THE BRICKYARD, IN – My travels of the past 2 weeks have taken me to several far flung outposts. But the last few stops have me sitting here in Kilroy’s in downtown Indianapolis thinking about my next move. This past weekend I was in North Carolina when word came that the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith had passed away. Smith was an extraordinary coach who cared about his players. Cared that they graduated. Cared about Michael Jordan the same as he cared about King Rice and Rich Yonakor. 11 Final Fours, 2 National Championships, a 97% graduation rate for his players over 36 years, and the moral compass for everything that went on in Chapel Hill.
From Carolina, I next flew to Las Vegas where I was supposed to stay all week. My plane touched down in Sin City and 5 minutes later word that Jerry Tarkanian had died was all over the news. “Tark the Shark” was the legendary hoops coach at UNLV. His teams, featuring Larry Johnson, Stacy Augmon, and Greg Anthony looked-and were unbeatable for most of their college careers. Tarkanian had a reputation as a “cheater” a “bender of rules” who would do or say anything if he felt it gave him an edge. That allegation was BS.
The amazing thing about him was that he was every bit as innovative as Dean Smith. Tarkanian though, did his coaching at one of the NCAA’s “dirty” programs out in the desert in the only city in America with legal Sports Books. The NCAA conducted witch hunts almost annually against Tarkanian and UNLV. In spite of and in defiance of them, the Runnin’ Rebels won, won big, and won often. The Tark’s relentless defensive pressure triggered a high powered offense that we’ve not seen since. And no-this season’s Kentucky squad is NOT as good as those Vegas teams were. So as I sat in Caesar’s thinking about Sidney Green and Lloyd (Swee’ Pea) Daniels, Anderson Hunt and Tarkanian’s ubiquitous towel in his mouth, it occurred to me. I am Death. Not in an ecumenical or philosophically metaphoric way. I’m talking like the Norm McDonald voiced “Death” from Family Guy who visited soon to be victims with a sickel and black hood and all that. “Death.”
I don’t know how or when this transformation took place. I only know that I was suddenly asked to fly to Indianapolis for an urgent business meeting. Then it dawned on me. As these things tend to come in “threes,” Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian represented the first 2 Hall of Fame coaches to pass-leaving one left to go. The waitresses here at Kilroy’s look like they moonlight as mobile meth lab technicians. Or maybe that was me somehow casting a pall on them. Something must have compelled me to the Hoosier state.
Suddenly a hulking 74 year old man with a great shock of white hair entered the bar. It was the “General.” Robert Montgomery Knight, or Bobby Knight. Coach Knight of course is the retired lion of a coach who spent 30 years pushing (literally) his players towards being the best and winning 3 national titles along the way. This was why I was summoned to Indiana unexpectedly. Knight would be the third member of this exclusive but doomed fraternity of iconic basketball coaches.
Before I got the chance to speak with Knight, to warn him that “Death” was in the house, news came on the TV that former New York Knick Anthony Mason had fallen ill. Springfield Gardens’ own Mase suffered a heart attack yesterday on top of a slew of other ailments that have left him perilously vulnerable. Mason-a stalwart and the embodiment of the tough Knicks teams of the 1990s is now clinging to life. What an incredibly tough week it’s been for basketball fans. Let’s all say a prayer for Mason to recover.