April 17, 2024

There had never been anyone quite like him before, nor will there be anyone quite like him again.

Bob Knight, who died Wednesday at age 83, made an indelible mark on the sport of basketball and the American sports culture, and always did so on his own terms, in his own way, without explanation or apology. He was the most successful, respected, influential and powerful coach of his era and beyond. He was also the most controversial, criticized and feared coach of his time.

Before his retirement, his career success and influence were unmatched. And while he was revered for his coaching, teaching and innovating, he could also be reviled for his behavior. Nobody sat on the fence in how they viewed and perceived Bob Knight.

I had the privilege of knowing Knight well, and calling him a friend. We worked together at ESPN, and would go on annual golf trips during the summer. He was the only friendship I ever had that I felt I had to explain or justify. After all, while Knight’s positive traits were numerous, so, too, were his questionable ones. He was capable of incredible acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, yet also capable of questionable acts of stubbornness and thoughtlessness.

Around 20 years ago, I decided I would no longer try to explain or justify the friendship, because I couldn’t. Most people could not or would not be convinced by my view of him — so I quit trying. It wasn’t that I overlooked the negatives or rationalized any of his questionable behavior or decisions. I felt the good outweighed the bad, and I felt I knew the real Bob Knight.

Or, at the very least, I liked the Bob Knight I knew.

Knight was a throwback, even in a throwback era. In my view, he could have coached any sport and coached it just as effectively as he coached basketball. He had an analytic mind, understood motivation and inspiration, and had an extraordinary ability to break things down. Watching a football or baseball game with Knight was a special treat, as he could pick apart the game just as you would expect him to dissect a basketball game.

His ability to see minute — yet important — details on a basketball floor was unmatched, and I have never seen his equal. I would find it hard to believe that any coach anywhere would not learn something from Knight watching film with him, and feel somewhat uneducated after Knight would point out a detail he spotted that everyone else missed. I have also never seen his equal as a teacher of the game, especially in practice settings. He had the ability to get in and out of teaching situations without stopping play, a skill precious few coaches possess to that level.

Knight’s practices were closed and private, and they would be conducted without a practice plan available to the players (and sometimes his staff). Knight had the practice plan written out on an index card or two, and he believed the players need not know the plan in advance but should react to it in real time without pacing themselves to the plan. I remember him once telling me that he would let the players decide the things he didn’t care about. If he didn’t care where the team ate, he let the players decide. If he called a practice on a Sunday but didn’t care whether it was morning or afternoon, he let the players decide. But if Knight cared, there was only one person deciding: Bob Knight.

Knight influenced the most influential minds in the game, and they sought out his advice and counsel.

In 1984, after coaching Michael Jordan on the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, Portland general manager Stu Inman called Knight for advice on the upcoming NBA draft. Knight counseled Inman to take Jordan, calling Jordan the best basketball player he had ever seen. Inman told Knight the Blazers already had Clyde Drexler and needed a center. Knight responded, “Then play Jordan at center.”

Knight was the first Division I men’s basketball coach to win 900 games. He was the most prolific winner in Big Ten history, won three NCAA titles at Indiana, went to five Final Fours and led the United States to the 1984 Olympic gold medal. He innovated the motion offense and influenced countless coaches with his teaching of the game. One cannot think of Indiana basketball without thinking of Bob Knight.

Yet Knight led a full life, one that basketball did not dominate. An intense competitor, Knight wanted to win as much as any coach ever has, but when the game was over and the work was done, Knight had other interests. He was an avid fisherman and hunter, and the day after a game, he was just as likely to be out hunting or fishing in the morning before practice, or reading a book that had nothing to do with basketball. Incredibly intelligent and well-read, Knight was keen to discuss any topic with equal enthusiasm to basketball, and seem just as authoritative.

His faults were bigger than life as well. He could be uncommonly stubborn, especially with the media. Knight once fielded a less than informed question from a local media member and embarrassed the reporter with his response. After the interaction, I asked him why he did that. “If an uninformed coach had asked you a stupid question during a clinic lecture, you would have tried to educate the coach. Why don’t you do the same with the media? That guy probably left a high school football practice to cover your team, then might have gone to cover the local police blotter today. Why undress him in a minor press conference?” Knight paused, and acknowledged that he shouldn’t do that, but replied, “I just can’t. I’m too far down the road to change now.” I feel like I understood. I just didn’t agree. He was OK with reasonable disagreement, as implausible as that seems to those who didn’t know him. But when he believed he was right, even when he wasn’t, there was no talking him out of it.

