February 10, 2013

Steve Solloway: Boy to man, from Maine to Notre Dame

Tom Knight sounded calm. The world around him was turning upside-down with the arrival of Big East rival Louisville and ESPN's College GameDay on Saturday night on the Notre Dame campus, but he didn't seem to be buying into the hype.

Tom Knight had to await his turn at Notre Dame, and that included stretches of disappointment when he wasn’t playing. But now, with an injury to a starter, he’s gotten his chance to show what he can do, like he did as a Maine high school player.

Matt Cashore photo

Big game between No. 11 Louisville, coached by Rick Pitino, and No. 25 Notre Dame. Big crowd expected in Purcell Pavilion, big national audience watching the ESPN telecast.

But Knight's brief answers to a few questions before Thursday's practice returned to the same mantra: work hard, play hard and everything should fall into place.

To many people back in Dixfield, he's still the same small-town boy who graduated from Dirigo High. Still the 6-foot-10 teenager with the easy grin who had to lower his head when he walked into classrooms.

To others, Tom Knight is the 21-year-old man who's allowed disappointment to shape his young life, understanding he's better for it. If some wanted to give up on him when he sat on the Notre Dame bench for long stretches, that was their problem. It wasn't his.

The third-year player has started in four straight games -- not counting Saturday night -- for the first time in his college career. An injury to Scott Martin several weeks ago opened the door. Knight responded immediately with 17 points and hit 8 of 10 shots from the floor while grabbing seven rebounds in a win against South Florida.

A 10-point, four-rebound game followed in another win over Villanova. There was a six-point, seven-rebound performance at DePaul in an overtime win last Saturday.

Then came Tuesday's loss to Syracuse. Knight was 1 of 8 from the floor in a game where most in the Notre Dame lineup struggled against Syracuse's zone defense.

In Dixfield and other western Maine communities along the Androscoggin River, like Rumford, Jay and Livermore Falls, Knight's effort has not gone unnoticed. His family, friends and fans have context. At the start of the season, Knight wasn't playing at all.

"You die a little each day you're not playing," said Karl Knight, Tom's father and a pretty good player at Bowdoin College in his day. "Notre Dame stacks big men like cordwood. You have to believe it's all part of the plan."

In November, Notre Dame went to New York for the four-team Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the new Barclays Center, home to the Brooklyn Nets of the NBA. The little kid in Tom Knight anticipated playing in the newly built arena.

"He never got off the bench for either game," said Karl Knight. "It was the low of the lows."

Back in South Bend, Ind., Knight resumed his practice regimen. He was the unofficial captain of the second team, talking it up in practice, working on his game. There was something contagious about his attitude.

"All I can do is my best and stay positive," said Tom Knight. "You have to believe in yourself."

After Notre Dame beat Villanova, Karl Knight learned his son's name was included in the morning announcements at Dirigo Middle School, congratulating him on his contributions. Like much of small-town Maine, there's always a need for examples. Too many young Mainers don't know how to reach for what's just beyond their grasp.

"I remember how exciting it was when Andy Bedard (from neighboring Rumford) was playing basketball at Boston College and UMaine, and when T.J. Caouette (Winthrop) was playing at Villanova," said Karl Knight. "(They) played basketball before many of the current (high school) players were born, but they had an impact on motivating some Maine kids to set high goals."

Tom Knight heard his older brother, Kevin, tell stories about Bedard and Caouette. "I guess my example was Nik Caner-Medley."

(Continued on page 2)

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