I remember watching “Keith Smart from the corner” in my grandparents’ Irvington basement. Which is probably not where I watched Indiana University win the ‘87 NCAA Men’s Basketball championship because I also remember that my grandparents went to New Orleans for the Final Four that year. Memory is funny that way. As much fiction as fact, revealing our capital T Truths without being strictly lower case T true.
Neither James Ellis nor Anne Taflinger was an IU graduate. Grandpa held a degree from Hanover. Grandma was a mother at 16, educated as much in the fields and the hair salon she ran as she was in the classroom. But “Jeemy” wore a red Adidas-brand IU sweater because IU men’s basketball was church. And Bobby Knight? He was Pope. Or pastor, seeing as grandma and grandpa were Presbyterians.
It was the Calbert Cheaney era when I started reading the Indianapolis News myself, USA Today on vacations. Even then, from late elementary school to junior high, I had the impression that Coach Knight was an abusive prick. I wasn’t alone in that analysis, but he was a winner.
When you’re a winner you can berate people and choke people and throw potted plants at people and wave your feces in peoples’ faces and a big enough portion of the grandstand will rush to defend your tough love tactics. Because winning’s fun. Winning’s fucking awesome. KEITH SMART FROM THAT GODDAMN CORNER RIGHT THERE, SON.
Losing sucks, though. And when Coach Knight stopped winning like he had, well, his shtick didn’t play so well. He also started interacting with the college age children of Boomers and a lot of us, well, we’re not trying to have teachers and coaches scream us down let alone put hands on us. In a flash, The General was deposed. I blinked again and almost 20 seasons passed since Knight was fired and Indiana lost its damn mind over it.
He stayed belligerent for years but moved back to Bloomington, his feelings seeming to soften as his health and faculties started to fail. He attended an IU baseball game last year but refused to return to Assembly Hall - The General’s battlefield - until this weekend.
When he did, the narrative was closure and reconciliation. Wasn’t it great for a university and its greatest coach to mend fences after all these years. But I’m left wonder what was mended. What apologies were issued by him, privately or publicly, for his physical and verbal abuse of players and university employees and god knows who else? What contrition or reflection was offered by him? Is the Bob Knight who walked on to Branch McCracken Court essentially the same guy who left IU in 2000 only weaker, duller? Does he still think that everything he did and said was ok? And if that’s the case, what closure has been achieved? What reconciliation has been made?
I hope he’s not the same person. I hope he’s wrestled his demons down, some of them at least, and made peace with people he’s hurt. Not for my sake, or the sake of any other IU alumnus or fan. But for his own. Coach Knight always struck me as a deeply unhappy man. The kind who is convinced that winning will make him feel better and becomes embittered when it doesn’t.
If he hadn’t forgiven himself and asked for forgiveness before he shuffled onto the court, I hope that this weekend gives him the strength to do so before he shuffles off this earth. That would be a victory worth hanging a banner for.
Former Indiana University Hoosier Head Coach Bobby Knight makes his first public appearance at IU Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in years, during a game between the IU Hoosiers and the Purdue Boilermakers, at IU, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)