BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — "You're scaring me," Calbert Cheaney says. He is hearing how Indiana players have fared lately in the NBA, the litany of names in all its macabre glory. Steve Downing. Steve Green. Ray Tolbert. All-somethings at Indiana, highly publicized national stars, early draft picks--and, for one reason or another, NBA flops. Steve Alford. Keith Smart. Who could have known?
Cheaney is an Indiana native and a longtime Hoosiers fan, but he never thought to look at what happens beyond Bloomington. "I had no idea," he says.
The NBA doesn't, either.
Every year some team drafts an Indiana player simply because he has mastered basketball's fundamentals, having endured and eventually flourished under Coach Bob Knight. A minimum level of competency is as certain as a college degree, and there won't be drug problems or bad attitudes. What could be better?
Just about anything, it turns out. Of the 21 Hoosiers who have been drafted in the first or second round during Knight's tenure, which began in the 1971-72 season, only one has played in an NBA All-Star Game. That was Isiah Thomas, who stopped in at college for two seasons on his way to professional stardom and high-profile sneaker endorsements. Other than that you have three or four sizable but unremarkable pro careers, maybe eight drifters who assembled a formidable collection of team logo luggage and then disappeared, and a surprising number who barely passed through the league at all. Kent Benson. Wayne Radford. Uwe Blab. Hey, you'd be scared, too.
Now there is Cheaney, college basketball's finest senior and a possible player of the year. In 12 games against ranked opponents he is averaging close to 26 points a game. If he takes the Hoosiers to another national championship, nobody would be too surprised. Intelligent, articulate and disciplined, Cheaney is the prototypical Indiana star. And yet he seems a different type of Indiana player than has come before: more athletic, creative with the ball, a lanky 6-foot-7 forward with a deft shooting touch and rebounding savvy, talents that dare scouts to tell him they won't get fooled again.
"Of all the best players I've seen in the Big Ten, and we've had some terrific players, he has a style all his own," says Iowa Coach Tom Davis, who watched Cheaney hit 12 of 15 shots Feb. 6 in leading Indiana to a 73-66 victory. "He can hurt you in a zone, but he can hurt you man-to-man, too, and he's tough off the dribble. He's obviously going to do well in the NBA."
Iowa's Kenyon Murray, who actually had to guard Cheaney for much of that night, rested a head on his shoulder and shrugged, his postgame frustration turning slowly to resignation. "He goes inside, outside, posts up, shoots the trey," Murray says. "He just does so many different things that it's almost impossible to defense him."
Perhaps many of the Indiana players didn't succeed in the NBA because they simply weren't that good. Knight recruits exactly the type of prospects he needs to perpetuate Indiana's winning tradition, and they do exactly that. They're fine shooters, these rural Midwestern kids, having spent all those hours alone with a ball and a hoop. Give them room and they'll hit 20-footers until the dinner bell rings, but that doesn't make them NBA players. The necessary attributes to play for Indiana and to play in the NBA do not naturally align. Playing in Knight's system demands a level of discipline that probably will not be matched in a player's life unless he opts for a military career. And playing for Knight demands a commitment to academics, which is something NBA players don't have to worry about. Nobody has ever flunked their way off the San Antonio Spurs.
Such requirements usually don't leave room for the best athletes, those sure-fire pro players you can spot back in high school. And though it is true that character and all those intangibles can mean the difference between success and failure in the NBA, the athletic ability has to be a given. Too often with Indiana players, it isn't.
"The guys you see at Indiana, you're probably seeing as good as they're going to get," says Quinn Buckner, a starting guard on Indiana's 1976 championship team and, after that, a consistent NBA player over a decade.. "They max out there in terms of effort and commitment--they're never going to play harder--and the system makes them look their best. With other schools, you can extrapolate how good a player is going to be. With Indiana, you're seeing it.
"However, it does seem like they're getting better players there the last few years. Calbert is definitely one of those better players."