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MIKE DOWNEY

Indiana's Knight: The Enigma Who Enjoys Solving Puzzles

March 30, 1987|MIKE DOWNEY

NEW ORLEANS — He is the independent, indignant, incorrigible, insufferable, inestimable, indestructible, indefatigable, indomitable, indubitable Indiana coach, Bob Knight. He is many things to many people. He is also one of a kind. He is also two of a kind. The Good Knight and the Bad Knight. Wearer of shining armor and part-time prince of darkness. A man for all basketball seasons.

Let us tell you about the Good Knight. Known throughout the land for winning without cheating, for honesty and candor, for commitment to academics, for being a man's man and a coach's coach. More than one person took pains to thank or praise Knight for making sure his kids went to class last week while the other three teams of the NCAA's Final Four already were exploring New Orleans.

Now, let us tell you about the Bad Knight. Bullies players, swears like a sailor, hurls chairs, harps at officials and holds grudges. Slammed down a telephone at courtside, stormed onto the court and drew a technical foul during the March 22 regional game with Louisiana State. Recently came down from the crowd at a State high school tournament game in Indiana and got into a shouting match with the coach of his 15-year-old son's team after Patrick Knight reportedly reacted to a benching by cussing and throwing a towel.

OK, time to let Bob Knight himself be asked if he is aware of his public image as sort of an older, grayer John McEnroe.

"Let me tell you what I'm aware of," he said Sunday, on the eve of Indiana's national championship game against Syracuse. "OK? I'm aware of walking through an airport and somebody comes up to me and talks to me about how much they enjoy watching Indiana play. Or some superintendent of schools in Oregon writes me a letter about how much he appreciates the stand we take for education. Our governor wrote me a note the other day. How pleased he was that we stayed behind to go to class Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. That's what I'm aware of.

"You know, I'm very comfortable with myself. I'm the only person who has to be comfortable with me."

When Steve Alford, Indiana's senior guard, was asked what misconceptions, if any, the public has about Coach Bob Knight, he winced and said: "I've survived for four years, and I've only got one more game left." In other words--I'm almost home free. Leave me out of this. After playing for Knight on the U.S. Olympic team in 1984, Sam Perkins of North Carolina, now with the Dallas Mavericks, turned to Alford and said something like: "Three more years with Coach Knight. Good luck!" Ever since, Alford has seen both sides of Good Bob and Bad Bob, enduring abuse in practice, as chronicled in the best-selling book, "A Season on the Brink," and earning gobs of praise in public. In years to come, Knight will speak of Alford only in glorious terms.

When the All-American guard was asked Sunday about the "real" Bob Knight, he barely squeaked his answer out before the coach got after him again.

"You little S.O.B.," Knight said. "Keep one thing in mind. You aren't ever gonna be out from under that umbrella."

Having played for me , he meant.

Knight caught Alford's eye and gestured with a wave of his arm, grandly.

"No, go ahead. Say whatever you want," the coach invited.

Alford sat back and said nothing.

Bob Knight, 46, was in an expansive mood Sunday, talking for more than an hour on subjects ranging from baseball greats Ted Williams and Johnny Bench, both of whom have come here to lend vocal support to their good friend, the Indiana coach, to the three-point shot, which Knight detests, to how he hopes to be perceived. About the only thing he would not discuss was "A Season on the Brink," a book he refuses to publicly acknowledge.

When he met Williams several years ago, they hit it off immediately because of their mutual love of fishing. Knight described the former Boston Red Sox outfielder as "my all-time idol" and said one of the most vivid memories of his Ohio youth was being in Cleveland's ballpark the last game Williams ever played there, and seeing him walked intentionally with the bases loaded. "What greater compliment could a player ever be given than that?" Knight asked.

Since then, he has come to empathize with Williams because he was fiercely independent and often criticized for it--"not too dissimilar from me." Williams, said Knight, was often quoted as saying it was his ambition to be able to walk down the street some day and have people say, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."

When Williams spoke to him here the other day, to wish him luck, Knight reminded him: "My greatest ambition is that when you retire, I take your place as the world's greatest fly fisherman."

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