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.
July 22, 1979
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 cèlèbre—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 7'3¾" 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."
Knight's behavior in San Juan didn't seem to bother the majority of the fans back home in Indiana. Reacting in much the same way many Ohio State backers did after Hayes punched a Clemson player in the Gator Bowl, Hoosiers gave Knight ample support. The Indianapolis News asked in its Page One forum, "Sound Off": "Do you approve of Bobby Knight's conduct during the Pan-Am Games?" The vote in response, published July 11, was affirmative, 279-161.
A sampling of the pro-Knight comments: "[He] is a super coach with guts.... The story has been blown out of proportion.... There aren't many people like Knight who aren't afraid to stand up and be counted.... It's American to raise Cain."
The anti-Knight forces countered with: "As a coach, he sets a poor example of sportsmanship.... This is a perfect example of Bobby Knight pushing the what-price-victory syndrome.... Bobby should learn to control his temper.... Will the man ever grow up?"
Bill Armstrong, president of the Indiana University Foundation, came to Knight's defense and began contacting Indiana politicos, including U.S. Senators Birch Bayh and Richard G. Lugar. Said Armstrong, "I felt we should get people on this side of the Caribbean working for him...." Meanwhile, Ralph Floyd, director of athletics at IU, issued a statement in which he expressed his "complete support of Coach Knight."
None of Knight's previous difficulties compares with the latest, which made him the focal point of the entire Pan-Am Games and caused the U.S. Olympic Committee and Indiana University great embarrassment, public manifestations of support notwithstanding. Dave Gavitt, the former coach and now athletic director at Providence, is slated to coach next year's Olympic team, and the chances of Knight, who was being considered for the job in 1984, now are somewhere between slim and none.
Knight's legal trouble began on Sunday, July 8, while the U.S. team was finishing a 10 a.m. practice at Espiritu Santo High School outside San Juan. According to Knight, 15 minutes before the Americans' allotted time was up the Brazilian women's team entered the gym for its 11 o'clock practice and "caused a great commotion." Knight's assistant, Mike Krzyzewski, asked patrolman Jose D. Silva, 33, who was guarding the gym entrance, why the Brazilians were allowed in early. According to Krzyzewski, Silva said in English, "Hey, man, when you're in Puerto Rico you do as I say."
Knight, meanwhile, said loudly to the Brazilians, "Hey, we have the gym until 11. If you're not gonna be quiet, you've got to get the hell out of here."
According to Krzyzewski, Silva said, "I say that they stay." The police officer and Knight then got into a nose-to-nose argument that soon heated up. Most of the American players and Krzyzewski saw Silva shaking a finger in Knight's face. Says Knight, "On the third or fourth motion, he whacked me in the eye. My left hand came up in a purely reflexive action to push him away, with the heel of my hand under his chin. At that point the policeman shouted, 'This isn't the United States. This is Puerto Rico. You hit a policeman. You're under arrest.' "
Silva took Knight to a parking lot outside the gym and, according to Knight, removed his uniform hat and took a nightstick from an unmarked car. In the presence of Fred Taylor, Knight's former coach at Ohio State, who was acting as the U.S. team manager, Silva touched Knight's nose with the nightstick several times. According to Knight, Silva said, "Goddam you, brother, this is what I'd like to use on you. You want me to use this on you, don't you?"
Silva then handcuffed Knight and took him to a police station in Hato Rey. Once there, Knight says, he was never informed of the charges but taken directly to a cell and locked in for about 10 minutes. Later, after a discussion between USOC Executive Director F. Don Miller and police officials, Knight was told no charges would be pressed and he was released.
Although the police had dropped the matter, on Monday, July 9, Silva filed assault charges in San Juan District Court and Knight counterfiled. At a preliminary hearing on Wednesday, Judge Rafael Riefkhol stunned the mainland contingent when he ordered Knight to stand trial for aggravated assault, while throwing Knight's countercharges out. According to Silva's spokesman, Angel David Gonzalez, president of the Police Members Association of Puerto Rico, Silva never touched Knight before placing him under arrest, though Knight's right eye was visibly reddened. A U.S. team official who was present at the hearing reported that Silva testified that Knight called the Brazilian women "whores" and called Silva a "nigger."
"It's really unbelievable," says Krzyzewski, who has been head basketball coach at the U.S. Military Academy for the past four years. "The out-and-out lies that are being told. It's like my standing here and saying that my name is not Mike Krzyzewski, that it's Fred Taylor."
Knight's next appearance in court was scheduled for Friday morning. A game with the undefeated Puerto Rican basketball team was scheduled for Friday night. On Thursday afternoon, the U.S. played its best game of the tournament, thrashing Brazil 106-88. After the game, Romero Barcelo visited the U.S. team.
