A conversation between Bob Knight and Tony La Russa

Editor's note: ESPN's Rece Davis sat down earlier this week with Hall of Famer Bob Knight, the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division I men's basketball history, and St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. An edited transcript of their conversation:

Rece Davis: You two guys have achieved a lot of success, but your paths don't necessarily seem to be ones that would meet together. How'd you get to know Tony so well?

Bob Knight: Well, one of the guys that I think is really partially responsible … Eddie Einhorn was the guy that started college basketball on television, and he was one of the owners of the White Sox. So I'd gotten to know him really well and he knew I was a baseball fan and he said, "You'll really like our manager. You gotta come up and meet our manager."

So I did and uh, I told you about the equipment that I've worn where Parcells has coached. I've had White Sox stuff, A's stuff and Cardinals stuff with where [La Russa has] managed.

And when we start talking -- he's just like I felt about Bill -- and I've told him this a bunch of times, he's a guy that could coach anything, could teach any team sport, because he just has a great concept of what it takes to win and also what causes you to lose, and those two things are so important with these teams going into these last four games. And I once asked him, and I'll ask the question again, but it was really kind of -- it was a basketball question asked in a baseball way, "Would you rather go into the playoffs and the World Series with good hitting and just adequate pitching, or great pitching and just adequate hitting?"

Sunday Conversations

Rece Davis' interview with Bob Knight and Tony La Russa will air Sunday on SportsCenter at 11 p.m. ET. To read Davis' interview with Knight and Bill Parcells, click here.

Tony La Russa: That's not even a hard question, as I answered because what you learn in baseball, and I think it's true in a lot of other sports: you can't outscore the other team and be successful. The first thing you gotta do is pitch and defend and then score however much you can. But if every night you win 10-9, you won't do that very often.

Knight: Well, you know, that's kind of the way in basketball, too, I think, and that's one of the reasons why I've had over the years such a tremendous appreciation for being able to be around Tony and his teams because I relate what he's doing to basketball: the pitching and the defensive positioning and the ability of defenders, and now you can win games 3-2. It's like Tony said, "It's hard to win 9-8," and I think it's hard to win 91-90. And you've got a much better chance if we can win 62-58.

Davis: Tony, when do you remember the relationship between you and Coach starting to develop and becoming more than just a meeting?

La Russa: Well, I did meet him as the White Sox manager. He was by the cage there, and I shook his hand. And he told me to get out of the way, he was busy, and when I had enough time in the league I could come back and say hello to him.

But I went to the A's, and our trainer, who is still in St. Louis, Barry Weinberg, was the trainer for Bob at Indiana. And I still do it. I did it especially in my first year that I was managing. If I talk to the team and I said something I thought was important and it was something I had learned, I would attribute it to who[m]ever I had heard or read it from.

And you know, four or five times, I said, "This is what we gotta do and this is why" … So somehow Barry calls the coach and says the guy that's managing our club keeps referring to you. So one day the phone rings and I pick it up. He says, "Well, if you're gonna quote me, I want to make sure you quote me accurately, and I'm gonna come by." And I'm thinking to myself, "Who the heck is this guy? It sounds like Bob Knight." I said "Coach, is this you?" And he said, "Yeah, I take it very personal when someone is quoting me, and I wanna make sure that if someone's quoting me they're quoting me correctly, and I will be in Yuma, Ariz., in 1988." And, ever since then, I don't think he's missed one spring since 1988.

Knight: We're playing the Padres, and we beat [them] 2 or 3-0 on Saturday night and his meeting with coaches is on Sunday morning. This is one of my greatest thrills in sports. So I'm kinda, "When are we gonna get some hits? We gotta have a few hits, and I know that we're gonna win a lot of games 3-2 and 2-1 and so forth." So I'm kinda needling the next morning.

Well, we both take a lot of needling but there also comes a point. And he's got the lineup card, and if you've ever seen one, it's a pretty stiff piece of cardboard.

