Los Angeles — It is almost impossible to take US Olympic head basketball coach Bobby Knight any way but on his own terms, which are from the school of compassionate dictators. The two main planks in Bobby's platform have always been aggressiveness and defense.
Players do things Knight's way or they sit on the bench. Chew-out time is whenever Bobby notices a mistake and decides to stop the action and lecture his player about it - sometimes before thousands of spectators. If this seems like cruel and unusual punishment, it has also proved very effective in cutting down on turnovers.
Knight's intensity is easily justified by those people who equate basketball with religion. They also make the point that Bobby turns out military-precision teams that work hard, play to their potential, entertain people, and often win going away. It is almost overkill to say that Bobby is a driver and a pusher whose game preparation leaves nothing to chance.
Sports writers are not among Knight's favorite people. For one thing, they ask too many questions. But it's pretty difficult for even his harshest critic to argue with the man's success.
In 19 years at the University of Indiana, Knight has won 10 Big Ten titles; two NCAA national championships, and one NIT trophy. Prior to joining the Hoosiers, Bobby coached six years at West Point. He is the youngest college coach ever to have won 300 games. And of course he led an earlier US team to that well-publicized victory in the 1979 Pan American Games - though not without a bit of controversy involving an altercation with a Puerto Rican policeman who had different ideas than Knight did about the practice schedule.
Adding everything up, it is probably safe to say that no coach in the country could have put together this current US Olympic team any better than Knight, whose charges have already whipped China by 48 points and also beaten a pretty fair Canadian team by 21. And to keep everybody sharp, Bobby has been finding floor time for all 12 of his players.
Prior to the Olympics, Knight made sure that his team would be physically and mentally tested by arranging a series of exhibition games against stars from the National Basketball Association. Although some of those games were more like controlled muggings, Bobby got the kind of opposition he wanted.
''Basically we started our tryouts months ago with 72 players, then reduced that figure to 60, then 32, then 20, and finally 12,'' Knight told reporters during a media conference at Olympic press headquarters. ''However, what those 12 players represented at the time were 10 different basketball programs and styles. That was the toughest part, getting everybody to tailor their game to our system.
''What we have tried to do is build a team that can do a little bit of everything well,'' Bobby continued. ''Nevertheless, our overall commitment has been to learn to play tough against a variety of different defenses and offenses. I know you've all heard this before - that defense is what wins basketball games. Well nothing has happened to change that.''
Knight's philosophy in a nutshell is that if he can stop the opposition from scoring, they usually become so preoccupied with getting their own offense back into gear that they forget about defensing yours. Bobby does this with a pressure man-to-man defense that creates as many mental problems for the opposition as it does physical ones.
Knight himself prefers a motion offense, one that two of his big men (7-ft. Pat Ewing of Georgetown and 6-9 Wayman Tisdale of Oklahoma) had trouble adjusting to immediately. They are used to having teammates wait for them to set up inside. But they are moving now, maybe not well enough to suit Bobby, but enough to become a very workable part of the offense.
However, the US player who builds an instant rapport with any audience is guard Michael Jordan of North Carolina, who isn't simply a basketball player but a marvelously gifted athlete at almost any level. In fact, assistant Olympic coach George Raveling of Iowa says Jordan has the ability to be a great defensive back, a great center fielder, or a great quarter-miler.
If you are wondering where Knight's toughest competition will come from during the Olympics, try defending champion Yugoslavia, Italy, and Spain.
Even though the Yugoslavs have had some internal problems since winning the gold at Moscow in 1980, they have the experience and physical ability to put the knock on anybody. As for the Italians, who also beat out the Soviets in their own backyard to win the silver medal four years ago, Knight's pressure defense might even work to their advantage. That is, it will force them to shoot outside , which is their strength and trademark. And although the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, where this speedy team's shots fall is mostly in the basket. Actually, Spain runs an NBA-style fastbreak that can be devastating on days when it is also controlling both backboards.
Overall, though, the United States probably has too much talent to lose. And if Knight's squad should ever leave the court trailing at halftime, it will take a team of painters to cover all the blisters that Bobby's vocabulary will have raised on locker room walls.