Bob Knight:  The Unauthorized Biography by Delsohn and Heisler (Simon & Schuster 2006)

Excerpt from Chapter 5:  Glory Days:  Indiana, 1972-76

 


With all five starters back in the fall of 1974, the Hoosiers were again rated Number 3 in the preseason Associated Press Poll.  Benson, their plodding, religious hulk, was coming fast.  He would never be tough enough for Knight, but his progress would be impressive, going from 9.3 points a game as a freshman to 15 this season as a sophomore.

 

They were 2-0 on December 8, a cold Saturday afternoon in Bloomington, when a crowd of 17,148 jammed into Assembly Hall for the annual border war against Kentucky, an eagerly awaited early-season diversion in both states.

 

Both programs were state religions, although they had dissimilar approaches, at least since Knight’s arrival.  The UK program was out of control, and had been since the days of Adolph Rupp, with heavy participation by wealthy boosters, including some of the owners of the famous thoroughbred stables in Lexington.   The NCAA even closed down the Kentucky program for one season when Rupp was there.  It wasn’t hard for Hoosiers to look down their noses at the Wildcats, or for Wildcats to dislike the thorny Knight.

 

“It was already in the air that we ran a squeaky-clean program”, says Steve Green, who hailed from Milan, 10 miles from the Kentucky line.  “And there were jokes about the Kentucky players taking pay cuts to go to play in the NBA.  There were whispers about the horse farms and debatable summer employment and speaking engagements where players made a thousand bucks.”

 

Knight was 4-0 against UK, but this wasn’t one of the rivalries he took personally.  He and Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall were good friends; they had even gone on a three-week fishing trip together.

 

UK started a young team with two freshmen, 6-10 Rick Robey and 6-10 Mike Phillips, and a third, Jack Givens, coming off the bench.  They were 2-0 too, but they weren’t ready for the Hoosiers, who ran up a 34-point lead.  IU won by 24 points with Benson going for 26 and Wilkerson keeping Kentucky star Kevin Grevey from touching the ball for the first four minutes.  However, with less than a minute left, Knight was still fully engaged, going all the way down to the Wildcats’ bench to rail at the referees for a call against IU.

 

“The situation was, he was yelling at the officials from in front of my bench, in front of me”, Hall says.  “And as he turned to go back to the bench, I said, ‘Way to go, Bob, give ‘em hell.’  Good-naturedly, because this was a friend of mine.”

 

“And he turned and broke down, almost like an attack position, and he screamed at me, ‘Don’t ever talk to me during a game!  Why don’t you coach your own motherfucking team!’”

 

“And his facial expression was – what do I want to say? – distorted in anger so that I felt moved to do something.  So, I followed him up and I said, ‘Hey, Bob, I didn’t mean anything by that.  You know I hope you’re not upset by what I said, because I didn’t mean anything personal to you.  You’ve kicked our butts soundly; you’ve got a great team.’”

 

“And I turned to walk away and he popped me with an open hand at the back of the neck.  Pretty strongly.  And I turned in response, and he again broke down in attack mode and he said, ‘I didn’t mean anything by that, either.’”

 

Knight insisted he meant it as an affectionate pat, like the ones he gave his players as they came off the floor.  Of course, with Knight, it could be hard to tell affection from aggression.  It didn’t look friendly to Hall’s assistant, Lynn Nance, a just-retired FBI agent whom Knight later described as “some son-of-a-bitch jerk… I didn’t even know his name.”

 

Nance bounded off the bench and jumped into Knight’s face.  They stood there snarling at each other until referees and players pulled them away.  “I told him, ‘Hey, try that shit with me, pal!  Try that on me, you son of a bitch’”, says Nance.  “There was always an intimidation factor with Knight.  Knight picked that up at West Point.  And I think what he discovered is what the military teaches – that you can intimidate and control a lot of people by overreacting to a situation and just being very raucous.  And Bobby Knight has become pretty good at it”.

 

Hall refused to shake Knight’s hand after the game or to walk off the floor with him.  “All I want is another chance to play them”, Hall said.  “Knight personally humiliated me and I’ll never forget it”.

 

Later that night, Knight plopped himself down next to the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Dave Kindred, who would become one of his confidants.  “We won a big game today and I feel like we lost”, said Knight.  ‘How do I get myself into these things?”

 

It wasn’t just a rivalry now, but a blood feud.  When the Wildcats got back to Lexington, Nance was summoned to the office of the Athletic Director, Harry Lancaster.

 

“I get in there and he says, ‘Sit down!’”, Nance says.  “I think, ‘Oh crap, I’m going to get fired before I even get started.’”

 

“He says to me, ‘I want to tell you something.  I reviewed that incident at Indiana.  You had a chance to hit that son of a bitch.  If you ever get a chance like that again, and you DON’T hit him, I’m firing your ass.’”

 

Knight blamed the furor on Hall, noting in his inimitable style, “If it was meant to be malicious, I’d have blasted the fucker into the seats.”

 

The incident generated big headlines in both states – “Hoosiers and Knight Cuff Wildcats and Hall, 98-74” in the Lexington Herald-Leader;  “Verbal Dispute a Tie But IU Routs Kentucky” in the Indiana Daily Student – but the story didn’t go national.   That was because he wasn’t quite Bobby Knight yet”, says IU guard Jim Wisman.  “He didn’t have his total reputation.”

 

The Hoosiers didn’t look back.  They were rarely even challenged.  On February 22nd, they were 26-0 with an incredible average victory margin of 26.9 points in Big Ten games, when Scott May broke a bone in his left forearm in an 83-82 win at Purdue.

