[Editor's note: In “The Power of Negative Thinking: An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results,” legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight makes the case that negativity, rather than unrealistic optimism, is the harbinger of positive results. The former Indiana University coach and current ESPN commentator illustrates the point in Chapter 7, titled “Negative Routes to Big, Big Wins,” excerpted below.]
Negative Routes to Big, Big Wins
When I moved from West Point to Indiana, on the outside it looked like: Indiana has had outstanding players and teams over a long period of time; basketball is a heavily followed sport all over the state; a lot of great players have come out of the state. In all those things, it looked like Indiana was going to be a really good coaching situation for me.
But I was married to the idea that defense wins games. Defense was not something that Indiana’s basketball teams had ever been widely known for.
I knew I wasn’t just asking the players to think in terms of a brand-new priority. To the fans, too, the emphasis I wanted to put on defense and shot selection was totally different from what they had thought of as Indiana basketball -- “Hurryin’ Hoosier” basketball -- for not just years but decades.
I had moments of thinking:
What am I getting into? Can I win in this situation?
I think you play basketball one way. They’re used to seeing it played another way, and they love it.
I was really unsure about the likely acceptance about the way we were going to play -- whether, as I heard later, a Bloomington guy who became a great friend of mine was right when he said at the time, “I’m not sure how those 51–50 games are going to go over here.” Games in the 50s were not uncommon when our Army teams were leading the nation in defense. Halftime scores like that were more the norm at Indiana where, eight times in the decade just before I came, those “Hurryin’ Hoosiers” had won or lost games in which both teams scored 100 points.
But I knew I had to do what I think is best for the kind of basketball I wanted to play. The coach I succeeded, Lou Watson, had played in as well as coached that fast-break system, but no one could have treated me better or welcomed me more openly than Lou did. At several luncheons or dinners, he introduced me as “the guy who took the hurryin’ out of the Hurryin’ Hoosiers,” and I liked that.
I didn’t know if it was going to be accepted well by the general public, but I thought then and I always thought at times like that: What the hell do they really know about it? I think I know more about what it takes to win than anybody in that arena. I have to stick to what it takes.
My first real test came in my fourth game as Indiana’s coach -- at Louisville, against Kentucky and Adolph Rupp, my first Indiana-Kentucky game. As an Ohio native who came straight in from coaching at West Point, I’m not sure I had any real idea of how much Indiana and Kentucky people hated each other over the whole issue of basketball supremacy.
I don’t know of any two other neighboring states’ universities whose keen sports rivalry starts so early -- before their players even get to college. The midsummer Indiana-Kentucky All-Star high school basketball series is unmatched in America. Long before there was a Dapper Dan Classic in Pittsburgh or a McDonald’s anywhere, this All-Star series started -- in 1940 -- and more than seventy years later, it’s still going. Before they ever played a college game, Ralph Beard, Wah Wah Jones, Clyde Lovellette, Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan, Oscar Robertson, Cotton Nash, Terry Dischinger, Dick and Tom Van Arsdale, Louie Dampier, Wes Unseld, George McGinnis, Jim McDaniel, Bobby Wilkerson, Darrell Griffith, Kent Benson, Jack Givens, Steve Alford, Allen Houston, Glenn Robinson, Damon Bailey -- all of them and a whole lot of other future college stars played in that series.
When I arrived in Bloomington, the Universities of Indiana and Kentucky didn’t have a long-standing head-to-head basketball rivalry. From 1944–45 through 1964–65, they never played. They had reopened the series and begun an annual matchup by the time I got there, but Indiana hadn’t won the game since 1943 and the Hoosier fans were really hungry. The 1971–72 game was in Louisville, not Lexington, because Kentucky played its home games in the Indiana series at the biggest arena available to it, Freedom Hall — right across the Ohio River from the part of red-loving, blue-hating Indiana that was most intense about the rivalry.
