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The Eight Greatest Words
For the first time in thirty-six years, I don't have a basketball team.
I remember very clearly the thought going through my mind that day:
Only in America ...
I'm a pretty appreciative guy, especially where my country is concerned. It's nothing I have to think about. I've always felt that way. In the summer of 1984 when I was coaching the U.S. Olympic team, every stop I made, every group I talked to, I mentioned the eight greatest words any American ever put together: America, America, God shed His grace on thee ...
Through the winter of 2000-01 when I was speaking to different groups across the country, I made it a point virtually every time to ask World War II veterans to stand, then all people who had served in the military in service to our country. I did it because I enjoyed seeing those people stand and hear applause, and I enjoyed being one of the people applauding. I strongly feel we are all blessed by being where we are when we are, and there are some specific people and generations who deserve to feel proud and appreciated--like the New York City firemen and policemen of September 2001.
But this late-summer day in 1991 when I was pleasantly into my "only in America" reverie, I was wading in a river, fishing. The river was the Umba, in northern Russia. What I was thinking was that only in America could a guy like me, through a game like basketball, be standing there, having such a great experience.
Because fishing that same day in that same river, just around a bend, was my friend, Ted Williams. Ted was as close to a lifelong hero as I had, outside my family. As a boy I sat in the stands at Lakefront Stadium in Cleveland and marveled at his swing. I was all for the Indians, but when I saw that classic Ted Williams swing send a baseball screaming into the stands and watched that head-down Williams lope around the bases, I felt privileged.
The more I learned about him, the more I revered him--not only as a great baseball player but also as a genuine hero of two American wars; as a master fisherman; as one of the rare national figures who absolutely God-damned refused to knuckle under to a hostile press.
Here I was, a kid from a small Ohio town, a town not far from Cleveland where my parents had taken me on a few special Sundays to watch the Boston Red Sox and the great Ted Williams play against the Indians. All these years later, I clearly remember the chill I felt when he just stepped into the batter's box, and when he swung, and the unbelievably special times when I was there and that swing and a loud crack sent the ball out of the park ... .
And here I was, fishing with him ... because of basketball. I'm not too sure I've had another moment in my life when I felt more keenly, sharply aware of how much that game I loved had meant in my life.
I met Ted Williams because basketball introduced me to some people who could make it happen--me, the son of two small-town Americans: an Ohio railroad man and a schoolteacher.
I learned to fly-fish, my second-greatest sports passion, because of basketball. I was picked to make the trip, because of basketball. And I could afford to do it, because of basketball.
I've spent most of my life trying to give things back to the sport, because so many people in it have given so much of it to me. That day, on that river, in that special company, I knew as I always had that I owed the game more than I could ever give back.
But I was damned sure trying.
Jerry McKinnis of ESPN's Fishin' Hole show lined up the Russian trip. I had fished several times in the United States for shows Jerry did. I enjoyed them all, because Jerry is a hell of a guy and the best fisherman (Ted would take exception) I've ever met.
But he outdid himself by drawing up this trip. Jerry knew it, too. He's a big fan of both baseball and college basketball, a lifelong Cardinals fan who played the game well enough himself that he signed a professional contract coming out of high school. He knew from our previous travels and talks just where Ted Williams stood with me, and Ted had been Jerry's idol, too.
I couldn't say yes fast enough when Jerry suggested the trip. And I couldn't have been happier when I called Ted and he said, yeah, he could do that--he'd be glad to. Ted and I had already met. I had mentioned to Minneapolis sports columnist Sid Hartman how much I thought of Ted Williams, and Sid got him to call me. The first time I met him face to face, Jimmy Russo set it up.Jimmy, an Indiana native who was the "superscout" for the Orioles during their great years in the '60s and '70s, was as strong an Indiana University basketball fan as I ever met. He lived in St. Louis and always got over to Bloomington at least once during the season, and I looked forward to those visits because we had some great baseball talks each time. Jimmy was still with the Orioles when I went to spring training after we had won the NCAA championship in 1981. Ted happened to be at a game both Jimmy and I attended, and Jimmy took me over and introduced me to him. We had maintained some contact over the years, so his agreement to go to Russia with me had some background.
So did the trip itself. The summer of '91, baseball's All-Star Game was played in Toronto. President George Bush brought Ted and Joe DiMaggio to the White House for a ceremony, then the three of them got on a plane and went to the game. On the way, the president asked Ted about his summer plans. Ted told him about the fishing trip he and I were taking to Russia. "You and Knight?" the president said. "Jeez-us." History will record that we hadn't been out of the Soviet Union for a week before the government fell. We'd both like to take credit for that, but ...
