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Knight Lite

He may have mellowed (or not), but this much is certain: He can still coach with best

March 15, 2005|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

UCLA freshman Arron Afflalo wasn't born when Bob Knight heaved a chair across a basketball court during a game with Indiana's archrival.

Lorenzo Mata didn't know Bob Knight as anything other than the first Division I coach who saw a glimmer of talent in him when he was a late-blooming junior at South Gate High.

When the 6-foot-5 Knight, who commands attention with his broad chest and wide-legged, rolling gait, marched onto campus, it was Mata's coach, Sal Serrano, who called up his friends to come meet the legend.

Mata shrugged and went to UCLA.

When the Bruins found out they would play Knight's Texas Tech team Thursday in Tucson in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the coach's name evoked polite and generic praise. There was little feeling or perspective offered about the controversies that drove Knight from the basketball dynasty he built at Indiana to the west Texas outpost of Lubbock, where in four years he has guided the Red Raiders to three NCAA tournaments.

"You hear a lot of negative stuff," Afflalo said, "but Coach Knight is a very good coach. I've heard from sources the negative stuff is just stuff that got put out there. I know he demands a lot of his team. He's a demanding coach who demands the best and the most of his team and that's all you can ask."

But Afflalo said he hadn't been aware of the time in 1985 when Knight protested an official's call by sending a plastic chair skittering across the court at Assembly Hall during a game with Purdue. "I wasn't born then," Afflalo pointed out.

For the UCLA players, several of whom are 18 or 19 years old, even the publicity maelstrom that accompanied Knight's dismissal from Indiana in September of 2000 is ancient history.

Knight shown on videotape putting his arms around the neck of a player doesn't resonate, and reports of the coach allegedly shoving an assistant or throwing a vase at a secretary are hazy stories from the way-back machine.

What matters is how Texas Tech will play Thursday. And how the Red Raiders will play is a source of pride to men who have considered themselves friends of Knight through good times and bad.

How they will play, said Dan Dakich, is smart and hard and well. Dakich, coach at Bowling Green and a former player and assistant for Knight at Indiana, has been through good and bad with Knight.

Years ago, another Indiana assistant, Ron Felling, called Dakich to complain about Knight's coaching. Knight overheard the conversation and allegedly shoved Felling when he confronted his assistant. And Knight told Dakich he'd never help him again.

Yet Dakich said Monday from Boston, where he was on a recruiting trip, that he still calls Knight's son, Patrick, for tapes of Texas Tech games and practices. Why? "The guy is the greatest coach who's ever lived," Dakich said. That includes, he added, UCLA's John Wooden.

"It was different eras, different places," Dakich said, "but Coach Knight revolutionized the game in terms of his motion offense. There's just so much more good than bad overall."

Pete Newell, who first met Knight more than 30 years ago in San Francisco when Knight was coach at Army and wanted to quiz Newell about coaching, has remained friends with Knight through triumphs and tough times.

Knight called Newell on Monday morning to talk about the Red Raiders' loss to Oklahoma State in Sunday's Big 12 championship game and about the NCAA tournament.

Newell has watched Knight manufacture a nationally competitive program out of the dust in Lubbock. "He's not getting the top-level recruits," Newell said. "Maybe the young players out there don't know what Coach Knight is doing but he's proved to basketball people what a wonderful coach he is," Newell said. "But Bob doesn't need stars. He just needs players who will play both ends of the court and listen to him."

Don MacLean, UCLA's all-time leading scorer and its basketball radio announcer, played for UCLA when Knight's Hoosiers destroyed the Bruins in the regional final in Albuquerque in 1992.

Knight had caused a commotion during the mandatory tournament news conference by using a whip, which he said had been given him by Indiana players, to simulate a whipping of Calbert Cheaney, an African-American player who sat next to Knight on the podium.

MacLean says he recalls all the controversy but what he remembers more is how Knight's team, which had lost to UCLA earlier in the season, dismantled the Bruins, 106-79.

"I remember thinking the adjustments Coach Knight made to beat us were just brilliant," MacLean said. "Our offense just sputtered. Indiana knew exactly where we were going. I remember thinking, 'This man demands perfection,' because when they were executing their offense, their defense, every pick was set the right way, every cut was made the right way, every pass was crisp.

"That said, I wouldn't have played for the man."

And MacLean understands why UCLA players aren't agog at the thought of playing against Knight.

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