Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Mike Lopresti: Knight's sudden exit is baffling

February 5, 2008
Indianapolis Star

Indiana coach Bobby Knight (left) and team members Scott May (center) and Quinn Buckner, are all smiles as they hold the trophy for winning the NCAA Basketball championship in Philadelphia in this March 30, 1976 file photo.

So this is where it ends for Bob Knight, quietly and in the dead of winter, two days before a game against Baylor.

We looked around and he was gone, carrying away a legacy that had so much to admire, so many feats to applaud, and yet so many storms that did not need to be.

This is not the exit most would have expected. There had always been something of a Big Bang Theory about Knight. He would one day pull a Woody Hayes, the thinking went, and explode into an aerial fireworks display.

Or, he might have one more display of his enormous coaching aptitude. Something magnificent at the end, on the other side of the 900-victory mountain, where no other man has gone. Maybe a last trip to the Final Four, which is Fantasyland for a place such as Texas Tech. Then he could ride into the sunset, thanking his friends and cursing his critics, and turn the team over to his son.
But he's fooled us again. Knight did nearly everything his way, from vocation to vocabulary, and that damn sure was going to include his farewell.

Early reports suggest he is tired. Maybe the sport that has driven him all his life is no longer fun. He is not a young man anymore. There is some age in the ferocious glare that could melt a fire hydrant.

Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight celebrates the National Championship in 1987 with Steve Alford (left) and sons Pat and Tim (right).

What did it take -- 1,273 games -- for that to happen? Or probably more to the point, 371 defeats. Knight always seemed one of those men who hated losing more than he liked winning. Lots of great coaches are in that club.

Whatever the reason for his goodbye, he is and will forever remain a human Rorschach test. Look at the ink blotches of Bob Knight, and what do you see?

The undeniable coaching genius, which could reduce basketball to its very essence and teach it like a Nobel professor?

Or the blustery temper that too often turned molehills into conflict, when all he needed to do was be as clear-thinking and anticipatory as he demanded his players be?

The coach of unquestioned integrity who never came within the same time zone of an NCAA violation?

Or the inflexible autocrat who could shatter a rule of decorum?

Do you see the three-time national champion who made Indiana a perennial force in the Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament?

Or the coach of fading magic in his later years?

Contradictions and dilemma will forever be part of the package. It could have been different, but it's highly doubtful he would have wanted it any other way.

I'd like to take maybe 10 moments in Knight's career and give him a do-over.

One would be the 1984 Olympics. He did a great job coaching the U.S. team to a gold medal, but he was sometimes the same public relations disaster he could be in Bloomington. Only this time, he was not coaching his team. He was coaching my team, and your team.

I remember one news conference when an international reporter tried to put a question to him, and botched the English badly. Anybody who has traveled to another country and tried to communicate would understand. Knight shredded and belittled the poor fellow.

I love the game of basketball and will forever recognize Knight's ability at coaching it. To watch him put together a team seemed something like watching Monet paint a picture. But at that moment in Los Angeles, the thought occurred that he would never be a legend without conditions.

His greatness came with winces and shudders. But it ended Monday. He was ready. What the outside world thinks doesn't matter. It never has.

Mike Lopresti writes for Gannett News Service.

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