A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers, by John Feinstein. New York: Macmillan. 329 pp. $16.95. Two things make ``A Season on the Brink'' riveting reading - the subject and the author's access to same.
Though the book chronicles Indiana University's 1985-86 basketball season, the focus is clearly on coach Bob Knight, perhaps the most controversial, demanding, and fiercly competitive figure pacing any college sideline. As a rule, Knight doesn't have much use for writers. Yet in this case, incredibly, he allowed John Feinstein to immerse himself in the Indiana program, giving him the opportunity to attend meetings and practices, to travel with the team, and even to sit on the bench during games.
The result is a fascinating book that has risen higher on the New York Times best-seller list (No. 1) than the 1986-87 Hoosiers have risen in the Associated Press Top 20 poll (No. 2). Indiana book dealders can't keep it on the shelves, and national demand has far exceeded expectations. Macmillan started off with an initial run of 17,500 copies, but will soon have 420,000 in circulation.
Few observers could have imagined Knight's opening all the doors to a reporter, especially a non-local seeking virtually carte blanche taping privileges. Bob Hammel, a Bloomington sportswriter and possibly Knight's best friend, was about the only person previously afforded ``insider'' status. Feinstein, on the other hand, was merely an acquaintance who came in from the East Coast, a Washington Post basketball writer on sabbatical for the purpose of writing the book.
In retrospect, Knight may wish he had never agreed to the plan. Not long ago, he told the Chicago Sun-Times that Feinstein ``wrote the book completely outside the parameters that were set. The book was supposed to be about the players, but it was about me, starting with the cover and going right on through.''
Feinstein claims that Knight knew from the beginning he would be the focus. Regardless of how clearly this was communicated, it would have been naive to assume otherwise, since, to the public, Bobby Knight is IU basketball.
Feinstein sees both fascinating and infuriating sides of Knight in his revealing account, which for shock value ranks right up there with Jim Bouton's famous baseball book, ``Ball Four.''
While most fans have seen Knight enraged on TV, many will still be surprised by the foul language that Feinstein sets down in chronicling some of the coach's blistering tirades.
This is presented as part of an abrasive, hard-to-fathom side of Knight, who, like John McEnroe, often seems his own worst enemy. His close associates are convinced there's a good guy there, it's just that Knight often seems to obscure him. When was the last time, for example, the public saw Bob really smile - even in victory?
Al McGuire, the TV analyst and former coach who writes the book's foreword, calls Knight a ``warm, sensitive, and funny guy,'' yet explains that Knight's humor is lost on most people, who see his deadpan expression and don't realize he's kidding until it's too late.
The book shows Knight as confrontational - with players, referees, reporters, and others. His notoriety in this regard has been built on any number of incidents, from his scrape with a San Juan, Puerto Rico, policeman during the Pan Am Games to a scuffle with a Louisiana State rooter in a hotel lobby.
Such examples heighten his reputation for volatile behavior, overshadowing the peacemaking instincts he possesses. But Feinstein also describes these other types of episodes. Figuring it was time to call off the hostilities, Knight once struck up a friendship with Walter Adams, a Michigan State fan who used to heckle the Hoosier coach relentlessly. Knight went to East Lansing one season with a peace offering, and now it's traditional for the two to exchange pregame gifts.
Another tidbit involves former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes. It was Knight, apparently, who talked Hayes into apologizing for hitting an opposing player.
Knight's career, ironically, has also had its low points. Some observers, in fact, thought the last straw might have come when Bob threw a chair across the court during a game two years ago. He apologized, was suspended by the Big Ten Conference, but received no rebuke from the university, which recently extended his contract five years.
The administration seems determined to admire his brilliance and tolerate his foibles. It does so, no doubt, partly because he runs a clean, high-minded program that also happens to be highly successful. Knight guided the Hoosiers to national championships in 1976 and 1981, and, with few exceptions, has kept them a perennial Top-20 team. One shouldn't underestimate the importance of this achievement in explaining why the state as a whole seems willing to go that extra mile with Knight. People in Indiana love their basketball, and Knight, as much as anyone else, has put the pride back. IU, some forget, had some pretty lean years shortly before his arrival from West Point in 1971, and he basically revived Indiana's image as a major capital of thinking man's basketball.
Besides being a keen strategist, though, he is an intensely loyal person, both to institutions and people. He was a constant support to athletic director Ralph Floyd after the passing of Floyd's wife; he piled a group of friends in a plane to attend the head coaching debut of former assistant Jim Crews; and he invited a young boy and his deaf relatives to a game after meeting the family in a restaurant.
Maybe the best noted example of Knight's humanitarianism is the way he raised $400,000 for Landon Turner after the forward on the Hoosiers' 1981 championship team was paralyzed in a car crash.
Knight can be deeply caring and understanding, behavior which seems at odds with the harsh manner he bares on the flip side. ``Season on the Brink'' illuminates this dichotomy, and in doing so prompts the reader to ponder the line between an all-out but still rational pursuit of excellence and behavior that goes beyond the pale.