In the pilot episode of "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano narrates the state of his world -- and lays out the defining theme of that landmark series -- in one crisp four-sentence cluster:
"It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over."
Tony was talking about the Mafia, but he was really talking about America. Later in the episode, even as he reveals his own depression in the office of a psychiatrist, he pines for a bygone era:
"Nowadays, everybody's gotta go to shrinks, and counselors, and go on 'Sally Jessy Raphael' and talk about their problems. What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American."
Fourteen months after the Sopranos premiered on HBO, Indiana University President Myles Brand placed legendary men's basketball coach Bob Knight on "zero tolerance" probation. The university had been embarrassed by a CNN/Sports Illustrated video of Knight allegedly choking player Neil Reed, and Brand had seen enough. Seven months after that, Knight passed a student named Kent Harvey on IU's campus. Harvey asked "What's up, Knight?" According to Harvey, Knight grabbed him by the arm and lectured him on showing the proper respect. He was "Mr. Knight" or "Coach Knight." Brand asked the coach to resign. When Knight said no, Brand fired him.
It's been 14 years -- has it really been 14 years? -- and the whole thing still feels fresh. That goes for Indiana fans, obviously, but it also applies to the sports world at large. It's impossible to overstate this: Knight's firing was a massive deal. A media circus flooded Bloomington, Indiana. Students rioted, destroyed campus statues and hanged Brand in effigy. When Knight held a farewell news conference at Dunn Meadow on Sept. 13, 6,000 fans showed up to say goodbye. Just like that, Indiana's own charismatic, bruising, beloved icon, who had for 30 years dominated Bloomington like a don, was gone.
Depending on your perspective, the reasons for Knight's firing were either warranted or silly. Was he a bully? A man out of time? Zero tolerance sounded New Agey anyway. Soprano might have thought him an American.
Whatever your view, the impetus of Knight's departure made it easy for IU fans to ask that age-old question: What if?
What if Bob Knight hadn't been fired? What if he had just ignored the smart-aleck college student? What if Harvey hadn't greeted him in the first place? How would the next 10 years have gone?
The first problem with this counterfactual is that, based on his track record, Knight seemed bound to offend Brand again. The reason he was fired for such a minor offense was that it didn't happen in a vacuum. The choke scandal had happened just a few months earlier. That February, IU athletic director Clarence Doninger alleged the coach had physically confronted him after a game. There was an issue with a potted plant and broken glass and an apology to a secretary. There were various versions of various stories, but whatever the details, clearly Brand was very much on edge.
But let's say the Harvey incident never happened. Obviously, Mike Davis doesn't win the public support of his players and thus the head-coaching position. Does Indiana still make its run to the 2002 national title game? Davis' offensive style was vastly different from Knight's, and, for one season, it really worked: Instead of classic motion offense, the Hoosiers spaced the floor, iso-style, and let Jared Jeffries go to work. Would Knight's more rigid system have maximized those players? What if, what if.
Either way, assuming Knight didn't run afoul of Brand again in the near future, there's no way he would have left Indiana at any point before he decided to go. He surely would have stayed at the school at least as long as he spent at Texas Tech -- until 2008.
No matter what Knight's teams would have done in that time -- and when he was fired, they hadn't been to the Sweet 16 since 1993-94 -- it would have been better than the Davis era. Knight's retirement would have taken on a ceremonial flavor. A successor would have been blessed. A Jim Calhoun-esque position would have been created. The schism within Indiana's fandom -- from former players to Knight loyalists to people just plain fed-up -- would never have happened. And the dramatic drop-off under Davis that led a panicked Indiana brass to hire a fresh-off-NCAA-probation Kelvin Sampson in 2006 would have been unimaginable.
Knight is now 73. At some point, the tenure would have ended. Maybe his son, Pat Knight, would have succeeded him. Who knows how that would have gone? It's not inconceivable, in this alternative scenario, that an intact Hoosiers program could have hired Tom Crean by now.
We'll never know, of course, because "What's up, Knight?" happened, the CNN tape started looping and, well, you know the rest.