We had opened my first year with three good victories -- over Ball State, Kansas, and Miami of Ohio, all in six days. Those were the first three games played at brand-new Assembly Hall. I felt it was a great beginning for our program, but to those Indiana fans -- especially those southern Indiana fans -- those schools weren’t Kentucky, and those other coaches weren’t Adolph Rupp. And here we were going to Louisville to face not just a state-hated rival but the team that probably was the most noted representative in the country of the firebrand basketball Hoosiers loved.
I rode with my team down Interstate 65 across the Ohio River bridge, not knowing if our best player, Steve Downing, was going to be able to play at all. Steve had injured a knee in the Miami game a week before and hadn’t had an all-out practice since then.
All Steve did in that game was play as good a game as I’ve ever had a player play. He played all fifty minutes in a double-overtime game, scored 47 points, and had 25 rebounds. We won, 90–89.
Sometimes positive results come out of negative situations just by sheer willpower. That’s what Steve had that night. He was mentally tough enough to overcome a serious condition involving his knee.
After that game, I really never heard a whole lot about 51–50 games again -- maybe an occasional “Shoot!” from an impatient old-school Hoosier fan when our kids were living up to my orders and making four passes every possession, but not even many of those. And it really tickled me when success started to make converts, and every once in a while I’d hear coming out of our stands: “Come on, you guys, play defense” ... or “Dammit, get a good shot.”
I’ll always be indebted to Steve and that first Indiana team, of course, but even more than that to athletic director Bill Orwig and president John Ryan, the guys who hired me. They took a very questionable step, bringing me in — just thirty years old, a head coach for six years, a good record but without taking any of my teams to the only tournament that mattered in Indiana and the Midwest, the NCAA. I didn’t even want to try to explain to them why at Army we actually once turned down an invitation to the NCAA tournament to go to the less prestigious NIT.
Indiana University and its fans hadn’t had anybody but a guy from Indiana coach basketball there for almost fifty years, and here I was from Ohio State, a program Indiana people had really hated since my playing years. Bill Orwig and Dr. Ryan simply thought I was the best guy for the job, and so many times that wasn’t the priority factor in a decision like that. I remember telling Mr. Orwig, walking up to Dr. Ryan’s door, “This is kind of interesting: a Michigan guy [Bill was a great athlete there] hiring an Ohio State guy to coach at Indiana.” And they did get a lot of static — not only for that, but because I was pretty much an unknown and a lot of bigger names were thrown around as possibilities before I was selected.
Negative Thinking, for a Championship
In looking back to how often I genuinely applied the Power of Negative Thinking to a game plan, the best example I can offer might be the night in Philadelphia in 1976 when -- in my fifth year at Indiana -- we beat Michigan to win the national championship.
We went into that championship game unlike any other team in NCAA tournament history: having beaten our finals opponent twice during the season. It hadn’t happened before, because it was the first time two teams from the same conference ever played in the championship game.
One of our wins over Michigan, the one in Bloomington, was very lucky for us. Quinn Buckner, who had not shot well, made his first bucket of the day in the last minute to get us within two points. Then they missed a free throw, and at our end Jimmy Crews grabbed a missed shot that was going out of bounds and flipped it toward the basket. Kent Benson scored at the buzzer to tie. We played better in overtime and won (72–67), but there’s no other word for it: We were really lucky.
Now we were playing that same team for the national championship, and I went about preparation for the game in a very negative way. The first thing I did was go over that Bloomington game film with our players -- I went over and over it, talking about how poorly I thought we had played defensively. That was always the key judging issue for me, but we hadn’t played at all well offensively, either, and our shooting was terrible. Scott May missed nineteen shots, his career high. Tom Abernethy, Buckner, and Bobby Wilkerson combined were 2-for-22, and we had twenty-one turnovers. We shot .370 that day, compared to .517 for the season -- .523 if we take that one game out. Give Michigan’s defense credit, but we knew we had to be a much better team in this game than we had been that day.
