Bob Knight was never an easy man. He annoyed and enraged people on a regular basis and seemed to enjoy it.
That was the general public image of The General, as Dick Vitale called Knight, for decades. Will it change any after his death?
Knight, who passed away Wednesday, has a list of transgressions that are hard to forget. There’s a sort of shorthand: Puerto Rico. The chair. Neil Reed. Zero tolerance.
Puerto Rico refers to a conflict he had with a police officer while coaching with Team USA. The chair was tossed in a rivalry game with Purdue. Neil Reed was a player he seemed to hit in the throat and Zero Tolerance was the policy Indiana adopted to, finally, warn Knight that one more transgression and he would be canned.
We all know those things. We know about Knight’s mercurial, sometimes bullying personality. There will be plenty written about that, column after column of people saying that era of coach-as-dictator dies with him (Tarleton’s Billy Gillispie might disagree).
But that would overlook a lot.
When Landon Turner was paralyzed, his coach did everything humanly possible to help him. When Mike Krzyzewski’s father died while he played for Knight at West Point, Knight was infinitely compassionate and caring. You will probably hear a lot of stories in the coming days about Knight’s compassion for people that was never publicized. You rarely hear about his deep respect for older people and especially older coaches. We recall that both of his parents were deaf. He was probably very kind to deaf people.
Duke owes him a debt too. When Tom Butters was replacing Bill Foster, he tried to hire Knight. Knight passed, but recommended Krzyzewski, saying that “he has all of my good qualities and none of my bad ones.”
They had a difficult relationship once K began his rise to greatness, but we’re pretty sure that underneath all of it, Coach K thinks about the side of Knight that was so supportive when his father died. You can’t forget the jerky things he did, but how can you forget someone who was there for you when you really needed it?
His sendoff will focus on his flaws as a human being and probably not so much on his strengths. Aside from his known and unknown acts of decency and compassion, Knight was also highly - perhaps even unusually - intelligent. The trick, as Coach K said, was not to pay attention to how he said something but to what he said, which was usually insightful.
In the articles we’ve seen one thing stuck out above the rest which we’ll get to in a minute.
Knight took over at West Point when he was just 24 and Indiana when he was just 30, which is kind of amazing, and he got to the Final Four in his second season.
In the 1974-75 season, only an injury to Scott May kept Indiana from running the table and winning the national championship, and in 1975-76, IU pulled off the last undefeated season in college history.
Norm Sloan matched that at NC State with a 57-1 record across two seasons (1972-73 and 1973-74), but there were two big differences: first, NC State was on probation in 1972-73 and could not compete for the national championship and second, Sloan had David Thompson on those teams, and Thompson was a transformative player.
After Thompson left, Sloan never got close to that level again.
Whatever you might say about Knight, even his worst detractors would, we think, agree that the man was rigidly honest. He never cheated. And here’s what we were coming back to: Knight won three national championships and only had one player in all his time at Indiana who became an NBA All-Star, Isiah Thomas.
He had an undefeated team with Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner and Scott May. Good players all but none of them had notable NBA careers. Indiana rarely had the most talent, but they usually won anyway.
And while it might be tempting to call Knight a reactionary, the opposite is closer to the truth: in basketball, he was a revolutionary, inventing the motion offense. It’s impossible to understate how much he changed the game. Before Knight, post players stayed in the post, period. The motion offense unchained them and allowed them to become a fluid part of the offense.
No motion offense? No Christian Laettner. No Karl-Anthony Towns. No positionless basketball.
Arguably, no Nikola Jokić. It was that big of a deal.
And yet, people are going to focus on the bad side of Knight, his dark charisma if you will. The great difference between Knight and Krzyzewski is that Coach K learned to harness his equally intense anger and to make it a deeply useful tool. Knight never did; his emotions disrupted and occasionally wrecked his life.
But despite his immense anger towards Indiana after he was fired, after swearing he would never go back, little by little, Knight returned. He moved back to Bloomington and, in a very powerful moment, returned to Assembly Hall in 2020 to be honored.
Surrounded by his former players, Knight, now an old man, walked on to the court to thunderous applause. He wept. Bob Knight wept. It was an unbelievably powerful scene.
After that, he reconciled with IU and began to go to sporting events. When he died, he seemed to be at peace with his old school once again.
What do you do when disagreeable, even occasionally brutal people, pass away?
Yes, he was often a bully. Yes, he could be crude, as he was when he made a rape joke with Connie Chung, or when he pretended to use a bullwhip on a Black player, or in his many outrageously hostile press conferences.
He could at times be truly, despicably ugly.
But when he needed to stand up for his players or his loved ones, Knight always came through. And, as we said above, we’re pretty sure that a lot of positive stories are going to come out now that he’s died.
It’ll be hard to forget the dark side. But it’s just as important to remember his brilliance as a coach and his deep compassion when it was most needed.