Ted and I met in New York for the flight over. We were sitting together on the airplane, not too far into the flight, when he said:
"Okay, who do you think were the five most important Americans, in your lifetime?"
The first thing that strikes you about him is how smart he is. You are not dealing with a guy with ordinary intelligence. He is well-read, extremely opinionated, and he backs up his opinions with reasons. A mutual friend, broadcaster Curt Gowdy, had told me to be ready to argue with him, because there was nothing Ted liked better than that. It wasn't the worst news I'd ever heard; I don't mind a little debate myself, now and then.
And I knew from the way he asked me that question he had his own five.
I mentioned Franklin Roosevelt, and he agreed, finally. I knew he was an arch-Republican, but I thought he'd have to come around on Roosevelt.
He came in quickly with Richard Nixon, Joe Louis, and General Douglas MacArthur.
I said Harry Truman, and he didn't totally agree. His contention was, "God-dammit, you have The Bomb. Anybody can decide to drop The Bomb." I'm a big Truman man. We argued about that point. Yes, anybody could have made that decision. I don't think just anybody would have.
I picked George Marshall, the World War II general and the post-war secretaryof state who came up with the Marshall Plan that revived Europe. Ted didn't disagree with that.
We both talked about Dwight Eisenhower. One guy I mentioned was Will Rogers.
Ted was very big on Richard Nixon. He knew and liked Nixon. I wasn't inclined to argue. I think even some of Nixon's political critics feel he will go down as one of the better presidents. The negative was obvious: all the things represented by "I am not a crook."
I mentioned, for personal reasons, William Simon. He knew Simon and thought he was a brilliant guy. We were talking twentieth century, so Henry Ford was another one we both picked. I don't remember if Thomas Edison came up or not, but he surely should have. This went on for a while.
Then he wanted the five most overrated.
I said John Kennedy, and I got out of the hole I had dug with FDR. "You're a hell of a lot smarter than I thought you were from our other discussion," he said.
We both agreed that Robert McNamara and General William Westmoreland were on that list of five--three out of the same era.
And we discussed baseball. He thought the best player ever was Babe Ruth. Period. He didn't think anybody was even close.
He called Joe DiMaggio the best player of his era. I heard him say that many times. However, I wasn't going to accept that one without raising a point.
I told him in 1947 when DiMaggio edged him out for MVP because one Boston writer didn't even put Ted in his top ten, DiMaggio shouldn't have accepted the award. He didn't say anything, just went to talking about something else, which was all I needed to feel that was exactly the way he would have handled the '47 situation.
That was the quality that stood out for me during that whole conversation and has in every one I've had with him: how genuinely unfailingly gracious he is to players of his era who were supposed to be his rivals. Stan Musial, for example--"a great hitter and a great person," Ted called him.
Williams quit playing after the 1960 season--after he homered in his last time at bat and gave John Updike the material for what may be the greatest sports story I've ever read. Updike was a graduate student at Harvard when he attended that game, sitting not in a press box but in the stands, as a fan. In an article entitled "Kid Bids Hub Fans Adieu" that he wrote for The New Yorker, Updike described Williams's eighth-inning home run, on a one-and-one pitch, off the Orioles' Jack Fisher, and his run around the bases: "He ran as he always ran out home runs--hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of." Updike was part of the crowd roar that ran forminutes in an attempt to get Williams to step out from the dugout and tip his cap. "The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way," Updike wrote, "but he never did and did not now.
"Gods do not answer letters."
What a perfect line.
Updike also said Williams, by declining to go with the team to New York for a meaningless three-game series closing out the season, "knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit."
But that almost wasn't Ted's last at-bat. In Russia he told me the Yankees tried to get him to play the next year, as a pinch-hitter and part-time outfielder--for the same salary he made with the Red Sox. Imagine what that would have been. "The next year" was 1961, the year Roger Maris hit sixty-one homers, and Mickey Mantle hit fifty-four. Now factor in Ted Williams, playing eighty-one games in the perfect stadium for a left-handed power hitter.
I thought about all that and had to ask him, "How could you not play a year in Yankee Stadium?" He just decided he had played enough.
"It was really tempting," he said. "But I'd had my day."
