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The General comes home

Twenty years after he was fired, Bob Knight returns to Assembly Hall.



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Former IU men’s basketball head coach Bob Knight puts his fist in the air with former IU men’s basketball player Isiah Thomas at halftime Feb. 8 in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. This was Knight's first appearance in Assembly Hall since being fired nearly two decades ago. CORRECTION: A previous version of this photo misspelled Isiah Thomas' name. The IDS regrets this error. Alex Deryn

There was no true guarantee he'd be there until he came into view.

The former IU players being honored from the 1980s and 1990s came out first, one by one. But the crowd was waiting for one more man, the one they had come to see.

Fans cheered across the sold-out Assembly Hall as each pillar of Indiana basketball took the floor, but there was a sense of anticipation among the clamor. They had heard the rumors. They had waited outside for hours. And now they were here, arms outstretched and clutching phones, determined to document the improbable.

A tribute video played on the scoreboard before switching to a camera pointed down the empty southeast tunnel. 

Soon, the former players began to file in. They had come from the tunnel that connects Assembly Hall to Cook Hall, where a reunion for the 1979-80 IU men’s basketball team took place. 

But they weren’t the ones fans were waiting on. There was still one man to follow. 

Nearly two decades ago, he was fired from coaching IU’s men’s basketball team. He vowed to never return. But Saturday afternoon, Bob Knight emerged from around the corner.

***
Former IU men's basketball coach Bob Knight waves as fans scream "Bobby" repeatedly. Knight made an appearance inSimon Skjodt Assembly Hall during halftime of Saturday's IU versus Purdue game. Anna Tiplick

Knight, now 79, took each of the steps up to the stage at the Bluebird Nightclub in Bloomington with two feet, one hand holding the hand of a former player and the other gripping the rail. On a November day, the room filled with the sound of his name.

"We love you Bobby!"

"Thank you, Coach!"

The General looked out at an audience of fans that loved him unconditionally. He had lived in Lubbock, Texas, 1,000 miles away from that kind of love for nearly 20 years. 

“This was a great place to coach,” he said to the crowd. “And more importantly than that, we just about beat everybody’s ass.”

He praised the fans, announced raffle winners and made crude jokes. He was asked if he wanted to return to Assembly Hall, where he won three national championships, choked a player, threw a chair, gave an interview naked and became the winningest coach in IU history. Where he swore he’d never return.

“Let’s go tomorrow,” Knight said.

There was a women’s basketball game the next day. He didn’t go. When rumors spread across social media that he would return for a January game against his alma mater, Ohio State, he didn’t go either. He did attend a college basketball game in Indiana that day, at Marian University, 50 miles from Bloomington. 

He’s visited Bloomington High School South for a game — a team led by IU signee Anthony Leal — and he visited Indiana State University for a practice. 

It all seemed like some sort of elaborate tease.    

He had quietly slipped back into town early in the fall, moving into a house on the east side of Bloomington, not far from where he used to live in his coaching days. A house two miles from the arena where he built his legacy.

His shadow here is so long, his legacy so fundamental to this town, it’s difficult to imagine him casually sliding into a booth at Chili’s or ordering a milkshake at Culver’s. His departure was so ugly, his exile so bitter, it’s hard to picture he’d ever wear red again. 

But he’s never hated IU basketball. Those in his inner circle say he’s never stopped loving Bloomington or its fans. They say he’s as happy as ever back in this community once again. 

ESPN broadcaster and longtime friend Dick Vitale knew Knight planned to move back to Bloomington long before the public. He knew what Knight said he missed in Texas, what he was only able to find here.

“To be back around a lot of his friends and people that mean so much to him over the years, brings back a lot of great memories,” Vitale said in a January phone call. “That must be really a thrill.”

Knight still seethes with animosity for the IU administration that fired him. He’s publicly wished them dead. 

“As far as the hierarchy at Indiana University at that time, I have absolutely no respect whatsoever for those people,” Knight said in 2017 on the Dan Patrick Show. “I hope they’re all dead.”

For some, he’s lived to see that wish come true.

***
Bob Knight walks across the floor at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall after a 1985 game against Wisconsin. He came back to Assembly Hall on Saturday for the first time since 2000. Photo courtesy of IU Archives

While he was still coach at IU, Knight had a seat picked out in Assembly Hall. He wanted to sit just inside the doors of the south lobby, at the top of the wooden bleachers behind the basket.

He wanted to sit there and watch IU basketball long after he retired. He thought he’d be watching one of his former players coaching on a court named in his honor. He wanted the freedom to get up and leave at any point, just as he’d imagined he’d one day walk away from his coaching career here, on his own terms.  