 

IU finished 29-0, but Knight was shaken.  Knowing he would still need May, Knight put him in at the end of their first two wins in the NCAA Tournament over Texas-El Paso and Oregon State.

 

The 31-0 Hoosiers advanced to the regional finals in Dayton against who else but Kentucky.  The Wildcats had been living for another shot at them since the “slap heard ‘round the Commonwealth”.  In an unusual move, after UK won its semifinal game, Hall let his players watch Indiana play Oregon State.  IU was up by 21 at halftime when Hall decided to call it a night.

 

Indiana is great”, said guard Jimmy Dan Conner.  “Too bad their coach is a damn kid”.

 

The Kentucky coaches had never let their players forget that day in Bloomington in December.  In the ensuing three months, the players heard about it over and over.  It wasn’t just a ploy;  they genuinely hated the Hoosiers.

 

“We used that game for fuel all season”, says Lynn Nance, “but we really worked it before we played them again…  The night before when we were practicing, I ran Jerry Lucas out of the practice and yelled at him, told him to get out.  We knew that he had been teammates with Knight.  We didn’t want him in the practice.  And the players liked that.”

 

Hall was determined to play this game Kentucky racehorse style rather than grinding it out again, Knight style.  Hall junked his standard 1-3-1 zone, which the Hoosiers had bombed, and played man-to-man, hoping to speed up the game.  Hall also told his guards, Conner and Mike Flynn, to take any open shot, knowing Knight’s defense would sag on their big men, and if they missed, to keep shooting.

 

Most of all, the Wildcats were determined to be the aggressors this time.  In Bloomington, Hall says Benson hit his freshman center, Rick Robey, so hard, Robey almost bit his tongue in half.  Knight’s motion offense depended on setting tough screens, which the UK coaches claimed were more like football blocks.  This time, whether the referees called fouls or not, the Kentucky coaches ordered their players to run the Hoosiers over.  Nance says he told 6-9, 240 pound Bob Guyette, “When Steve Green sets that first screen, if you don’t run over his ass, if you don’t knock him flat on his ass, we’re taking you out of the game.”

 

“And, if you look at the game film”, says Nance, “that’s the first thing that happens.  Guyette knocked Green on his butt, and he’s sitting on his butt on the floor, looking at the officials with his hands spread, asking ‘What the heck?’  That set the tone.”

 

Hall’s new tactics caught the Hoosiers off guard.  Knight, expecting Kentucky’s usual zone, put May, his best shooter, back in the starting lineup four weeks after getting hurt.  Since then May had only played three minutes.

 

“Scott had a pin in his wrist and a five or six week time frame for his bone to heal”, says Wayne Radford, then a sophomore guard, “but here was Knight thinking that we couldn’t win this game without Scott May.  But we had already won three Big Ten games without Scott, and then two tournament games convincingly.  Then all of a sudden, before we play Kentucky, now we’re practicing with Scott May.  He’s on the starting unit.  He has a cast on his wrist.  So, no one is going to play aggressive against him, because you’re thinking if you hurt Scott, Knight is going to be very upset.  So you could just see our intensity changing at practice.  Everybody was playing not to hurt Scott.”

 

With a cast on his left wrist and the Wildcats playing man-to-man, not zone, May missed his first four shots, turned the ball over three times, and watched Kentucky’s star Kevin Grevey zip past him for seven minutes until Knight pulled him.  The Wildcats jumped into an early 13 point lead, giving them the confidence they could play against this team, but IU tied it by halftime, 44-44.

 

Midway through the second half, the Hoosiers went ahead, 68-67, on a Benson hook.  The Wildcats then went on an 18-7 run to go up, 85-75 led by Flynn, the former Mr. Indiana Knight had tried to recruit, who scored 15 points in the second half.  As Knight raged on the sidelines, the Wildcats also got several calls against the Hoosiers for moving on screens.

 

IU cut it to 90-88 with :20 left, but Buckner, trying to steal the ball from Grevey in the backcourt, fouled him.  Grevey coolly made two free throws to make it 92-88.  John Laskowski’s jumper cut it to 92-90 with :14 left, but that was as close as the Hoosiers got.

 

“To this day, it was the one locker room that I was in that I didn’t feel like I belonged in there”, says Rick Bozich of the Louisville Courier-Journal, who was then on the Indiana Daily Student.  “nobody was talking.  All the players were like scrunched up in a semi fetal position and they had all been crying, especially Steve Green and Laskowski and those guys who were seniors, because they knew it was over.

 

“They just had a look on their face of utter disbelief that they had lost that game.  I think they were disbelieving that they weren’t going to the Final Four, they were disbelieving that their perfect season had been ruined because they just rolled over everybody.  I can’t remember when the last time was before that they had a close game.”

 

Knight was never more gracious than after this game, calling Kentucky “the better team”, sticking his head into Hall’s press conference to congratulate him and even thanking the press.  When a crowd of 1,000 greeted the Hoosiers at the Bloomington airport that night, a deflated Knight told them in a hoarse voice, “You fans have followed us through our ups and downs and if there had been any way we could have given you this ballgame, we would have done it”.

 

For Knight, it would be the most crushing defeat of his career, but he would never show his grief.  In his autobiography, he deals with it matter-of-factly, saying only, “our defense just wasn’t good enough in the regional finals, and the best team I’ve ever had was eliminated by Kentucky, 92-90.”