College game is beauty and beast


March 30, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

I was planning to write about Bob Knight and his bullwhip for today. But then I watched Christian Laettner perform magic Saturday night, and Knight's cheap tricks didn't seem so important anymore.

Maybe that's the problem with college sports.

We're seduced by the games. We want to believe in them. And when we see Duke and Kentucky play a game that can safely be called majestic, we get blinded to everything else.

For sure, the games are more fun. Have you been watching? Michigan and Ohio State go to overtime yesterday, one day after we saw what some want to call the best college basketball game ever. We go tripping back to the March day in 1974 when Lefty and Maryland lost in overtime to N.C. State and David Thompson in the ACC tournament final for comparison.

Certainly, the Duke-Kentucky game was a marvel. It had so many compelling elements, including the return of Kentucky to prominence and Duke's status as defending champion. Kentucky made a comeback against a team you can't come back against. And Duke won the game on a last-second play that can't work, except that it did. It was a game where the coaches let the players play -- a 104-103 celebration of basketball as it could be.

And there was Christian Laettner, the All-American hero. He made every shot he took in the game. He added that last shot to a career filled with game-winning shots. One basketball man said no player had made as many clutch shots since Jerry West. It was a night for such comparisons.

But Laettner was not perfect. He was 10-for-10 from the field, 10-for-10 from the line. And still he was not perfect.

You can't call someone perfect who apparently intentionally stepped on an opponent's chest as the player lay on his back. Aminu Timberlake had gone to the floor, and replays seemed to suggest that Laettner willfully stepped on him. The referees, who called Laettner for a technical foul, saw it that way. And those who suggest Laettner, the cover boy, is a punk on the court must feel vindicated. Some even wonder if he should be suspended.

I wrote a column Saturday about the game and Laettner and never mentioned the incident. I didn't wonder about his actions or wonder if the technical foul was probably sufficient penalty (I think it is). I was too caught up in the game. It's probably how engaged most of us were by the drama being played out.

That's the problem. We love the games so much, we sometimes miss what else is important. That's why I have to get back to Knight and the bullwhip. This is much more important than a little on-court scuffling.

Knight is bringing his Indiana team to the Final Four. We will watch Indiana play Duke Saturday in a TV ratings bonanza, matching Knight against his former pupil, Mike Krzyzewski, who has maybe surpassed his mentor. That's drama. And the basketball (yes, with Laettner playing on the Duke side) could be as compelling as the buildup promises.

Knight is the best coach in college basketball. He is also perhaps the game's greatest bully. There is much wrong with big-time college sports -- we know it's a cesspool, actually -- but part of what is wrong is people such as Knight. They are the coaches who are somehow above reproach.

One of Knight's best friends, then a vice president at Indiana, said the problem with General Knight was that he actually believed he had an army behind him in the adoring Hoosiers fans. And maybe he does.

We know all the Knight stories. And now we have one more. He spent much of last week in Albuquerque, brandishing a bullwhip. He carried it with him everywhere, from news conferences to practices. He talked about chaining players' ankles and placing them in ice water. Even for Knight, who loves to play off his tough-guy image, this was bizarre behavior. He was kidding, of course, but then he posed for a photo in which he pretended to use the bullwhip on one of his players -- a black player, as it turned out.

Does anyone have to be reminded of the enduring symbolism of the bullwhip? Can anyone doubt Knight's insensitivity? The thing is, Knight is not a racist. He's just a jerk. And when the local NAACP chapter called for an apology, Knight instead wondered if he should apologize for bringing in black players and ensuring they graduate. Knight does bring in black and white players and ensure they graduate. That's great. Except that, in this case, it's entirely beside the point.

The point is that Knight, with his impressive won-lost record, thinks he can get away with anything. And he can. He has. He continues to.

And I guess that's because there are games such as the one we saw Saturday night. You know, I still can't get over it.

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