Where to begin …
Summing up the life and legacy of Bob Knight, who passed away on Wednesday, seems an impossible task in the space available here, even if it’s cyberspace. This is a man who was the subject of about a dozen books, authorized and unauthorized, and was one of the most written- and talked-about sports figures in the country during his coaching career.
Hired in 1971 to bring discipline to a basketball program run amok, he dominated the state’s basketball conscience like nobody before or since—until he was fired in 2000 for his lack of personal discipline. I have a theory that during much of his reign, whenever three or more Hoosier sportswriters happened to be engaged in idle conversation, the topic at some point would turn to Bob Knight. It was a lock. The same would nearly have been true for all basketball fans in Indiana. It was as if he had seeped into our DNA.
How ironic, then, that a man so famous, so powerful, would die in such a private and humble manner. Dementia gradually stole one of basketball’s greatest minds—not only for his coaching talents but for his raw intelligence and, when he happened to be in the proper mood, communication skills. He was a natural teacher, able to simplify and explain a complicated game and could charm any audience with his sense of humor.
Oh, but that temper. That immaturity. That mean streak. That … that … so many things. One could fill a book with nothing but positive anecdotes about him and be totally accurate. And then come back with nothing but negative anecdotes and be equally accurate. He was that kind of guy.
Smart, petty, generous, selfish, compassionate, honest, phony, intimidating, insecure, gentle, profane … it seems the majority of personality traits known to mankind applied in some degree to him, depending on the day or the moment. It might seem a copout but if forced to choose one word to describe him, go with this one: complex. Unless you prefer: controversial.
He’ll ultimately be remembered for his coaching acumen, of course. As long as his players could handle the harangues—and let’s be honest, some of them either couldn’t or chose not to—his teams featured what for his era was the ultimate brand of basketball. Controlled pace, crisp ball movement, careful shot selection and stout defense.
He was a master of both pre-game preparation and in-game management. Unlike today’s coaches who stalk the sidelines, or at least feel compelled to stand and watch the action, Knight stayed seated when the ball was in play. Although famous for his temperamental tirades at his players and referees, he never let emotion cloud his strategic thinking.
He had won more games than any Division I college basketball coach when he abruptly retired from Texas Tech, and he coached three national championship teams, including the most recent one to go undefeated in the process, in 1976. He coached two others that reached the Final Four. He coached 11 that won or shared the Big Ten championship. Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote once told me those conference titles meant at least as much to Knight as the national titles, given Knight’s Midwestern pedigree and playing career at Ohio State.
But he also had teams that underachieved, teams that seemed to be done with the season before the season was done. And there were constant distractions, whether it was throwing a chair in the direction of a Purdue player at the free throw line, taking his team off the floor in an exhibition game against a Russian team, shouting epithets at the Big Ten commissioner regarding conference officiating during a game, bringing a donkey onto his weekly television show and introducing him as a Purdue spokesman, choking one of his players during practice … rarely did a season pass without some major uproar. It all became part of the show, and for some, part of his appeal.
I had my share of memorable experiences with him, as did most reporters who covered him extensively.
I first met Knight as an underclassman who, for some reason, decided to write a story on the assistant coaches for the Indiana Daily Student. A puff piece if ever there was one, but what did I know then? I walked naively into Assembly Hall one spring afternoon and found Knight sitting with his coaches in folding chairs on the south end of the court. I introduced myself, told him what I wanted to do, and he couldn’t have been nicer.
I later covered his 1976-77 team for the IDS in my senior year. It turned out to be the only one of his teams at IU that didn’t play in a postseason tournament. From a career standpoint, that was a lucky break because of the journalistic experience it presented.
It was the season after the undefeated national championship team. Kent Benson, poor guy, was the only returning starter. Knight had recruited a standout freshman class that included Mike Woodson, but it was going to take time for it to develop. He had just coached consecutive seasons of absolute greatness—the 1974-75 team lost just one game and might have won a national championship if not for Scott May’s broken arm—and therefore struggled to remember how poorly young teams can play.
Five players from that team quit, either before, during or after the season. One of them, freshman Mike Miday, spoke up on his way out the door, saying Knight had “dehumanized” him. To say the least, it created a stir.
That season got off to a rocky start for me when I walked into Assembly Hall one Monday afternoon, textbooks in hand, to watch practice. I had no sooner taken a seat on the west side than he stopped practice and shouted, “Montieth! Get your ass down here!”
I walked down, he walked to within a couple of feet from me and asked, loudly and indelicately, if there was a reporter at the IDS by a certain name. I confirmed there was. He told me to “get your ass out of here and don’t come back until we get this straightened out!”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I wasn’t frightened—having played high school basketball, a coach yelling at me wasn’t a new experience—just confused. I was filled in when I got back to the newsroom.
The other reporter had written that Knight had thrown an ash tray in the press box during the IU football team’s loss to Ohio State the previous Saturday. It wasn’t a malicious act, nor was there malicious intent. The ash tray was made of foil or some such light material and Knight—the reporter thought—had flipped it at the window out of frustration over a crucial turnover. It was just a way to get into the story but Knight, with corroboration, insisted the man sitting next to him, the university’s strength coach, had tossed the tray.
It took a few weeks, but the reporter finally admitted he might have been wrong. At that point I was allowed once again to watch practice and even go with the team on road trips. In fact, the same day we all met in Knight’s office to clear the air I flew to Iowa with the team—sat next to freshman Butch Carter on the cramped university plane. The flight out was calm. The flight back, following a loss, was not. Knight, sitting up front with his back to the players, screamed at them most of the way, particularly at Benson, his favorite target that season.
I covered many of IU’s games after graduating, through the mid-‘90s, and my general takeaway is that he was a master manipulator. He knew it, too, because I recall him joking about it on Media Day heading into the infamous 1976-77 season. Write something he liked, and you might get a favor in return—an exclusive interview, for example. Write something he didn’t like, even if accurate, and you were shut out. Although he often claimed not to read or care what was written about him, he did. He kept receipts.
Deep down, contrary to all his critics-can-kiss-my-ass declarations, he wanted attention and cared what people thought of him. The psychological profile isn’t complicated. He was an only child whose father was often away from home and therefore was mostly raised by his mother and grandmother. They spoiled him to help corral his temper, creating a man accustomed to getting his way. Add a high IQ to the mix and you have a combustible personality destined to be noticed.
And, man, was Bob Knight noticed. Now he’s destined to be remembered. In so many ways.