A coach can go crazy trying to figure out why that “off” game happened. We had beaten Michigan in Ann Arbor earlier, 80–74, but that time we were playing from on top all day -- got off to a 16–2 lead and were never caught. Now, the second game comes about a month later in Bloomington, and we hadn’t lost to anybody. We’re at home, our crowd’s going to be great, maybe -- coaches always worry about things like this -- and our players felt that all we had to do was show up and we’d beat Michigan again. That’s never the case. And it wasn’t. That was a long, hard day.
Now it was the third game, for the national championship. I’ve got to develop a positive outcome out of that situation. To do it, I used a negative approach: about how -- if we were Michigan -- we’d have to be thinking we had a good chance to beat Indiana, based on the last game.
My whole approach was: “We can’t play like we did in that game. Each one of you guys has to play at his best, if we’re going to win. They are not an inferior team.” And we were catching them hot. They had reached the finals by burying Rutgers -- which was unbeaten and ranked No. 4 -- and they had beaten two really good teams in the tournament before that, Notre Dame (23–5, with All-American Adrian Dantley, ranked 7th) and Missouri (26–4, the Big Eight champion ranked as high as 10th). I made sure they were aware of all that -- “Here’s a team that’s playing well. They have to think they can beat us.”
Then two minutes into the game we lost guard Bobby Wilkerson, the key man in the defense that made that team so great. Bobby hit his head hard on the court, was knocked out, and had to be taken straight to a hospital with a severe concussion.
We didn’t play well without him and were behind, 35–29, at the half. At halftime, I didn’t bring up Bobby at all -- he’s gone, we don’t need to think about Bobby not being there, although that was a tremendously negative thing. He wasn’t just a great player, he was also a close friend to all of them, especially May and Buckner.
But it wasn’t a time to be feeling sorry for Bobby or ourselves. That was the time to say, “Hey, the guys in this room have got to do it. And unless we play the way we’re capable of playing, we’re going to get beat.” To turn that into a positive, we had to have great work from not only Jimmy Crews and Jimmy Wisman replacing Bobby Wilkerson, but everybody had to step it up. And we hadn’t done that in the first half, so we were behind. It didn’t have to be a national championship game for me to approach a situation like that questioning whether “We’ll be okay.” First: “How the hell can we play so poorly?” And second: “How can we correct this?”
As soon as I walked in, I asked them a question: “Are we playing as well as we can play? Each of you -- ask yourself that question. And then, are you as an individual playing as well as you can play? Okay, what are we doing wrong? We aren’t being very sharp in what we’re doing. Our cuts and screens lack sharpness. It’s execution, boys. If we can’t improve our execution on offense ... and we can’t let Michigan jump out on us at the start of the second half -- they’ll be too hard to catch.”
Looking back, everything I talked about at the half was all ifs and can’ts and don’ts. I didn’t go in there saying, “Hey, boys, we’re doing all right,” because we weren’t doing all right. “We’re going to be okay” -- no, we’re not going to be okay unless we change some things, and unless we change them drastically and quickly, we’re going to find ourselves in a position where we can’t catch up to these guys.
I didn’t rant and rave. I stuck right to if ... unless ... can’t ... don’t.
We hadn’t given up a lot of points: 35 -- not so great, but it was within the realm of possibility to win with that defense. But our offense: 29 points ... “We can’t win this game with our offense operating like it did in the first half.” There’s that word can’t.
We held our own through 51–51 with ten minutes left, and then everything we said we had to do, we did. We played so well from there on that in the last five minutes, the game was virtually over. An example of our concentration in that last ten minutes was that Buckner, who was not a great free-throw shooter, hit six straight down the stretch. We were doing everything else awfully well, too.
We scored 57 points in the second half. Nobody said anything about it at the time, and I really haven’t seen any mention of it since, but that -- 57 points -- set a record that still stands: the most points any team ever has scored in either half in an NCAA championship game.
That’s amazing to me, because that was not primarily an offensive team. But what a tribute that is to that team and those players: With the utmost pressure on, they played better for a critical stretch and scored more points than any team ever.