"I wanted to make sure the players understood that there isn't any resentment," said the Governor, who is a strong advocate of statehood for Puerto Rico. "We are proud to be American citizens. We just happen to have a separate sports autonomy." On the Knight matter, he said, "There is nothing I can do. It is in the hands of the courts, just like in any other state in the Union."
But according to Gonzalez of the policemen's association, Romero Barcelo, after talking with Representative John T. Myers (R., Ind.) and USOC President Robert Kane, exerted pressure on Silva to get him to drop his case against Knight. Thus far Silva has remained firm in his resolve to have Knight go on trial.
It was a bizarre scene, indeed, on Friday morning in Room 607 of the District Court. Knight sat expressionless, his arms tightly folded, wearing his coaching uniform—blue sport shirt and checkered slacks—a translator whispering into his right ear as his Puerto Rican attorney, Luis F. Gonzalez Correa, asked in Spanish for a postponement. Gonzalez Correa lamely joked, "It is the responsibility of all of us to be prepared for tonight's game, which Puerto Rico is going to win." The trial was postponed until Aug. 22, and Knight left, dazed and silent.
The Roberto Clemente Coliseum was packed beyond possibility for the championship game, an estimated 13,000 in a building with 9,600 seats. Captain Carlos Bermudez, carrying a giant Puerto Rican flag, led the Puerto Rican team onto the floor, and at least 1,000 tiny ones fluttered all over the Coliseum in response. Knight was booed viciously, but he showed no emotion.
Puerto Rico's fine perimeter shooters, Georgie Torres and Nestor Cora, and bruising Center Ruben Rodriguez, all with New York basketball backgrounds, kept the islanders even with the Americans for the first 10 minutes. Then the U.S. team, led by Thomas, O'Koren, Michael Brooks of LaSalle, Center Kevin McHale of Minnesota and Guard Ronnie Lester of Iowa, started running and opened up a 15-point halftime lead. Puerto Rico cut the advantage to three midway through the second half. Then Thomas, who finished with 21 points, began a sensational solo act, with three baskets, two assists and a blocked shot in four minutes to give the U.S. a 10-point lead that would grow steadily until the end. Brooks, a powerful 6'7", 221-pound senior, scored 27, while Woodson, the team's leading scorer, overcame early foul trouble to finish with 23.
As the clock ran down, Knight broke into his first public smile in 14 days. Knight's smile turned to tears as his players hoisted him onto their shoulders. As the crowd's polite cheers turned into boos, Knight began thrusting his right index finger into the air with violent exuberance. Very suddenly, the frustrations of the fortnight began spilling out.
While the players lined up to receive their medals, Knight stood in a corner of the crowded court, absorbing the continuing jeers and taunts directed at him. With several American reporters around him, Knight said, "——'em.——'em all. I'll tell you what. Their basketball is a hell of a lot easier to beat than their court system. The only——thing they know how to do is grow bananas."
To Mike Moran, the USOC's assistant communications director, he said, "Get all the press together. I want to tell them that. Just the Americans. Don't let any Puerto Ricans in." A reporter who Knight thought was Puerto Rican began writing down Knight's comments. Knight leaped at him. "You'd better not write that," he screamed. "That was a private conversation. I have some rights. Somewhere in this world I have some rights."
As he continued talking and cursing, there was a salvo of boos. Knight immediately went to receive his medal. He knew his name had been called even though he did not hear it. When The Star-Spangled Banner was being played, Knight again raised his right index finger in the air. A moment later a Hispanic photographer nudged Knight's 8-year-old son, Patrick, out of his sight line so he could photograph the coach. Knight stuck a menacing finger in the photographer's face. "Don't you push my son!" he yelled. "I'll tell you that only once!"
It went on like this for three-quarters of an hour. Krzyzewski and others stood by helplessly as Knight insulted Puerto Rico and intimidated reporters. "I didn't have any friends in Puerto Rico when I came here," he said, "so I don't have any fewer when I leave."
Genaro Marchand, Puerto Rico's delegate to the International Amateur Basketball Federation, heard that remark and the next one, which Knight directed at him: "You were supposed to help us."
"We tried," said Marchand, "but you have no respect for anybody."
"I have respect for people who respect me," said Knight.
"You do not deserve respect," said Marchand. "You treat us like dirt. You have said nothing but bad things since you got here. You are an embarrassment to America, our country."
Knight stalked out.
"You are an ugly American!" Marchand shouted after him.
Knight did not look back.
At least the players were happy. For Michael Brooks, Sam Clancy, John Duren, Ronnie Lester, Kyle Macy, Kevin McHale, Mike O'Koren, Ralph Sampson, Isiah Thomas, Ray Tolbert, Danny Vranes and Mike Woodson, the path through the Pan-Am Games ended with sparkling gold.
For Bobby Knight, it was a course of a different color.