I had met Maris and become good friends with him. I think it's a shame that he died without ever being admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I still think he will be, some day. Ted liked Maris, thought he was a great player, and worked hard to get him elected to the Hall of Fame.
He's proud that he has the highest on-base percentage in baseball history--"so I got on base all the time, but I hit 500 home runs." That's why he liked Musial and DiMaggio, because they hit for average but hit with good power, too. Lou Gehrig also. Ted played against Gehrig, and he saw Ruth in batting practice a few years after Ruth's playing career ended in 1935.
His teammate when he first came to the majors, Jimmy Foxx, was "a hell of a powerful hitter," Ted said. "There was a different sound to it when Foxx hit a baseball--like a cannon going off. Mantle was almost like that. He was a great player."
He called Bob Feller the best pitcher he faced. I couldn't resist saying: "Yeah, sure--I listened to those Indians-Red Sox games and you must have hit .500 against him." He just glared.
Feller, Virgil Trucks of Detroit, and Bob Lemon of Cleveland were his top three. The Yankees' Allie Reynolds and Vic Raschi, he said, were good pitchers but they played on a great team. He thought the Indians' Herb Score had a chance to be a great pitcher, until a line drive hit him in the face and he never was as good again.
I just listened most of the time, fascinated. But occasionally I'd make a comment. And sometimes he would say, "God-dammit, you're not dumb. You aren't dumb."
I told him of a conversation I had with Bill Dickey, the Hall of Fame catcher for the Yankees. I asked Dickey who was the fastest pitcher he faced. Before I could say the name, Ted cut right in: "He told you Lefty Grove was." He was right.
And I was right in crediting basketball for providing me with this opportunity with Ted, one of the richest experiences of my life.
Ten years later, I still feel indebted to basketball. My address has changed, but not my gratitude toward the game. In fact, in the months after the initial shock of being fired in my thirtieth year as Indiana University's basketball coach, I still was thinking of the next step I wanted to make, the next experiment I wanted to try, in the search for improving my basketball team.
I was fired September 10, 2000. I had already begun working with my team--a maximum of four players at a time, under NCAA rules, before full practice begins. October 15 was the first day that college basketball teams could practice in the 2000-01 season. The evening of October 14, the thought ran through my mind:
For the first time in thirty-six years, I don't have a basketball team. ...
It was the first time in a lot longer than that since a new season approached and I wasn't excited about getting it started. Add two years as an assistant coach at West Point; a year before that as a high school assistant at Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio; four years before that as a player at Ohio State; four years before that as a varsity high school player at Orrville, Ohio; and two years before that in junior high.
I hadn't quite turned sixty, and it had been forty-nine years since a fresh, new basketball season arrived without my being involved with a team.
The truth is I resented it like hell. I knew what I had set out to build at Indiana University. Winning games and championships was part of the dream going in, and not just as a by-product. I wanted to win those games and build those championship teams the way some people, primarily in the press, were saying could not be done anymore--by following NCAA rules; by recruiting kids who could and would be genuine students and four-year graduates as well as excellent basketball players and teams. I wanted to make the INDIANA they wore across their chests an identifying symbol that meant to people throughout the state, the Big Ten, and the country that inside that jerseywas a kid who would compete like hell and represent his school on the court and off it, during his college years and after them, in a way that would make the most important judges of all, that kid's parents, as proud as they could be.
To do all that and to win was the goal.
To win without doing all those things would have been to fail.
When they took direction of the Indiana University basketball program away from me, it didn't change my feeling about those twenty-nine years.
I had met my goal.
And I hadn't failed.
I was fired as Indiana University basketball coach while on a fishing trip in September 2000--fired in part because I was on a fishing trip, the spin later said. My being there supposedly proved my "insubordination."
Let me describe for you that "insubordination."
Late on Friday, September 8, at about 10:30 P.M., Myles Brand, the university president, called my home to advise me that he was going to be meeting with the university Trustees the next day. He knew I was planning to leave on a fishing trip to Canada at 5:00 the next morning. He asked me to cancel the trip so he could call me after he had met with the Trustees.
He wanted me to stay there so he could talk to me on the telephone after meeting with the Trustees. If he would have asked me to talk personally to the Trustees, I would have considered it, but I wasn't going to cancel the trip and disappoint people who had planned and made arrangements six months ago and already paid for the trip--not so he could talk to me on the telephone. There were telephones where I was going.
I called him about 7:30 that Sunday morning, and he told me I was fired.
