When Knight Took On the World
By Pete DiPrimio
SPECIAL REPORT -- June 2020 Issue
Bob Knight rocked college basketball, and the world watched.close window
Would you expect anything less?
Thirty-five years ago, Indiana’s do-it-my-way coach shattered the norm for college foreign tours. When he exploited the lack of rules for time and number of games, the NCAA made damn sure to fix it.
The General had that effect on people and organizations.
It was the summer of 1985, the Cold War raged hot and Knight was on a mission to rebound from Cream ‘n Crimson disaster. The just concluded 19-14 season -- the second worst of his 14-year IU tenure -- infuriated a man considered perhaps the best coach in history.
His solution -- a world tour unlike any before or since.
“We just kept heading west until we got back home,” says Steve Eyl, a forward on that team. “It was crazy.”
The Hoosiers traveled to Canada, Japan, China, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia and Finland during a whirlwind 37 days that included a leg-sapping visit to the Great Wall of China, swimming and partying in Hong Kong Harbor, visiting Hiroshima and ruins from the world’s first atomic bomb attack, an unlikely singing exhibition by IU guard Stew Robinson, a mini players’ brawl during halftime of a game in Yugoslavia, a near international incident in an elevator between Japanese businessmen and Knight’s World War II veteran friend, and a mad scramble to find missing dentures.
IU also held multiple youth clinics and played 18 sometimes poorly officiating games.
“It sounded cool when Coach told us,” forward Todd Meier says, “but we didn’t know how he would be. Would it be typical and intense, or more of a coaching, teaching thing?’
The answer still resonates.
“It’s one of the fondest memories of my life,” says Eyl, now living in Boulder, Col., as executive vice president for Heska Corp., which makes testing equipment for veterinarians.
When it was over, with Indiana going 12-6 and ending on a 10-game winning streak against national and club teams, including the Soviet Union, the European champs and the world’s best outside of the NBA, a foundation was set for Knight’s third and last national title in 1987.
“It was a much tougher, closer group after the trip,” long-time IU basketball athletic trainer Tim Garl says. “That was the making of the national title.”
Adds All-America guard Steve Alford: “It was probably the most important thing that happened in my collegiate career that led to a national title.”
Such a trip would be impossible today, and not just because of the Covid-19 outbreak that shut down travel worldwide.
After IU’s return, the NCAA quickly changed the rules. Now teams can make one foreign trip every four years. Trips are limited to two weeks and no more than 10 games. In 2019 nearly 70 programs participated.
Indiana’s trip -- even with 27 people and 69 pieces of luggage -- came at minimal cost because Knight and Garl convinced host countries to pay for nearly everything.
“We had to pay for some travel,” Garl says, “but every country we played in had to take care of transportation, lodging, meals and expenses.”
A basketball payoff followed.
The season after the trip, IU went 21-8, returned to the NCAA tourney and was upset in the opening round by Cleveland State, a season controversially detailed in John Feinstein’s bestseller, A Season on the Brink.
The following year the Hoosiers -- adding junior college transfers Dean Garrett and Keith Smart -- went 30-4, shared the Big Ten title with Purdue, and won the program’s fifth and final national championship.
Alford was the tour star with a pair of 32-point efforts. Help came from Eyl, Meier, Daryl Thomas and Joe Hillman. They were the foundation for that 1987 title that culminated with an epic final-game 74-73 thriller over Syracuse via Smart’s game-winning corner jumper.
“The trip did more than anything else to prepare us for 1987,” says Alford, now the Nevada head basketball coach with 606 victories on his resume. His 2,438 career points rank second in IU history to Calbert Cheaney’s 2,613. “It set the tone for what we needed to do as players and coaches to get where we needed to get to.”
Adds Meier, director for Indiana’s Bennington Marina, which builds pontoon boats: “After spending nearly 40 days together on a world tour, you’re either going to love or hate each other. We ended on the love side of the coin.”
In the summer of 1984, Knight loomed over the basketball world like a coaching colossus. Besides two NCAA titles and college basketball’s last unbeaten season (32-0 in 1976) at IU, he had just guided the United States to Olympic gold in Los Angeles, crushing the world with a college team that included Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Wayman Tisdale, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Alford.
The U.S. was so talented and deep, future NBA Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and John Stockton were cut.
