Bob Knight loves bringing his Indiana teams to New York City to play in Madison Square Garden because it reminds him of a time, the late 1960s, and a place, the U.S. Military Academy, that are special to him. Back then he was a boy-wonder coach at West Point, making do with players who would go on to become officers in Vietnam rather than stars in the NBA. He made less money in his first year at Army than he now collects for one motivational speech, but, god, how he loved coaching at the Point. He remembers the thrill of being interviewed for the first time by Howard Cosell, who was impressed when this brash kid called him "sir."
Yeah, those were the days, all right. After practice at West Point, he would stop by his favorite deli for a sandwich and a milk shake and then head down the thru-way to the Garden. Sometimes he would go there to scout a team on the Cadets' schedule, and other times he would go just to pick the brain of one coaching legend or another. The old-timers liked the kid, too, because he was one of the few enthralled by the game's history. He remembered them, made them feel important, when so many others had forgotten.
He even had this little ritual with Joe Lapchick, the great old coach from St. John's. Before coming out on the floor, Knight would check out where Lapchick was sitting in the Garden and would be sure to catch his eye. Upon spotting Knight, Lapchick would put a thumb under his chin and push it up. Another legend, Clair Bee, who had earned fame both as the coach at Long Island University and as the author of the Chip Hilton sports books, would give Knight one piece of advice whenever the two met. "He said it was really important for us to play well in the Garden," says Knight, "because he belonged to the generation when the Garden was college basketball."
Too bad Lapchick and Bee and the others weren't around last week to see the Indiana team that Knight brought to the Garden for the Preseason NIT. They missed two swell performances by the fourth-ranked Hoosiers, an 81-78 overtime win over No. 7 Florida State in the semifinals and a 78-74 defeat of No. 6 Seton Hall in the final. Maybe now Knight will take down the posters in the locker room in Bloomington, the ones that remind his players of how poorly they performed at times last season. Maybe he'll even give up his favorite put-down of his players: "You haven't won anything yet." After all, his Hoosiers beat four likely NCAA tournament teams—Tulane and Murray State were the other two—en route to the NIT title. When he left the Garden, Knight was pleased. He was also a bit sad, because the win over Seton Hall had come at the expense of old friends.
The championship was Indiana's first in an early-season tournament since Knight arrived in Bloomington from West Point in 1971. However, winning the NIT wasn't as important to him as how the Hoosiers won. Although last season's team went 27-7 and advanced to the Final Four before losing to eventual NCAA champion Duke, Knight believed that given its talent and potential, it should have done better. After all, when current seniors Calbert Cheaney, Greg Graham and Chris Reynolds and redshirt juniors Pat Graham and Todd Leary arrived in 1989, along with the since-departed Lawrence Funderburke (who's now at Ohio State) and Chris Lawson (Vanderbilt), they were advertised as the college game's latest, greatest recruiting class. But Knight thought this group of players lacked the mental toughness, the arrogance, that always characterized his best teams. In other words, these players were not a reflection of their coach.
"We've got the nicest bunch of kids imaginable," Knight told an IU Varsity Club audience at a luncheon on Nov. 17. "Maybe we need somebody like me playing. We need somebody who isn't quite as nice to everybody as our kids are."
Case in point: After catching 6'9" sophomore Alan Henderson walking down the floor during a scrimmage in early November, Knight made Henderson stand on the sideline while his teammates ran wind sprints, baseline to baseline. Knight didn't want the players to get mad at him but at Henderson. Instead, nobody said anything to Henderson until, finally, Reynolds, instead of getting in Henderson's face, said mildly, "Gee, Alan, we would appreciate it if you would hustle, so the rest of us won't have to pay for it."
The team's best player, Cheaney, has contributed to the Hoosiers' soft image. Most of the time the willowy Cheaney is a scoring machine, filling the nets with feathery lefthanded jumpers from the perimeter or maneuvering inside for tough, body-twisting hoops in the paint. Sometimes, though, Cheaney disappears for stretches, standing around instead of using the intricate picks designed to get him shots in Indiana's motion offense. "Cheaney's going to end his career as the leading scorer in Big Ten history," says Knight, "but if he had worked as hard to get his shots as [former Indiana guard] Steve Alford did, he would have scored a lot more."
After the Hoosiers' win over Florida State on Nov. 25, a game in which Cheaney poured in 34 points, Knight said, "Cheaney scored a lot of points and didn't play a very good basketball game in terms of things like the blockouts he missed and the screens he didn't set." Reynolds readily agreed with Knight's assessment, pointing out that he had had to get on Cheaney's case late in the game. "For us to be good," said Reynolds, "Calbert's got to be more ball-hungry. He's our All-America, and it's no secret that he has to be our horse down the stretch."
Two nights later—after a Thanksgiving Day respite during which the Hoosiers rode the subway, took a bus trip through Greenwich Village with Knight acting as tour guide and attended the Broadway hit Jelly's Last Jam—Cheaney showed a charged-up Garden crowd of 14,338, most of whom were rooting for Seton Hall, what he can do when he's at his best. He torched the Pirates for 36 points and earned tournament MVP honors. "I really think he played a great basketball game tonight—and I use the word great sparingly," said Knight. "He was hard to guard, and he has not always been hard to guard. He moved well, and he didn't just slide outside, relying on his jump shot. Tonight I don't think I could have guarded him."
