By Tito S. Talao
(Note: Via an online video link sent him by a former assistant, multi-titled coach Joe Lipa, once referred to as the Bob Knight of the Philippines, watched with mixed feelings of admiration and sadness as Knight had a reunion with his former Hoosiers players, ending 20 years of estrangement with Indiana University which fired him in 2001 in the aftermath of a tumultuous NCAA season. Lipa recalls his visit with Knight in Indianapolis 36 years ago.)
At 3 a.m. on a freezing November back in 1984, Joe Lipa trudged through a kilometer of snow to hear the gospel of basketball according to Bob Knight, the fire-breathing head coach of the Indiana University Hoosiers.
The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet collegiate coaching’s enfant terrible, arranged by Indiana alumnus Atty. Oscar Yabes with the help of Lipa’s Sigma Rho fraternity brothers at University of the Philippines, was too good to pass up and Lipa, then on his fourth year as coach of the UP Fighting Maroons, jumped at the offer.
“I didn’t know much about Bob Knight then. But I’ve read about him and was impressed with his coaching philosophies and ideas,” Lipa says over the phone days ago.
Knight had led the Hoosiers to the NCAA Division I championship in 1981 behind a charismatic point guard named Isiah Thomas and was deep in preparation three years later as coach of the USA basketball team to the XXIII Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and so the timing was perfect.
Lipa was determined to learn more about the man and he took the first flight to Los Angeles soon after.
From LAX, Lipa boarded the Greyhound and travelled 36 hours non-stop to Bloomington, arriving in the bus station tired and chilled to the bone at the ungodly hour before dawn with no one to pick him up.
“They had expected me to take the plane but I changed my mind and decided to take the bus instead because I wanted to see the land area of America outside of California,” Lipa recalls.
From the station, Lipa, a big bag on his shoulders, made his way shivering despite winter clothes along snow-covered roads to the alumni-owned International Center, his residence for the first three days of his weeklong stay. (He would eventually transfer to a hotel closer to the IU gymnasium.)
Knight, wearing his signature red sweater, welcomed him warmly, along with four or five other foreign coaches, on the first day of the visit.
“He was a big man, maybe 6-foot-6,” Lipa remembers. “And he called me by my first name, Jose.”
What did he call Knight? Robert?
“Oh no, called him Coach, of course,” Lipa says, laughing.
Sitting behind the bench, the motley group of coaches — a Spaniard, Japanese and Malaysian, among them—observed practice as Knight and his assistants ran the Hoosiers ragged from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Indiana gym, known as the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
“He was really a drillmaster, a disciplinarian, and he corrected every mistake his players made. Ang lakas ng boses, tindi magalit at sigaw nang sigaw.”
Every now and then, the visiting mentors would summon the courage and raise their hands to ask a question. Lipa did so on more than few occasions.
What did the 17,222-capacity Assembly Hall look like?
“Ang laki, pongala-ngala! Di pa uso yung ganong kalaking gym, malaki na gym nila.”
The setup remained unaltered for three days — the Hoosiers and the ‘General’ on the playing court, and the observers a safe distance away at ringside.
Then Knight called Lipa to the bench on the fourth day.
“And kulit ko kasi e. Ang dami kong tanong,” says Lipa. “How to read the defense, pressure defense, motion offense…things like that. Siguro para mas marinig ko ‘yung mga instructions niya.”
What about the other coaches?
“A, nandon pa rin sila behind the bench,” Lipa chuckles.
On the fifth day, Knight had everyone join the Indiana coaches meeting before and after scrimmage “to discuss practice plans and inputs.” The following afternoon, Knight handed Lipa a key.
“Watch as many games as you want,” Knight said, directing Lipa to the Hoosiers’ film room where he spent most of the day viewing reels upon reels of Indiana games, including the 1981 championship against Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels, led by a 6-foot-9 forward named James Worthy.
Every once in a while, Knight would enter the room and ask Lipa, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ and Lipa would respond as though undergoing an on-the-spot thesis defense.
Knight class was over after seven days and Lipa, declining an invitation to watch a practice game in Fort Wayne because he had to pack, was driven to the airport for the flight back home.
Lipa would meet up with Knight two years later when Lipa, by then a pro coach, was scouting an import for the Formula Shell Oilers in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).
“Coach Knight recommended a few names but I never got to see those players,” says Lipa who ended up recruiting Dexter Shouse, another Indiana son out of Terre Haute, some 70 kilometers northeast of Bloomington
In his living room in Parañaque last week, Lipa watched on his cellular phone as Knight, walking in measured steps as several hands steadied him, entered Assembly Hall for the first time in two decades to a standing ovation and hugs and tears from former players.
“Ganda ng presentation nila,” says Lipa. “A fitting tribute to a great coach who revolutionized basketball, not just in Indiana but the entire country.”
Taking note of Knight’s frail form, Lipa says: “I felt sad because I always remember him as a strong, energetic and imposing person. But the objective part is everyone will go through that stage naman. Lahat naman tayo tatanda. Depends lang on how you grow old —gracefully or not.’
To his mind, how did Bob Knight, his supposed transgressions aside, fare in that department?
“I think he’s aging gracefully,” says Lipa. “To my books, he has lived a full life. And his legacy in basketball is incomparable.”