It was pretty commonplace for former Hoosiers to return to Bloomington and pay a visit to Coach Knight and his current IU team. Players like Keith Smart, Alan Henderson, Calbert Cheaney, Landon Turner, Kent Benson, and others would come back and give of their time to impart some advice and encouragement. The talks and visits by all of these past players made one thing clear to us: when we put on an Indiana Hoosier uniform we were playing for much more than ourselves. We were playing for everyone who was in the Hoosier basketball family.
Our stalls in the Assembly Hall locker room had nameplates posted in them that announced which players from Hoosier history had used that same locker stall during their IU careers. The names in my locker were (Scott) May #42, (Steve) Risley #34, (Brian) Sloan #45, and (Damon) Bailey #22. It was more than enough to give us current players chills before heading out to same court where these legends were made, knowing that we occupied the same spot they had sat many years before. It was one thing, of course, to become accustomed to having these names looking over our shoulders as we sat at our lockers. Now just imagine how it felt for us to see those very players walk into the locker room and stand in front of us. It gave us all a feeling of pride about our program’s basketball past while also giving us a sense of responsibility about our program’s future.
Being a part of the Hoosier basketball family led to many of these unforgettable interactions with past Hoosier greats, like the day Isiah Thomas came to talk to us. It’s not every day that you get to look up from tying your basketball sneakers and see two men standing in front of you that have three NCAA championships and two NBA championships between them. Coach Knight had introduced a number of his past players to us, but the way he introduced Isiah had a different feel from the other introductions. Coach’s intros for his former players were always done in a proud, albeit short and to-the-point manner. However, the way Coach introduced Isiah to us was more akin to the way a proud father introduces his son. After Coach introduced Isiah, he gave him the floor. Isiah didn’t disappoint, and he didn’t pull any punches that November day in 1999.
“Don’t f—in’ embarrass us! You think you’re playing hard, but you’re not. You don’t want to play against the guy who says, ‘I’m going to be here for 40 f—in’ minutes!’ Somebody has to step up and get some balls and say ‘We’re going to f—in’ go after you!’ None of you here have won. Malone, Stockton, Barkley are all great, BUT they f—in’ lost all the time. It ain’t f—in’ easy to win. Don’t accept losing. Ninety-nine percent of the world has f—in’ lost. One percent of the world wins. There are people who talk [that] ain’t won a f—in’ thing. Not at track, ping pong, pool. [Some guys] came in here and quit. Winners gravitate toward each other. Every f—in’ day I’d be eating steel if I was on a team ranked 40th in a poll.”
Coach gave Isiah a slap on the back in appreciation and told all of us to head out to the court and get warmed up for practice. Usually former players stayed around and watched us practice after they talked to the team. All of us hustled out to the court, eager for the opportunity to play in front of a college and NBA legend, anticipating that Isiah would also do as other past players had done, come out and sit courtside or in the stands and watch the day’s practice. However, the hope that Isiah was coming out to watch us was thwarted about fifteen minutes into practice when we all realized at the same time that he wasn’t going to be coming out to watch us play after all. But we didn’t feel disappointment. We actually were feeling the exact opposite.
This was because as we heard the doors of the gym open, we turned to see the leader of the Pistons’ Bad Boys himself walking right toward us, wearing a red and white No. 11 practice jersey and shorts. Just minutes removed from his speech to us about defense and competing, he now appeared ready to back up those locker room words with action on the court. Mr. Thomas had no intention of spending his time in Assembly Hall watching us play the game of basketball. To the contrary, Isiah had every intention of us watching him play the game of basketball.
I had to shake the cobwebs out of my head as Coach Knight and his assistants set up the two teams for the scrimmage that was getting ready to begin. What basketball player, much less a Hoosier basketball player, wouldn’t dream of this chance to be on the court with a man that had the hardware, rings, and reputation that Isiah Thomas had? It’s not every day that you have a chance to be on the court with a player who in his career had stood toe-to-toe with the likes of Bird, Magic, and MJ and gave those legends all they could handle and more. All that being said, though, I have to be honest, as we were getting set to start our scrimmage the thought that was on my mind was this: “What can this old, little guy still really do on a basketball court?”
