BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Here he came, at last. Years late, after so much spite had flowed under so many burned bridges, but better now than never. Finally, with mortality creeping in, it was time to stop fighting and stop resenting and stop boycotting.
It was time to make peace and come home.
Stooped and shuffling, 79-year-old Bob Knight made a halting entrance to the Indiana University arena he transformed into a basketball cathedral. It had been 20 years since he last set foot in Assembly Hall, 20 years since he was stunningly fired for one too many bullying acts in a brilliant career besmirched by them. He had rejected innumerable gestures from IU administrators and coaches and his former players, preferring to stay in his bunker of bitterness.
It’s a damn shame it took this long, but at least it finally happened. A thawing. Hopefully even a healing.
“This is one of the greatest and most emotional things ever for me,” said Randy Wittman, who played here for Knight from 1978-83 and was instrumental in making the reunion happen. “I don’t know if we’ll see something like this again in college basketball. This is where he belongs. … I’ll go to my grave with my memory of this today.”
There is something about seeing a towering figure in an enfeebled state that can reach inside a person and pry open unexpected feelings. Muhammad Ali, the most cocksure of all athletes, trembling while lighting the Olympic flame in 1996. Now here came Knight, a big man who always carried himself in an intimidating manner, in need of assistance.
The scene evoked an emotion that had been completely foreign where Bob Knight was involved: Pity. All the hard edges and hard feelings that had become The General’s aura were suddenly softened.
Led onto the court by Quinn Buckner and Scott May, the captains of his greatest team, plus another former 1970s star in Steve Green and his son, Pat, the white-haired Knight shuffled toward midcourt. On the opposite end of the floor were dozens more former players, all eager to see this reunion happen. Behind them hung three national championship banners that the coach and his players earned.
As the entire arena stood and bathed him in cathartic applause, Knight did what he rarely did as the tyrant-coach of the Hoosiers. He acknowledged the cheers.
More than that, he welcomed them, palms raised in something of a thank-you gesture. I daresay he even appreciated them.
“This state still loves this guy,” Wittman said. “And he still loves these fans.”
With tears in his eyes, Knight showed that even in a physically diminished state he is still a competitor to his core. He shook a fist and shouted, loud enough to be heard in the second deck without a microphone, for this Indiana team to “play defense!” He grabbed former guard Keith Smart, hero of the 1987 national championship game, and ordered him into a defensive stance. He incited a brief “dee-fense!” cheer.
He wasn’t going to leave the court without doing a little coaching.
This was halftime of the Indiana-Purdue rivalry game. The last game Knight coached here was Feb. 29, 2000, and it was a victory over the Boilermakers. They always brought out the best and worst in Knight—the competitive fire, but also the uncontrolled rage that led him to hurl a chair across the floor here during a game against Purdue in 1985.
The Boilers spoiled the script here Saturday with a comfortable, 74-62 victory that further pushes Indiana toward the brink of a fourth straight season without an NCAA Tournament bid. The dispiriting performance did no favors to third-year coach Archie Miller, who just saw his fans vividly reminded of how great it used to be here. (Knight at least could appreciate the language of one frustrated student who stormed out of the gym in the final minutes yelling, “I hate this f—ing team!”)
Knight spoke to the Hoosiers before the game, and “it was like he hadn’t left that locker room,” Wittman said. He watched parts of the game with all the former players in Cook Hall, the adjacent basketball facility. The pregame oration and halftime exhortation did not win the game, but Knight’s very presence won the day.
“We were just happy as hell he decided to come back here today,” said another former Indiana great, Mike Woodson.
There was an element of doubt about whether this special day would take place. Knight coached from 2001-08 at Texas Tech and remained in that area until a couple of years ago, but when he moved back to the Bloomington area it spawned hope that one day he would achieve detente with the school he represented—for better and worse—for three decades.
There were national titles in 1976 (the last undefeated team in the sport, and arguably the greatest team in its history), 1981 and ’87. That total might have been doubled by better injury luck in 1975, ’80 and ’93. But there also were so many abusive moments that Indiana enabled and fans excused, until finally school president Myles Brand had enough and fired Knight in September 2000.
From that moment on, Knight was at war with the school he once loved. The war was one-sided—Bob vs. Indiana University—and it was endless. Until Saturday.
Plans started to come together in late January, when Knight agreed to shoot a video for use on the Assembly Hall big screen during the 1980 team reunion at this game. By last week, it looked like Knight would attend this game—but his health situation left everything tenuous.
On Thursday, word began trickling out. Ticket prices soared on the secondary market. The student line started forming outside the arena Friday night, and by noon Saturday it wrapped around the building. Prominent Indiana alums like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and ESPN studio anchor Sage Steele got tickets behind the home team’s bench.
For a state full of conflicted emotions about Knight, this was a big deal.
“For Indiana, it meant sort of a closing of the fissures that had been open for 20 years,” said WDRB sports reporter Rick Bozich, the foremost Knightologist I know, after being an Indiana student and then covering the coach for his entire IU tenure. “There used to be people wearing Texas Tech shirts in here. Now people can move on.”
Instead of eternally lingering regret, this was satisfying closure to one of the most significant coach-college relationships in college basketball history. It was an opportunity for Indiana fans to empty a half-century reservoir of affection for a giant figure who had been in self-imposed exile. And it was an opportunity for Bob Knight to lay down his sword and finally accept that affection, before it is forever too late.