BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Life went on without Bob Knight Tuesday night. Quite nicely, as a matter of fact.
There really was no choice. It is mid-November. The trees are bare, skies are gray, the video of choice is "Hoosiers," and the term most often used on local radio is "wind-chill factor."
It is basketball season and there was a game to play.
But this was not a normal opening game, and not only because the opponent, Pepperdine, knocked Indiana out of the first round of the NCAA tournament in March. That was a sidelight, an afterthought. In this game, no matter what happened, the Waves were to be the Washington Generals.
They played the role perfectly, losing, 80-68, to a team of grim-faced Hoosiers who have been to hell and back since they were last spotted, badgered and beaten and slouching off into the safe harbor of their locker room in Buffalo, N.Y.
Since then, Indiana's basketball program -- a time bomb for many years -- exploded. Knight, either the patron saint or reigning devil--depending on who you talk to -- had been fired by a university president who finally poured water on his coach's ever-simmering short fuse.
A program that had brought this school three NCAA titles and 11 Big Ten titles since Knight arrived in 1971 became a source of embarrassment and national scrutiny. It had moved from the sports pages to the editorial pages, from headlines that once proclaimed championships to headlines that screamed about Indiana's history of handling each Knight transgression with taps on the knuckle.
So the community of Indiana basketball fans had only since Sept. 10--the day President Myles Brand fired Knight -- to get ready for the rest of their lives.
They arrived Tuesday night in numbers smaller than the norm, an attendance of 12,025 in an arena that seats 17,724 and almost always needs every one of those seats for the demand. Many fans entered with a deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes. Bob Hammel, longtime sports editor and columnist for the Bloomington Herald-Times, called it "stunned indifference."
They seemed uncertain of what to expect, but they knew that the news was certainly not who won or lost, or how they played the game. No, the news was who they played the game without.
Shortly before 7 p.m., a coach not named Knight settled into the Indiana coach's seat, a spot that had been Knight's domain forever in Assembly Hall. The building had opened in December, 1971, with a new coach who had played on the great Jerry Lucas-John Havlicek teams at Ohio State and had already begun to build a reputation as a great basketball mind and a tough customer. Fittingly, he had made his mark, pre-Indiana, at Army.
With the exception of a suspension or two along the way, Knight had been the only one to sit in that seat for 29 seasons, more than 400 home games.
Tuesday night, somebody else sat in the bully pulpit. But it was only a chair now, and new Coach Mike Davis didn't even consider throwing it.
Seldom has a new coach, stepped into a spotlight this bright with such uncertainty of mandate or future. He had been an assistant for three years under Knight. Yet with the new responsibility came only the title of interim. He was welcome to stay in the guest house, but he couldn't use the good towels.
Knight always has been one of those figures in sport who polarizes. Nobody who cares enough to pay attention is indifferent about him.
His history of basketball excellence -- coaching and teaching and running one of the truly rare clean programs in the sport-- has been fodder for thousands of broadcasts and millions of column inches.
So has his behavior.
He has taken on police in Puerto Rico, referees all over the world, his players on the practice court, and, as recently as this summer, university lawyers in his office. He loves a dozen or so sportswriters to whom he would give the shirt off his back. He hates 20 times that number from whom he would tear the shirts off theirs.
He has driven thousands of miles to help friends or to do charity work. He has also made wisecracks about rape on network television. On Monday, he is sensitive, gentle. On Tuesday, he has the manners of Atilla the Hun.
When Brand fired him, most of the interested outside world of fans and media nod ded in a sort of agreement that said: It's about time. On campus, students were furious, stopping from rioting only when Knight himself came out, moved the police behind him outside Assembly Hall, and calmed the crowd by promising them an extended good-bye speech in a few days. When he delivered on that promise two days later in an area near called Dunn Meadow, an estimated 10,000 showed up to carry on their idolization.
