the national championship in 1981. But believe me, we were 'the worst.' "
Knight picks out targets on each season's team. Usually it is a player he knows can handle the abuse, and it is almost always a very good player. Kitchel had been a major target, with his teammate, Randy Wittman, not far behind. During the 1985-86 season, Alford would be Public Enemy No. 1. More than one videotape session became The Steve Alford Show. And whenever Knight felt the need to let Alford know what a terrible leader he was, he used Kitchel and Wittman as examples of the kind of leader he wanted.
Alford is bright enough to understand his coach. Yet their relationship is tempestuous, to say the least. One reason for that is Alford's unique standing among Indiana basketball fans. He is the perfect boy-next-door. He is small by basketball standards, and he is baby-faced. He is neatly dressed, always polite and a resolute churchgoer. He is also white; in most parts of the state that fact alone makes him special. Alford had lived the American dream and, even more than that, the Indiana dream: Mr. Basketball; starter at IU as a freshman; Olympic team hero.
After the Olympics, Alford hadn't had a great sophomore year. He was better than the team but not as good as he could have been. Knight harped constantly on his poor defense and told him again and again that he wasn't working hard enough. "Hell," Knight would say, "the kid's 18 years old and he's got an Olympic gold medal. Julius Erving doesn't have an Olympic gold medal."
For Alford to get better as a player, Knight believed, he had to do everything Knight told him without hesitation. Alford had questioned the coach in his sophomore season; not openly but by his actions. Knight doesn't accept questioning from his players on any level. He didn't want Alford to take anything for granted as a junior. Before the season Knight took Alford aside and told him that the five best defensive players would start, period. "And you, Steve, are not one of those five players right now."
Did Alford think Knight was serious or just playing a mind game? "I was convinced," Alford said, "that he had never been more serious in his life."
Alford, of course, did start, but he could do little right. He was shooting superbly and consistently, but Knight wanted more. He wanted defense. He wanted better vision on offense. He wanted better passes. He wanted Alford to take a charge. And to take charge. Twice, during the first 10 days of practice, Knight threw Alford out of the gym. Knight throwing a player out of practice, especially in preseason, is not uncommon. But there was a lot of tension between Knight and Alford.
When an Indiana player is thrown out of practice he is supposed to go to the locker room and wait. He may be called back, or Knight may come in to add some comments to what he has already said, or the player may just sit there until the rest of the team arrives. On the occasion of Alford's second expulsion, though, he didn't wait. Shortly after he left the floor, Knight sent a manager in to get him. The manager reported back that there was no sign of Alford, only his practice clothes piled in a heap in front of his locker.