We hadn't talked for thirty seconds when he said: "Well, Bob, the time to talk has passed. We're going to terminate you and move ahead.
"It really saddens me to do this."
By this time, I knew there were personal agendas. I said, "No it doesn't. It doesn't sadden you at all. The one thing left is that I want the financial considerations worked out as they should be."
"We'll take really good care of you, Bob."
I hung up the phone before I could say what I wanted to say. I wish I hadn't. I had already spent way too much time--certainly since May and actually for six years--holding myself back from instincts that had been reliable for me all my life. That's what disappointed me most about the ending to my relationshipwith Indiana University. Long before that telephone call, I hadn't done what I knew I had to do.
In March 2000 when I was trying to get a pretty good team ready to play in the NCAA tournament, CNN carried a story that accused me of choking a player during a 1997 practice. In future pages, I'll get into details of what all happened next, but the net result was that I was told by Brand in May that I could stay on as coach under what the president called "zero tolerance."
Obviously, I should have quit right there. I know I should have quit years before, but certainly there.
Walter Byers, the retired executive director of the NCAA, was appalled by Brand's "zero tolerance" terms. He asked Wayne Duke, the retired Big Ten commissioner, to get in touch with me immediately and say that under no circumstances should I stay at Indiana with that held over me. His thoughts didn't get to me. I can't say I would have done anything different from what I did, but--as much respect as I have for Mr. Byers--I might have.
For twenty years I have felt no man has been anywhere close to Walter Byers as an administrator in athletics. One day in the early '80s, more on a whim than anything, I called the NCAA office in Kansas City and asked to speak to him. He came on the phone and said, "Coach, what can I do for you?" I said, "Really, nothing. I've heard about you all my life and I've played in your tournament several times--in fact, we've won it a couple of times. I just wanted to see if there actually was a Walter Byers."
He laughed, and we talked about several things.
From that moment on, I've had a very good relationship with him. He asked me to take part in several NCAA discussions or functions. One was special. The night before the 1988 semifinal games at Kansas City, the NCAA held a dinner celebrating its fiftieth tournament. I was invited, along with Pete Newell and Ray Meyer, to sit at Walter's table. That was one of the things in my coaching career that meant a lot to me.
Instead of sounding out people like Walter Byers, I tried to go on, just taking care of the basketball program figuring things would eventually work out. This was before I became aware of the agendas different people in the administration and the athletic department had. I tried right up through when--because of my fishing trip "insubordination" and other justifications just as flimsy--with a few hypocritical words I was fired.
I had a hard time accepting what happened. How could I believe that aftertwenty-nine years of turning out basketball teams and kids who followed the rules, went to school, graduated, and won championships, a university president and a lawyer-filled Board of Trustees could use a baseless case to rush to my firing?
More unbelievable to me was that I was still around to let them do it to me, four months after they couldn't find the reason to fire me but suited me up in the phony "zero tolerance" straitjacket so, in their minds, I could fire myself.
I was never even told what exactly was meant by "zero tolerance." Did it mean I couldn't get a technical foul? That I couldn't dispute something in the press? That I had to go through life without saying anything to anybody at any time? Brand said he made it clear. That's absolute bullshit. He never told me one thing about what mattered most in the situation he created: his interpretation of what those two words meant.
Zero tolerance was their term for what they would tolerate from me after Brand told the world in May that I had done a lot of terrible things but they were going to give me one last chance.
Last chance? Once these people--the president, his assistant, and enough members of the Board of Trustees--had started playing to the national media by building a flimsy case for firing me, I didn't have any chance. The idea of a last chance greatly irritated me because none of them had discussed with me the things they thought I should have been doing. When Bill Orwig, Paul Dietzel, Ralph Floyd, or John Ryan--men I had worked for and with most of my years at Indiana--thought I should do something, they told me what it was they wanted.
Instead, these people sought out and listened to everyone who had an accusation against me during the last twenty-five years and never--I mean never--got around to the very basic justice of confronting me with their charges and asking my version. I certainly would have had a response. When, after their May verdict was delivered, I finally heard or read in print their claims against me, I was as astonished as I was angry. I simply didn't do a number of things the world was given to believe as absolute fact.
And still I tried to coach. I remember talking with Dick Vitale months before any of this and telling him: "All I want to do is coach." That was so true that I let it affect my instinctive judgment.
