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Knight has cheapened his own achievement

Chances are Bob Knight will become college basketball's all-time leader in Division I victories, but it won't matter as much as it should.

By JOHN ROMANO
Published December 28, 2006


He has come to the plains to climb a mountain, and it's a strange sight indeed.

It doesn't make the accomplishment any less grand, and it doesn't mean the record is any less real. It just seems odd, is all. And maybe a little sad.

Chances are Bob Knight will become college basketball's all-time leader in Division I victories at 880 when Texas Tech plays UNLV in Lubbock this evening. And chances are you will care less about it than the moment deserves.

Even in Lubbock, an outpost as fit for a basketball giant as Elba was for a conqueror, the anticipation seems strangely subdued.

On the Texas Tech Web site, Project 880 implores fans to buy tickets and "pack the house for Coach Knight." For $8.80, you can get one upper level ticket for each of the next four home games.

In other words, the going rate for history is $2.20 a pop.

How did we end up here, where a monumental record seems so incidental? And how did Knight end up here, where a glorious career seems so unappreciated?

The answer is the same for both.

It is Knight's fault.

Somewhere along the line, he became the distraction in the telling of his own legend. He was too brusque. Too unyielding. Too self-centered and too unrepentant. And the more people complained, the more entrenched he became.

So Knight drifted further and further from the man he could have, and should have, been. He allowed himself to be turned into a caricature when the possibility of being an NCAA icon was his for the taking.

No doubt, Knight believes he has been wronged for standing up for what is right. And much of what he believes in is entirely admirable.

He has been coaching for some 40 years and has never had a program in major NCAA trouble. His players graduate more than most, and he has remained fiercely loyal to those in his inner circle. It can also be argued that he has won more consistently than anyone else while fielding rosters with less talent.

Yet the attributes have too often been overwhelmed by the foolishness. The petty squabbles, and the not-so-petty showdowns.

So, in the end, you are torn between the two extremes. The basketball coach of uncommon devotion, and the bully of innumerable discourtesies.

And anyone who says one side of Knight excuses the other is too deluded to be believed. You cannot overlook his many accomplishments, just as you cannot ignore his myriad shortcomings.

Perhaps this is why tonight's potential milestone is being met with such seeming indifference. Is it right to cheer for a man you do not necessarily respect? Or is it better to ignore a career that has clearly been something special?

It does not make it any easier that the record he is about to surpass belongs to Dean Smith. For Smith was everything that Knight is not. He was cool, and he was dignified. He may not have had Knight's wit or charisma, but Smith was far more gracious and humble.

Which explains why Smith was roundly praised and feted at North Carolina when he set the record a decade ago. And it should not go unnoticed that the arena in Chapel Hill bears Smith's name, while Knight's impending landmark will be set 1,000 miles from the site of his greatest glories.

How different would tonight's game feel were it being held in Indiana? How maniacal would the fans in Bloomington be? How much more significance would Knight place on the record, rather than the way he has been downplaying it?

Knight will ultimately set the standard for college basketball in a place where college basketball is little more than an afterthought. Where the arena is routinely half-filled or worse.

Yet this is the way Knight wanted it. Maybe not in his heart, but in his deeds. He orchestrated his departure from Indiana by refusing to accept even the most basic principles of decency. In the end, he expected the best from everyone but himself.

Knight, 66, could have been another Smith. He could have had buildings named in his honor. He could have been compared to John Wooden. He could have been lauded for placing more value on integrity than victories. He could have been remembered as someone who transcended the sport.

And that's the shame of tonight's postscript. It has been nearly 20 years since Knight won the last of his three national championships. It has been almost as long since one of his teams won a conference title.

So this could have been a fitting celebration of what he has been able to accomplish even as the game has changed around him. It could have been affirmation that he was one of the best even if he no longer rules in March.

It could have been so much more.

If only Knight had allowed it.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.