Winning made Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight famous. Now see what made him infamous.
The White Shadow on a steady diet of ground glass.
Facts of the Case
Sportswriter John Feinstein (A Good Walk Spoiled, The Last Amateurs) spent the 1985-86 college basketball season shadowing Indiana University coach Robert Montgomery Knight, known to his fans as "The General" (Knight was the basketball coach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before moving to Bloomington) and to his detractors by a myriad of less laudatory sobriquets. The project culminated in a book, A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers, that chronicled Indiana's stormy campaign and, more significantly, offered the world an insider's view of the rampaging hoops guru who once pitched a plastic chair across the court during a game against interstate rival Purdue.
In its maiden foray into feature-length filmmaking, ESPN, the cable sports channel, presents this recreation of the winter of Bobby Knight's discontent. Portrayed with snarling, profane intensity by veteran character actor Brian Dennehy (F/X, Tommy Boy), Knight rages through his team's misadventures (in truth, the team was a failure only by Knight's and the IU Booster Club's lofty standards—Indiana finished the '85-'86 season with a 21-8 record and a berth in the NCAA tournament), barking insults at his players, assistant coaches, fans, and members of the fourth estate. Knight is particularly brutal toward his team's stars, guard Steve Alford (James Lafferty, late of chef Emeril Lagasse's short-lived sitcom) and forward Daryl Thomas (Michael James Johnson from Jerry Maguire), pushing the two young men to excel on the hardwood and lead in the locker room. At the same time, the coach shows a measure of compassion for the hapless and overmatched Delray Brooks (Al Thompson, The Royal Tenenbaums, A Walk to Remember), a sweet-tempered kid who's out of his league in the pressure-cooker world of big-time college hoops.
Whatever happens, Knight remains forever Knight—rude, chauvinistic, patronizing, uncompromising, and above all, driven to win games and graduate the young men who play for him.
John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink has been one of my favorite sports books for more than a decade. (My dog-eared paperback copy rests alongside my keyboard as I type this review.) When I first heard that ESPN had purchased the rights to the book and planned to use it as the basis for a TV movie, I was intrigued to see how the final product would turn out.
In a word, disappointing.
When a TV biopic opens with its subject standing on the beach at Normandy extolling the virtues of armed combat, you know trouble's a-brewin'. Director Robert Mandel (who previously directed Brian Dennehy in F/X) manages to drag Feinstein's engrossing pageturner down to the level of shrill soap opera. The disjointed, episodic script by David W. Rintels (best known for penning John Frankenheimer's Civil War epic Andersonville) flails all over the map, presenting Bob Knight with both loony caricature and mawkish sentimentalism while offering little insight into what makes the man tick. Because of the haphazard way events are patchworked together, it's nigh onto impossible to follow the flow of the season. The story stutters and stumbles along, lacking any sense of cohesion, much less suspense. Worst of all, Mandel and Rintels give painfully short shrift to the basketball players on Knight's squad—none of the kids is afforded any opportunity to emerge as anything but a foil for the coach's verbal assaults.
To be fair, Feinstein's book would constitute a nightmare project for any filmmaker. Audiences are accustomed to sports movies ramping up steadily toward some huge emotional finish—the climactic fight in Rocky, the state finals in Hoosiers, Roy Hobbs' electric home run in The Natural. The real-life events of A Season on the Brink don't lend themselves to this kind of sustained build, as there's no cataclysm at the end of the year. Seniors graduated, a couple of players transferred to other schools, life in Bloomington continued apace for another fifteen years before Knight's increasingly out-of-control antics got him bounced from Indiana. (Ironically, the season after "the brink"—1986-87—Knight and the Hoosiers won a national championship, albeit with a markedly different team led by newcomers Dean Garrett and Keith Smart.) Besides which, Bob Knight's checkered history speaks for itself—his histrionics are so familiar even to non-fans that a fictionalized version can only pale by comparison. But Mandel and company knew these weaknesses going in, and did little if anything to better translate the source material into compelling movie fare. As short as the film is at 87 minutes, it crawls along at a pace that commences the wristwatch-peeking almost as soon as Knight unleashes his first F-bomb (and the expletives get uncorked with alacrity here).
The director seems content merely to turn Dennehy loose in his white hairpiece (at least, it looks like a hairpiece—I'd hate to think you could do that to real hair) and crimson pullover, and let the actor's performance do all the heavy lifting. Dennehy is game but awkward, as though never quite certain how far to push the envelope. There's a modicum of physical resemblance between the basketball coach and his doppelganger (though Dennehy is about fifty pounds heavier than Knight was at this stage of his career), but Dennehy's bombast feels hollow and forced. Perhaps Mandel would have been better served to cast a comic rather than a dramatic actor, someone who could have burst off the screen with a wilder, less mannered portrayal. It hardly helps that the screenplay gives Dennehy scant strong dialogue to work with, or that he's surrounded by a parade of tepid recruits from the SAG unemployment line who fade into the bleachers rather than provide the star any effective or arresting counterpoint.
