LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Two days after Bob Knight made his remarkable return from a 20-year public absence from Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on Saturday, it’s still a talking point in college basketball.
I’ve received emails, text messages and phone calls from people curious about the moment. People asked me about it at my favorite fruit market Sunday as well as my grandson’s basketball game.
Why did Knight finally change course? When was the last time the place percolated with that much emotion? What was Knight doing with his friend, ESPN commentator, Dick Vitale at the end of his halftime appearance? Who deserved credit for getting him in the building?
What happened in Bloomington was a national story, trending on Twitter, generating major page views. Whether you adored or ignored Knight’s behavior, he forced you to have an opinion. Knight enjoyed that. He took stands. He made you take stands, too.
So while some argue too much has been made of this story, it’s my opinion that Knight’s complicated legacy in the local and national basketball conversation will always resonate.
Vitale agreed. He called Sunday afternoon to discuss everything that happened in Bloomington last weekend.
For Vitale, the entire experience was so emotional that he said he barely slept after returning to his Florida home Saturday evening. For more than a decade, Vitale had encouraged detente. He feared it would never occur.
But it did.
After we talked, I was convinced the Bob Knight Story deserved Four Final Thoughts.
1. Was the celebration too much or too little?
I believe Indiana did it right.
Indiana honored Knight but they also honored nearly 50 of his former players, starting with his first recruit (Dr. Steve Green of Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg) and stretching to one of his last (A.J. Guyton).
One thing lost into today’s Hot Take Society is the ability to understand and appreciate nuance. Everything is tremendous or terrible, the best or the worst, hot or cold. Truth is, there is generally middle ground.
I say that as somebody who had my say about Knight after the Puerto Rican policeman, The Chair, The Russian Exhibition, Neil Reed, Connie Chung and other moments that clouded his Hall of Fame career.
Knight was much more than all of that. The insistence by Knight’s former players that their coach get another serving of love in the basketball facility that he opened in 1971 confirmed that.
This was a man of tremendous intellect who made certain his players took academics as seriously as he did. From about 1975 through 1995, the man was an influential as any college coach. Knight, Dean Smith and Denny Crum were the guys young coaches studied. That was the list.
His two-decade fracture with Indiana was fierce and real. It was difficult on the coach, his players and Indiana University.
Knight went to Texas Tech and was unable to duplicate the success he had in Bloomington. Indiana has also struggled, surrendering its spot atop the Big Ten to Michigan State, Wisconsin and others.
Knight took IU to five Final Fours in his first 21 seasons, including season two. By April, the IU program will have celebrated one additional Final Four in his 20-year absence.
Knight is 79. No longer does he move with the powerful body language of his youth. He did not speak to the crowd on the public address system, but Knight did have the energy to finish his Saturday making a second public appearance with former Purdue coach Gene Keady at the Indiana Pacers’ game.
But ESPN broadcaster Sage Steele, an IU alum who attended the game with her daughter Saturday, said something to remember:
In the aftermath of the Kobe Bryant tragedy, the time to make things right in your life is now.
IU and Knight made things right.
2. Why did Knight finally agree to return after he rejected repeated overtures from IU administrators?
After WDRB sports director Aaron Matas and I shot our postgame TV stand-ups on the Assembly Hall floor Saturday, I saw IU athletic director Fred Glass and told him that I believed the day had gone well.
“Give all the credit to the former players,” Glass said. “The players did this.”
Guys like Green, Randy Wittman, Quinn Buckner, Mike Woodson, Scott May and Knight’s youngest son, Patrick, worked relentlessly to make it happen and keep the build-up as low-key as possible.
This was a player-driven event. Knight’s former guys watched the first half with him on television from the IU practice facility. A source told me that several prominent IU fans, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, wanted to visit the group.
Sorry. This moment was for Knight and his players.
3. What was Knight doing with Vitale?
Vitale visited Knight at his Bloomington home Friday. They enjoyed a long, pleasant conversation. Knight was Vitale’s presenter at his Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony. They appeared together in the the movie “Blue Chips.”
Vitale was reasonably confident Knight would appear at the Purdue game Saturday but understood the coach could always change his mind. He said he encouraged Knight attend. Many friends did that.
When Knight finally walked on to the court, Vitale became emotional.
Vitale said that when Knight walked to the announcer’s area near the end of the ceremony, he got up to hug his friend. Knight had another idea and they playfully wrestled.
“I was crying,” Vitale said. “He was having fun.”
I can share an anecdote about Knight’s sense of humor. As a reporter with the Indiana Daily Student, I made a trip with Knight’s unbeaten 1975 team to Iowa. This was days after Curry Kirkpatrick wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated about the Hoosiers that Knight did not appreciate.
When we exited the bus outside our hotel in Iowa City, I reached into the luggage compartment to fetch my bag. Knight wrapped me in a headlock and delivered a Dutch Rub to my noggin.
“Who’s your favorite sports writer?” he asked.
For once, I was ready with a quick reply.
“Not Curry Kirkpatrick,” I said.
Knight laughed — and eased the pressure on my skull.
“Make sure he has a good room,” Knight said to one of the student managers.
Somehow, I ended up with a very nice room with a water bed.
4. Will there be a statue of Knight outside Assembly Hall?
In time, I believe there will be. And there should be.