Indiana coach Bob Knight had every reason in the world to try to get his mind off his work before last Saturday's showdown with No. 1 Kentucky in the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome. Coming off a 75-71 season-opening loss to Butler, the 21st-ranked Hoosiers were looking at the very real possibility of their first 0-2 start since 1978-79, one of the rare seasons in which a Knight team failed to make the NCAA tournament field. After supervising a quick workout at the dome, Knight sent his players back to the hotel to pore over Kentucky tapes and scouting reports while he took his assistants and a few friends to dinner at Pa & Ma's Bar-B-Que, a small greasy-spoon diner deep in Indianapolis's inner city. Knight loves to cat ribs and on this night did so with such fervor that he barely made mention of the impending showdown with the Wildcats.
But when he got back to his hotel suite, he tortured himself by watching a film of the first 10 minutes of the Butler game. Using a pencil light to follow certain players, Knight pointed out several glaring examples of his team's lack of effort against the Bulldogs. One of the principal offenders was 6'9" junior forward Alan Henderson, who did an excellent impersonation of a zombie. "Watch Henderson now," Knight said, "because you're not going to see him tomorrow."
Almost as guilty was 6'3" senior swingman Damon Bailey, the state's folk hero, who was beginning the final season of a college career that till then had been bittersweet at best. Here was Bailev making a silly overplay on defense. Here he was again, forcing a shot. And so on. Finally Knight turned off the projector and was silent. "There's only one chance for us to win tomorrow," he finally said. "And that's for Bailey to have a great game, which he hasn't had for us very often."
The somber Indiana fans who made up about half the crowd of 38,197 at the dome the next day seemed to agree with that assessment. They sat quietly as the Kentucky faithful jeered the Hoosiers during warmups, waving an array of signs: CBS (CATS BY SIXTY)...INDIANA WHOSTERS...WHICH WAY TO BUTLER?
To everyone's surprise, however, Indiana bolted to a 9-2 lead that got the fans—Knight included—all revved up. "That's about as excited as I've been about basketball for a long time," said Knight later. "I became a fan for five or six minutes."
And, indeed, Bailey had the great game Indiana needed. He took over and led the Hoosiers to a 55-44 halftime lead. He drilled threes, took the ball to the hoop with authority and confidently brought the ball up against the withering Kentucky press. At the half Bailey had 23 points and looked as unstoppable as he had been as an Indiana high school legend. In the end he had 29 points and five assists as the Hoosiers won 96-84.
"That's the best I've ever seen Bailey play," Knight said after the game. "This is how he was supposed to be able to play. He said, 'Goddam it, we're going to play.' I'd never seen that before from him."
About this time a year ago, as he was watching the Hoosiers practice in Bloomington, Knight talked about Bailey's popularity in the state. When asked whether it was significantly greater than that of, say, Steve Alford, the Hoosier native who in 1987 led Indiana to the most recent of Knight's three NCAA titles, the coach replied, "There's no comparison. As popular as Alford was, he wasn't even close to this kid."
A lot of the credit for that—or blame, as the case may be—belongs to Knight. When Bailey was only an eighth-grader, Knight said that he was already better than any of the guards on the '85-86 Indiana team. That was typical Knight hyperbole, of course, intended to motivate his own players, but it changed Bailey's life forever. From then on the kid's every move was followed and charted by virtually the entire hoops-crazy state.
But instead of buckling under the pressure, Bailey produced a storybook high school career that was capped when he led Bedford North Lawrence to the 1990 state championship, scoring 30 points against Elkhart's Concord High in the title game, which was held before a crowd of 41,046 in the Hoosier Dome. The story continued, naturally, with Bailey's accepting Knight's scholarship offer.
Alas for Bailey, he came to Indiana the year after Knight had signed one of his deepest and most talented recruiting classes ever. An around-the-basket player in high school, Bailey was asked to be more of a perimeter player in college and to play a complementary role on a team built around Calbert Cheaney, last season's national Player of the Year. The best that could be said about Bailey was that he was woefully inconsistent. He might light a team up for 25 one night, then be missing in action the next.
As Knight put it, "All of those, including me, who have played slo-pitch softball, you just kind of go out and have a good time and play. And you cither win 17-15 or you lose 17-15, but you don't worry about it one way or another. That's kind of been Bailey's approach."
In Indiana's last game against Kentucky, an 81-78 loss on Jan. 3 in Louisville's Freedom Hall, Bailey was at his worst. In 31 minutes he made only one of his six field goal attempts and one of four free throws, for a total of three points. Also, he turned in a sorry defensive job on Kentucky's Travis Ford, who torched the Hoosiers for 29 points. After the game Knight was furious with Bailey, who came off the bench only three days later to score 21 in Indiana's next game, a 75-67 win over Iowa in Bloomington.