That’s not how it turned out. Twenty years later, the winningest coach in IU history has yet to sit in those seats. He didn’t sit there during his return to Assembly Hall. He reunited with his former players in Cook Hall instead. Former players in attendance said IU’s game played on the TVs, but hardly anyone watched. 

Knight teams were built on a motion offense, an offense that always kept the defense off balance. If the defender cut one way, the ball went another. Former Purdue coach Gene Keady once said that he, and all the coaches across the country, had to copy Knight just to have any shot at beating him.

Knight’s profanity was as infamous as his red sweaters and short temper. The chair he tossed across the floor is a lasting memory for many. 

But Knight’s abuse is often forgotten, as it largely was when he returned to Assembly Hall. It’s difficult to square the wins and glory he brought to IU with his darker legacy of racism, sexism and abuse of his own players.

In 1979 while coaching the Pan-Am Games, Knight punched a Puerto-Rican police officer.  

"Fuck 'em. Fuck 'em all,” Knight reportedly told journalists after the game. “I'll tell you what, their basketball is a hell of a lot easier to beat than their court system. The only fucking thing they know how to do is grow bananas."

In 1988, during an interview with NBC’s Connie Chung, Knight made a crass comment about rape when asked how he dealt with stress, according to the New York Times. 

"I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it,” Knight said. 

In 1992, a photo was released of Knight pretending to whip Calbert Cheaney, a black player and IU’s all time leading scorer. The NAACP asked Knight to apologize. He didn’t. 

“Probably no motivational device I’ve ever come across is as good as this,” Knight told the Chicago Tribune, referencing a bullwhip.

Knight’s grip on power at IU began to erode in 2000 with a CNN report of Knight choking a player, Neil Reed, during practice. It was the moment where all those years of player abuse came to a head, when the man who seemed to be able to get away with anything was finally reprimanded.

After the incident, then-IU president Myles Brand initiated a zero-tolerance policy for Knight. Later, when he pushed a student, the man who had changed basketball in Indiana forever was shown the door.

The night he was fired, Knight walked out of Assembly Hall to a crowd pleading to see him. He told the crowd to go home. In front of more than 6,000 people in Dunn Meadow, the General gave his farewell address. It was brief. The crowd of supporters rippled with cheers to hide its sorrow.

In recent years, Knight’s memory has reportedly begun to fade. The mind that developed an innovative offense and a bruising defense is faltering.

IU radio broadcaster Don Fischer told a Michigan radio show in March that Knight wasn’t doing well. 

“I hesitate to say anything about that right now because Coach Knight is not well,” Fischer said. “He’s going through some major issues, and it hurts me to even talk about it just because a man with that kind of a mind, who was so tremendous at coaching the game of basketball, and you know, at the age that we get to at this point in our lives, you want to keep thinking that that brain is never going to go away.”

At an April event in Greenwood, Indiana, Knight introduced his wife, Karen, several times.

He appeared disoriented. He seemed to confuse memories, telling the same story twice with Michael Jordan as the character the first time, and Damon Bailey the second. Knight didn’t respond to a child’s question about Bailey. He mistakenly said Landon Turner had died.

The Indiana Daily Student attempted to contact Knight by reaching out to his wife, Karen, over the phone and in person. The Knights declined to be interviewed for this story. Knight's children did not respond to requests for comment.

***
Bob Knight throws a chair, in a move that would later become infamous, across the court at Assembly Hall against Purdue in 1985. He was honored Saturday in his return to Assembly Hall. Photo courtesy of IU Archives

In a way, it was fitting that Knight first returned to IU last spring for a baseball game.

While he is known for basketball, Knight loves baseball, even if he never had a favorite team. He rooted for the Cincinnati Reds during the Big Red Machine age of the 1970s and often went to games while he coached at IU. When Knight lived in Texas, he rooted for the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros.

He doesn’t watch sports as much as he used to. Part of why Knight wanted to move back to Bloomington was to be in a community that loved basketball. But his close friend Bob Hammel said Knight only watches so much of it anymore.  

Knight and Hammel didn’t see their trip to watch IU play Penn State in April as anything more than just two friends going to a baseball game, as they had done so many other times before. There was no fanfare for their arrival and no public announcement.  

IU baseball head coach Jeff Mercer found out earlier in the week that Knight was coming. He was told to keep it secret.

He told his dad anyway. He had to.

Mercer grew up a devout Catholic 30 minutes from Bloomington. In his grandparents’ house there are two items on the wall, a crucifix and an autographed picture of Knight. It’s why all he ever wanted to do was coach at IU.

When he heard Knight was coming back to watch his team, he cried. 

Mercer looked to the stands during batting practice, hoping to see Knight and the reaction of the fans. 

