Friday Rewind: Farewell to the General
Bob Knight was such an odd mix of contrasts, such a strange blend of principles and rage and arrogance and brilliance and humor and sternness and kindness and unkindness and impatience and crassness and wisdom — along with periodic bursts of seeming stunningly self-aware and stunningly unself-aware, being tyrannical and feeling persecuted — that he all but begged everyone to either love him or hate him but never anything in between. In the Army, he was a private, first class. On the basketball court, they called him the General.
Bob Knight won championships and threw a chair. He was fired after a player said he choked him, and there is a long line of successful men across America who give much of the credit to their basketball coach. He, as much as any coach in the nation, demanded discipline, insisted on discipline, concentrated all of his energies on teaching discipline … and he himself blew his stack in such cartoonish ways you could see his face turn beet red and smoke rising from his ears.
The story I heard many times was of an Indiana student, a bit overweight, stepping to the microphone at a preseason event as Assembly Hall and asking Knight a question about the team and Knight responding, “You don’t need to be worrying about basketball; you need to worry about eating more salads,” or some such cruelty,* and the student was properly humiliated.
*I have also heard versions of the story that were less tactful, ones where Knight called the student a fat slob.
The story goes on that afterward, Knight found that student and made him a team manager and was instrumental in his growth and was there at his graduation.
I don’t know if the story is true, but it sounds true because it sounds like Knight in all of his confusing and jolting incongruity. As a writer, I have seen a full array of Bob Knight, seen him be the bully, seen him be the teacher, listened to him speak so emotionally about baseball (he was a devoted baseball fan), listened to him say shocking things meant only to shock, watched him belittle and sneer, watched him coach man-to-man defense like no one else.
Friends called him ethical and misunderstood. Critics found few admirable qualities. Sportswriters found him endlessly fascinating, even when serving as the focal point of his seemingly bottomless rage. “All of us learn to write in the second grade,” he famously said. “Most of us go on to greater things.”
My sportswriter friend Tom Archdeacon once wrote a column critical of Knight, and the next time he went to an Indiana basketball game, he was seated not at press row but in a place called “Southeastern corner.” When he went to the Assembly Hall’s Southeast corner, he found one seat, placed behind a wall, with his name on it.
“How’d ya like your seat?” Knight joyfully asked him afterward.
But also Knight’s best friend was a sportswriter.
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