This was typical Bailey, college-style. Through his first three seasons he averaged only 11.3 points a game, but he still remained the darling of the state as Indiana went 87-16 in that time and made a Final Four appearance in 1992. Even when Cheaney was the team's star, the Hoosiers' sports information office received more requests for Bailey photos, autographs and appearances than for any other player. "It's amazing," says Indiana sports information director Kit Klingelhoffer. "No matter what he does, Damon always will be Damon in Indiana."
Knight was less kind. Throughout this year's preseason practice and exhibition games, he felt very good about his team's progress, but in a number of public appearances he tried to turn up the fire under Bailey. "We've done all we can in terms of trying to get Bailey to see the game and understand how he's got to play and use his abilities," Knight said in one interview. "Now it's up to him. What kind of player Bailey is will depend on what Bailey puts into it."
Henderson also became a Knight target. He had recovered slowly from surgery to his right knee in May, and his play against Butler particularly incensed his coach. "Henderson acted as if he was too good to play against them," Knight said.
Between the Butler and Kentucky games Knight demoted Henderson to the second team in practice and was disappointed when Henderson didn't seem angry enough to win back his spot. That convinced Knight he had to do something drastic, so he benched Henderson and senior Pat Graham for the Kentucky game and started freshman guards Sherron Wilkerson and Steve Hart in their stead. Before Saturday's game, Knight's final message to his team was this: "Honest to god, I don't give a——if we get beat by 40 if I can walk off the floor thinking we gave the kind of effort that Indiana has always given and is expected to give."
The effort was there against Kentucky, much of it fueled by Bailey. Slowed for most of the second half by cramps in his calves and an upset stomach, Bailey nevertheless set the tone for his teammates. Every time Kentucky mounted a challenge—the closest the Wildcats got in the final 20 minutes was three—Indiana responded. Henderson, who came off the bench with 12:20 remaining in the first half, had 17 points and 11 rebounds in 26 minutes. He teamed with sophomore Brian Evans, who had 19 points and nine boards, to dominate the inside against Kentucky's Rodney Dent, Andre Riddick, Rodrick Rhodes and Jared Prickett.
The Hoosiers attacked Kentucky's press as effectively as they shut down the Wildcat offense. The most frustrated Wildcat was Ford, the 5'9" point guard, who scored 20 points but made only seven of his 20 shots, including an uncharacteristic three of 11 from three-point land.
But in the end the game belonged to Bailey. "I never thought he'd have a chance in the NBA," said Wildcat coach Rick Pitino, who coached the New York Knicks before taking the Kentucky job in 1989. "I never, ever, considered it before. But now I think he has an excellent chance. Today his self-confidence was so much higher. He was challenged, and he took it on. He wanted to be a dominant player."
By game's end the mood had shifted in the Hoosier Dome. The Kentucky fans glumly folded their signs and shut their mouths. The Indiana fans, on the other hand, were celebrating as if the Hoosiers were on the way to the NCAA title. But this could be just a momentary turnaround. Kentucky, despite the loss, still probably has a far better chance than Indiana of making it to the Final Four in Charlotte, even though Pitino admitted last week that he was stunned by the way Arkansas, which figured to become the third No. 1 team of this young season, had dominated Missouri earlier in the week in a 120-68 win. "As a coach," Pitino said, "I'm glad to give Arkansas the Number One ranking."
As for Indiana, the Hoosiers might be able to hang around the Top 25 throughout the season despite the fact that the team's collection of talent is far from imposing. The players with the most energy and athleticism are woefully short of experience and poise. The players with the most experience and poise are woefully inconsistent. Each time the Hoosiers play, Knight can't be sure whether he's going to see the team that lost to Butler or the one that knocked off Kentucky.
Much depends on Bailey. As Knight said after the game, "I've never seen Bailey better, but whether he's able to sustain it is the next question." Bailey, in a rare display of excitement, said he was ready for the challenge, ready to wind up his Hoosier career in a positive way, ready for whatever might confront him at the end of a strange college odyssey that has kept an entire state in its thrall.
"In Coach Knight's system," Bailey said, "you can be an average player and succeed. You don't have to be quick, you don't have to be able to jump over the backboard, you don't have to be a great shooter. But you have to give the effort. We're capable of playing with anybody in the country if we do the things Coach wants us to do. If we don't, we'll get beat by Butler. Today we weren't worried about stopping Travis Ford or Rodrick Rhodes or Kentucky's fast break. We just wanted to play hard and find an Indiana team that's fun to watch again."
He smiled an innocent smile. Even after all these years Bailey still doesn't seem to understand that a lot of Hoosier fans want far more than competence from him. His performance against Kentucky is what they've been hoping for every game for more than three seasons—and what they'll probably demand every time he steps on the floor from now on. If Bailey's lucky, perhaps he can be as consistently good as the ribs as Pa & Ma's, which would suit his insatiable coach just fine.