And so I'm sitting across the table from Tony. He flips the lineup card at me and I think it stuck in my throat. I'm afraid to pull it out because I think blood's gonna go everywhere. He says, "All right then, you make up the lineup if you know so much about it."

Well, I did know one thing: Dave Stewart's pitching that afternoon. So I said, "Well, I need a pen." I don't think he ever thought -- I think he thought when he said that it was gonna be over with. I said, "I need a pen." Six coaches hand me a pen. And Tony's great. He says "All right, I got into this, but here are the eight guys you gotta play. You can bat them any way you want to."

So about the third inning some guy is sitting behind us. [He says,] "One of them doesn't know anything about basketball and the other doesn't know anything about baseball." And Tony says, "Don't turn around." He nudges me and says, "Don't turn around. Let's not get in an argument with some moron sitting behind [us.] Let's just keep watching. Don't turn around."

About an inning later, curiosity gets the best of me. And I turn around, and it's Dick Enberg sitting behind us. He had been at the game the night before, and he saw the two of us sitting there. Well anyhow, at the end of five innings, we're ahead 3-0 and I quit. I said, "It's too easy." I said, "Baseball's too easy. I quit." And of course as I said, Dave Stewart was pitching and I know nobody's gonna hit Dave Stewart.

Davis: Were you hoping he'd be behind when he left?

La Russa: No, no. We're keeping score. I don't care who makes the lineup; I want to win the game.

But here's a couple of P.S.'s. His big issue with my lineup the night before was that our big slugger was not protected. And we had a split squad game, which half the team went to Phoenix and the other half stayed in Yuma. And McGwire was not protected properly, 'cause I had Dave Henderson I had brought, and he was sitting in the second spot.

So he was griping that several times in the game they pitched around McGwire and we didn't score. That's when I threw the lineup at him, and it just brushed his cheek; it didn't stick in his throat (Knight grabs throat and coughs). But his big move was to move Dave Henderson behind McGwire, and so when I posted it, I posted it "Per B. Knight". Henderson walks in and he says "Hey Coach, you're the guy I should play for. You know how good I am."

And Coach looks at him and says, "Let me tell you something. Talk is cheap. We'll see what you do during the game." And Dave says, "OK." He hits a 2-run double for two of the three runs.

Bob's excited, he's high-fiving him and everything. Now he didn't turn it over until the fifth inning, now it gets to be the eighth, ninth. He says, "How are we gonna close this one out? Where's Eckersley?" I said, "Back in Phoenix." He says, "You gotta be kidding me. Go get him." I said, "No, Bob, he's in Phoenix." So till we get that third out, he jumps up, sprints onto the field and is high-fiving the guys. And he wants the lineup card, which I think he still has, right?

Knight: Got it in a frame in my office.

Davis: What kind of baseball manager would he have been?

La Russa: Outstanding. I think, I don't know if he'd admit it to others, [but] he told me he likes baseball better than basketball. He knows the game really, really well. He was great friends with Sparky [Anderson] for many, many years, so, I mean, he's been around baseball people and talked baseball. He's got great knowledge.

Davis: Is that true?

Knight: Well, you know, I like it. I don't -- I don't think -- I wouldn't ever profess to be in a position to be a baseball manager, but I would hope that I could teach fundamentals.

It's just like if he were coaching basketball. I don't think there would be … he played basketball in high school and then the only thing that's kinda shady about his background in any way, shape or form is a law degree. But I've just watched him, and I've watched what he does, and I've watched what he says, and I've been fortunate enough to be around when he's talked to the team, and right away I said, "He happens to be a baseball manager." Here's a guy that could coach anything, just because he's gonna spend the time and he's gonna pay attention to some things that other guys just don't pay attention to.

Davis: Tony, how does motivation in players now compare to when you first started managing?

