The choker

In addition to giving an excellent throat massage, Bobby Knight is a world-class whiner and excuse-maker -- and his teams keep losing, too.

By Allen Barra

Published March 20, 2002 8:44PM (EST)

Bobby Knight still swears there was no choke, or hardly a choke. In his new book, "Knight: My Story," Knight claims that the player he was accused of choking, Neil Reed, said in an interview that when Knight was choking him, Knight was so out of control that assistant coaches had to pull him off. But, says Knight in the book, "The practice tape -- rarely shown at actual speed -- showed that Reed and I, walking in opposite directions, met, were together for maybe two seconds, and walked on. That was it, just a two second choke." Nothing to get worked up about it. Can't a guy take a little choke?

Maybe we should start listening to Knight about this, because the guy definitely knows choking. Knight's latest choke was a first-round flop last week in the NCAA Tournament. Once again, and for the fifth time in the last seven seasons, a Bobby Knight-coached team choked and sputtered and finally lost to a lower-seeded team. This time it was the sixth-seeded Red Raiders of Texas Tech getting dumped by 11th-seeded Southern Illinois, 76-68, in a game in which Tech was favored by seven points. In four of those losses, Knight's higher-ranked teams were leading at halftime and, well, choked in the second half. Are we looking at a pattern here?

There was a time when Bobby Knight was a great basketball coach. That was a long time ago, probably before most of Knight's current players at Tech were playing organized basketball. Before last week, if they knew him as anything, it was as a guy with really, really bad hair who choked a player and inspired a truly bad TV movie. (You knew that movie was going to be terrible before you saw it. How could a movie about Bobby Knight be good? Martin Scorsese, arguably, transformed an inarticulate mass of rage named Jake LaMotta into art, but compared to Bobby Knight, Jake LaMotta is Bertrand Russell.) Now they know him as basketball's consummate choker.

Let's go back to that videotape again. Here's Knight: "The tape's detail in the critical area, my hand on Reed's chest, would make Zapruder look sharp and precise. What was shown was fuzzy and greatly magnified, and unexplainedly blurred in the central area: where my right hand contacted his chest -- one hand, not two, which I assume chokers customarily use ... Clearly, Reed walked away without reaching up to rub or at least touch his throat, any kind of reflex action that would indicate discomfort. There was no choke." Have you ever heard such bullshit? "Because I didn't use two hands and because the tape doesn't show him writhing in agony, what everybody else saw when they looked at this tape is wrong." If you like excuses, whining and near-paranoid denial, 375 pages of it, then "Knight: My Story" is for you. Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore.

My favorite parts of the book, in fact my favorite parts of any Bobby Knight interview, come when he tries to deflect the subject from his berserk behavior to "academics." "There wasn't a president or ex-president," he writes, "who had a basketball program with an academic record close to ours or as clean as ours." Knight lambasts Indiana University president Miles Brand for giving a speech in Washington about de-emphasizing athletics while giving a big raise to the school's athletic director. "The same president limited full professors to two percent increases at the time athletic department personnel were getting a three and a half percent increase ..."

Oh, weep, weep for those professors, Bobby Knight, and for those basketball players who didn't graduate. First of all, as everyone knows, the graduation rate of athletes in any university program has nothing to do with the athletic department but with NCAA policy and the university's commitments to its own standards. Leaving aside the obvious question as to the value of most of those degrees, who graduates and who doesn't has as much to do with the basketball and football coaches as the question of who will be on the starting lineup has to do with the president's office. And, yes, presidents like Brand make speeches about de-emphasizing athletics and then raise the salaries of athletic directors because if they didn't they'd get inferior athletic directors and might then get pressured out of their jobs -- which is precisely why more and more of them are making speeches about de-emphasizing athletics, as Bobby Knight very well knows.

"Academic integrity" means more than ticket sales or even diplomas. The presidents who signed a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune in support of Brand's firing of Knight regard the phrase as meaning that no matter how much Knight meant to his employers, Indiana University, in terms of winning basketball games, his actions on and off the court were not acceptable standards of behavior for a university.

Because Bobby Knight was able to guide the Texas Tech Red Raiders to a winning season, the university has been willing to overlook the fact that Knight's first action upon becoming head coach was to try to kick three players he did not like off the team and try to take their athletic scholarships away. It should have been the university that stepped in and told Knight he couldn't do this. Instead, we witnessed the ludicrous spectacle of the NCAA stepping in as the arbiters of justice. The powers that rule Tech chose the selling of basketball tickets over academic integrity. In other words, when it came time to do the right thing, they choked. No wonder they're well matched with their basketball coach.

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Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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