One disappointment -- the Soviet Union, America’s biggest gold-medal challenger, skipped the Olympics in retaliation for the U.S. boycotting the 1980 Moscow Games.
After that, Knight returned to coaching Indiana, with poor results. The Hoosiers’ 7-11 Big Ten record was his first losing conference record. Tension was everywhere, memorialized when Knight threw a chair in Assembly Hall for perceived poor officiating during a loss to Purdue.
Some believed this was the result of burnout from nearly two years of high-level, high-stress coaching.
To hell with that, Knight said in so many words.
He was determined to return the Hoosiers to championship glory, and taking a break wasn’t an option. He believed his players -- Alford, Meier, Eyl, Thomas, Hillman, Stew Robinson, Brian Sloan, Winston Morgan, Kreigh Smith, Delray Brooks and Magnus Pelkowski -- had potential. He and Garl devised a summer foreign tour unlike any other.
“Coach was disappointed in the players, the coaches, himself,” Garl says. “He wanted to be better. He wanted to work with the players more.”
NCAA rules didn’t allow coaches to have basketball contact with players from the end of the NCAA Tournament in late March until the middle of the next October.
“There was no film, no workouts, nothing,” Garl says.
There was one option -- a foreign tour.
“He focused on that as the answer,” Garl says.
Knight and Garl drew on their vast national and international connections developed during the Olympic run to devise a trip that would take Indiana around the world. They’d plan it after practice, working with what is now USA Basketball.
“We had spent months with them through the Olympics,” Garl says. “We had contacts with all the good basketball countries in the world. Coach Knight asked me to check which country had interest to see where the tour would lead.”
The focus was the prestigious Kirin Tournament, sponsored by a Japanese brewery. It grew into a seven-game, 12-day round-robin tour of Japan with national teams from Japan, the Netherlands and the Soviet Union.
“There was tremendous interest,” Garl says. “We built the schedule around that.”
And then built some more.
“Coach wanted to get in as many games as he could,” Garl says. “Time wasn’t an issue for him.”
Players weren’t so sure.
“It had been a tough season,” Eyl says. “Coach Knight had thrown the chair; he’d just come off the Olympics; he was fried.
“People said he should take time off. He said, ‘We’re not very good, we need more practice, so we’re going on a world tour.’ We thought, ‘Oh, my gosh.”
Alford had endured a two-year grind of Indiana Mr. Basketball and national Sports Festival duties, his IU freshman season, the Olympics and his sophomore year.
“I didn’t want to go,” he says. “I hadn’t had any break.”
After dealing with an angry Knight for months, a trip seemed a bad idea.
“It wasn’t the happiest time,” Eyl says.
As it turned out, he was wrong.
“It set us up for future success,” Alford says.
Knight came down from the mountain, and there was hell to pay.
His plan was to let players play and assistants coach. He’d watch from the bleachers with legendary national title-winning coaches Pete Newell, Henry Iba and Everett Dean. They’d evaluate, discuss and plan.
Indiana beat the Japanese National Team and life was good. Losses to the Soviet Union and Japan followed, and tension soared.
“After that,” Eyl says, “Coach was on the bench.”
Adds Alford with a laugh: “I don’t think it was after a couple of losses. I think it was a couple of minutes of the first game.
“It’s in Coach’s DNA to lead and be on the bench and be the guy in charge. He’s always teaching. You can’t do that from the stands.”
A previous commitment had forced Knight to miss the first two games in Canada (the Hoosiers split with a Canadian National team that had finished fourth in the 1984 Olympics). He joined the team in San Francisco, and was in full competitive ferocity by the time Indiana arrived in Japan.
In 1985, the 44-year-old Knight was at his force-of-coaching-nature prime. At 6-5 and well over 200 pounds, his rage could freeze a grizzly at a hundred yards. Press conferences resonated with danger. Officials worked at their own risk. Temper tantrums generated world-side buzz.
Victories were the payoff. At Indiana, Knight won 662 games, 11 Big Ten titles and three national championships in 29 seasons.
When he retired in 2008, with stops at Army and Texas Tech, he’d won more games (902) than any college basketball coach in history. Success came without compromise -- players graduated and titles were earned, all without NCAA scandal or political correctness. He did it his way, by God, and woe to critics.
The world tour was no exception.
“Coach was always Coach,” Garl says. “In one of the games, he was really on the refs, who weren’t very good. Around halftime, Coach got into an argument with a ref, who called a technical on him. The ref said he wouldn’t work the second half, so Coach and the Yugoslav coach officiated it.”
