He chews gum so hard the muscles on both sides of his forehead expand and contract violently. He reaches again and again into his file cabinet to produce a news clipping or parable reprinted on LSU stationery to prove a point. He talks endlessly, dramatically, leaping up to relive moments, changing voices to act out characters, altering cadence and volume like a radio evangelist, ricocheting from one thought to the next in midsentence, evoking incidents and emotions from his past with the clarity of a man who has lived with his flesh ripped back and his raw tissue exposed. "I can still feel it," he keeps repeating. "But why do I talk so much? You'd think I was a Vietnam POW trying to make up for 7½ years of silence."
The moment an idea pops in his mind, he reaches for the phone and pounds out the numbers—his model is hammertone, not Touch-Tone. Nothing in his life can ferment—it has to be acted on now. He once awakened an LSU assistant sports information director at 3 a.m. to inform him that the team had hit buzzer shots in three of its last four games, and Tom Moran at 4 a.m. to tell him what a nice friend he was.
He yawns. Could he be tired?
"No, that's a sign of relaxation. I don't need much sleep." Could he be hungry?
"No, I haven't touched one bit of food today. I don't need to eat much."
The thought of needing something—food, water or 7-foot 17-year-olds—disturbs him. He once went 4½ days without eating or drinking, and on occasion goes three days without sleep. He had to prove a point. The first day of practice each year, he talks to his players about winning the NCAA title. When he wanted to start exercising regularly, he made a bet with his assistant coach that he would do it 365 straight days. That meant running during a midnight sleet storm in Reykjavik, Iceland and getting sick for a week—but he proved his point. "And starting Monday," he blurts to his visitor, "I will run a minimum of one timed mile a day for a year. If I don't, on my honor, I will send you a $1,000 check. In sickness, injury, travel, bad weather, busy-ness, I will do it. You know what, it isn't even a challenge. I know I'll do it."
For years he never could figure out how to draw a star. Now, as he talks, he doodles them by the hundreds—just to prove five points.
His whole life had become a crusade. For his vacation in 1982, he tried to climb the Matterhorn but had to turn back at 11,000 feet when conditions became too hazardous. A year earlier he and friends tried to set the world speed record, via powerboat, from one end of the Mississippi to the other. Next, he is considering a search for Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey, and a crossing of the Arctic by dogsled to plant an LSU flag on the North Pole. His photo albums are filled with snapshots of him—on camelback, on mountainsides, in front of palaces—with his index finger or both fists raised.
In the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, he talked to Dick Gregory about offering himself, Gregory and Muhammad Ali in exchange for the hostages. He tried to organize a World Final Four to feed Ethiopians.
I'll show you and I'll help you had become so ravenous no 30-game season could fulfill them. And now there were moments when he could sense the trap his life had become. He needed to leave basketball; he saw that it summoned the darkest side of him. And yet he hadn't reached the mountain-top, planted the flag and raised his fists.