La Russa: There's a bigger difference now than when I first got into professional baseball because that was before guaranteed contracts, before there was a lot of money, so it was mostly survival. You had more competition. I actually started managing in '79; the Messersmith decision was '75, so it already started to change the rights that players had. So what you have now, you have a lot of players who are distracted by what their family, their friends, their agents are telling them: get your numbers, get your money. And the coach stands up and talks about team. What you need to do more than anything is get their attention, persuade them that if they want to be selfish play golf or tennis, but they chose a team sport. And I think the only way you can do that is to be very personal. You have to go one-on-one with players. You can't manage by memo. You can't stand up there and just send out edicts. I think you just gotta really personalize your relationships.

But in the end, Bob and I talk about it all the time and we talk about it with coaches we're around, the games are about energy and execution. If you come out there and you play hard, you don't wanna just run around like a mad man, you wanna go out there and do things right. You do what's right, you repeat it over and over again … those are the fundamentals. Sports are very similar.

Knight: And I know that you agree with this because we've talked about it so many times, it's gonna be crucial, these next four games in the NCAA tournament, for the champion to emerge … I think it's gonna be a team that's gotten better at what it does, not having increased what it does or added to what it does, because I think you've gotten there because of certain things that you've done, and you're gonna win based on those things, not changes that you're gonna make just because you're in the playoffs.

La Russa: That's true. I mean the other thing that we talked about, which I think is really fascinating about the NCAA tournament, is it's one and out. You play our full season, you win three out of five, you can lose three games and win the World Series. Now I think that sudden death kinda feature really highlights what Bob's talking about. The teams that win, I've really enjoyed his analysis because he talks about how early on it's talent now, everybody's talented, so it comes down to execution. Well, you're not gonna invent some different way to play. The teams that play their style, and mostly if they have a lot of different things that they can throw at another team and a lot of ways to defend, they're ready to play any kind of game.

Davis: What do you think about coach becoming a full-fledged member of the media?

La Russa: I want to retain his friendship, so I will never admit that he's a member of the media.

Knight: A consultant. Hey, Tony came to an alumni dinner in Chicago one time when I was coaching at Indiana, and he sat on our bench. We had an intrasquad game in Fort Wayne, and I loved having him sit on the bench there.

Davis: Did you let him make a substitution?

La Russa: Well, here's … you want me to [tell] them what happened?

Knight: Yeah, it's a great story.

La Russa: Yeah, it is. We had the dinner and then we flew up to Fort Wayne and they're gonna play this intrasquad game in front of -- what was it --10 -- 15 -- 20,000?

Knight: 10,000.

La Russa: And they're all Indiana fans. He talked to the team in the locker room and he sends them out to get loose. And I want to watch them but he's in there, so I'll just walk out later. So we walk out, and the uproar of the fans, "Bob, Bob," it was great. He said, "Sit on the bench with me." So I'm sitting there and the plan was they had real referees, but you could also teach, so if something was going on that was wrong, Bob could call time and he could interrupt the play. And sure enough, it was one of the darndest things I've ever seen. On two different possessions, one of his teams had a fastbreak, and it was three-on-two, and each time the guy in the middle with the ball made the wrong decision and allowed the defense to defend it.

So after the second one Bob says, "Time." He comes straddling on the court and as soon as he comes straddling on the court the people start saying, "Ooh, here he comes. Here he comes." And he was just articulating to the guy at the point, with the ball, he says, "Hey, don't you understand, there's two guys and you got three guys. If this guy comes to you, you pass. But if you fake it and he goes there, you take the shot like this." Swish. People went nuts. We all stood up. I mean it was one of the most electrifying moments. Here's a guy that goes out there and he swishes it, and it's past the foul line. It was a helluva shot.

Knight: The thing that really pleased me about it was to have him sit there and then we talked about it afterward, about baseball and about basketball, and there are so many things that are similar when it comes to winning in all team sports. The preparation isn't for the playoff game. The preparation was for the season, a long time ago. And I've sat there when they've been in playoffs, all the way to winning the World Series. And I've watched what he does, and it's the same thing that he was talking to them about in spring training: "Let's don't make mistakes. We made more mistakes in the beginning of the year than we can make now. But we're doing the same things." And that's why nothing has been more of a joy to me than spending time at spring training with his teams and then watching the development of those teams as the year progresses. But always the idea is let's make sure that we can win 3-2 and we can win in the ninth inning or we can win in extra innings and I think -- that approach has obviously made him one of baseball's all-time great managers.