Think of that: 35 points in just ten minutes, the ten minutes that determined the championship -- 35–17 against a very good team that was playing at its absolute best in the tournament.
I had told them just before they went back on the floor at halftime, “We’ve got twenty minutes to play basketball as well as we can play. If we don’t, we’ll just be another team that got beat in the NCAA tournament. But if you play the twenty minutes that you’re capable of playing -- if -- you’ll be a team for the ages. You’ll be a team that people will always remember, not just as a national champion but as a team that didn’t lose a game.”
It’s getting close to forty years later now, and nobody since has matched them. And people -- especially Indiana people -- do remember. Of course, I recognize this was a game where offense rather than defense carried the day.
An Introduction to Michael Jordan
Negative thinking, even going against some of my own most basic precepts, was a key to winning another NCAA tournament game when all the talent edge appeared to be with our opponent -- an exceptionally well-coached opponent, too.
My familiarity with Michael Jordan started when our 1984 Indiana team played against Michael and North Carolina in the first night of the NCAA regional in Atlanta.
We hadn’t had a big year, and they had. They were ranked No. 1 in the country at the end of the season, and Jordan was college basketball’s Player of the Year. As good as he was, he wasn’t all that Carolina team had. This game also was my introduction to another great player, Sam Perkins, who was to be a starter on our Olympic team and then an outstanding NBA player. James Dougherty was young on this team but became a first-round NBA draft pick. Terry Holland, the Virginia coach, had called this North Carolina team maybe the best ever in college basketball.
Negatives came into play prominently in my planning for that game, though not in the way one might have thought — and not at all in the way I talked to my team that week. I don’t especially remember, but I’ve been told I started our first team meeting that game week by going to the blackboard and saying, “We’re going to beat North Carolina and this is how.” If so, it was unusual, but we had an unusual assignment.
Negative thinking was behind whatever optimism I was portraying. First of all, in that game I was sure we were not going to be able to stop Jordan. And we definitely weren’t going to be able to play North Carolina at its game -- fast. Dean Smith was one of the great coaches in the history of the game. His teams were always well prepared, they always executed well. It was obvious they enjoyed -- and were very good at -- playing at a fast tempo, and they played that way on both offense and defense.
That first day talking to our team I started with Jordan: “There are two things we cannot let him do. We can’t let him rebound offensively and we can’t let him go backdoor.”
In the game, Dan Dakich, a six-foot-five junior, did a very good job of carrying that mission out.
And of course he had help. That first day I had said, “Now, we are not going to stop Jordan at everything, but when he puts the ball on the floor and he looks to make a drive, we’ve got to come in and help with a second defender -- as soon as that ball goes on the floor, that second defender has got to leave his man and move in there.” For me, this was really negative stuff: committing two players to stop one from driving.
“We’re going to give him the outside shot, because if we try to take that away he’s going to have a better opportunity to drive and to rebound -- he’s going to be able to back-cut and come up with baskets.”
Simply, we had to prevent Jordan from doing what he could do best. We had those two priorities: We can’t let him back-cut, and he can’t get to the board.
Nor could we play our usual offensive game.
We were not a team that played at a fast pace, and I didn’t think in this game we’d be able to greatly slow this North Carolina team down. We did stress for this game something we were always conscious of: handling the basketball well. We were a very good ball-handling team, but North Carolina under Dean Smith always liked to trap and double-team on defense: A pass is made, guys leave their man to chase the pass and try to trap the man with the ball into making a bad pass. With excellent athletes all over the court, that defensive tactic and the turnovers it produced greatly enhanced what they did offensively.
We changed tactics to combat their strategy. Instead of using our usual cutting and screening offense, we expected each man receiving a pass to know where our other players were situated and to be ready for a quick pass to one of the teammates. Our primary focus on offense that night was to look for the inevitably open man against North Carolina’s double-teaming defense. I think that one thing, our ability to handle the ball well, was the biggest reason we were able to pull off a 72–68 upset in that game.
