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ESPN Takes a Shot, and Misses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although famed college basketball coach Bob Knight is many things, no one has suggested he’s dull.

Until now.

On Sunday, ESPN achieves the seemingly impossible by exposing Knight as tedious. A drag. A lump. A potbelly in a Hoosier red. Watching “A Season on the Brink” will give you leaden lids.

This is the cable sports network’s first original movie, one of the ways it’s trying to redefine itself by airing blocks of original programming as opposed to its traditional sports coverage.

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“A Season on the Brink” is pointless and utterly numbing, though, one of the least watchable TV movies in years despite its genesis being John Feinstein’s respected bestseller of the same name, its writer being the highly able David W. Rintels and its star being capable Brian Dennehy.

The volcanic Knight is as renowned for his courtside raging and tyrannical behavior as for being one of the nation’s most successful college basketball coaches, a reputation he built at Indiana before being ousted because of alleged misconduct. After leaving Indiana, he was hired by Texas Tech.

“A Season on the Brink” is a movie on the brink, as it ploddingly follows Knight and his Hoosiers during the 1985-86 season. Why is this a seminal season for Knight, and for viewers to know about, as opposed to other seasons? Because Feinstein wrote about it? There’s no hint here, except that the movie begins with Knight’s famous chair-throwing tirade against Purdue that became his signature snit.

Hereafter, it’s one game, one mood swing and one language-bleeped outburst after another, with Knight (Dennehy) impersonating Vesuvius while bullying and verbally brutalizing such selected players as Steve Alford (James Lafferty) and Daryl Thomas (Michael James Johnson) for reasons never quite made clear. Is this really part of a coaching strategy to motivate them--we also see Knight display kindness toward the same players he picks on--or is he looking for scapegoats and totally out of control?

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And if he is, why is he? Also, where is his wife, and why does he live alone with his son?

Directed by Robert Mandel, this episodic account doesn’t pause for reflection. Dennehy has the glower, the seething anger and the hulkiness, all surface manifestations of something that’s eating Knight. But you won’t find out about it here.

Instead, soon Indiana is playing Michigan for the Big Ten championship, and Knight is teed off. Again. Again. And again.

Here’s a thought: Bleep the entire movie.

“A Season on the Brink” premieres Sunday at 5 and 9 p.m. on ESPN and ESPN2. The network will simulcast two versions, rating the one shown on ESPN2 TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under 14) and an unedited version on ESPN rated TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children under 17). Both carry a special advisory for coarse language.


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