Lately I have talked to several people about some of the greatest sportswriting of all time.
There are so many great articles out there.
One of them that I just read for the first time is Frank Deford's 1981 Sports Illustrated profile of then Indiana University coach Bobby Knight.
The theme of the story comes from something Knight implores his players to do: To stay focused on hunting "the elephants" -- the big issues -- and not to get distracted hunting "the rabbits."
Of course, as we then learn from the article, Knight is quite a rabbit hunter himself.
This passage begins with what is described as some fairly typical Knight banter. He's quoted talking to his counterpart women's coach, Maryalyce Jeremiah.
"You know what a dab is?"
"A dab -- D-A-B."
"No, what's that?"
"It's a dumb-assed broad," he says, smirking.
"I don't know any of those," she replies -- a pretty quick comeback.
But he won't leave it alone. The edge, again: "Yeah, you know one more than you think you do."
And he moves on. The white woman shrugs. It's just Bobby. The black man shrugs. It's just Bobby. But why is it just Bobby? Why does he do this to himself? He's smart enough to know that, in this instance, he isn't hurting his two friends nearly so much as he hurts himself, cumulatively, by casting this kind of bread upon the waters, day after day. Why? Why, Bobby, why?
What a setup he has. Forty years old, acknowledged to be at the top of his profession. Says the very coach who disparages Knight for being a bully, "Any coach who says Bobby's not the best is just plain jealous." Knight has already won 317 games, and nobody, not even Adolph Rupp, achieved that by his age.
Someday Knight could even surpass Rupp's record 874 wins, a seemingly insurmountable total. Knight has won one NCAA championship, in 1976, and five Big Ten titles in nine seasons; he was twice national coach of the year; he's the only man ever to both play on and coach an NCAA champion. He's the coach at one of America's great basketball schools, one that's also an academic institution of note. The state worships him; Hoosier politicians vie for his benediction. His contemporaries in coaching not only revere him for his professional gifts, but some of his esteemed predecessors -- mythic men of basketball lore -- see Knight as the very keeper of the game. The torch is in his hands.
He's also a clever man and delightful company when he chooses to be. Beyond all that he has an exemplary character, without any of the vices of the flesh that so often afflict men in his station and at his time of life. He's devoted to his family, Nancy and their two sons, Timothy, 16, and Patrick, 10. His supporters fall over themselves relating tales of his civic and charitable good works, a light that Knight humbly hides under a basket. In this era of athletic corruption Knight stands four-square for the values of higher education that so many coaches and boot-lickers in the NCAA only pay lip service to. His loyalty is as unquestioned as his integrity. He is the best and brightest ... and the most honorable, too. He has it all, every bit of it. Just lying there on the table. He has only to lean down, pick it up and let the chip fall off. But he can't. For Knight to succeed at basketball-not only to win, you understand, but to succeed because "That's much harder," he says -- all the world must be in the game. All the people are players, for or against, to be scouted, tested, broken down, built back up if they matter. Life isn't lived; it's played. And the rabbits are everywhere.
Of course, Knight was eventually fired from Indiana, essentially for treating people roughly. (YouTube -- where many of his countless public outbursts (that last one is PG-13 for sure) are archived -- is not kind to his public image, and Wikipedia has a rather lengthy catalog of such incidents.)
Yet Knight's place among history's legendary coaches could hardly be more secure. Plenty of people in basketball have told me that they would happily have Knight coach their children. He might be the only coach in college basketball about whom no one seems to have ever heard of a single recruiting violation.
And of course he did go on to surpass Rupp's record of 874 wins -- earlier this year he got his 900th at Texas Tech, having passed Dean Smith who held the record in the interim.
Knight was replaced at Texas Tech by his son Patrick, who was just ten at the time of Deford's article.
UPDATE: David Thorpe, it turns out, knows all kinds of stuff about this article. He e-mails: "Knight's team won the NCAA title the year that article came out. On the day Reagan got shot. The star of that Final 4 for Indiana was a young big named Landon Turner. Turner never played another game, thanks to an auto accident that left him paralyzed. Knight, who helped him a great deal on the court, did even more for him off of it."
In a great gesture, the Celtics later used a late draft pick on Landon Turner, reportedly at Knight's urging.