"Coaching kids isn't easy, but it's interesting," said Bob Knight last week during a hiatus between his daily passions of hunting quail and coaching his infant Indiana basketball team. "I really haven't been too hard on the freshmen about their mistakes, but there comes a time when you have to say, 'No, dammit! That is not O.K.' "
On the afternoon of Dec. 14, Knight reached the point of not O.K. with Lawrence Funderburke, the most dazzling of his seven magnificent freshmen. He kicked Funderburke, a 6'8" forward, out of practice five days after Funderburke had played his best game, scoring 26 points against Long Beach State. Before resuming the workout, Knight instructed one of his assistants, Joby Wright, to "tell Lawrence to get out of here and go eat by himself. I want to enjoy at least 10 minutes of this practice."
Though Funderburke, a standout at Wehrle High in Columbus, Ohio, was averaging 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds a game, and though Knight had complimented his play and attitude, the incident triggered a chain of events that saw Funderburke quit the Hoosiers and drop out of school, Knight refuse to grant Funderburke an unconditional release from his letter of intent and a Columbus, Ohio, lawyer named William Fleck threaten to sue Indiana on Funderburke's behalf.
For nearly a month Funderburke was in deeper seclusion than Manuel Noriega—"in steady hiding," according to Fleck—but last week he emerged to tell The Indiana Daily Student that he left Indiana because he felt "restrained" in Knight's highly disciplined offense. He then told a Columbus TV station that he had wanted to attend Kentucky "since I was a sophomore in high school." And in an interview with SI, he charged Wright with "physical abuse" and said that Knight "was preventing me from transferring to the school of my choice." That school appears to be Kentucky, although whether the NCAA would allow him to play there is questionable.
Fleck says he has sent a letter to Indiana asking that Funderburke be given an immediate, unconditional release from his national letter of intent, which a student signs when he agrees to accept an athletic scholarship from an NCAA school. Among other things, it binds the athlete to the school for one academic year. If the athlete chooses to leave the school before that year is up, he loses one season of eligibility—provided that he is granted a release by his first school. If such a release is not granted, he loses two seasons of eligibility.
If Funderburke does not get a release from Indiana, Fleck says he is prepared to take the dispute to court, the result of which could be a landmark case determining the legality of letters of intent.
"Should Knight have veto power over where this kid can go to school?" says Fleck. "We say no way. Lawrence is no druggie, no alkie, no runaround criminal. He's just made some bad career decisions. Success with this suit may be problematical, but why would Indiana want to go through with it? Why not just let Lawrence go free? Equity is on our side. What Knight has done is wrong."
What Knight has done is offer Funderburke a compromise—something between a full release and no release. "I don't have to do anything for the kid," says Knight. "When he came in asking about a transfer, all that was mentioned was Missouri. I have no problem with him going to Missouri." In effect, Knight is saying that if Funderburke transfers to a school Knight approves of—say, Missouri—he'll give him a release, but if Funderburke chooses one Knight objects to—say, Kentucky—then no release will be forthcoming.
Funderburke is not the first Indiana player to find life in Bloomington unbearable. Knight's transplanted Hoosiers make up an honored roll call. Bob Bender, the new coach at Illinois State, left Indiana in 1976 to enroll at Duke. Mike Giomi went to North Carolina State in 1985, and Delray Brooks went to Providence in 1986. Two members of Knight's 1986-87 NCAA championship squad, Rick Calloway and Dave Minor, are completing their careers at Kansas and Xavier, respectively. The best-known Hoosier transfer split even earlier in his freshman year than Funderburke did. Flew out of Bloomington in 1974 like a Bird, in fact. His first name was Larry. Knight granted all of those players releases.
The difference with Funderburke? "Tampering," says Knight. "This kid has been tampered with since last spring."
Funderburke made an oral commitment to Indiana in January 1989, after word got out that his relationship with a Kentucky fan named Bill Chupil was one reason that the NCAA was investigating the Wildcats. "When the NCAA stuff was going on, Kentucky stopped recruiting me," says Funderburke. "I heard the NCAA disallowed me to go there." According to Chuck Smrt, a director of enforcement at the NCAA, Kentucky, which was ultimately put on probation for recruiting and academic infractions, would have to go through an appeals process if it had any interest in Funderburke, because a player linked to recruiting violations is permanently ineligible at that school.
