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On Bob Knight and Human Complexity

A native Hoosier reflects

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you were a basketball fan or an Indiana native, or a cross between the two as so many people are, Saturday was a monumental day. It was the return of Bob Knight to Indiana University and Assembly Hall, a moment that even a year ago seemed impossible. For Indiana Hoosiers faithful it was a moment that they had been anxiously awaiting. For people far outside of that camp who wonder how a man like Knight got to be so popular it was a moment that they had been waiting for also: to see how the infinite shades of gray of Bobby Knight would be handled. In a strange way, I think both sides got what they wanted.

I remember a documentary where a convicted killer was awaiting execution on death row. He spoke of one mistake, one act, that subsequently defined his life and every waking moment that came thereafter. It speaks to a fundamental belief that I (and hopefully you) have that people are neither all good nor all bad. Even the worst among us have (or have had) moments of positive. That convicted felon wasn’t always a murderer. And though basketball certainly isn’t life and death, for me, there’s no better example of that dichotomy in action than one Robert Montgomery Knight.

It’s hard, if not outright impossible, to explain to an outsider how Bob Knight is perceived in the state of Indiana. Though I’m allegedly a MAC expert and a verified lifelong Kentucky fan, I also grew up in Indiana. I saw first had the demigod status that Knight enjoyed amongst his followers. My father and I were the lone UK supporters in a sea of extended family Hoosiers. Friends in elementary school, high school, and college all worshiped at the Knight alter. There wasn’t an Indiana University and a Bob Knight to most. The two were interwoven and inextricably linked. They were essentially one and the same.

And it is hard to argue that Knight was then and is still now in the conversation for greatest coach ever. Accomplishments like 900+ wins, three times a national champion, a gold medal winner, and 11 conference titles all speak to his success on the hardwood. His greatest sycophants will remind you that he did it all without ever going on probation, maintaining an academic-first approach, and never having his players run afoul of the law, the school, or general human decency. It’s hard to argue that in the cess pool of student athlete behavior, Bob Knight’s athletes stood out for their remarkable and consistent cleanliness. Knight also gave freely of time and treasure to advance the academic mission of the universities he worked at. He endowed two chair positions at IU and raised seven-figures for the library fund. These positives are all remarkably uncommon for a basketball coach and shouldn’t be forgotten or glossed over.

But for all those positives, there were numerous and well-documented negatives. The chair. The whip. The choke. Countless other examples of a man that rose to power and became bigger than a university. “Great coach, worse human” could have been the mantra of the detractors, and there were many, both from inside and outside the Hoosier house. Knight and his character flaws drew a very real line in the sand in the Indiana fanbase and sports culture in general, essentially asking the question, “How much is too much?”, asking everyone in essence what they were willing to tolerate to win. More importantly, it made people think about what happens when the wins don’t come?

That answer came, shockingly to me, when Knight was dismissed from his post in Bloomington in 2000. It was said to be about zero tolerance and a student that got grabbed outside the arena. If we’re being honest, that may have been the final blow but it was essentially death by a thousand cuts. Knight gave those that hate him ample ammo to fire the fatal shot. And in doing so, and being the Knight he was, gave his supporters ample ammo to pick up a weapon in his defense with an equally intense zest and passion. That personnel action would start a 20-year blood feud that touched every one involved: IU faithful that loved Knight and IU faithful that were simply tired of the copious amount of bullshit that Knight at the helm required tolerance of; fans and administrators; students and administrators; Knight and the school he loved.

On Saturday, the war ended. And like so many battles, there really were no winners. Only losers. Sure, it was great to see Bob Knight back in a red sweater and in Assembly Hall. Even as someone who very much disliked him as a human being but respected him as a coach, it was nostalgic and felt right. But this wasn’t the Knight of old. This was a Knight in failing health, tired, weak, and nowhere close to the man who divided a state and fanbase. It was sad for many reasons, not the least of which being the realization that the end is near for a coaching legend and this trip back to Bloomington felt less like a peace accord and more like a farewell. It didn’t have to be this way. But like the rest of Knight’s life, it seems like the end has to be a complicated version of events as well, colored by an “If only...” kind of vibe.

If only he hadn’t been an egomaniac. If only he hadn’t been a bully. If only he hadn’t gone the one (or more) step(s) too far that he often did. If only he had just been a decent human being. If only he hadn’t made people choose between winning basketball and abhorrent behavior again and again and again. If only he hadn’t waited until he was a shell of his former self to offer his lifelong supporters and fans a chance to heal. If only...

That, not the wins, not the drama, not the problems, will ultimately be Knight’s legacy. A consistent and repetitive exercise of whataboutism no matter which side of the Knight aisle you stand on. It didn’t have to be this way, Bobby.