Coach Knight set the teams. Now it was time to find out what this old NBA Top 50 player of all time was still made of. “It couldn’t be all that much,” I thought to myself. It didn’t take long to realize that this line of thinking was a far cry from the truth. Our fantasy basketball camp quickly turned into a basketball boot camp. If someone had been at practice that day who had never watched a college or professional basketball game, they would have noticed within the first five minutes that there was something exceptional about the player wearing the No. 11 jersey (no, Dane Fife, I am not referring to you). Some people are put on this earth to do certain things. There are some who can learn to play a note on a musical instrument almost as easily as they learn to breathe. There are some who are so blessed with artistic abilities that they can fill a canvas with exactly what they are imagining in their mind’s eye. And then there are those who were meant solely to perform their artistry on a basketball court, apparently no matter their age.
This practice and this moment couldn’t have meant any more to anyone else on our team than it did to our senior guard, AJ Guyton. Our future first-team All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year had more than a few basketball connections to Isiah. AJ hailed from Peoria, Illinois, just a couple of hours from the Chicago courts where Isiah grew up playing. AJ was a shooting guard with point guard handles, and Isiah was a point guard with a shooting guard’s touch. Their size and playing style had quite a few similarities too, especially when it came to the crossover moves they both wielded like weapons on the basketball court. AJ even chose to wear No. 11 while he was in the NBA playing for the Chicago Bulls. It was something special that day to have a chance to see a legendary Hoosier guard come back to the very gym that began his legendary career and challenge the current Hoosier star guard. AJ and Isiah were the show as the red and white teams battled that day. I quickly realized during this particular scrimmage that my first, second, and third priorities were to screen for AJ, and that my fourth priority was to rebound, and then promptly kick it back out to AJ.
Coach Knight rarely had a running clock on the scoreboard for our scrimmages. Like a conductor of a symphony, he would guide us through the ebbs and flows of our scrimmage until the team had gotten into a good groove, and then he would usually wait for one last solid play before he ended practice on a good note. Several minutes into our scrimmage that day, practice came to a close on a play that none of the players, coaches, managers, or trainers will ever forget. Coach Knight’s players generally develop a pretty good sense for when he is going to wrap up practice and send us all back to the locker room. I think AJ and Isiah both figured that we were coming down to the last possession or two of practice, so they decided to set the stage for one more showdown on the Assembly Hall floor. AJ waved off any screeners who might have dared think of coming into the picture as he and Mr. 11 set the scene. AJ had the ball a few feet behind the three-point line at the top of the key with only Isiah standing between him and what was almost certainly going to be the final possession of the day. AJ was determined to make this already memorable day perfect by ending practice and his personal battle against a basketball icon with a successful one-on-one move. AJ made his move. He took his live dribble left and set up for a smooth crossover back to his right. AJ’s arms and hands worked in perfect sync with his feet as he maneuvered his body past Isiah. But the ball didn’t go with him.
In a flash of quickness that you would have thought was long ago left behind in the Palace of Auburn Hills, Isiah cleanly relieved AJ of his dribble by popping the ball loose into the backcourt near the state of Indiana logo at center court. AJ, one of the quickest and best players in the Big Ten at the time, reacted immediately and turned to recover the loose ball, which was now behind him, but still well within reach of his lengthy wingspan. AJ’s hands were milliseconds from recovering the loose ball, but his window of opportunity shut as a thirty-eight-year-old, twelve-time NBA All-Star and former NBA Finals MVP dove to the floor and smothered the ball, clutching it with both arms into his chest.
Coach Knight stopped practice, and it was a good thing he did, too, because everyone in the gym was stunned to the point of being frozen in their tracks. We were all just standing there, coaches and managers included, silently taking in as cool a moment as we had ever seen on a basketball court. The truly great competitors don’t wait to “pick their spots,” “turn it on when they need to,” or “flip a switch,” depending on the moment. The truly great demand it of themselves to have that switch flipped on at all times. What a perfect example this play was for a group of young college players needing a lesson on what it was to consistently compete. Here was a man who had absolutely nothing more to prove on a basketball court, putting forth maximum effort simply because he demanded that level of effort from himself every time he set foot on the floor.
As Isiah stood up, Coach Knight told all of us to head to the locker room and shower. Coach walked toward his 1981 NCAA championship point guard. The two basketball Hall of Famers walked off the Assembly Hall court together. As it turns out, we were all watching the last time the two greatest Hoosier basketball legends would ever be on the Assembly Hall court together at once. A proud Coach Knight walked off the court with his arm draped around his point guard’s slender shoulders. In his hands, Isiah was still carrying that loose ball.
You can buy Kirk Haston‘s Days of Knight: How the General Changed My Life at Amazon.