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A Season on the Brink

Bobby Knight likes to scream. Everybody familiar, even slightly, with the former basketball coach at Indiana U. is aware of his propensity for temper tantrums and obscenity-filled tirades, many of them directed at the media and officiating crews, the assumption being that players heard his wrath, too.

With:
Bobby Knight -Brian Dennehy
Kohn Smith - Duane Murray
Joby Wright - Benz Antoine
Ron Felling - Gary Hudson
Dan Dakich - Dan Becker
Steve Alford - James Lafferty
Andre Harris - Yorick Parke
Daryl Thomas - Michael James Johnson
Stew Robinson - Patrick Williams
Todd Jadlow - Mike Weekes
Delray Brooks - Al Thompson
Ed Williams - Thomas Hauff

Bobby Knight likes to scream. Everybody familiar, even slightly, with the former basketball coach at Indiana U. is aware of his propensity for temper tantrums and obscenity-filled tirades, many of them directed at the media and officiating crews, the assumption being that players heard his wrath, too. Brian Dennehy, playing the man dubbed the General for his Army background and love of war stories, gets to play Knight as a two-note soldier in “A Season on the Brink”: He’s a word warrior hell-bent on verbally destroying everything in his path, and then he’s on the other side of the spectrum, a healer capable of using a phrase to soothe his son or a player or placate someone he has offended. He does not walk the middle ground.

Dennehy does an admirable job portraying a basketball behemoth, despite having none of Knight’s stoop-shouldered posture, whiny pitch, two-tone eyebrow or, most importantly, Knight’s legendary put-upon attitude. As much as he captures Knight’s zeal and rage, the isolated nature of the scenes impedes the development of a complete picture of Knight. Early on, he just shouts “fuck” over and over — pointless in the dramatic aspects of the pic no matter how accurate it may be of the way Knight conducted himself in the privacy of a practice session. (ESPN2 is airing a bleeped version of the telepic at the same time.)

At one point he is asked by an interviewer about his use of the F-word. His response, combined with other cursing, seems forced, which raises the question: Is Disney, ESPN’s parent, trying to get on level footing with HBO in the titillation department by using profanity? Dirty words alone don’t make for edgy programming.

Hoosier coach Knight’s media profile has been so high for so long, his portrait is complete; “Season on the Brink” fails to build on that media-created persona.

It’s never clear, for example, why Knight’s behavior would be tolerated — by anyone. David W. Rintels’ script never gets below Knight’s surface; compared to John Feinstein’s groundbreaking book on IU’s 1985-86 basketball season, ESPN’s version is superficial and wearying.

For starters, “Brink” arrives on the small screen with far too much baggage. Knight’s dramatic 30-year run at IU has played out — he was dismissed in 2001 and hired by Texas Tech, where he has resuscitated the school’s program.

The book is one of the most read sports tomes of the last 15 years and is among the best sports books ever, possibly the finest ever on college basketball. And the producers inadvertently go the extra mile in proving they haven’t captured the real Bob Knight when, in the end credits, they show Knight at press conferences and from ESPN shows — one outrageous outburst after another. More than the previous two hours, the sound bites demonstrate why Knight has been such a watchable figure all these years.

Beyond Knight’s tossing a chair across the floor at a Purdue game, not too much happened in the season depicted. Isiah Thomas, a fierce Knight loyalist, was gone, Steve Alford was slowly accepting a leadership role, and, a year later, IU would defeat Syracuse to win the national championship.

Telepic begins with the Knight-led Olympic Dream Team winning the gold in Los Angeles in 1984 before forwarding a year later to Oct. 15, the traditional opening day of practice in college hoops. From there, “Brink” follows Knight and his players into the season with a win over Notre Dame and a loss to Kentucky, which precede a decent run in the Big 10.

What ESPN’s first telepic misses is Knight’s ability to mold undeveloped young men into disciplined players capable of executing fundamental basketball. He may talk about graduation rates and loyalty, but that comes off as lip service for parents and alumni here — “Brink” says it without showing it.

