Knight Return to Indiana Brings Closure and a Flood of Memories
Whether you called him Bob Knight or Bobby Knight or something profane, he always did things his way.
I am glad he finally returned to Indiana on Saturday. I am happy for his players, who had wanted this for so long. And for Indiana fans, who are among the most loyal and serious in the sport.
And for Knight, who, for all his tough crust, clearly was moved to waves of emotion by the scene.
The players from his greatest teams embraced him. And he embraced the moment.
I guess I was disappointed that he didn’t say a few words. But the tentative way he walked—with his son, 1976 champions Quinn Buckner and Scott May and other IU heroes helping him—and the way he gestured and acted, were so frail and aged. It’s probably better that he didn’t speak. He did not have the look of a well man.
It would have been nice to hear a few words, though, to know better what a once-fiery (likely still-fiery) man thinks today.
Is he still bitter about about the 2000 firing? Would he express regrets about some of his many transgressions? Even if he didn’t go there, just to hear him praise and poke his beloved players would have been cool.
But that’s OK. Not a big deal. What we saw was the passage of time. And while I have a host of mixed feelings about The General, I am happy for him and those who worship him that Saturday happened.
It was halftime of a Purdue-Indiana game that IU would lose rather passively 74-62. It was a contest between two teams trying to avoid the dreaded NCAA tournament bubble, not the battle for Big Ten supremacy that it was in Knight’s heyday.
Gene Keady, his old Purdue nemesis, was there, too, cheering for Knight. And no chairs were thrown.
I’m sure there were a flood of memories for Keady, too. Just as there were for everyone old enough to remember when Knight was coaching IU to an avalanche of victories: 902 wins (third all-time), three national championships (1976, 1981, 1987) and 11 Big Ten championships.
And then there is the crazy stuff, which would be a record for a Hall of Fame coach, if that record was kept. Among the most notorious things: the Neil Reed choking incident, the ill-advised rape comment in the Connie Chung interview, the episode with the security guard in Puerto Rico and the infamous chair-toss.
Beyond all of the acting-out, Knight was a brilliant coach for two decades at Indiana before he became mortal during that final decade. He also did a ton of things the right way. His players graduated and went on to great things. He raised a boatload of money for Indiana and for charity. Behind the scenes, he quietly helped many people in ways we’ll never know.
A fair number of players left. But the loyalty of the ones who stayed, the ones who embraced him on Saturday, speaks volumes.
Every time I watch Michigan State and see assistant coach Dane Fife on the bench, I think of that day in September of 2000, when I raced down to Bloomington at the news that Knight had been fired. Fife was among the players holding vigil at Assembly Hall, emphatically telling us they would not play for any other coach.
Nor will I ever forget an Illinois-Indiana game in 1998. After Knight had received his third technical foul, he walked slowly toward referee Ted Valentine, filled with venom. This was back in the day when sportswriters sat courtside. Valentine was only 15 or 20 feet away. We thought Knight was going to punch him, which would have trumped throwing a chair. Fortunately, Knight kept walking, right off the court.
But we always remember the crazy stuff. Because for all the good stuff, the crazy stuff remains indelible. And in some cases, inexcusable.
Knight’s crazy stuff was fascinating and unforgettable. Sometimes amusing, sometimes deplorable, but always irresistible.
The first time I met my good TMG friend Chris Dufresne, we were on a Knight watch. We were in Winston-Salem, N.C., and had seen Colorado smoke Indiana 80-62 in a first-round NCAA tournament 8 vs. 9 game. After the game, I observed to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who had had his own differences with the man who tried to recruit him to play at Army, that Indiana did not look well-coached that night, and mentioned a couple of things. Delany encouraged me to write that.
That loss to Chauncey Billups-led Colorado spoiled a highly anticipated second-round meeting between Knight and Dean Smith, who would be trying to pass Adolph Rupp as college basketball’s all-time winningest coach in that game.
After his Hoosiers got drilled by Colorado, Knight walked back to his team’s hotel. And Rankman, if I remember correctly, spotted him and followed him, trudging alone in the darkness. I was shuttling back to Charlotte, where Illinois was playing. I was professionally envious. Chris’ tale of Knight wandering in the night was riveting, and fine journalism. We’ve been friends ever since.
Back in the VHS days, I had a pirate tape of outtakes from a golf show that Knight did with the Indiana golf coach. It’s still out there on Youtube. It’s hilarious, especially if you’re a golfer. But oh, the language. And that poor sand wedge.
Then again, when he was in a good mood, Knight was also very interesting. He was close to people like Woody Hayes, Ted Williams and Tony LaRussa, and could riff marvelously about military history, baseball, any number of subjects. After an Illinois game at Indiana, he once did a rambling, fascinating monologue connecting baseball and basketball, with some especially good stuff about the Ted Williams Red Sox. I wish I had a tape of that.
The first time I was around Knight was in December, 1984, covering a Kentucky-at-Indiana game. IU won 81-68, but Knight got testy during the post-game. He had been dropping hints that Illinois was engaging in questionable recruiting. Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke had said he was going to send Knight a letter, telling him to put up or shut up.
When one of the Indianapolis writers asked him about Illinois, Knight got huffy, saying he wasn’t going to talk about Illinois.
I asked him if he had received any communications from Wayne Duke. Which wasn’t the same as talking about Illinois, in my mind. He stared at me and said, ``What did I just say?’’ and moved to on to questions about the game.
As he was leaving the interview room, which was a classroom featuring desks that reminded me of fifth grade, he looked back at me and said, ``Yes, I did receive a communication from Wayne Duke. (dramatic pause) It said, `Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.’ ’’
His delivery was impeccable.
What makes Knight’s legacy special is his outstanding coaching when he was on his game. But the crazy stuff is a memorable part of his legacy, too.