clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bob Knight Leaves The Game

After talking to his great friend Pete Newell, Bob Knight called it a career Monday, turning his Texas Tech program over to son Pat. He steps away as the career leader in wins, and a complicated reputation as a true visionary of the game and a man who also had immense trouble controlling his volcanic emotions.

The lowlights are well-known and reduced almost to shorthand: the chair toss. The Puerto Rican cop. The salad bar. Feinstein. Relax and enjoy it. The hunting accident. Ted Valentine. Walking off against the Russians. Neal Reed. Zero tolerance.

There's no question that Knight's inability to tolerate fools cost him plenty, and there's no question he knew it. When Tony Kornheiser asked him if some of his problems, basically, weren't karmic boomerangs, he said "I can't argue with that."

And periodically you'd hear people who talked to him after some of his worst screw-up and who reported a guy whose behavior at times baffled even himself.

If he had coached at Indiana for 35 years and averaged 25 wins a season, he'd be retiring now with 977 wins instead of 902 and might be closer to 1,000. Who knows?

Knight's temper cost him a lot. He alienated friends and players, opposing coaches, school leaders, entire tropical islands.

And it cost him a lot of recruits as well. When Tommy Amaker found out that Coach K was a Knight product, he reportedly made it clear that he wasn't' interested in playing for someone like Knight.

And there was a memorable long-distance fight with native Hoosier John Wooden, who, during the zero tolerance days, said "I wouldn't want anyone I loved to play for Bob Knight."

Knight, as we recall, said that there were other coaches more worthy of respect than Wooden, alluding to NCAA irregularities which surfaced after his career was over, and we think he specifically mentioned Newell.

And yet there is so much more to the man. The public sees the ugly stuff, the bullying, and that's how he gets defined - and it was his own fault, as he admitted to Kornheiser.

But there is much more to Bob Knight. His personality obscures the fact that he revolutionized basketball. Knight was the guy who allowed the center to no longer be chained to the low post. At Duke, we saw the benefits in Christian Laettner and Danny Ferry. The broader basketball world sees, as Seth Greenberg said, centers who want to be forwards and forwards who want to be guards. Point taken. But we live in an era when we can have 6-11 Kevin Garnetts, 6-9 point guards like Magic Johnson, 5-3 point guards like Muggsy Bogues, and 6-4 power forwards like Charles Barkley.

And that's just stateside. Around the world, players now learn the full range of basketball skills. It's a huge transformation that Knight set into motion. It's hard to think of a sport which has undergone a more radical change: football? baseball? soccer? Perhaps cricket. That's the only one that, due to radically different games from the former colonies, has so sharply evolved as basketball.

And it also obscures his generous nature. Knight has always given generously, though quietly, to charities. He has been extremely loving to players who found themselves in tragic situations, notably Coach K, who lost his father while playing for Knight at West Point, and Landon Turner, who was paralyzed after IU won the national title in 1981. Krzyzewski has spoken often of how deeply grateful he was to have Knight's full support at such a devastating time. Landon Turner has also been deeply grateful for all Knight has done to help him since his accident.

Knight has been loyal to his guys, and he really goes to the mat to help them when they're in trouble.

When you become aware of this side of the man, his more public face is all the more perplexing. This is clearly a man capable of great love and immense decency. Not that he'd want you to know that. He's got a certain, old school orientation, a perspective on masculinity that is not so common anymore. He has two sons, and Pat said that if he had been born a girl, he thinks his dad would have shoved him back.

He's also, with the notable exception of John Wooden, incredibly respectful to older people. IKt's one of his finer traits.

And then there's the man's sheer intelligence. A lot of guys coach because they played and fell into it and it's a good living. Then there are the Knights, the Smiths, the Krzyzewskis, the Auerbachs, men who are brilliant in many ways but who choose to focus on basketball. Auerbach could have been an incredible psychologist; so could have Dean Smith or Coach K. Knight could have been a historian, could have had a military career, could have even had a political career, if he had wanted it and could have controlled himself. It's fun to imagine him debating the four major remaining candidates for president. There's no question in our mind that he could dominate the stage with any of them, largely because he's more authentic, and none of them, because of the constraints of their profession and ambition, could ever match it. It's really a funny mental exercise.

At the end, his legacy is a mix of incredible accomplishment, genius, hubris which weighed down his innate decency and compassion, but most of all a man who refused to compromise when he thought he was right. Bob Knight's misdeeds will be long remembered, but they deserve to be remembered in this context as well: he was in the truest sense, an American original, someone who refused to be defined by anyone else, and who insisted on loyalty to his own principles and ethics. People can say a lot of things about Knight, but no one can say he was dishonest, and no one can ever say he cheated in any way.

But in some ways, his final legacy, or at least a significant codicil, may be written by his son Pat. Pat Knight has had possibly the longest and probably the richest coaching apprenticeship in the history of the game. At around 35, he takes over in what could be a very risky move, because while he may be brilliantly trained to take over for his father, perhaps the basketball equivalent of John Quincy Adams, he is stepping into a minefield in many respects. People will be watching and expecting a family resemblance, blowups, and anger issues. They'll also be expecting brilliance.

If he tries to be his father, he's failed already. If he is enough of his own man to have learned from his father's mistakes, and to have also absorbed the brilliance, and to remember how his teammates at Indiana felt at the dark moments, if he can synthesize all these things, he has a chance be a masterful coach, and also, later, to soften the rough edges of his father's harsh image.

That's all in the future. What Bob Knight did as a coach is now in the past, and love him or hate him, everyone who is in the game or who cares about the game is going to miss him, whether they want to or not.