We didn’t make very many errors, and we got good shots. Steve Alford was just a freshman in that game, and he scored 27 points -- many of them because of their doubling up on the man with the ball, which at times left even him, our best shooter, open.
For me, scaling back my normal emphasis on cuts and screens was the ultimate in negative thinking. I just didn’t think that we were going to be able to play our game with great effectiveness against that defense. The result of going away from our strength was so positive on that one night -- the beauty of the NCAA tournament is that you don’t have to beat a team four out of seven, just once is enough -- that we actually were able to score consistently throughout the game and take a fairly commanding lead into the final minutes. Those minutes were long. We missed an exasperating number of free throws in the final minutes but hit enough at the end to withstand a game-closing onslaught by North Carolina.
A Guard in Among the Giants
We had played another outstanding North Carolina team three years earlier in the 1981 NCAA championship game at Philadelphia -- back at the Spectrum, the same place where our ’76 team had won its championship. There was both a negative situation and some negative thinking involved in that ’81 game, which we won, 63–50.
The negative situation was much bigger than the ball game. About six hours before the tip-off, outside a hotel in Washington, President Ronald Reagan had been shot.
By the time word of that got out, we were fully locked in to game preparations. I don’t think I was even aware it had happened until about three o’clock that afternoon, and by then the White House was sending out every calming message it could -- the President is in no danger, the bullet did no life-threatening damage, he and the nation were very, very lucky ...
It turned out that was false. He actually was in close to grave danger from internal bleeding, but -- for international security reasons -- that wasn’t really known until years later. Meanwhile, the Presidents of North Carolina and Indiana had met and decided -- based on the positive assurances about Reagan’s condition from Washington -- that the NCAA championship game should go forward as planned.
What Dean Smith and I couldn’t possibly know was how much of a mental distraction all of this was for our players. If the subject of the attempted assassination came up at all in my pregame talking to the team, I’m sure it was just Hey, we’ve got a basketball game to play. I concentrated on the basketball, and I’m sure the players -- ours and North Carolina’s -- did, too. Their youth was important. Despite all the assurances, I don’t think they were as affected as a lot of adults were.
The game itself took on an unconventional element. For the only sustained time in his two seasons with us, we played the best guard in the country, Isiah Thomas, in the low post, back-to-the-basket around the foul line, where centers normally play.
It wasn’t something we had particularly planned, but we had done it a few times in regular-season games and many times in practice. That was important. Surprise is always a great weapon, if it has been thoroughly practiced. Unpracticed surprises tend to boomerang into disaster.
Isiah was very hard to guard in there -- not really used to playing with his back to the basket but fully capable, obviously an outstanding ball-handler, quick in going either way to take the ball to the basket, excellent at passing out of there if a shooter was open on the perimeter.
He had 4 points in the first half, playing in his normal area.
The second half he scored 19 points, and we went from a 27–26 halftime lead to win 63–50. Basically, I just didn’t think they would be able to handle him inside, and they weren’t.
He was named the game’s Outstanding Player, and the most commonly cited reasons for that were two steals that he converted into layups opening the second half to establish a better lead for us. But it was his post play as a six-foot-one guard among giants like James Worthy and Sam Perkins (who were future NBA all-stars) that allowed us to use a third guard in the game named Jimmy Thomas. Jimmy did a great defensive job on their other front-court player, Al Wood, who had scored 39 points in the Tar Heels’ semifinal win over Virginia. Jimmy did such a good job off the bench in our final two games that he was named to the All-Final-Four team, one of the rare non-starters to get that honor.
With our smaller and faster lineup, we cut down North Carolina’s fast break and won the game on defense. For all we got out of Isiah in the post, the players afterward stressed that the defensive matchups had been the difference.
A Weekend of Negative-Thinking Positives
Our third national championship at Indiana represented a whole string of positive results from consciously going against some of my most basic principles of how to play, one of the most difficult decisions any leader can reach -- especially one as firm in how-to-play convictions as I am.
