Bob Knight a hoops legend and Jekyll and Hyde man


When Bob Knight died Wednesday, the world feted a championship basketball coach and derided a man whose behavior often went off the rails.

Neither in life nor death is it easy to simply parse the former Indiana University coach’s life.

Winner of 902 college games and three NCAA titles. Fantastically successful coach. Blunt-speaking, ill-advised speaking, chair-throwing, player-grabbing man regarded as uncouth under pressure with a wild temper.

All of the above poured forth on the news Knight, who had disappeared from public view recently and was said to be suffering from dementia, died at 83 at his Bloomington home.

He was not universally loved. He was not universally hated. He was admired by many, especially those who ranked his achievements in his chosen profession highly and who were never singed by the flames he often radiated.

All human beings are complex, some more than others, and Knight was both a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame member and his personality was a gift of study to psychology majors.

It might be suggested the song “My Way” could have been written with Knight in mind.

One old friend of mine from Alaska will never speak ill of Knight. He remembers a Knight kindness from 1989 when he was 23 and a junior high school basketball coach with aspirations. Nervously, he blindly wrote a letter to Knight.

The young man asked questions about how to become a better coach and promised, knowing Knight’s passion for the outdoors, if he came to Alaska, he would guarantee a marvelous fishing trip. He was winging it there since he was no angler. But he figured it didn’t matter anyway because Knight would never answer.

A month later, an envelope showed up with the return address of “Basketball Office, Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Indiana.” Rather than swiftly rip it open, he carried it around, scared in case Knight said who he was to think he could coach and why he was bothering him.

Inside was a gracious, inspiring letter that my friend has never forgotten.

I learned this story six years later because in 1995, Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers came to Anchorage for the old Great Alaska Shootout. I asked Knight about the letter, but he said he did not remember the incident at all.

Knight, a player for Ohio State.whose first head coaching job was at Army at 24, maintained that military discipline and to officer-enlisted-man demeanor with players at IU from 1965 to 2000, where he unofficially gained the rank of “The General.” Broadcaster Dick Vitale had much to do with publicizing that.

Despite leading the United States to a 1984 Olympic gold medal, capturing those national crowns and 11 Big Ten regular-season championships, Knight squandered much goodwill at IU through off-court behavior and was fired. The miscues included being taped swearing at players, accused of grabbing and choking a player, accused of breaking a clipboard over a player’s head and grabbing him by the testicles, as well as punching him, throwing a chair during a game against Purdue, insulting Puerto Rican hosts at the Pan American Games and insulting women with a comment about rape.

Knight later coached at Texas Tech but not since 2008. There were attempts by the IU administration at rapprochement, but there was bitterness, and Knight refused to return to Assembly Hall until being honored for a game in 2020. He received a standing ovation.

Knight enjoyed hunting and fishing in his free time, and in Cody, Wyoming, in 2017, he spoke at a dinner raising money for a charity with his only payment being a fishing trip. He also addressed about 200 local high school and college athletes in the Cody High gym.

None of the athletes were old enough to see his teams play, and most knew little about him. In part, Knight, surprised to see someone with Indiana connections, said the most important thing in life is “being able to win in society. It’s a tough world out there, and some of you are going to have to pay your own way someday.” He also said, “Winning by the rules is the most important thing in life.”

When current IU coach Mike Woodson, one of Knight’s past stars, took over in 2021, Indiana conducted a basketball reunion attended by many. Although not open to visitors, a photo of the two men seated side by side next to the court was snapped at Woodson’s first practice. Knight had been almost invisible since.

My friend who wrote Knight so long ago is named Louis Wilson. He has been an assistant and head college coach for 32 years at several stops, currently as an assistant coach at Utah Valley.

When Knight died, Wilson revisited that time in his life on Facebook. Knight, he noted, had sent him a Rudyard Kipling poem, handwritten answers to questions and basketball pamphlets.

As evidenced by his words to the young people of Cody and Wilson, Knight had it in him to be generous with time and advice. But he also said many times that when he died, he should be buried upside down so his critics could kiss his butt. Only he did not use the word butt.

“No, not what I would say,” Wilson commented this week, “but he wasn’t him for nothing.”

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