By May, Funderburke still hadn't signed with Indiana. After Wright and another Hoosier assistant, Ron Felling, traveled to Louisville to watch Funderburke play in an all-star game—and deliver the letter of intent that may be the focal point of the lawsuit—they were turned in for breaking a new NCAA rule, prohibiting visits to prospects at all-star sites. The NCAA decided not to penalize either Indiana or Funderburke, but Knight was nonetheless furious. He maintains that Indiana was reported to the NCAA by Eddie Ford, who helps organize schoolboy summer all-star games in Kentucky and is the father of Travis Ford, a close friend of Funderburke's and now a freshman reserve at Missouri. Eddie calls Knight's charge "100 percent false."
Knight believes Eddie is a big reason that Funderburke wants to transfer to Kentucky. "Tampering? How can it be tampering if I'm a friend of Lawrence's?" says Ford. "He's like a son to me. Indiana's been the wrong program for him from the start, but I don't have any ulterior motives. My concern is for Lawrence and where he'll be comfortable. Everybody in the country is after the kid. I know Vegas has called Knight. Tennessee wants him. Louisville has done everything in the world to get him. [Kentucky athletic director] CM. Newton's saying Kentucky has no interest is a smoke screen. [Wildcat coachj Rick Pitino would love to have Lawrence. Y'all get your money right, and I'll give you a great story. Naw, just joking."
Much of Funderburke's life has been anything but a laughing matter. His father left home before Lawrence got to know him; his mother, Laura, is something of a recluse whom college recruiters never saw. They only talked to her on the phone. Says one college coach. "None of us ever got a home visit. It was obvious Lawrence was embarrassed with his home life."
Wehrle High coach Chuck Kemper kicked Funderburke off the team seven games into his senior season for missing practices and a curfew. Still, Funderburke was considered one of the top five prospects in the land. "Self-centered," says Kemper about Funderburke. "Lawrence thinks the world revolves around him."
Which made it so stunning when Funderburke chose to play for Knight. He said he needed Knight's discipline. "Maybe his problems aren't his own doing," said Knight shortly after Funderburke finally signed with Indiana at the end of May. "I like the kid, where he's coming from, what he's about. There's something there that's really worth working with."
But even before the start of the season, there was much speculation on how long Funderburke would last in Bloomington. Even Knight's son, Tim, was skeptical. Over the summer Tim, 26, helped direct an AAU team featuring Funderburke and the rest of Indiana's incoming freshmen. Funderburke made a questionable impression when he refused to sit with the other players at meals.
"Enjoy Lawrence in November," Tim told his father on a fishing trip. "You won't see him after December."
As Knight terrorizes each new class of Hoosiers, they become not so much a close fraternity as a platoon under fire, blood-bonded. "But Lawrence never got along," says a man who is close to the troops. "I've never seen an Indiana player so disliked by his teammates."
Not too long ago, Todd Leary, a freshman guard at Indiana, asked a friend how hard he thought Funderburke played in games. The friend said about 75%. Leary said, "Divide that by three, and you've got his practices."
And so, the inevitable. "It was diminishing returns," says Knight. "Either the kid changed, or I would have had to get rid of him. But he left on his own."
Actually, it may have been Wright's actions on Dec. 14 that guaranteed Funderburke's departure. "I could take all Coach Knight's yelling," says Funderburke. "But when I was packing my stuff back at my apartment to leave, Coach Wright came up the stairs and said he wasn't going to let me go. He was pushing me and stuff. He abused me. I'm not saying my life was in jeopardy, but he pushed me back on my couch. Then he told my mother he didn't do it. He lied. Why would I stay at Indiana after that? For that alone, the school should give me a complete release."
When asked about his meeting with Funderburke, Wright at first denied any physical contact. "Boy, oh boy, this is amazing," he said. "Hey, I didn't put him in no headlock. I'm six-seven, 245—I could hurt this kid. I didn't do that. But, yeah, I did grab him by the arm and put him on the chair. I cared about him. I wanted to talk to him face-to-face. I'm just so screwed up over this kid."
"Do we miss Lawrence?" says sophomore center Eric Anderson. "Yeah, we miss him—when I get in foul trouble."
But even as Knight's young Hoosiers basked in the glow of a 20-point rally to defeat Michigan 69-67 on Jan. 8 before following that up with an 81-79 OT loss to Purdue last Saturday, the freshmen who remain at Indiana were somewhat overshadowed by the one who didn't. "I'm finished talking about Lawrence Funderburke," says Knight. "I don't want to hear his name anymore."
Granting Funderburke his release might be the best way, and maybe the only way, Knight can achieve that in a season that is getting more interesting—but not any easier—for him every day.