This was in 1987 and it involved not one game but two -- the semifinal and final games on a Saturday–Monday weekend at the Final Four in the New Orleans Superdome. Each game presented its own dilemma.
In the Saturday semifinals, Syracuse played first on Saturday and had very little trouble beating -- for the third time that year -- a Big East opponent, Providence. We came on the court next to take on the No. 1-ranked team in the country, UNLV -- Nevada–Las Vegas.
Jerry Tarkanian was a tremendous defensive coach, and his ’87 UNLV team was very hard to play against on both ends of the court, the “Running Rebels” nation-leading 92.6 scoring average getting the most attention. Over the years, we were a team that normally liked to take its time, to use a cutting and screening offense, to get our best shooters open for shots they would make at least half the time. That was our plan almost every game.
Going against UNLV, we were a good team, a well-respected team -- 29–4 going in, and Big Ten co-champions. But we were known that year more for our shooting and our disciplined offense than for our team’s usual trademark, defense -- not that I had changed preferences, but that’s what our strength was that year, shooting.
So the guys in my present role -- the “analysts,” in newspapers and on TV -- had it all reasoned out that our only chance in this game was to play something of a cat-and-mouse game, slow UNLV down to a pace unnerving for them, play with extreme caution, take advantage of this new thing in college basketball that year, the 3-point shot, and the great 3-point shooter we had, Steve Alford. Do that and, oh yes, one other thing: Villanova-style, as in its 1985 championship-game upset of Georgetown, hit just about every shot.
Many a game I’ve felt exactly that way, that keeping the ball in our hands most of the game was the best way to counter a talented, fast team. But I wasn’t thinking that way this time. The more I saw of Vegas on tape, the more I knew that was how we didn’t want to play them. My thought going into that game was that we couldn’t win that way -- because of their defense.
I felt our best chance was to play their game against their own defense -- if we played at a slow tempo, the big athletes playing their very good defense would just engulf us and we’d have a difficult time scoring at all. The more we passed, the more risk we took of getting one picked off. It was negative thinking by me, totally opposite from how I usually based a game plan: I felt we had to play at the pace they liked -- very fast -- and score a lot of points, while probably giving up a lot.
Now, game plans are fine, but the best game plan is no good without execution by the players. With any thought of our “four passes” rule temporarily suspended, our kids still disciplined their shot selection well enough to shoot .617 (still a Final Four semifinal record). UNLV was the team that shot threes (a Final Four–record 35, and hit 13 -- one of their guards, Freddie Banks, hit a Final Four–record 10 himself).
And our team? We shot four threes all day, all of them by Alford, who hit two and scored 33 points. We gave up 93 points -- almost any other game, that would have made me sick -- but scored 97 and that totally uncharacteristic score got us on to the championship game.
Great! What a high that was for our kids that night. In college basketball’s brightest spotlight, we had beaten the No. 1 team in the country.
Our players were tired. Exhilarated. Emotionally wiped out. And we had another game to play. Right away.
For the national championship.
Never was my last game–next game theory -- the challenge of putting a big, big win behind immediately and focusing on the next challenge -- more severely tested.
It wasn’t a problem for me. As soon as that UNLV game was over, my only thought was that we still had a game left, and Syracuse was very well coached by Jim Boeheim, who had terrific athletes, too. The Syracuse talent was not as publicized as UNLV’s because of that No. 1 ranking, but three of their starters (six-foot-ten forward Derrick Coleman, seven-foot center Rony Seikaly, and guard Sherman Douglas) all went on to have NBA careers of more than ten years.
I’m a coach. I wanted to go to work on-court right away on preparing for Syracuse and the zone defense that Boeheim teaches better than anyone in America. He always has that zone so well ingrained in his teams that Syracuse for years before that and to this day has always been one of the hardest teams to prepare for.
