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The Dark Knight of Bobby's Soul

"A Season on the Brink" comes to ESPN. Is Bobby Knight as bad as you think he is?

11:01 PM, Mar 7, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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THE DEFINITIVE Bobby Knight anecdote isn't the chair toss. It isn't the videotape of him man-handling one of his players. It isn't even the farewell speech at Indiana University where he said that his critics "could kiss my ass." If you want to see the real Bobby Knight, look back to the 1984 Summer Olympics.

When Knight was selected to coach the 1984 Olympic basketball team, he was furious that the Soviet Union had decided to boycott the games. He wanted to prove that his American team could beat anybody in the world, and took it as a personal affront that the Russians would deny him a chance to crush them.

So even though the U.S. squad was overwhelmingly favored to win the gold medal, Knight worked them to death, because he thought that with the Russians gone, they would have to beat everyone else twice as badly to show they were the best. Over and over and over he drilled them, pushing the group to the breaking point. On the night of the gold-medal game a young guard from North Carolina (Michael Jordan) taped a note on the team blackboard: "Coach, after all the shit we've been through, there is no way we lose tonight." They beat Spain 101-68.

Afterwards Knight would call the Olympics his proudest moment, saying, "If you can't fight for your country in a war, there is no greater honor than representing it in the Olympics."

Which is pure Knight. He is one of the great basketball coaches of the past 50 years. He is a student of history and a leader of men. And at times he is a monster, profane, vindictive, and unreasoning. He is a deeply flawed, tragic hero-coach.

John Feinstein's 1986 book on Knight, "A Season on the Brink," is being brought to life this weekend in movie form. In a nice bit of symbolic scheduling, the film will be broadcast on ESPN Sunday night, immediately following the selection of the NCAA field (a cleaned-up, family-friendly version will be simulcast on ESPN2).

The movie is quite good; a condensed, but fair, adaptation of the book, with Brian Dennehy as Knight. Much to the producers' credit, they don't shy away from Knight's explosiveness, or his foul tongue (Billy Packer complains that "A Season on the Brink" has too much bad language, but trying to depict Knight without profanities is like trying to show the ocean without waves). Dennehy does a fine job of capturing Knight's charisma and his rakishness--after challenging his star guard, Steve Alford, to become a team leader, he quips, "Personally, I don't think you could lead a whore to bed." And he also effectively portrays Knight's tortured, softer side.

But he never quite comes to grips with Knight's dark rages. Dennehy may shout like Bobby Knight, and gesticulate like Bobby Knight, but it's not nearly as scary as the real thing. (For a taste of how incendiary Knight can be, click here, for a clip of a motivational locker-room speech he once gave. Be warned: This is not suitable for the faint of heart, and no matter how many times you've been below decks on a troop ship, you will be taken aback.)

It is his rage that has made Knight so controversial. In his 29 years at IU, he won three national championships, graduated an enormously high percentage of his players, and made millions of dollars for the school. He should have been canonized. Yet the IU administration tried to get rid of him for years, and finally succeeded in 2000. Why? Because they were made uncomfortable by his anger and aggression.

What makes Knight such a compelling figure is his self-knowledge. He understands his self-destructiveness and his compulsion to win. In a long, rambling interview, conducted right after he had been fired from Indiana, in the March 2001 issue of Playboy, we get to see the full range of Bobby Knight. He berates the interviewer, Lawrence Grobel, talks military history with him, swears at him, and at one point tries to physically wrest Grobel's tape recorder from him in order to throw it out of a moving car. And after all of this, when Grobel sticks out his hand and says, "Shake my hand, Coach," Knight breaks down.

"You don't understand," he tells Grobel. "You can't understand. How would you like to have had your whole world taken from you for no good reason? Today was the first time in 38 years I attended a practice without having a team. For 29 years I did things for Indiana, I raised $5 million for the library, I established two professorial chairs, and when I left there was no thanks. Not a word. I'm selling my house, moving to Phoenix. I don't know if I'll ever get another coaching job. . . ."