“By their account, they did a much better job than the refs.”
Knight wanted Indiana playing to his demands. He wanted a team that looked like it was well coached, a team so focused and in tune to what needed to be done that it refused to lose no matter the setting.
That included the world tour.
“The basketball was intense,” Eyl says. “When we played well and won, things calmed down.”
When IU lost …
“It was tense,” Eyl adds.
So Knight went from bleachers to the bench. Indiana lost again to the Japanese behind 7-9 center Yasutaka Okayama. Knight generated controversy by pulling his team off the court for 10 minutes in the second half to protest perceived unfair officiating. Indiana eventually returned and was called for 30 fouls (11 more than Japan). Three Hoosiers fouled out and IU lost 74-67. Knight even played a zone defense because a slippery floor made man-to-man defense difficult.
IU lost to the Netherlands, and to the Soviets again for a 2-6 tour record.
Then it turned around. Beating the Netherlands started a 10-game win streak.
“We won everything after Japan,” Eyl says. “It became more relaxed.”
IU athletic director Ralph Floyd made the trip, as did team doctor Brad Bomba and assistant coaches Royce Waltman, Joby Wright and Kohn Smith. Knight brought friends. One was Lee Leonard, an Indiana University pilot who had flown World War II missions. Another was Don Boop, a World War II veteran who fought at Iwo Jima, site of some of the war’s worst fighting. While carrying a wounded fellow solider to safety at Iwo Jima, a bomb blew up nearby, killing the soldier and injuring Boop badly enough to leave permanent leg damage.
“He had a bias against the Japanese due to his World War II experience,” Garl says.
Boop and several Hoosiers met a group of Japanese businessmen. They asked why the Americans were in Japan and if they’d ever visited before.
As they entered an elevator, Loop said he had. The businessmen asked what he had done. Boop responded by pointing his right index finger at them as if he was shooting a gun. The message -- he had fought the Japanese.
“He went, Bang, Bang, Bang!” Garl says. “Then the elevator doors closed. It made for an awkward moment.”
Still, Boop provided perspective to the players.
“The message was count your blessings,” Eyl says. “He said a lot of (guys from his generation) came to Japan in their 20s, but under (war) circumstances. It wasn’t playing basketball and a coach getting upset with you.
“He was right. It’s a great experience when the worst thing you deal with is an at times (angry) coach getting upset about how you played basketball.”
“It sounds silly that (a Knight tirade) would be a problem, but it sure felt like it then.”
The voice pierced the calm of the bus ride to the Copenhagen airport.
“Damnit, Boop!” Henry Iba shouted. “You were supposed to remind me. I left my teeth in the hotel room.”
The team was about to fly back to the United States and the 81-year-old Iba needed his false teeth. The bus stopped. Bloomington Herald-Telephone sports editor Bob Hammel got out, flagged down a car, raced to the hotel for Iba’s teeth, then raced back to meet the team at the airport.
“We got a good laugh out of that,” Garl says with a smile.
Iba, Everett Dean and Pete Newell were in their 80s, and surprises came with their insight.
“To have that expertise was invaluable,” Garl says.
“They didn’t coach, but they watched all the games and advised Coach Knight. They had film sessions afterward.”
Dean had been IU’s first All-American basketball player in 1921 before becoming the Hoosiers head coach four years later. He won three Big Ten titles before moving to Stanford. He led Stanford to the 1942 national basketball title and to baseball’s 1953 College World Series. He’s the only coach inducted in college basketball and baseball hall of fames.
Iba won 751 games, two national titles with Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in the mid-1940s and Olympic gold medals in 1964 and ’68.
Newell won 234 games in 15 years at San Francisco, Michigan State and California. He coached the U.S. to the 1960 Olympic gold medal. He also ran a world-famous instructional basketball camp.
As for trip …
One night in Finland, the coaches were at a restaurant. People asked what they were doing in their country. The coaches said they were there for basketball. Laughter erupted.
“They thought (the coaches) were playing basketball,” Garl says. “That it was some kind of old-timers league.”
Another time, while checking into a hotel, a hotel manager asked Garl why the team was being so funny.
“What do you mean?” Garl asked.
The manager showed Garl a hotel registration card with an 1898 birthdate.