But I also knew that hard work on the practice floor was the one thing my players, coming off that UNLV game, just could not do. I looked at them in the locker room after that Saturday night game and saw pure exhaustion -- elation, but exhaustion. We did not work one physical minute in the forty-eight hours before the national championship game. We met. We went over things we wanted to do. But we didn’t work on the court at all. For me, that was the height of negative thinking: Yes, we need to work on what Syracuse does, but we can’t.
They played us well. They led most of the last half. Keith Smart made a lot of very good plays that kept us alive down the stretch, one of them fouling the poorest free-throw shooter on court when they led by a point with less than thirty seconds left. It was Coleman, just a freshman at the time but already an outstanding player. He missed, we got the rebound, and ...
Another negative approach.
Everyone takes a time out at that point -- down one point with the clock under thirty seconds and a national championship on the line -- to design exactly what the coach wants to do to set up a crucial shot.
We had the ball in play, and we had worked all year to be in a position where our players knew what we wanted to do, we knew what defense they would be in -- we were in the best position we could have to decide our fate. And going with what was normal for us, though it was a national championship game, was just fine with me. I’ve always felt the best way to counter game pressure is normalcy.
A coach can only dream of getting that from all five players on the court under conditions like that. I can offer no better example from the more than 1,300 games I coached than those final seconds of that 1987 NCAA championship game with Syracuse, the one we won 74–73 when Keith Smart won college basketball immortality by hitting a shot with five seconds left.
“The Shot,” people call it. I love Keith. He was a great young man to work with, and he has become a great person, an NBA head coach. But that one play was so much more than “The Shot” that Keith isn’t even my own personal hero of the play.
Daryl Thomas is. “Who?” you lovers of college basketball lore are saying. And a whole lot of negative-based decisions preceded even Daryl’s role.
One basic move against standard thinking: With the game on the line, get the ball in the hands of your best player. We had Steve Alford on the floor, the best shooter in the country. We had Keith Smart on the floor, sensational with the basketball those last eleven minutes -- he scored 15 points and had two great assists. With the game on the line ... we didn’t put the ball in the hands of either of those guys.
A third guard, Joe Hillman, a nonstarter, a mentally tough sophomore who had come to us from California, was the man who brought the ball up the left side, unhurried -- clock down to twenty seconds ...
Everyone knew we wanted to get Alford open, and he ran his cuts into the Syracuse zone, using screens to move to the right side and taking the primary Syracuse attention with him. Don’t be fooled; we wanted him taking the big shot, too -- if he was open. Syracuse made sure he wasn’t with great defense.
So Hillman and Smart, handling the ball on top, thought negatively, went away from Alford, and passed the ball inside to Daryl Thomas -- the clock under ten seconds now.
Consider Thomas’s situation. What kid in America hasn’t dreamed of a chance like that? National championship on the line, one point down, ball in your hands, chance to take the winning shot ...
Daryl, back to the basket, sized up the situation and didn’t like his chances for getting a good shot away against double coverage from Coleman and Seikaly. So he faked a shot and dropped a pass off to Smart, who made a good fake to the middle, then a quick reverse to the baseline to get open for a fifteen-foot shot ... just normal offense, what we always tried to do.
My whole idea of shot selection was limiting the shots we take to shots that player would normally hit at least 50 percent of the time. That’s what made Keith Smart’s shot special to me -- at the most crucial point of our entire season, he took, and our team got for him, a good shot, a shot he was likely to make. No miracle, no wonder shot, just exactly what we were trying to get. That and all that went into it, certainly including the high-pressure circumstances, made it as good a demonstration as I can offer of my definition of discipline. In this particular sequence, Daryl’s pass was the key; Keith’s fouling Coleman was second.
And Keith’s shot?
“The Shot” -- though not a hard shot -- was a great one. It went through with a swish and won the national championship, and Keith Smart’s launch will always be one of the iconic pictures in NCAA tournament legendry. But there was nothing more important than Daryl recognizing that he could not get a good shot off.
