Stretching his 6-foot-9 frame into a chair and occasionally using his hands to clap or pump a fist or fiddle with the laces on his basketball sneakers doesn’t evoke an instinctive reaction in Tom Knight.
From the first day his miniature version followed the bouncing ball across the floor in local youth leagues and began asserting itself as the middle child in family pick-up games, Knight was a player, not a sitter.
But the tri-county region’s most widely recruited men’s basketball player in more than a decade accepted a full scholarship at the University of Notre Dame, where playing immediately wasn’t an option.
So Knight experienced the game he loves from a frustratingly different perspective this year: Toeing the painted area along the sidelines instead of its corresponding rectangle underneath the hoop.
One of four incoming freshmen at Notre Dame, Knight was the only one redshirted by the Fighting Irish. That time-tested concession by the NCAA — more common in football than basketball — allows a player to practice, work out and travel with the team all season without losing a year of eligibility.
“I really wasn’t sure what was the plan going into the season,” Knight said in a phone interview Thursday from the campus in South Bend, Ind. “Once it began, I pretty much knew that’s what it was going to be.”
Tens of thousands of athletes have worn the figurative redshirt label before Knight. Countless others will come along and follow the same path. It’s accompanied by the promise of higher quality playing time when a player’s body and skill level are better suited to the Division I level.
Still, getting all dressed up with no place to go but the bench is no easy assignment. Not for someone accustomed to being the best player on the court by a bundle.
Long-term approaches don’t exactly mesh with the youthful exuberance of a teenager in an adult’s body. Knight won’t turn 19 until next Friday.
“It was a learning experience watching the older guys play,” said Knight. “You try to learn from them. Try to work on your skills and get stronger. I’ve learned from them that you have to keep your head, not lose your cool out there.”
Knight’s spot on the Notre Dame depth chart was, in part, a numbers game.
His lookalike on the Fighting Irish roster, in terms of both physical stature and playing style, was 6-8, 245-pound Luke Harangody, the team’s marquee player and multi-time All-American.
Notre Dame also had Tim Abromaitis, Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott in the mix, all between 6-7 and 6-9. Fellow first-years Mike Broghammer and Jack Cooley are power forwards, as well.
“It’s definitely tough to get used to. You grow up always playing,” Knight said. “It was a different deal for me having to sit and watch.”
Even practice time is limited for a basketball redshirt.
Unlike football, where a steady stream of players moves in and out of the lineup on the “scout team,” there’s room for only 10 at a time on the hardwood.
“You only get so many (repetitions) in practice,” Knight said. “A lot of times I’d do individual workouts before games with one of the assistant coaches.”
The watch-and-learn approach shouldn’t be misconstrued as a knock against Knight’s ability to play the game in a Division I power conference.
Knight is the first player from the Mountain Valley Conference to earn a scholarship at a Big East school since Andy Bedard of Rumford (Boston College) and T.J. Caouette of Winthrop (Villanova) in the mid-1990s.
Bedard spent his senior year of high school at prep power Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, going toe-to-toe with many of the nation’s consensus top 100 recruits. Caouette, like Knight, earned his national acclaim at various AAU tournaments up and down the eastern seaboard.
As a high school senior, Knight averaged 23 points and nearly 12 rebounsds per game in the predominantly Class C MVC, leading Dirigo High School to the Western Maine championship.
“Everything is very different,” Knight said. “I did a lot of strength training in high school, but it was nothing like it is here. Everybody here is lifting at least three or four times a week.”
Being selected as a redshirt could be both a compliment and a blessing in disguise.
None of Knight’s three classmates — Broghammer, Cooley and Joey Brooks — started a game or averaged more than six minutes per night. They scored fewer than 100 points combined.
All three will be sophomores next year when Knight is still a freshman, in basketball terms. And hopes will be high despite Harangody’s impending graduation.
Notre Dame won six consecutive games late in the season to solidify its NCAA tournament berth. The Irish lost to eventual Big East champion West Virginia by two points in the league semifinals before falling one point shy of Old Dominion in a first-round NCAA upset.
Knight was along for the ride, sharing all the benefits except playing time in a season that was basically a freebie.
“It (the late-season run) definitely put us in high spirits for next year,” he said.