La Russa: I tell you one thing we're different about. If I'd have stopped an intrasquad game, say we left a runner at third a couple different times, and then grabbed a bat and tried to hit the ball in the infield, I would've struck out on three straight pitches, see. I'd [have] never sank that foul shot. That's a huge difference in how we could demonstrate that.

Knight: Ted Williams used to say that hitting a baseball was the most difficult thing there was in sport. And I'm not sure that wasn't the point, that isn't true. And making that shot was a lot simpler than hitting a baseball, but I never tried to make that shot under those circumstances again.

Davis: What do you get out of letting highly successful people sit on your bench and become part of that inner circle the way that you have coach Knight, Tony? What do you gain from that?

La Russa: I think there are several points. No. 1, it adds credibility to what we're doing. When you have some of the visitors that we have to take the time to be a part of what we're doing -- and a lot of it's during spring training but some of it's during the season -- I think the players feel like there must be something legitimate that's going on, otherwise these guys that we know wouldn't waste their time.

The other thing as I was talking about the importance of the personal connection. Someone like Bob, he doesn't come out there like, "Hey, I'm Bob, don't talk to me." He connects with everybody there and he connects in a friendly way, fun way, but he also, they'll get conversations going that involve the playing of the game, so not only do you get legitimacy but you also get pointers -- whether it makes you a better pitcher, hitter, competitor, whatever it is. And I know our club really enjoys that. It's a real treat when someone like Bob visits. It helps you in a lot of different ways.

Knight: Baseball's great. Yesterday, when we're playing the Mets up in Port St. Lucie, Billy Wagner, the great relief pitcher, sends a baseball to me, and written on the baseball is: Coach, what happened to Pitt? So, I go over and talk to him and a couple of the other Mets players. And I just enjoy what happens in baseball like that.

Davis: Tony, you mentioned relationships with players a lot and the way that coach is able to do that. What's the most important aspect of developing a relationship with your players?

La Russa: Trust. I think there's at least two parts of that. They have to, No. 1, believe that you care about them. If all you are is a guy in a uniform and they feel you're gonna use and abuse them, and you really don't have any kind of personal interest besides what they're doing professionally, you'll never get that relationship on any kind of basis that's worthwhile. So you have to show them that you care, and it can't be phony. It's gotta be sincere. And caring is, if they come in someday and they're sad, it's "Hey, what's the problem?" But the most important thing of all is the trust factor. If you're a coach and you don't have trust with players, you've got no chance and your credibility is zero. And that's why it's so important to tell them the truth. If you have something that you're upset about, tell them the truth. If they're doing something wrong, tell them the truth. That way when you compliment them, you perk them up. But credibility, trust, respect … if you had two managers, and one had great knowledge of the game, [an] X's and O's kinda guy, and the other guy had a better personality that was trusting and caring, this guy [the second] wins all the time. That [first] guy, nobody follows where he goes.

Knight: I think the reason why is like in basketball, in college, I've always tried to let kids know that when they're playing and I'm coaching, they're not my buddy, they're not my pal, you know they're a player and I'm the coach. The real friendship then comes in college basketball I think with what I or anybody can do as a coach, after those kids are done playing … try to guide them into graduate school, try to guide them as much as possible, although the agent thing has come in to be so much more in recent years.

Tony's choice of the word trust is tremendous because I think if the kid knows, whether it's a baseball kid or a basketball kid, that you're willing to help him if he needs help, and you'll do it in any way that you possibly can. More important than anything, when he's done playing, when he can no longer play for you, whether it's after four years in college playing basketball or two years and the kid goes on to professional basketball, or he's been with you for 11 or 12 years as your first baseman, he knows that if he calls you with something that he wants to ask you relative to his own life, his family's life or whatever, you'll do what you can to help.