In his superb piece on Mike Krzyzewski for ESPN, Wright Thompson touches on one of the enduring mysteries of the Coach K era and that’s the relationship between Krzyzewski and a central figure in his life, Bob Knight. NSFW disclaimer: we aren’t blanking out f-bombs today.
The basic question about Knight is simple: why has he consistently ruined his life by being an unbelievable jerk?
He’s done it with nearly everyone he's not related to. Dan Dakich, no day at the beach himself, has cut ties with his old coach. Mike Davis, who took the Indiana job after Knight was fired, was greeted with a wall of hostility.
It’s as if at some point, he feels an obligation to turn on people. There was a Twitter post recently by someone quoting a former Knight player saying to watch the eyes because you can tell when he’s about to get crazy (the video with the tweet supported the idea).
After Duke beat Indiana in the 1992 Final Four, Knight emotionally gutted his protegé personally and then with a nasty letter he sent a toady to deliver. In Thompson’s article, Mike Brey, of all people, stood up after that episode and said “fuck Bob Knight,” which is something that a lot of people have longed to say.
The shame of it is that, when you get underneath all the nastiness and vile behavior, Knight does have a very kind, compassionate side to him. He really took care of Landon Turner after he was paralyzed, and when Kryzyzewski lost his father at West Point, Knight went out of his way to look after his distraught point guard, something that Coach K never forgot.
Clearly the man has a heart somewhere in there. We got a glimpse again when he returned to Assembly Hall, a weeping old man. And yes, many of his old players were there for him.
But the Dark Knight always returns.
We don’t know either Knight or Krzyzewski personally and we can’t comment on their relationship. We thought it had been repaired when K asked Knight to present him when he was inducted in the Hall of Fame.
Knight being Knight, of course he eventually got nasty again and now it appears the relationship is over. In his new book on Coach K, Ian O’ Connor describes a more recent scene where Knight again turned his back on Krzyzewski, and that ended with Coach K saying he would never go through that again.
Imagine for a minute what Knight, universally acknowledged as a brilliant man and basketball mind, could have done if had had just a modicum of self control. He only had four 30 win seasons. Not many guys ever have a single 30-win season, but Knight could have had many more.
Instead, you see five 19-win seasons and seven seasons with less than 20 wins (not counting Army or Texas Tech).
Imagine if we thought not of his rage but of his intelligence and capacity for teaching. Imagine if he hadn’t driven so many players away, guys who idolized him and wanted no other coach. Imagine if he could have recruited elite players for 36 years at Indiana (if he hadn’t been forced out) rather than limiting himself to a small, regional pool who might tolerate his bullying, at least for awhile.
If he could have done those things, Knight would have won a lot more. Let’s say five more games per year, which would put his IU average at 27 rather than 22. Toss in one more year for the one he sat out before taking the Texas Tech job.
He would have been just under 1,000 wins.
In John Feinstein’s famous book, Season On The Brink, Feinstein concluded, basically, that Knight had an incredibly bright future...if he didn’t blow it.
Well it’s true both ways. He did have an incredible career. But his inability to deal with people decently has cost him dearly and what is he now, other than a bitter old man who can’t let go of old grudges? In the end, he did blow it.
It’s just really unfortunate. Knight has so many good qualities and such a keen mind. He’s a legitimate basketball genius who has had a profound impact on the game.
What he’s going to be remembered for is not that. It’s his lack of self-control and self-awareness that limited his career and made people around him miserable.