That was the last of so many negative-based decisions by us that weekend that led up to the whole final sequence:
Running against UNLV to avoid playing our regular offense against their great defense;
Shunning practice before the championship game to emphasize rest;
Not taking a time out at the end;
The ultimate play: unsung Hillman the man who ran the offense, star Alford the one who took defensive concentration with him in cutting through a zone, Thomas passing up an inside shot to get the ball to Smart and set up ... “The Shot.”
That wasn’t our best team. That wasn’t our most impressive championship run. But it ranks way up there on my favorite executions of the way we wanted to play basketball, under maximum pressure. At its very base: eliminating mistakes.
Speaking of Officials ...
I’m supposed to be one of the kings of referee-baiting, but it has never been true. Every year, I think our team led the Big Ten in fewest technical fouls. I’ve heard coaches -- and a lot of TV experts, some of them ex-coaches -- talk of coaches intentionally getting technical fouls to fire up their teams, or to influence future calls, or something else out there in the psychological realm. All I know is one, I didn’t get nearly as many technical fouls in my career as most people thought; and two, I never intentionally got one, for any reason.
I have a lot of respect for good officials, and they know I think really good officials are priceless. As all rare things are.
Now, the 1976 Wilkerson injury, the 1981 Reagan shooting, the 1987 challenge of playing for the national championship with a tired team -- those were negative situations, not exercises in negative thinking, and there’s a big difference. Handling negative situations in a way that brings positive outcomes is itself an admirable art.
We’ve all seen examples of the way some people who have been dealt severe physical disabilities somehow overcome them and move right on with their life. People who have lost one sense early in life -- usually blindness, but sometimes hearing, or both sight and hearing -- often make up for that by tuning up their other senses to remarkable perception. A friend of mine who owned my favorite hunting and fishing equipment store told me about a man he hired once -- he was blind, but he ran the store’s checkout desk flawlessly.
Once, my friend watched from his office as a woman approached the blind man carrying a rod and reel she was buying for her husband’s birthday. When she noticed his blindness, she drew back, not sure what to do, but he realized that and handled it as he always did: “I’ll be fine. Just hand me the merchandise you want and I’ll take care of you.” She did; he took the rod and reel in his hands, and said, “That’s a Shakespeare six-foot spinning rod, that’ll be twenty-five dollars. And that’s a Garcia Mitchell 308 reel, that’s another fifteen.”
She was amazed. She leaned over to pick up her purse from the floor to pay for the items, and mortified herself by accidentally, loudly passing gas. Blushing, she straightened up, looked around and saw nobody else close, so her composure came back. She pulled out her checkbook and said: “Now, what was that total?”
“Forty-five dollars,” the clerk said.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “I thought you said forty dollars.” “That,” he replied, “was before you added the duck call.”
The Art of the Call
Which brings me to how time has changed me. I love to fish. That hasn’t changed. I love to hunt -- birds, never ground animals. As time has gone on, I’ve developed a fondness for turkey hunting. The art is in the call, simulating a mating call from a female to a male, and I’ve become pretty good at it -- so good that it has changed the whole sport for me. I can’t describe what a great feeling it is to go out on a pleasant spring day, find a perfect spot to set up, and begin the calling. Patiently. Artfully. Then a call comes back! A male has heard and answered. He’s on his way. The trick is to keep him coming, to lure him closer, then closer ... then out in the open, passionately excited about what he thinks is ahead ... and:
In times gone by, it was Pow! I’m a good enough shot that, under the right conditions, which included bringing him close enough, there would be one dead turkey.
But now I’m finding just as much fun, just as much reward, in pulling off the trick of the call, bringing the turkey out in the open moving toward me, and letting the “game” end right there -- no shot fired, no kill. None needed. I’ve already won. I’ve already ruined the poor turkey’s day. I don’t need to kill him. I don’t like to clean a killed turkey. I don’t like to cook one. If I want to eat one, I can go to the store.