What a setup he has. Forty years old, acknowledged to be at the top of his profession. Says the very coach who disparages Knight for being a bully, "Any coach who says Bobby's not the best is just plain jealous." Knight has already won 317 games, and nobody, not even Adolph Rupp, achieved that by his age.
Someday Knight could even surpass Rupp's record 874 wins, a seemingly insurmountable total. Knight has won one NCAA championship, in 1976, and five Big Ten titles in nine seasons; he was twice national coach of the year; he's the only man ever to both play on and coach an NCAA champion. He's the coach at one of America's great basketball schools, one that's also an academic institution of note. The state worships him; Hoosier politicians vie for his benediction. His contemporaries in coaching not only revere him for his professional gifts, but some of his esteemed predecessors—mythic men of basketball lore—see Knight as the very keeper of the game. The torch is in his hands.
He's also a clever man and delightful company when he chooses to be. Beyond all that he has an exemplary character, without any of the vices of the flesh that so often afflict men in his station and at his time of life. He's devoted to his family, Nancy and their two sons, Timothy, 16, and Patrick, 10. His supporters fall over themselves relating tales of his civic and charitable good works, a light that Knight humbly hides under a basket. In this era of athletic corruption Knight stands four-square for the values of higher education that so many coaches and boot-lickers in the NCAA only pay lip service to. His loyalty is as unquestioned as his integrity. He is the best and brightest...and the most honorable, too. He has it all, every bit of it. Just lying there on the table. He has only to lean down, pick it up and let the chip fall off. But he can't. For Knight to succeed at basketball—not only to win, you understand, but to succeed because "That's much harder," he says—all the world must be in the game. All the people are players, for or against, to be scouted, tested, broken down, built back up if they matter. Life isn't lived; it's played. And the rabbits are everywhere.
Perhaps the most revealing statement that Knight makes about himself is this: "You know why Havlicek became such a great pro? Just because he wanted to beat Lucas, that's why." Yes, of course, Knight hasn't even mentioned himself, but that's the trick. Obviously, if only subconsciously, he's not really talking about John Havlicek superseding Lucas; he's talking about himself superseding Havlicek and Lucas both.
The best thing that ever happened to Knight was that after high school—he's still the greatest star ever to come out of Orrville, Ohio—he didn't amount to a hill of beans as a player. Knight the failed hero has not only served as the challenge for Knight the coach, but also Knight the disappointed hero is the model for the Everyplayer Knight coaches. That boy was limited, self-centered, frustrated, a pouter, then a bitcher, ultimately a back-biter against his coach, Fred Taylor, who once called Knight "the Brat from Orrville."
The one thing Knight could do was shoot, a strange low-trajectory shot that was deadly against zones when he had the time to get it off. To this day, no Knight team has ever set up in a zone defense. It's like Groucho Marx, who once said he didn't want to be part of any club that would have him as a member.
Although Knight only started two games in three years on the Buckeye varsity, he was a major figure on the team, something of a clubhouse lawyer and a practical joker (which he still is). Dragon and a roommate led the Buckeyes in hustling tickets, and he stunned his wide-eyed teammates with his brash high jinks. On a trip to New York he boldly swiped a couple of bottles of wine from Mamma Leone's restaurant, and not only pilfered a few ties from a midtown shop, but with the contraband under his coat, he went over to a cop who entered the store at that moment and started chatting him up.
There is little Knight's players can put over on him because he did just about all of it himself. Taylor wasn't the only coach Knight challenged, either. In his senior year at Orrville, he defied the school's new coach by refusing to leave a game for a substitute and was booted off the squad. Although subsequently reinstated, he found that season so unsatisfying that he gave up his baseball eligibility to barnstorm with an all-star basketball team in the spring. "I regret that more than anything I've ever done," he says, because he could hit a baseball and hit with power. Knight probably would've been better at baseball than he was at basketball.
Knight was also a pretty fair football end, and as he should've been a baseball player, so, by temperament, he would have made a better football coach. Wilkinson, Bryant, Hayes, Schembechler, Paterno and Royal are all friends and/or models of his, and he has a tape of Lombardi exhortations, plus a Lombardi polemic hanging on his office wall. And, like football coaches, Knight devotes himself to studying film, back and forth, over and over, like some Buddhist monk with his prayer wheel.