In the end, the video version of A Season on the Brink suffers from its failure to surmount its inherent weakness—this is a character portrait, not a narrative. Watching a man hurl profanities and insults might make an entertaining stand-up comedy routine, but it's a deadly dull basis for a feature-length movie. Because there really isn't a story to tell here—aside from the oft-repeated tale of Bob Knight, chair-chucking boor—and the director and screenwriter haven't bothered to develop one, the film meanders along until it simply runs out of gas. Much like the '85-'86 Hoosiers.
As pathetic as A Season on the Brink is, Lions Gate Home Entertainment hits a sweet outside jumper with the DVD release. The main feature presents as competently as a made-for-the-tube picture can. The full-frame transfer is vivid and colorful, though grainy in spots and somewhat soft-looking throughout. The stereo soundtrack is likewise TV-appropriate and unremarkable.
The added content, on the other hand, impressed me. Executive producer Stanley M. Brooks, who's made a career out of such lowest-common-denominator swill as Atomic Twister and Three's Company Revisited, checks in with a solid audio commentary that outclasses by lightyears the film itself. Brooks is so thorough, enlightening and engaging that I found myself sympathizing with him because his movie stinks. (As much as this guy clearly understands about filmmaking, why doesn't he make better films?) For anyone who's the least bit interested in the production of this movie, or of TV movies in general, Brooks' yak-track alone is worth the price of a rental.
In case there were any information gaps left by the commentary, the 22-minute featurette ESPN Reel Classics Uncut: A Season on the Brink fills them in. A fast-paced (unlike the movie) and lively (again, unlike the movie) documentary loaded with on-set footage—especially good are the basketball sequences, choreographed by Dan Becker—and interview clips featuring producers Brooks and Lewin Webb, director Robert Mandel and members of his crew, star Brian Dennehy and several of the young actors cast as the ballplayers, and Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan. I could have done without the pseudo-metal guitar score, but otherwise it's a great electronic press kit.
Next up is ESPN's broadcast of an interview sportscaster Jeremy Schaap conducted with Bob Knight in the aftermath of the coach's dismissal from Indiana University in 2000. This package, bookended with comments by ESPN anchor Bob Ley, runs just shy of 50 minutes, and offers a fascinating firsthand view of a man for whom denial is far more than just a river in Egypt. Knight deftly fobs off the blame for his predicament on everyone except himself, and dodges—or ridicules—the few tough questions posed by Schaap. It's great theater, and after seeing this interview no one will be surprised that Knight almost immediately landed another coaching position, this time at Texas Tech. Love him or hate him, the man's got mad skills.
Speaking of Knight's love/hate relationship with the world, Outside the Lines: Bob Knight Beyond the Brink is another ESPN special that originally ran in conjunction with the premiere broadcast of A Season on the Brink. This time, Bob Ley interviews former Indiana assistant coach Kohn Smith and ex-Hoosier players Winston Morgan and Rick Calloway, all of whom are portrayed in the film. (For the record, Smith and Morgan are Knight supporters, Calloway the voice of bitter dissent.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Here's my nutshell POV on Robert Montgomery Knight. America loves a winner, and we don't much care how that winning is accomplished. We hail the bottom line, and justify even criminal means by their successful ends. Bob Knight vilifies his athletes? Verbally abuses university staff? Rearranges the furniture in mid-game? Hey—his players usually graduate and his teams hang championship pennants from the rafters. Just win, baby.
But consider this. In his four decades of major college coaching, how many professional superstars have Knight's programs produced? Just one—Isiah Thomas, who bailed on Indiana after his sophomore season, fed up with The General's taunting. You could count even the halfway-good NBA players who've passed through Knight's system on your fingers, and still play Chopsticks. Why do you suppose that is?
I'll tell you my theory. The truly exceptional pro athlete has to be tough, strong-willed, even selfish, and above all overflowing with bravado he can back up with stellar play. Knight doesn't recruit those players. He recruits kids he can bully, who will tolerate his harassment and do exactly what he tells them. Any player with decent skills leaves Knight with his confidence shredded into hamburger, and with his talent shoehorned into an antiquated style of basketball ill-suited for the NBA game. Sure, Knight's players graduate. They'd better. After four years of "BK Theater" (as Knight likes to refer to his harrowing tactics), few will be cut out for pro hoops success. And I suspect Knight likes it that way—it grants his conceit that the kids are only as good as he makes them.
Mommas, don't let your babies grow up to be Red Raiders.
Truth is better—and more entertaining—than fiction. If you want a glimpse into the human maelstrom that is Bobby Knight, scope out the interviews on this disc, and skip the movie.
The Judge slaps A Season on the Brink with a technical foul, but refuses to kick it out of the game in light of its worthwhile supplements. Bob Knight and Brian Dennehy are both sentenced to having their mouths washed out with soap. The Court extends its condolences to the basketball fans of Lubbock, Texas, who will probably be stuck with The General until he decides to hang up his sweater. Game over.
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