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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Knight Takes Road Less Traveled

East Regional: Indiana coach is walking through a rare slump in his long, illustrious career.

March 15, 1997|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — "He's crazy," the arena employee said as he pushed the elevator button.

"Who's crazy?" I asked.

"Knight," the guy said. "He's walking back to town. It's not safe."

It was 12:45 a.m. Friday morning, an hour or so after Indiana had been humiliated by Colorado in an East Regional first-round game, 80-62.

It was raining outside. Lawrence Joel Coliseum officials scurried about, wondering what to do.

"Let him go," one said.

It was 2 1/2 miles from the arena to the hotel where the Hoosiers were staying.

I got in my rental car and tried to guess which way Knight might have headed. There was only one logical route, University Parkway, a four-lane, divided highway. As I drove toward the city lights, I saw a man walking briskly and boldly against traffic in the far lane. I made a U-turn to get a better look, took the right-hand lane and drove toward the silhouette. He was wearing a dark jacket and a houndstooth hat pulled low over his forehead. Rain fell against my headlights as I passed.

It was Bob Knight.

To be sure, I executed two more U-turns and made another run toward him. He was walking, eyes fixed ahead, in the middle of the lane. I drove straight at Knight to see if he would move to the side of the road. He did not, so I switched to the left lane.

With red signals flashing, his season on the blink, Knight crossed the intersection at University and Northwest Boulevard and began to walk up Cherry Street, a man alone with his thoughts.

The Colorado defeat had to rank with one of Knight's lowest moments. His team was flat and listless and never in the game. To borrow the metaphor of the highway, this is the loneliest stretch in Knight's 26 seasons at Indiana. He has won 598 games, 40 in the tournament, three NCAA titles, but his program is in mini-crisis.

For the third consecutive year, his Hoosiers had been eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

"When you're soundly beaten, there's not an awful lot you can say beyond that," Knight had said after his latest NCAA loss.

Knight has gone four years without winning a Big Ten title, the longest drought in his career. The Hoosiers have been to only one Final Four since last winning the national title in 1987. Knight's teams remain well-coached but have lacked the skill players to compete beyond the Big Ten. The Hoosiers shot only 35% against Colorado, making 19 of 54 shots.

Knight had no answer for Colorado guard Chauncey Billups, who scored 24 points in 32 minutes.

"He is an exceptionally good guard and we really tried to work to do some things to contain him and we just didn't at all," Knight had said.

And afterward, there was nothing Knight could do, except take a long walk on a rainy night.

I lost Knight on my third pass, near downtown. I did notice a red, late-model sedan idling on a side street. I suspect it was an Indiana official keeping watch on his enigmatic, legendary coach.

Just like the rest of us.

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