U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2010 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Newly released DVDs reminder of Knight's brilliance as a teacher
Luke Winn, si.com

Early in The Complete Guide to Man-to-Man Defense, one of three new instructional DVDs former coach Bob Knight stars in, he's in a quaint gym in Des Moines, Iowa, lecturing players from William Penn College, a nearby NAIA school, on the importance of "conversion" defense. Conversion is the term Knight prefers to "transition," which he views as inadequate for describing the goal of a fast break the conversion of a numbers advantage into points. And so this is what Knight tells the assembled players:

"There's an old Civil War general named Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a guerilla fighter and rampaged through the Union lines all across Tennessee and Mississippi during the war, and his tenet for fighting the way he did was, 'Get there furstest with the mostest.' That's a quote from Nathan Bedford Forrest. There's no quote that I've ever heard that applies more to defensive conversion or offensive conversion for that matter than 'Get there furstest with the mostest.' That is unbelievably applicable to defensive conversion: The first thing that you want to do when your team gets to defense is, beat those guys down the floor."

Forrest is considered a brilliant military tactician who was under-appreciated in his time, and his epigram is relevant to Knight's lesson, despite being a slight misquote. (A 1918 New York Times article stated that the furstest/mostest phraseology was imagined Southern "baby talk," and what Forrest actually said was, "I got thar fust with the most men.") Most people would hesitate to quote Forrest, though, because his tactical reputation was overshadowed by the leading role he played in a massacre of surrendered African-American Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tenn., in 1864 and the fact he was named the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war.

Forrest later renounced the Klan's violent bent, and denied ever having been a member, but he'll forever be linked with the organization in pop culture: In the movie Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks' character says that he was named after Forrest, who "started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan." As Gump explains, "Momma said that the Forrest part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don't make no sense."

That includes Bob Knight, who has thrown a chair, berated media members, made insensitive comments about sexual assault, feuded with university presidents and resigned from his last team, Texas Tech, in midseason. One has to wonder if it was intentional, or merely coincidental, that the only general quoted in The General's instructional-DVD set is one whose legacy as a battlefield genius was obscured by controversies.

Knight is far from the furstest coach to cash in on the DVD market: Up until an Iowa-based company called Championship Productions issued this summer set The Complete Guide to Motion Offense, The Complete Guide to Man-to-Man Defense, and Practice, Planning and Drills for Mental Toughness the only Knight materials available were three tapes from clinics he held in 1989, which had been transferred from VHS and marketed with text-only, white covers on Sysko's Web site. For comparison, Knight acolyte Mike Krzyzewski put out six DVDs with Championship Productions in 2005, and most of the coaching fraternity's younger all-stars John Calipari, Billy Donovan, Tom Izzo, et al already offered their own products as well. The Knight trilogy, however, does cost the mostest: it's $199.99 for the complete set, or $79.99 for individual volumes.

Given that it's the only authorized footage of Knight teaching hoops in the long-shorts era, and it's exhaustive (four DVDs of on-court schooling, plus two supplemental DVDs of game and practice footage, for a total of 658 minutes), there are coaches who will pay the hefty price. There's considerable value in the intellectual property behind 902 wins, three national championships, the last undefeated season in college basketball, and an Olympic gold medal run.

I got a hold of a review copy of the Knight trilogy last week and spent about seven hours going through it, beginning with the Motion Offense guide. Knight is considered the father of the modern motion, and this is the best DVD of the three. It's no longer the en vogue offense at the college level (that would be either Kentucky's Dribble Drive Motion, North Carolina's break/secondary break, or Kansas and Florida's ball-screen-heavy sets), but remains beautiful to behold when executed flawlessly.

Knight has always come across as an unbending character, but it's intriguing that what drew him to the motion the building blocks of which were Cincinnati coach Ed Jucker's Swing-and-Go and Cal coach Pete Newell's Reverse-Action attacks was its multitude of options. "The reason I got into this kind of offense," Knight says, is, "a long time ago, I can remember sitting down in Pete Newell's living room, and I had 76 diagrams of things that could happen with three [men] out and two in. And we went over all of this, and my thoughts when I started were, hold the ball for a count of two, don't make two cuts in the same direction, the inside man is the screener, read the defense all the time, and go from there."