If the Indiana players have been too nice, Knight may be partly to blame. He claims he has not mellowed over the years. But it's true that at 52 he's more patient and tolerant—kinder, even—than he was as a driven young coach. Although Knight refuses to talk publicly about his personal life, his friends say that his second marriage, to Karen Vieth Edgar, a former high school basketball coach in Oklahoma, has had a soothing effect on him. He jokes in public appearances about how tough it is to come home after a loss and be second-guessed by the other coach in the house, but he has enormous respect for Karen's basketball sense. For example, during a meeting with his staff after the Hoosiers' opening-round NIT victory over Murray State, in Blooming-ton on Nov. 18, Knight mentioned that Karen had pointed out to him that the players were moving their feet improperly on defense.
It would be foolish, though, to bet that Knight will never again become involved in the sort of controversies that have marred his career. Just last March, remember, there was a flap over his abrupt cancellation of a team banquet in the wake of a bitter loss to Purdue, and another erupted when a photo was published that showed him standing over Cheaney with a bullwhip that the players had given to him as a joke. That same month Knight demonstrated his odd idea of democracy, when seniors Eric Anderson and Jamal Meeks were forced to surrender their leadership roles to the juniors. "The vote on that was unanimous, one to nothing," says Knight, "and the results in the NCAA tournament were pleasing to those of us who voted for it."
On the other hand, it's also true that he enjoys being one of the game's elder statesmen. For instance, after Indiana beat Florida State in last season's West Regional. Knight suggested to Seminole coach Pat Kennedy that he try a different approach with his defense. Taking Knight at his word, Kennedy, who as a kid had once fetched soft drinks for Knight at a summer camp, came to Bloomington with an assistant coach shortly after practice began in November.
"It was a very gracious offer on his part," says Kennedy of the daylong visit. "After practice we got a chance to sit and talk basketball with him. Then we went to dinner and talked some more basketball. He felt we could be a good man-to-man team. I think that was the point he wanted to get across, having prepared for us and watched our tapes."
Kennedy paid attention so well that Florida State's man-to-man was almost more than the Hoosiers could handle in the NIT. The hero for Indiana was Pat Graham, who came off the bench in the second half to score 14 points. His play brought Indiana back from a 12-point deficit, and by the time Graham went down with an injury late in overtime, the Hoosiers had pulled out the game. Sadly, X-rays revealed that Graham, who had missed all of last season with a broken bone in his left foot, had fractured the same bone, meaning that he's out indefinitely.
As close as Knight has been to Kennedy, the championship game versus Seton Hall was even more personal for him. During his days at Army one of Knight's favorite people was Pete Carlesimo, then the athletic director at Fordham and the head of the NIT, which was at the time a highly regarded postseason tournament. After watching him coach a few games at West Point, Carlesimo was convinced that Knight had the potential to be an extraordinary coach. "At West Point you had to do it the hard way," says Carlesimo now. "He had to do more with less, and he proved he could."
Four of Knight's six Army teams played in the NIT, and one of them finished third. In 1969, when Carlesimo invited the Cadets to the tournament over the objections of committee members who didn't think they were good enough, Carlesimo had the last laugh after Army upset top-seeded South Carolina.
Over the years, Knight has remained loyal to the NIT and his old friends. When the Hoosiers won the postseason NIT in 1979, Knight had Lapchick's widow, Bobbie, with him when he accepted the trophy from Carlesimo. When Carlesimo came up with the idea for the Preseason NIT in 1985, Knight helped him sell it to the NCAA and to his fellow coaches. Knight thought—correctly, as it turned out—that the expansion of the NCAA tournament to 64 teams might ruin the postseason NIT. Heck, the two men are so close that when Carlesimo gave up his job with the NIT in 1988, Knight was the main speaker at the retirement banquet.
Soon after meeting Knight in the mid-'60s, Carlesimo ran into him at a basketball camp in Scranton, Pa., and introduced him to P.J., his teenage son. Knight liked the kid so much that years later he was delighted when P.J. decided to go into coaching. In fact, much as Bee and Lapchick had helped him, Knight helped young Carlesimo. In 1989, when P.J. took Seton Hall to the Final Four, only Pete was prouder of the achievement than Knight, even though the Pirates had eliminated the Hoosiers in the West Regional.
During this year's Preseason NIT final, Pete, now 77, sat eight rows behind the Indiana bench. Asked what it would mean to him to see P.J.'s team win, Pete said, "Well, since the championship trophy is named after me, it would be my greatest thrill. Nothing would mean more to me."
For a while it looked as if Pete might get his wish. Midway through the second half, thanks to a hot streak of three-point shooting by 6'8" junior Arturas Karnishovas, who had earned a bronze medal in Barcelona as a member of the Lithuanian team, Seton Hall took a 54-48 lead. Last season Indiana might have spit out the bit at that point. These Hoosiers fought back, going on a 13-1 tear, during which Cheaney showed so much emotion that Knight once leaped to his feet, urging him on. After that, it was all Indiana.
At the awards ceremony Pete Carlesimo presented the runner-up trophy to his son, who gave him a kiss, and the championship trophy to Knight, who gave him a hug. "I'm disappointed that P.J. and Seton Hall didn't win," said Pete, "but if you have to lose, there's nobody I would rather lose to than Bobby Knight."
Later Knight and P.J. met privately for 10 minutes, mainly so that P.J. could pick Knight's brain concerning what the Pirates must do to improve. On the way out of the Garden, Knight talked about his feelings as he made his way through a crowd of autograph seekers to the team bus. "I love that kid and the job he does," he said, "and I said the same thing after they beat us in '89. But I'm really pleased at this point with our team. This was a great win for the Indiana Hoosiers."
And a great one for Bob Knight, who was told a long lime ago that it's really important to play well in the Garden.