Knight knew he had made significant mistakes, and I know he regretted them. He just had a difficult time admitting that and apologizing publicly. An example I recall might be revealing. In December 2009, Indiana upset Pittsburgh in Madison Square Garden. I called the game from courtside. It was a huge win for second-year coach Tom Crean, and it was the first time Bob Knight, then doing studio work with ESPN, had been in the same building as Indiana since being fired in 2000.

The day after that game, Knight and I had stayed in New York to watch UConn play Kentucky in the Garden. It was John Calipari’s first season at Kentucky, and we wanted to see it in person. While sitting in the stands watching the game, Knight leaned over to me and said he wanted to get my thoughts on something. “I think I really f—ed up last night with Tony La Russa after the game,” he said. Knight then told me that his close friend and baseball legend La Russa had called him right after Indiana’s win and told him he hoped Knight would go into the Hoosiers’ postgame locker room. Knight said he told La Russa there was no way he was going to do that — that it would take away from Indiana’s win and make him the story. It would be unfair to the players and to Crean. La Russa didn’t buy the explanation and pressed him on the issue, telling him he needed to be the “bigger man” and visit the locker room. Knight said he blew up at La Russa and told him, “Damn it, Tony, I’m not over it yet! I don’t think I’ll ever get over it!” He then hung up on La Russa.

Knight was genuinely affected by the exchange. From our discussion, it became clear to me that Knight wasn’t angry at La Russa, and he wasn’t angry at Indiana. But he was still hurt over his dismissal. While Knight was volatile at times, he was also intensely emotional and could be quick to tear up. He didn’t know how to show it or voice it through the bravado he displayed. In that, he was always a throwback.

Driving with Knight was a unique and, at times, frightening experience. I never saw him wear a seat belt, so riding with him meant enduring the torturous, repetitive dinging of the unfastened seat belt chime, all while Knight pretended he didn’t hear it. And driving with Knight usually meant you were heading somewhere to eat. He was a connoisseur of holes-in-the-wall. Knight was far more comfortable eating at a dive than at an expensive steakhouse. And his beverage choices bordered on obscene for my taste. He would mix lemonade with Dr Pepper, or worse.

Once, Knight and I were doing a game together at Kansas and he wanted to grab something to eat on the drive from the hotel to Allen Fieldhouse. I thought, incorrectly, he wanted to grab a sandwich to take to the arena — I was wrong. He wanted to stop and sit for lunch. The game was in less than two hours. I called the producer to tell him what Knight wanted to do and that I had little chance of talking him out of it. The producer asked: “Do you think you can make it to the arena by the opening tip?” I said yes, and he told me to do my best. So we sat down at an Applebee’s in Lawrence with stunned Jayhawks fans gawking at Knight and approaching for autographs and photos. We made the tip by about five minutes.

Knight was also a real piece of work on the golf course. He enjoyed playing but was not obsessed with the game. While in Scotland once, Knight was walking to the green for a short chip shot and asked to borrow my sand wedge. After he hit his shot, I noticed that he had his own sand wedge with him and asked why he needed mine. “If I hit a bad chip, I didn’t want to throw mine.” I wasn’t sure whether that was a planned joke or he was dead serious. I think he liked it that way.

Knight’s acts of kindness were rarely publicized, and if I had publicized those I knew of while he was alive, he would not have liked it. Knight played for the legendary Fred Taylor at Ohio State, and near the end of Taylor’s life, Knight would sneak into Taylor’s hospital room to hold his hand. When a legendary basketball talent evaluator was having financial difficulty late in life, Knight paid his outstanding bills and rent, without telling a soul.

Knight’s on-again, off-again relationship with Mike Krzyzewski, my college coach and mentor, was a sore spot with Knight and me. I never understood it. I knew how proud Knight was of Coach K, and how much Coach K meant to him. But, I just couldn’t wrap my head around how Knight would negatively react to any perceived slight or miscommunication that, to others, was insignificant. I could always tell where the relationship was to Knight at any given time. When Knight asked, “Have you talked to Mike? How is he doing?” I knew things were in a good place. When he asked, “How is Krzyzewski?” I knew something was askew. Truthfully, it was a great lesson. Knight allowed small things to affect an important lifetime relationship. In doing so, he hurt himself and he hurt Coach K. Seeing that from both sides, I quietly vowed that I would strive to never let that happen in my life. None of that was worth the cost, and I believe Knight would agree with that, were we to talk about it.

The complete picture of Bob Knight is complicated and more nuanced than it seems from the outside. He leaves this world as one of the great coaches in American sports history and one of its most compelling figures. He lived one of the richest basketball lives in the game’s history, and is woven into the fabric of the game like few others. He won championships and gold medals, wrote books, and broke bread with people of so many different walks of life, from world leaders to taxi drivers.

Whatever one thinks of Bob Knight, positive or negative, I won’t argue. But without reasonable argument, the basketball world lost an American original.

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