Knight’s teaching methods, always questionable, are based on the fact that he says there is an “I” in team, the “I” being Knight himself. When he breaks down his players by berating their performance, it reflects on Knight in a subtle way that only a college basketball fan would notice.

And ESPN seems to think those fans aren’t capable of grasping a chronological story: There is snow on the ground outside IU’s Assembly Hall, and it’s obviously early in the basketball season, yet the producers feel the need to identify each and every day in which the action is occurring, an annoying overuse of Chyron. Those hoops fans are obviously the intended audience, as “Brink” is scheduled to follow ESPN’s coverage of the announcement of this year’s NCAA tournament brackets.

The players — most prominently Alford (James Lafferty), Andre Harris (Yorick Parke) and Delray Brooks (Al Thompson) — are little more than targets. They are shown as frustrated victims, kids who get the occasional pat on the back or infrequent words of encouragement from the man, cameo testimonials tell us, who is the soul of basketball for the state of Indiana.

His assistant coaches — Kohn Smith (Duane Murray), Joby Wright (Benz Antoine), Ron Felling (Gary Hudson) and Dan Dakich (Dan Becker) — are yes men who toss balls and do as they are told. Knight’s son Patrick (James D. Kirk) is capable of getting Knight to turn into a puppy dog anytime he is in his presence.

“Brink” fails to reflect that this IU team was in fact one of the first that Knight didn’t assemble completely himself–the assistants played key roles, especially in bringing in junior college transfers. There is certainly a distance between coach and player on view, yet it’s never explained.

Robert Mandel’s direction — this is the third time he has worked with Dennehy — is solid, provided that Dennehy is on camera. Basketball sequences are kept to a minimum, usually an inbounding of the ball or the end of a game, choosing instead to use actual footage to convey some sense of a game. Because of that, we never really see Knight coach a game. As is nearly always the case in TV sports movies, the uniforms are inaccurate just enough to be irksome.

Repeated exterior shots of Indiana farmland and a pizzeria do little to generate the flavor of Bloomington, Ind. Music, composed separately by Steve Porcaro and Randy Edelman, has a splendid urgency when it is percussive in a Steve Reich-like mode and dreadfully treacly when the strings rise up to push the sympathy button.

If ESPN wants a dramatic story that hasn’t already been played out over and over in the media, they need only look at where IU’s season’s ended in ’86, with a second round loss in the NCAA tournament to Cleveland State. The Vikings had risen out of nowhere that year, and just a few years later, coach Kevin Mackey would be arrested for crack cocaine. He has since reassembled his life, supplying that redemption angle that made-fors crave.

A Season on the Brink

ESPN, Sun. March 10, 8 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Winnipeg, Canada, by ESPN Original Entertainment in association with Once Upon a Time Prods., Jess Prods., Argentum Film Produktion and Betriebes KG. Executive producers, Mark Shapiro, Stanley M. Brooks; co-executive producers, Chet Fenster, Joshua Butler; supervising producer, Scott Anderson; producers, Lewin Webb, David W. Rintels; director, Robert Mandel; writer, Rintels, based on the book "A Season on the Brink," by John Feinstein.

Crew: Director of production, Olivia Duarte; director of photography, Claudio Chea; production designer, Gord Wilding; editor, Andy Chulak; music, Steve Porcaro, Randy Edelman; casting, Susie Glicksman, Kim Miscia, Beth Bowling, Marjorie Lecker. 120 MIN.

Cast: Bobby Knight -Brian Dennehy
Kohn Smith - Duane Murray
Joby Wright - Benz Antoine
Ron Felling - Gary Hudson
Dan Dakich - Dan Becker
Steve Alford - James Lafferty
Andre Harris - Yorick Parke
Daryl Thomas - Michael James Johnson
Stew Robinson - Patrick Williams
Todd Jadlow - Mike Weekes
Delray Brooks - Al Thompson
Ed Williams - Thomas Hauff

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