It didn’t belong to a player. It was Dean’s. He was born in Livonia, Indiana, in 1898.
Garl vouched for the card’s authenticity. He helped Dean get it.
Garl handled pre-trip preparations. That included visiting Washington D.C. to go to the embassies of every country they’d play in to ensure proper documentation.
Dean lived in Salem, Indiana, at the time. Garl needed Dean’s birth certificate for his passport. Dean said, “Tim, when I was born, they didn’t have birth certificates. But we did have a family bible.”
They took the bible to the passport agent at the Salem post office. The agent knew Dean and accepted it as documentation. They got the passport.
“That would be unheard of now,” Garl says.
China was the biggest challenge with its Communist government that had barred Americans until President Richard Nixon eased tension in the 1970s.
“It was quite a deal to get a visa to China,” Garl says.
The heat was on Stew Robinson.
Indiana attended a number of extravagant banquets, especially in Japan. Meals started after the games, so it was often late at night.
The Kirin tourney-opening Tokyo banquet featured all four teams. Tradition had one team member sing a song.
“We were unaware of that,” Eyl says. “We’re thinking, ‘What’s going to happen when it’s our turn?’
“It comes to us. Coach Knight says, ‘Stew, get up and sing.’”
Robinson went on instinct.
“He starts singing ‘Old McDonald Had a Farm,’” Eyl says. “Everybody knew it. He couldn’t sing, so everybody helped him.
“He was a riot.”
Beyond basketball and banquets, Knight planned culturally significant sight-seeing.
Sometimes too much.
“Coach wanted us to see cultural stuff as much as he wanted us to play basketball,” Meier says.
“It was cool, but, man, he had us going nonstop to see everything we could possibly see.”
Japan was a mecca for electronic equipment. Hong Kong featured designer clothing at bargain prices.
“You’d have a suit made for you by the next day for little money” Eyl says.
Communist reality hit hard in Yugoslavia and China.
“China was locked down,” Eyl says. It was a dreary society. That was eye opening.”
It widened most in the city of Shanghai.
“The people spoke very little English,” Eyl says, “and when they did, it was only about when (former heavyweight boxing champ) Muhammad Ali was there.”
Shanghai was the world’s largest city and probably its most polluted.
Eyl remembers walking along a river in downtown Shanghai and, “The foulness and the stench of the river was awful, and there was this big downtown industrial wasteland.”
In Hong Kong, Tom Wisman, the brother of former IU player Jim Wisman, arranged for a boat to take the team into Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Bay. There was swimming, skiing and, yes, partying.
“There was no basketball,” Garl says. “We all needed a break.”
Knight didn’t come, which was in everyone’s best interests.
“That allowed everyone to relax,” Eyl says. “It was just the assistant coaches and the players. It was kids having fun. It was crazy. It was a chance to get away from basketball for two to three days.”
Adds Meyer: “We water skied and swam. We also might have had a couple of beers. It really brought us together. It was a unique experience.”
Uniqueness included swimming from the boat to a restaurant that featured, chicken, fish and … pigeon.
“A delicacy was pigeon brains,” Garl says. “A few tried it.”
China’s Great Wall was a highlight.
“Coach Knight explained all the details – why it was there, why it failed, why it succeeded,” Eyl says. “It was a wonderful experience.”
Adds Meier: “It was probably the neatest thing I’ve ever seen. The only picture I have with Coach Knight is there. It was incredible to walk on something built so long ago.”
In Japan, the team visited Shinto shrines, Buddhist shrines and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where atomic bombs were dropped in 1945 to end World War II. That included Hiroshima Memorial Park, the estimated epicenter of where the first bomb detonated 1,900 feet above the city. The ruined Chamber of Commons Building remained. The blast’s flash burned shadows into the concrete.
“That gave you the reality of the impact,” Meier says.
In the Netherlands, Knight took them to windmills, dikes, and the home of great Dutch painter Rembrandt.
It was all part of Knight’s unique teaching method.
“When he’d bring in musicians or golfers or fishermen to practice,” Meier says, “it was like, ‘This doesn’t make sense. Why are they here?’ Then you realize, these are some of the best in the world. He wants us to hear their stories about how hard it is to be great. How you get to be the best.”
Then there was the food.
“I don’t think I’d ever eaten Chinese food,” Eyl says. “You’re trying to play, you’re trying not to lose weight. It was like, I just want a Big Mac.”
