Steve Lavin

Remembering Billy Knight

by Steve Lavin March 25, 2009 in Men’s Basketball


As basketball coaches we strive to win, but also do everything we can to help our players develop skills and habits of mind to last a lifetime.

As basketball coach at UCLA, I was fortunate to have teams that advanced to the NCAA tournament in six consecutive seasons (1997-2002). Our teams made five Sweet Sixteen appearances and one run to the Elite Eight. Naturally, it is satisfying to win games, yet these achievements simply fulfill short term goals.

True success in athletics is built on a strong educational foundation that contains strategies that enable student-athletes to learn and grow from adversity.

My most memorable year in coaching came in 2000, a season when Billy Knight’s story and destiny converged to take a hand in our team’s time of need.

In mid-February our team was struggling on all fronts. We hit rock bottom on February 19th losing to the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson, dropping our Pac 10 record to a dismal 4-8. Our streak of 11 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances appeared to be in big jeopardy of being broken. We caught a plane home as a beat down group of Bruins.

Our six remaining conference games were daunting: Oregon and Oregon State in Pauley, a trip to the Bay Area to face the Cal Bears and No. 1 ranked Stanford before finishing with the Washington schools in Pauley.

We rallied the troops and managed to slip by the Oregon schools in Pauley Pavilion to improve our record to 6-8 and made the trip up to the Bay Area with hopeful hearts and a bounce in our stride.

We opened the Cal game with poor play and trailed by 19 points in the first half. The environment in Haas Pavilion that night was electric with a deafening raucous crowd. Searching for an answer I looked at our players sitting on the bench and caught the eye of rarely used reserve Billy Knight.

Before moving the narrative forward I need to provide some background on Billy Knight and our friend Carter. Billy had quit our team in December of that season because he was unhappy with his limited playing time.

The same day Billy quit the team he was walking near our campus and ran into a friend of our basketball program named Carter. Carter was an intelligent and caring individual who had fallen on hard times and was homeless, but he had a steadfast interest in our team. He frequented Pauley Pavilion to watch practices and pick up games in the summer; consequently he had intimate knowledge of our players. Carter slept in parking lots and bushes on UCLA’s campus but still managed to radiate pure joy for life.

Anyhow, the same evening Billy quit he ran into Carter in Westwood. Carter scolded Billy for quitting on the team and challenged him on his reasoning for the decision. Carter asked Billy why he would walk away from a world-class UCLA education? He also asked Billy if he had done absolutely everything within his power to position himself for more playing time before deciding to quit.

Billy called me the next day at my home and asked if he could rejoin the team. I had reservations about letting Billy return, but then he shared the story of his conversation with Carter and how that had prompted his change of heart. After missing only one game versus Purdue Billy returned with a fresh start and new attitude.

Back to the night we trailed the Cal Bears by 19 points. Searching for a spark, I put Billy in the game. He delivered! Knocking down three shots including two long jumpers for a total of eight points. Feeding off of Billy we closed the first half on a furious run and trailed by only five points (35-30).

We started the second half with momentum and a renewed confident mindset: Billy jump-started us and we were lights out in the second half. Outscoring
the Bears 53-27 in the second half we cruised to a 21-point victory,83-62, and silencing the crowd along the way.

Now, with a 7-8 Pac 10 record we began to regain our swagger as a team, but realized the tall task of facing Stanford with a record of 25-1 in Maples Pavilion was now less than 48 hours away.

The game was broadcast nationally on CBS. Jim Nance and Billy Packer had the call. It was Senior Day for Mark “Mad Dog” Madsen and a record-breaking crowd showed up to both salute and send off “Mad Dog” with an anticipated victory over the hated UCLA Bruins.

Naturally we once again were slow out of the gates and trailed Stanford 19-4 early in the game. Searching for the spark I turned to our suddenly lethal reserve Billy and he delivered his magic again. This time Billy hit for nine points including clutch a clutch three-pointer as time expired to just beat the halftime buzzer to close the deficit to two points (43-41). Thanks to Billy we rallied for the second consecutive game and went on to win a 94-93 thriller in overtime on a Jaron Rush baseline jumper that improved our Pac 10 record to 8-8.

Words could not describe the sense of satisfaction following the victory at Stanford on that glorious Saturday in Palo Alto. I had observed the transformation of a team right before my eyes, and the profound sense of pride has left an indelible impression on my mind.

We closed out the season with two more victories over the Washington Schools to finish with a 10-8 Pac 10 record and UCLA’s 12th consecutive NCAA tournament bid!

In the tournament we sneaked by a pesky Ball State team in the first round and then had a blowout victory over Maryland to advance to the Sweet 16.

We had come a long way as a team in a short time. From a 4-8 Pac 10 record a month earlier to playing on the Sweet 16 weekend with an opportunity to make it to the Final Four.

Billy Knight’s Guardian Angel Carter passed away a couple years later, but not before seeing Billy experience the reward of persevering through adversity - a lesson our team learned as well and will carry with them as a reference point for the rest of their lives