On a wintry Saturday, the aged General, stooped and trembling, returned to the court he once ruled. The crowd roared. As the cameras zoomed in close, Knight’s eyes moistened and teared.
He was not the only one.
Hoosiers everywhere cried, too.
If Knight’s visit was not quite the return of the prodigal son – the mythology doesn’t fit – it was something almost as elemental. In ways both good and bad, he is stitched along the spine and into the sinews of this state.
Those who are not from Indiana have difficulty grasping what Bob Knight means to Hoosiers.
Those of us who passed our adolescences in this state in the 1970s worshipped him.
That was a different time. Young people had fewer diversions.
Boys learned the basics of basketball as an act of social self-defense. It was almost impossible to fit in if one didn’t. Understanding how to shuffle one’s feet on defense so the legs didn’t cross or the way to snap a two-hand chest pass so the ball didn’t float was much more important, in our world, than knowing which fork to use for the salad course.
We considered Indiana the basketball capital of the world.
But it was hard to take that claim seriously because one school – UCLA – seemed to have won the NCAA championship every year since George Washington was president. The sports magazines we read religiously – again, it was a different era and young boys read magazines – argued half in jest, half not, that the college basketball season should begin every year with a declaration that UCLA was the national titleholder. Every other school could battle to determine who was second.
UCLA’s coach, it was true, was a Hoosier – the legendary John Wooden – but that almost made it worse. The coasts seemed to get the best of everything, even our native sons.
Then Knight came.
He changed all that. He turned Indiana University into a powerhouse.
He and Wooden had one epic clash – a hard-fought contest that turned on a questionable fifth foul call on IU star Steve Downing – and then Wooden retired. Knight became the new face of college basketball.
He coached what still may be the two greatest college teams in the history of the sport – the ’75 and ’76 Hoosiers. They lost only one game in a two-year span, and that because of an injury to ace Scott May at a critical juncture. The Hoosiers not only won, they crushed other teams.
More important, they did it the Indiana way, the way we had been told basketball should be played – selflessly, with an acute attention to fundamentals. Those Hoosiers played impregnable defense. They moved without the ball. They set picks to free up guys to set still more picks. They threw passes like lasers.
Man, they were fun to watch.
John Wooden had been a reserved, decorous symbol of the sport.
Bob Knight was, uh … not.
He was brash, opinionated, intense and angry. Always angry.
He demanded discipline and decorum from his players but practiced little of it himself. He placed no reins on his temper. He threw chairs, got into scuffles with Puerto Rican police officers, provoked international incidents and threatened, insulted and even assaulted his players.
What stoked the furies that burn in that man always has been and likely will remain a mystery.
What it cost him and us, though, is clear.
Nearly 20 years ago, he defied the university’s president – and decency itself – by getting into an altercation with a student. Knight was fired.
For years, he and his loyalists raged at the rank ingratitude of a school and state that would demand he follow the same rules everyone else does. He vowed never to return to IU.
Such was the story – the baggage – he carried with him into Assembly Hall on that wintry Saturday.
He returned not in triumph, but as a healing gesture – a frail wounded symbol of a wounded land in a wounded time.
Somehow, it was fitting that he brought not a victory over archrival Purdue, but closure – a chance, finally, to end one chapter and begin another.
Bob Knight’s last lesson may have been one he never intended to teach but it’s an important one.
That, to move on, we often must let go.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.