On The Brink
November 24, 1985, was no different from any other day in Bloomington, Ind., 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 of Indiana's Assembly Hall 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 that was certain was that no one could live through another season like the last one.
Bob Knight knew this better than anyone. The 1984-85 season had been the most painful he had lived through in 20 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 gold medal. And yet, because of the Soviet boycott, Knight could not feel, even in his greatest moment, complete satisfaction.
He had returned to Indiana and had experienced his worst season in 14 years there. He benched starters, threw his leading rebounder off the team and generally acted like a man who was burned out. 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 45, Knight was starting over. Not from scratch, but not that far from it. He knew he had to change. He knew he could not lash out at his team every time it failed. He surely knew 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. 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 were legendary and frightening.
Knight had come to practice 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, however, 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 past. His players 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 6'7" 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 someday.
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. He 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 could all but destroy 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, Knight 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. That was what frightened Knight-yes, frightened him—about this team. 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.