Knight hammers home the concept of spacing essentially, keeping players 15-18 feet apart on the floor, and cutting to maintain those gaps as well as create scoring opportunities. His offense only works if it's reacting to what the defense is giving, and he stresses the importance of pausing with the ball in order to "read" the floor. He uses the wisdom of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to help make this point; Knight tells the players that Sherlock Holmes would say to Watson, "Everybody sees, but few perceive." The actual Holmes saying is "You see, Watson, but you do not observe." Knight has a habit of misquoting his quotables, albeit without distorting their original meaning.

He's better off when telling his own stories, like one about Krzyzewski, who played guard for him at Army from 1966-69, and was a prime example of a limited scorer who was still an asset due to his command of the principles of the motion offense. Knight says that in a matchup with South Carolina, "I told [Krzyzewski] that one thing he wasn't doing in that game was shooting." At a key point late in the game, Krzyzewski drew the defense and nearly the ire of Knight by pulling up for a jumper, only to pass the ball at the last possible moment before releasing the shot. "I sent him the picture of that years later and it said, 'Mike, this shot saved your ass,'" Knight says. "And I think he's kept that forever."

The man-to-man defense DVD, aside from quoting Forrest, includes another anecdote from West Point: Knight is a fan of playing behind (rather than fronting) the post, and he explains how 6-foot-3 Bill Helkie, from his first Army team, once managed to hold 6-9 San Francisco star Erwin Mueller to 12 points in the 1966 NIT quarterfinals by adhering to that principle, neither allowing Mueller to get to the basket with the ball nor letting him get in decent rebounding position.

The best material in Knight's man-to-man volume is the detail it's divided into three macro topics (conversion D, ball-side D, help-side D) but within each, he spends time fine-tuning everything down to the defensive stance. In ball-side, for example, Knight insists on his players taking a "square" position: head centered on their man's numbers, back of the neck facing the basket, hands just outside their man's knees, with the goal of not allowing the man to drive into the middle of the floor. "A lot of people stand with the inside foot forward," he says. "I don't like either foot forward, because I think it's too easy to drive the extended foot from anywhere on the floor."

The third volume, of drills, gives a window into the structure of a Knight practice. Given that the only real Knight practice footage I'd seen prior to this was the Neil Reed tape, I was curious if, at some point in the DVD series, The General would lose his temper. He mostly manages to refrain from yelling, aside from after one breakdown of a four-corner passing drill, when a William Penn player mimics a shooting motion while Knight is speaking. Knight sees him out of the corner of his eye, whips around, and says, "You shoot that ball, you're a dead man."

This was the only time I was disappointed that the DVDs weren't high-def. The frame was too zoomed-out to see the kid's facial expression, which, I'm assuming, would have been priceless.

There is justification, Knight says, for being a hardass, when it's in the name of making sure the game is being played the right way. "Kids have got to understand that we're damn serious about what we're teaching and we expect it to be followed," he explains. "You're the general of this army out there and they've got to understand that. And you can do it in the way you go about things. Patting everybody on the ass all the time isn't a way to get it done. It's being careful to teach, and teach everybody that's out there, when a mistake has been made, point out the mistake, let's try to correct it. If the mistake happens again, then we're a little more emphatic about it."

Knight was more emphatic, in his coaching days, than most of his peers. The bulk of his banter in these DVDs, though, reveals a man genuinely enjoying educating his cast. In the early part of his offense DVD, which is shot using the Norwalk (Iowa) High School boys' team as stand-ins, Knight turns to a player guarding him too tightly during a demonstration and says, "You gonna put your hands on me and foul an old man already?" He quizzes one of the Norwalk forwards by asking him, "You want to be a really good scorer, or just want to be a real tough son of a bitch?" (Correct answer: Tough S.O.B.) He stops one conversion defense drill with the William Penn team, overjoyed that one of its guards had slid off of his man to cut off a drive to the basket, and says, "If you were a girl, I might kiss you over the move you made right here."

In the latter part of Knight's career, his coaching acumen was harder to observe (or perceive) than was his annoyance with peripheral matters: blind referees, pestering reporters, administrators who dared challenge his authority, homeowners upset that his shotgun pellets were landing in their pool. His all-around arrogance obscured his basketball intelligence, which is a shame, because he had the game's sharpest mind. Knight made these DVDs for the same reason every other coach does auxiliary income but their lasting value will be as an artifact: a late reminder that for Knight, there was joy in teaching.

Second place: John Feinstein, The Sporting News
Third place: David Jones, Harrisburg Patriot-News
Fourth place: Tom Archdeacon, Dayton Daily News
Fifth place: John Clay, Lexington Herald-Leader