When the incident that began the final chapter in the Knight saga took place, Knight told friends he never gave it a second thought. He had confronted a student outside Assembly Hall when the student had greeted him with "Hey, Knight." Knight allegedly took the student by the arm and demanded to be called "Coach Knight" or "Mr. Knight."
The student, Kent Harvey, told his step-father about the incident; the step-father, a former radio talk-show host, allegedly called the administration, and the end was near. At that point, Knight had been under a university directive of "zero tolerance" on such things because of a video tape of Knight grabbing one of his players, Neil Reed, by the throat in practice.
After the Harvey incident became public, some faculty members spoke out for Knight's dismissal, voicing amazement over what part of the "zero tolerance" Knight had not understood.
"It's a black eye for Coach Bob Knight, not for the university," Morton Marcus, longtime economics professor, told the Indianapolis Star.
But Victor Viola, a chemistry professor, responded differently. He was quoted in the Star as saying, "I wish everyone would spend a lot less time trying to make Coach Knight into Mr. Rogers."
Many theorized that the crowning blow had not been Knight's confrontation with Harvey, but his refusal to stay in town at Brand's request while the university trustees met on the issue. Knight had planned a fishing trip to Canada, and later told friends that he had no trouble hanging around if it had been made clear to him that it was important. But once he was told he could handle it with a phone call, Knight said he didn't want to skip the fishing trip because the handful of friends going with him had paid a lot of money for the trip and planned it for a long time.
Those who know him well say that loyalty to friends will always win out in such situations.
Rick Majerus, the Utah coach, had as a graduate assistant coach hitchhiked from Milwaukee to Bloomington and slept all night on a park bench just so he could attend a Knight clinic.
"Once you are his friend, you are forever," Majerus said. "He does things people never hear about. He used to have a radio show where he would call up guests, and at least once a year he'd make sure to call the elders in the coaching game that he respected and wanted to repay, people like Pete Newell or Henry Iba. After the interview, a check would be sent, for being a guest on the show. It would be like $2,000, and I guarantee those checks didn't come from WISH-TV."
This is the same Knight who once verbally destroyed a young public relations person in a tirade witnessed by reporters over a minor mishandling of a press conference detail.
It is also the same Knight who, upon hearing of the birth of the first child of former player Uwe Blab, whose game was hindered by his inability to catch the basketball, wrote with tongue in cheek to Blab's wife: "Promise me that you will never let this man hold that child aloft unless it is over a soft bed."
There was irony all over the place Tuesday night.
Pepperdine, which played so well in a 20-point blowout over the Hoosiers in the tournament, started well but quickly disintegrated into a playground team that frustrated Coach Jan van Breda Kolff.
Indiana, which had its preparations for that Pepperdine game disrupted when the Neil Reed story broke that week and disintegrated in the tournament, got stronger and more determined as it went along Tuesday night. Its star was Kirk Haston, who hurt his knee early in the Pepperdine game in March and had to have surgery in the off-season. Haston scored 28, a career high, and made seven in a row from the field at one stretch in the second half. He also led both teams in rebounds with 14.
Davis, who was quoted beforehand as saying a victory over Pepperdine would be "unbelievable," said afterward that he kept telling his team that they "weren't playing Michigan State, they were playing Pepperdine, and they should always beat Pepperdine."
Indiana's record against Pepperdine going in, however, had been 0-2. Knight had never beaten Pepperdine. Now Davis was 1-0.
Late in the second half, when the result was obvious, the crowd rose in a standing ovation and stayed on its feet as the clock ticked down. It was the same crowd that had, only two hours before, slipped in quietly, almost as if it were going to a funeral rather than a basketball game.
Davis said he had never felt such pressure. He said he walked onto the court before the game and was afraid he'd trip over a painted line.
"I couldn't feel my legs," he said.
Then there was the final irony.
The man who was the news of the night wasn't here. When his chair was taken over at courtside, and his fans began to be taken over by the new guy, he was likely asleep, somewhere in Spain, where he went to hunt ducks.
Considering everything else that has gone on, that makes perfect sense.
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