At the end, I remembered something I had said to a friend just after I came to Indiana. They had hired me because they knew they had a major problem to clean up, and they cheered and praised me for getting it done--and, of course, for winning while doing it. But what I said to my friend even then was: "I'mlike the marshal brought in to clean up Dodge City. After a while when things have gone well, they always turn on the marshal."
So, yes, almost from the start I knew there would be a time when I should hand in my badge and ride away.
But quitting is a hard thing for me to do, and it became all the harder because I let myself get soft. I was just too comfortable in the life I had created for myself in a town that had been special to me.
My first six years as a head coach were at Army. When I left there, I could have spent a year searching out every college town in the country and not found a spot better for me at that time than Bloomington. I had the places and the friends to go fishing with me anytime I wanted. I could hunt birds in season, play golf whenever I wanted, go to lunch and talk with people I liked, go to dinner and enjoy the foods that appeal to me--great steaks, Mexican food, Italian food, Chinese food. All of that was right there, in a comfortable and friendly small town.
And I was coaching basketball at a big university in the most basketball-conscious state in the country, playing in the kind of conference that gets a team that is good enough to win a national championship tested and experienced and sharp enough to get it done. I don't just say that in theory. My years there produced three national championships, and--although as a history major I'm quite aware that all history ever cares about is battles won--at least three more championship banners could have been hanging in Assembly Hall if particularly devastating injuries had not come to teams that were good enough to win. I had done a pretty good job in Dodge City.
That morning as I dialed the call to Brand, I also thought of the tantalizing future that was so close out there. I thought of the group of kids I would be coaching in another month--great kids, the kind I knew I could win with. Four of them were 6-foot-10, and they could do some things. I already was working out ways to play all four of them together at times. And it would work, because two of them, freshman Jared Jeffries and sophomore Jeff Newton, could handle the ball and they could shoot, pass, and drive well enough to move out on the court and cause problems for any defensive players who were big enough to cover them when they were close to the basket. The other two were Kirk Haston, second-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore and, I thought, the best big man--maybe the best player--in the Big Ten in the season coming up; and George Leach, a sophomore center who was going to be the best shot-blocker I ever coached.
I had high hopes for this team; I felt we could win more than sixty games over the next two years with a real shot at the 2002 NCAA championship. Through my twenty-nine years at Indiana, I knew what good teams looked like, and what they had to have to be really good. Seven of my twenty-nine teams at Indiana were either ranked No. 1 in the country at some point during the year or won the NCAA championship. Fourteen others--twenty-one in all out of the twenty-nine--were ranked in the Top Ten at some point in the season.
None of those teams ever had four big guys as good as these kids.
Jeffries grew up right in Bloomington, far and away the best player produced there in my twenty-nine years. He was so strong academically he could have gone anywhere he wanted. Duke, which has grown into the premier program in college basketball under a player I once coached, Mike Krzyzewski, was the other school he considered before making his choice known.
I felt all along he would choose Indiana. His dad and mom were strong, supportive people for him, people I liked a lot, and they were doing what they should have done: leaving the final decision up to Jared. I'm sure he didn't surprise them any more than he did me when he chose Indiana. And I'm sure they were as happy about it as I was.
In Atlanta, Georgia, A. J. Moye was a straight-A student who physically resembled one of our great players of the past, Quinn Buckner--a different type of player but just as bright, just as good a kid, with leadership potential, like Buckner. A. J. also picked Indiana.
In picking Indiana, those kids were picking me. They each said it in a dozen different ways: I want to play for Bob Knight.
They said that to a national media pack that was kind of shocked. My detractors in the media have never been able to believe that anyone would want to play for me. These kids did, and they didn't want to play for me a bit more than I wanted to coach them and the other kids we were blending together into this new team.
No, I damned sure didn't want to turn my back and quit on kids like those incoming freshmen.
Or on Haston, who had lost his mother in a horrible Tennessee tornado disaster a year before and even more than most kids we've had over the years thought of our basketball team as family.
Or on Leach, whose first college season was set back a year by inept scholarship-processing procedures at his high school and within our own coaching staff, and by the infuriating, mind-boggling stubbornness of NCAA committees.
But even with all of this, I should have walked away. And that's what bothered me the most. I hadn't done what I knew inside I had to do. Walk away. From a rotten mess.
I wasn't ready even then to walk away from basketball. I felt strongly that surely somewhere there was a school and an environment where I could enjoy coaching again.
KNIGHT. Copyright © 2002 by Bob Knight and Bob Hammel. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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