Adds Meier: “I remember walking into one restaurant. There were these big wooden tubs filled with eels and fish. That’s what they’d pulled out for you to eat.
“The stuff we ate was not overly appetizing. Once we found the Japanese equivalent of a McDonald’s, man, we were there.”
The Hoosiers knew what was coming even before gathering in Bloomington in late June for 10 practices.
“When you have Indiana on your chest and play for Coach Knight,” Alford says, “people want to beat you. It doesn’t matter whether it’s college or a world tour. Teams came at us hard. That’s how you get better.”
Improvement started in Toronto by splitting those pair of games against a Canada National Team. Alford exploited the new three-point line for 32 points and two three-pointers in the opener. Thomas’ 18 points led in the second game.
Then it was off to San Francisco to pick up Knight and others before heading to Tokyo.
The Hoosiers handled Japan in the Kirin Tourney opener 72-59. That set up a title game showdown with the Soviet Union, which routed the Netherlands 129-58 in its opener.
Indiana was out-gunned from the start. The Soviets jumped to a 21-6 lead and won 74-54 behind 7-4, 250-pound superstar Arvidas Sabonis’ 23 points and 13 rebounds. Alford led IU with 18 points. The game drew 3,500.
“They crushed us,” Eyl says. “They were much better.”
Adds Meier: “Sabonis was probably the best player in the world at the time. It was incredible how skilled he was.”
Sabonis wasn’t the biggest player they faced. Japan had the 7-9 Okayama.
“I have a picture with him,” the 6-8 Meier says. “His hand is on my shoulder. I look like I’m 12 years old.”
IU lost five straight games in Japan before beating the Netherlands 82-69. Eyl led with 18 points and eight rebounds.
China was next. Crowds as big as 8,000 saw the Hoosiers go 3-0.
Then came an 18-hour flight to Amsterdam. Indiana went 3-0 against younger Yugoslavian teams (Alford led with a 32-point effort). Games were played in small towns and sightseeing was limited.
Tempers flared in one game. Poor officiating didn’t help.
“That’s where I learned that the F-word was internationally understood,” Meier says with a laugh.
Garl says, “There was a lot of jawing,” and on the way to the locker room at halftime, “One of the Yugoslav kids spit on Winston Morgan, and (Morgan) punched his brains out.”
Order was restored, but the “Fight brought them together,” Garl says.
The Hoosiers then went to Finland and again went 3-0. In one game, Hillman scored 20 points and Alford 21.
“You’re playing in big arenas packed with people and no air conditioning,” Eyl says. “You couldn’t drink the water, so you’d come to the bench with bottles of, I guess it was a soft drink with sediment at the bottom, but you’re hot and thirsty and it was the only thing to drink.”
Homesickness grew. Eyl kept a calendar marking off the days.
“The end couldn’t come fast enough,” he says.
The team flew back to the United State on a 747. Knight was in first class and met with each player to evaluate performance.
“Coach had thought a lot about it,” Garl says. “He had lots of notes.”
The team flew from Chicago to Indianapolis, and bussed to Assembly Hall.
A large group of fans and media greeted them in Indianapolis. That included television broadcaster Chuck Marlowe, the host of Knight’s TV show.
“He was asking adult questions,” Eyl says, “and my response was, I’m just glad to be home. That’s it. That’s all I can think about.”
Maturity altered that perspective.
“That trip developed a strong bond,” says Meier, a 1987 team captain. “Yes, there was the pressure from Coach. His demand for excellence was always there, but it was different. We tried things. Everybody got a lot of playing time.
“That’s where Daryl became a strong post player. That was his breakout.”
Adds Eyl: “They had it all planned out. It was first class. It was great that the Indiana athletic department allowed us to expand our horizons like that.”
“We saw some incredible things,” Alford says. “Indiana did that for us. You’re blessed and grateful.”
Upon arriving in Bloomington, Knight headed west for a fishing trip. Players went home. Delray Brooks, a former Indiana Mr. Basketball, decided IU wasn’t the program for him. He transferred to Providence and played in the same 1987 Final Four that included the Hoosiers.
After Knight and the players left, Dr. Bomba arrived at Assembly Hall with a cooler. He and the staff gathered for frosty beverages to reminisce about the trip, and consider possibilities to come.
“It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure,” Garl says, “and it continues to have a positive impact on everyone (who went).”