The entire state of Indiana wasn’t as crazy about former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight as some would lead you to believe, but enough of it was that a made-for-ESPN movie about him required the efforts of features, sports and li’l ol’ me. My assignment is explained in the first paragraph. My only editing change: I replaced the dashed-out obscenities with the real thing.
March 8, 2002
As the person assigned to examine “A Season on the Brink” from the unaffiliated, uncaring, not-particularly-interested-in-basketball perspective, I hate to bring this up, but I have to:
Is Indiana a state of child abusers?
One has to wonder, after two hours of watching Brian Dennehy as IU legend Bob Knight, spraying spittle in his players’ faces and calling them fucking pussies and worse, all while the entire state of Indiana looks on and smiles benevolently and says, why, he reminds me of my dad, doesn’t he remind you of your dad? Or maybe not.
Like all movies, “A Season on the Brink” isn’t an accurate representation of Indiana. A stock shot repeated throughout: The camera tracks through a wintry, rural landscape, cold and forbidding. The sun is as remote as an unkept promise; a solitary cow gazes uncomprehendingly at the camera. Far in the distance, a boy shoots at the netless hoop nailed to the side of the barn.
If you ever took a film-criticism course, you know what this stuff is called: subtext. And the subtext is, Indiana is a lonely, cold place that only comes alive in winter, in gymnasiums brought to a boil by Hoosier Hysteria. In this Siberian landscape, this tyrant called Bob Knight found his true calling — abusing others — and a willing audience of enablers, i.e., us.
The film isn’t an accurate representation of Knight, either. While there are several brief scenes of his players’ parents offering testimonials to what a great guy he is, that side of him — the rigorous teacher, the brilliant analyst, the philanthropist who refused to self-promote — is barely evident.
Because this is a movie, and because this is a movie that will “break new ground” with its depiction of non-premium-channel profanity in prime time, what we mainly see are rants. Knight got off easy on that point, too. Dennehy is a big, powerful man, but he’s also a journeyman actor with supreme control of his instrument. Having watched videos and heard recordings of Knight out of control over the years, I can report that Dennehy rarely goes there. He yells. He swears. But that screeching edge of hysteria that Knight so often crossed — the kind that shrinks the soul of even someone watching on television — is seen only in the final credits, when we see a montage of Actual Knight Moments.
And the rants, as performed by Dennehy, aren’t the ones that got him into hot water. Because the movie focuses on just one season, we don’t see him facing off with a guy in a restaurant, or flinging a vase at the wall over a 64-year-old woman’s head, or illustrating his point that his players are shit by producing the real article, smeared on toilet paper from his own recent visit to the bathroom.
No, the Knight we see in “A Season on the Brink” is just one born too late, a Parris Island drill instructor staking out one of the last bastions of real manhood, although the new age of wussiness is drawing closer, populated by “dorks from the chemistry department” and professors — with advanced degrees! — wanting to watch one of his precious practices. “You know what B.S. stands for?” he crows as they file out. “Bullshit. And M.S. stands for More of the Same. Ph.D. is for Piled Higher and Deeper!” So much for that famous respect for academics.
What’s more, we’re given several looks at his tender-bear side with his son, Patrick. He makes supper for Pat, asks after his studies and high-school basketball play, and practically tucks him in at night. “Dad, if I’d been born a girl you’d probably have shoved me back in,” Patrick teases. “Yeah, I probably would,” Dad joshes back.
After screening “A Season on the Brink,” I spent a bit of time with an odd, double-sided book by Rich Wolfe. On one side: “Knightmares: The Dark Side of Bobby Knight from Those Who Knew Him Best.” Flip the book over, and the cover is “Good Knight: The Good Side of Bobby Knight from Those Who Knew Him Best.” The unintended joke — that even those “who knew him best” can’t agree on whether the guy is good or bad — seems to fly right over the publisher’s head.
A glance at the text, however, reveals the obvious answer: He’s both. John Feinstein, who wrote “A Season on the Brink,” sums it up best when he said (in the “Knightmares” half of the book), “Bob Knight is three things, without any debate: one of the greatest coaches ever, a guy who cares as much about academics as athletics in a time when that’s very rare, and a guy who never broke an NCAA rule. But the fourth thing is: He’s a self-righteous guy who thinks he can do no wrong and has a double standard for behavior. You behave one way toward me — respectfully, never rude, always show me respect and loyalty, but I don’t have to return any of that to you because I’m Bob Knight and you’re not.”
It really is as simple as that. “A Season on the Brink,” the movie, doesn’t get there in two hours. I suggest you try the book.