The VIII Pan-American Games were of unprecedented size and splendor—and, for the United States, humiliation. Oh, we won the most medals; we always do. U.S. track athletes were magnificent, the boxers astonishing, the young basketball players marvelous. But the triumphs were stained by the gross incivility of the basketball coach, a reminder that the American the hemisphere despises—arrogant and insensitive—is by no means extinct.
Nancy Knight thought she was going to Puerto Rico for a nice vacation while her husband Bobby did a little business, coaching the U.S. basketball team in the Pan-American Games. What she got instead was a nightmare.
It took Nancy only 24 hours after the Games began on July 2 to reach her limit of tolerance. "I can't stand it," she said. "Everywhere I go I hear 'the volatile Bobby Knight' or 'the controversial Bobby Knight.' It sounds just like home."
At the time, Knight had merely been ejected from his team's very first game with the U.S. leading the Virgin Islands by 35 points, and he had been sternly reprimanded and threatened with expulsion by the International Amateur Basketball Federation for arguing with officials. By the time the tournament ended with the U.S. beating Puerto Rico 113-94 for the gold medal on Friday the 13th, Knight had been arrested, handcuffed, locked up briefly and ordered to stand trial on Aug. 22 for allegedly striking a Puerto Rican police officer. And after that championship game, when the miseries and frustrations that had roiled inside him for the full two weeks exploded in an uncontrollable confusion of nationalism and the ugliest kind of anti- Puerto Rican babble, Knight caused what would have been a serious international political incident had Puerto Rico been another country.
But, as almost everyone in San Juan from Governor Carlos Romero Barcelo to the cashier at the local Burger King kept reminding the Americans in San Juan, they were home, because Puerto Rico, as a commonwealth, is a self-governing part of the U.S. and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. To be sure, because of linguistic and cultural differences, many mainlanders do not regard the islanders as American as, say, folks from Bloomington, Ind., the home of Indiana University, Knight's permanent place of employment.
As it was, Knight's behavior eclipsed the brilliant play of the U.S. team, which many thought to be too young and too small to go undefeated in nine games as it did, winning each by an average of 21.2 points. The players—average age, 20—accomplished this despite practices canceled because Knight was in court or because they were giving depositions as witnesses to the alleged assault, and because they were preoccupied dodging endless questions from the press. There were also several occasions when Knight violently berated players in games, such as when 18-year-old Isiah Thomas, a talented guard who will join Knight at Indiana this fall, missed a dunk shot with the U.S. leading Brazil by 14 points. And what ordinarily would have been a cause c�l�bre—Guard Kyle Macy having his jaw fractured by an intentional punch by Tomas Herrera, a guard on the Cuban team—went almost unnoticed amid the turmoil surrounding Knight.
"This is not what I'd call a very joyous international competition," said Co-captain Mike O'Koren of North Carolina. "A lot of bad things have happened. We've worked very hard and we're tired. We hope Coach Knight comes out of this all right, but as players, we came here to win the gold."
The team had been together for more than 50 days, and before coming to Puerto Rico it played in a tournament in Italy and worked out twice a day—once three times in one day—for two weeks in Bloomington. "It's not a question of whether we like Coach Knight or not," O'Koren said. "We heard all the stories about him and came out for the team anyway, because we wanted to represent the U.S. We knew he was demanding and strict, but he wins. We've talked among ourselves quite a bit, and we decided that he's just different from everyone else's coach."
One player who did not know what to expect was 19-year-old Ralph Sampson, Virginia's highly prized 7'3�" recruit from Harrisonburg, Va., who got little court time in San Juan. "I thought I would be loving it," he said, "but everybody's hating it. When we got here everybody was all worn out from practicing in Indiana. There's nothing but work. I don't even know if I can play. My weight's down below 200 pounds. I got no strength."
In his nine seasons at Indiana, Knight has earned a reputation as basketball's version of football's Woody Hayes, who was finally fired for his unseemly behavior last winter by Ohio State, which also happens to be Knight's alma mater. Like Hayes, Knight is practically a god in his home state, but he has many critics, too. Those critics vividly recall a photograph of him yanking one of his players off the floor by his jersey, and the now-commonplace episodes of his ranting at players and officials. At least 13 of Knight's players have left Indiana for various reasons at different stages of their careers, including last year's College Player of the Year, Larry Bird, who, as a freshman, departed for Indiana State, saying he preferred a smaller school. Most simply disliked Knight's strict regimen, which, in the words of one of the Pan-Am team players, "makes Parris Island look like Romper Room."