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Quite Possibly The Best Trip To The Brink
on June 23, 2005
Growing up, all I knew about legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight was that he would rant and rave, throw chairs, get arrested, scream in his players' faces and snap at the media. During college, upon taking a class called "Moral Reasoning In Sport," I conducted research on Bobby Knight and got to know Bobby Knight as a person better. The ironic thing was that he stood for good morals but what he practiced as a coach boardered on the immoral at times. I saw how wonderful a man he could be and how badly he could cut a person down. I was fascinated by his style.
My curiosity about Bobby Knight led me to "A Season On The Brink;" a book which describes the full 1985-86 season with Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers. Author John Feinstein, who trooped along with the team complete with notepad and tape recorder, crafts this book in amazing detail with all the trimmings. We are given a real life look at the pressures that college basketball can bring to both coach and players, the trials and tribulations. We are given a taste of how addictive competition is and the emotional effects it can have.
"A Season On The Brink" describes Bobby Knight in a way that begs you to love him and begs you to hate him. Passionate about not failing, Knight pressures himself to succeed and is quick to think himself a failure each time he does not reach certain goals. His characteristic short fuse is always there to represent this. After the disastrous 1984-85 season where he performed the legendary chair throw that got him in trouble, he vowed not to go through a repeat season in 1985-86. He constantly reminded his players of that terrible season as fuel for them to create a better season in '85-'86.
We are literally taken to the "brink" of Knight's sanity at times as Feinstein describes Knight's techniques for getting his team prepared for games. The saga continues before each game for the Indiana players, from studying hours of opponent game tape in "the cave," to "walk-throughs" on the court of what will be conducted in the upcoming game, to appetizing pre-game meals of spaghetti and pancakes in the early morning. Practices are grueling as the players are screamed at by Knight; virtually every four-letter word flying in their faces each time one fails to get a certain rebound, set a certain screen or make a decent pass.
Then of course there are always the Bobby Knight mind games present, a term that Feinstein calls "B.K. Theater." Players like his all-stars, Steve Alford and Daryl Thomas will be targets of his ranting and raving of how horrible they are, how they don't care about playing and how he should never have gotten players like them on his team. You did not want to land in Knight's "doghouse" as Feinstein describes it. In fact, on some of Knight's worst days, the whole team is in the doghouse as he throws all of them out of practices while yelling his questioning of their commitment to the game.
Feinstein does an excellent job of describing the games themselves from the tension in the locker room before the game, during halftime and after the game, to the crowd noise and chants, to the arguments Knight has with officials. As for the players themselves, Feinstein chronicles virutally every key shot, mistake made, rebound and beautiful pass. As you read the book, you'll find your heart pounding as Indiana fights for the lead or fights to keep their lead as the clock quickly winds down to crunch time. You'll find yourself cheering for star players like Steve Alford when he drains another key shot and for Cinderella players like Steve Eyl when he makes two clutch free-throws.
But you'll also feel the despair the players feel if a win has not been grasped or a goal has not been reached, from the chilling silence of the locker room, to Knight screaming and storming out of it only to come back in and talk calmly. Sometimes Knight will resort to taking off to fish or hunt with friends, attending other basketball games or letting the other coaches run the team for a while, while he watches from the stands. And of course there are the situations that the players bring on themselves that creates tension and stress such as Alford's posing for a calander, Daryl Thomas's injuries and Andre Harris's skipping of classes.
You'll find out what Bobby Knight goes through with the media; how his past record continues to follow him and how the media jumps to conclusions and exaggerating. You'll also see Knight's recruiting process (players from high school and junior college) and the ups and downs that come with it. You'll hear Knight's own insecurity through talks with his other coaches over meals at late-night diners, on the plane trips and before games with words like "Do you think we're okay?" "Will we win again?" You will see Knight marking up important words on the chalkboard and trying different defensive and offensive set-ups that he wouldn't have done in the past. In short, you'll hear it, you'll feel it and you'll see it all.
But one thing that Feinstein enables us to see is the loveable Bobby Knight; he Bobby Knight who doesn't forget past players that he has befriended such as Quinn Buckner. The Bobby Knight who sympathized with a deaf kid and gave he and his family tickets to the basketball game. The Bobby Knight whom past players and friends call upon for advice or to have some strings pulled. As Feinstein pointed out in the book, nobody could have a more loyal friend than Bobby Knight. You ask him to do something and he would do just about anything for you. And granted we see plenty of Knight's softer side around his players from Steve Alford's final game as a Hoosier, to the heartfelt goodbye to Delray Brooks who would transfer to another school. And of course you'll really get a taste of Bobby Knight's sense of humor and quick wit. When times are going a little smoother for the team, you'll read of Knight making cracks with his coaches and players.
Feinstein even takes us right down the path to the crucial tournament games with heated rivals Ohio State and Michigan. The read is quite a nail-biting experience. Feinstein follows the chronicled 1985-86 season up with a fairly quick but detailed overview of the 1986-87 team on the way to a championship against Syracuse, where you will again start getting onto the court with the players as the key plays of this amazing championship game are described by Feinstein. Headed by new recruits such as a kid named Smart, the Hoosiers took home a championship and rendered Knight literally hoarse with emotion in the end.
Indeed, if you are a fan of sports and you love the game of basketball; especially the thrill of college basketball, you will love this book. Even for those who may despise Bobby Knight, I would still recommend you give this book a read. It's a wonderful basketball story and a read that gets you right into the heated games and the hardened practices with the team. It could quite possibly be the best trip to the brink a sports fan could want.