He was 24 in that spring of 1965, the year he was named the head basketball coach at West Point, but even now he recalls a conversation he had then with the legendary Joe Lapchick. He went to visit him the day after he got his job, Bob Knight remembers, and before he could get his first question out, heard the former St. John's coach ask, "Is it important to you that you're liked?"
That stopped Knight, made him think for a tick or two, and then he said, "Well, yeah, by certain people. I think it would be important to me that you like me because I don't think you would like an [expletive deleted] no matter how good he is at what he did, and I want to be a person that you like."
"Then," Knight says now, "we went on to discuss players. His whole approach was and he was as good a person with people as I've ever known his whole approach was, from a coaching standpoint, if you make decisions on whether you're liked or not, then you're not going to coach very well. That's the way I've coached from that day on."
He was 30 in that spring of 1971, the year he was named the head basketball coach at Indiana, but even now he recalls a philosophical soliloquy he offered up then. His subject was discipline, and here he defined civilian discipline by holding his hand at his chest; military discipline by holding his hand at his chin; and his own discipline by holding his hand above his head.
"I still feel the same way. Practically. It's a little different version," he says now. "Discipline at Indiana is here compared to the Military Academy" and his hand is chest level "so I don't have to have mine up here" above his head "to maintain the differential between campus-wide discipline and discipline on the basketball team, and get done what it is I have to get done."
He is 51 now, in his 21st season in Bloomington, and all that he has done has transported him from the mundane, has transformed him into an outsized figure whose very name often incites extreme reactions. His temper, his integrity, his feuds, his honesty, his propensity for the histrionic, his insistence on perfection all are now the stuff of legend, as are the successes he has accumulated over the years.
Those successes often are overshadowed by his own personality, as Ali's boxing genius once was overshadowed by his, and they have arrived so publicly, with such regularity, that they are often assumed and drained of impact. But the numbers are there, as stark as Knight himself, and viewed as a composite are as staggering as the Ali of old.
Three national championships. Seven outright and three shared
Big 10 titles in 20 years. A .750 winning percentage at Indiana, a .734 overall winning percentage, a .721 winning percentage in the NCAA tourney, an astounding 25 winning seasons in the 26 he has coached. (Strangely enough, he was hired by Indiana after his 1971 Army team went 11-13.)
Have you changed after all the years, he is asked.
"I don't think so. If anything, I'm probably outwardly irritated by far fewer things now than I was then. Not that I'm any less irritated, but outwardly. Some things you just get a little smarter. You say, '[Expletive deleted] it. It's not worth it. Let's move on.' "
What motivates you now after all the years?
"Oh. I don't know. Uh," Bob Knight says, leaning back against a gymnasium wall.
Then, looking down, he says, "If I'm going to take you fishing, I want to take you fishing where we can catch some fish. If I'm going to coach a basketball team, I want it to look as if it's been coached. I want it to look as if it knows what it's doing. I want it to play well. I want players to feel that having played basketball was a very important thing to them.
"So I work to get that done, and when I can't get that done, I won't coach anymore."
He now coaches a team many favor to win the national championship. It is steadied by senior Eric Anderson, and highlighted by Calbert Cheaney and the rest of a junior class that two falls ago was considered history's finest recruiting coup. It includes sophomore Damon Bailey, who has survived personal hurt (his sister suffers from leukemia) and the grandiose expectations of others, and it even receives flourishes from an exciting 6-foot-9-inch freshman named Alan Henderson.
Already, in this young year, it has found itself compared to those greatest of Knight teams, those teams that cut through the 1975 and 1976 seasons with but one defeat in 64 games, yet that is fatuous thinking Knight ridicules with a disgusted look.
"They were much better. That (1976 team) was one of the great teams that ever played basketball," he says simply.