Two decades or more ago, on a late summer afternoon in Bloomington, Indiana, a friend and I were playing tennis on courts not far from Indiana University’s basketball temple, Assembly Hall. Every court in the complex was in use. After a while I noticed a couple of people headed in our direction along the empty parking lot gravel from Assembly Hall. One of them was a mighty big man, even from far away. He was carrying a racket, as was the younger and smaller man who accompanied him. On reaching the courts they realized none was free. They hung around a bit, in case one would become available. But none did, and soon enough they lost patience and walked back to Assembly Hall.
Ever since I’ve wondered whether maybe I should have done the noble thing and offered Bob Knight use of our court. It’s too late now, in any case. But what I’ve always remembered was his reaction to the situation. He came, nothing was available, he left. He didn’t attempt to pull rank. He didn’t try to bully anyone. He didn’t pull out an Uzi and mow down those who had ruined his plans. He just walked away. No big deal.
Knight, the former Indiana coach now head basketball coach at Texas Tech, is in the news again. It doesn’t take much for that to happen. The question this time is what took it so long, given the legions out there eager and ready to pounce at him on the slightest pretext. At this point it makes no sense to argue for or against him. Minds were made up years ago, which is the fate of those rare characters who really are larger than life.
As bizarre as it may seem, Knight is now in trouble for not walking away. But how could he have done so, given that his run-in was instigated by his chancellor, who apparently lacked the skill to talk to Knight without patronizing him along the lines of those perpetually out to get him. To compound matters, the chancellor reportedly retaliated by preparing to suspend or even fire Knight, only to be overruled by the university’s board of regents, which has allowed Knight to get off with a reprimand, the equivalent of a suspended parking ticket.
YOU CAN HEAR THE coyotes howling. For sports networks and sports centers, the latest brouhaha has been a gold mine. Some have reacted predictably. ESPN, for instance, lacks a single anchor who might be ready to give Knight any more leeway than the network gave Rush Limbaugh. On the other hand, its basketball commentator Jay Bilas has been amazingly supportive of Knight. What’s more, David Israel, a former sportswriter, told ESPN the mediocrities at Indiana University who fired Knight several years ago rushed to do so because they know the team Knight had coming back would make it to the Final Four and they needed to lynch him while they still could.
The Washington Post‘s Michael Wilbon, the paper’s premier sports columnist, came to an odd sort of defense of Knight yesterday, mainly because in his view Knight for once had picked on someone his own size. But he couldn’t resist being any less patronizing, calling the recent episode minor compared to “something worthy of censure” that he knows is “always just around the corner” in the case of Knight. (Perhaps Wilbon should start with himself: his Super Bowl column celebrated Janet Jackson’s cheek with all the class of a drunken frat boy egging on a wet T-shirt contestant. Evidently his editors weren’t pleased either. Click here to compare his newspaper comments with the bowdlerized passages that now appear on the Post‘s website.)
Predictably, the New York Times made Knight its sports section’s lead item yesterday. It included a timeline of Knight’s greatest sins, starting with the year 1979 which saw Knight “Sentenced to six months in jail for hitting a police officer before practice at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico.” In other circumstances, of someone more to its liking, the paper would have offered a different perspective. “Targeted and victimized by politically charged police brutality while defending his players at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico.”
As it happens, the 1979 run-in came to mind when I heard Knight, in clinical detail, describe the circumstances of his salad-bar confrontation with the chancellor. The sheer intelligence and composure of this man can be staggering. Twenty-five years ago he described the effort to railroad him in similar precise detail, down to the bristles on the cop’s poorly shaved face. All along his problem has been that he doesn’t miss a thing.
Another ESPN guest, former Indianapolis Star sportswriter Bill Benner, was characteristically small-minded, expressing delight that Knight was now Texas Tech’s problem and not Indiana’s. (There in a nutshell is the mentality of someone whose state can never compete with Ohio or Michigan in football.) As it happens, Indiana University basketball without Knight is pretty much in free fall. A once feared opponent, it now gets blown out by most top teams, and at least twice this season has given away games at home by going scoreless over the final five to ten minutes of play.
Texas Tech, meanwhile, is enjoying unprecedented basketball success. Knight’s presence is worth millions to the school, and as he used to at Indiana, he finds time to raise huge bucks for the college library. His players graduate and get ahead in life. He does other things you may have not heard about. For instance, here’s something the N.Y. Times won’t report: “Just this week Knight got Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to come to West Texas and speak to the [Texas Tech] law school.” That’s something Yahoo! Sports’ national columnist Dan Wetzel passed along. It’s heartening that there are still good guys on Knight’s side.