Knight passed through the gate into Bart Kaufman Field with a slight hunch. The brim of his hat hid his gaze. Each of his steps was slow and short. His sweater was tan.

In years past, he had loved to walk. But as he grabbed onto the side of a red golf cart and lowered himself into the cream-colored seat, he needed assistance to make it from the first base gate to the press box behind home plate.

Videos of his arrival went viral on social media. It quickly became a national news story, and his health was thrust back into the spotlight. 

Years of tirades, stress and an occasional thrown chair finally caught up to Knight. Even a man people named their kids after, a man who some put second to God, ages just like the rest of us.

***

Knight stands at 6 feet, 5 inches with long legs and eyes that stare right through you. He used to move swiftly, swallowing ground with his strides.

He used to walk for miles deep into the woods. He hunted birds, fascinated with the quickness and precision it took to shoot one out of the air. Everything had to be exact, aim and timing down to the millisecond. It’s a motion you can’t overthink but you can perfect. It’s similar to what he expected out of his players on the court.

Hammel thought Knight could walk forever.

On road games, Knight and Hammel used to go to dinner. They’d walk back together, along the side of the road, often for two miles, just talking.

When he moved back to Bloomington in early October, Knight and his wife Karen went out to dinner with Hammel and his wife Julie. They went out each of the first four nights the Knights were back. They didn’t walk.

One of the most famous men in Indiana eats at Chili’s, Culver’s, Applebee’s and BJ’s.

At BJ’s in November 2019, Knight signed autographs but had to be reminded to write his own name. He ordered a Pepsi mixed with chocolate milk. IU’s men’s basketball game against Princeton played on the screen directly above his table. He didn’t watch.

***

John Laskowski came to IU in 1971 as part of Knight’s first recruiting class. Then, Knight was just a young upstart headed to Bloomington from West Point.

Laskowski said high school players were uncertain of what Indiana basketball would look like with Knight at its helm. That kept some potential recruits away. Laskowski was Knight’s third option for a guard. 

Laskowski’s father died when he was 8. His mother made $10,000 a year. The only way he was going to college was on scholarship. He’s kept his scholarship letter from IU to this day.

He became a part of the 1975 IU team, which was regarded as potentially the best in school history, even better than the 1976 national title winning team.

Back then, Knight had a milkshake brought to him before every game. It came in a six-pack cooler delivered to the locker room. The cooler contained just the milkshake, held in place by ice. Knight drank his milkshake after every game, whether to celebrate a win or drown his sorrows after a loss.

In 2014, Laskowski went to a recently opened Culver’s in Crown Point, Indiana, and met the owner, Fred. They talked about the restaurant, their shared love for it, and Fred suggested Laskowski become an owner of his own store.

He found out that all he had to do was follow a manual. The directions were all there for him.  

“You know Fred, that’s exactly the type of college coach I played for,” Laskowski recalled saying. “He told me exactly what to do and I went out in my job and it worked out great. I think I’ll look into this.”

In the year since his Bloomington Culver’s opened, no one has ordered a root beer shake. It’s not on the menu, but Laskowski knew he had to make one.

Knight loves root beer milkshakes. After the Sonic that made them near his home in Lubbock, Texas, closed, he wasn’t able to find them anywhere else.

The staff made three milkshakes before bringing one to Knight. They had to make sure it was perfect. The girl making them didn’t know who Knight was. She was 16.

Laskowski brought the stuck-in-your-straw, almost-too-thick-to-drink treat to Knight’s house in November. His eyes lit up.

“I’ll never turn down a milkshake,” Knight said.

At Culver’s, he’s slowly becoming a regular.

Laskowski had barely seen his head coach since Knight left Indiana. Now, Laskowski had the chance to tell Knight how much of an influence he has had on him all these years later. They sat in a booth, sensing stares from across the restaurant. An older woman with a walker scooted past their table with a knowing glance.

“Did you know who that was?” Laskowski recalled asking the woman.

“That’s Bobby Knight!” she exclaimed with a smile.

***
Former IU men's basketball coach Bob Knight walks back Feb. 8 to the south entrance of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hal with former IU players. Knight's appearance during halftime of the IU versus Purdue game was his first time back in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall since being fired nearly two decades ago on Sept. 10. 2000. Anna Tiplick

Knight emerged from the tunnel to the expanse of fans whose decades-long wait had finally ended. Their General was home. 

Chants of his name rang out across the arena as Knight— face more sunken, spine more hunched than that day when he left the hall for what was supposed to be forever — shuffled slowly onto the court. 

He was accompanied by former players including his son Pat as well as Quinn Buckner, Steve Green and Scott May. 

Knight waved to the crowd as he stepped onto the floor. He turned and bowed to the student section behind the south basket as the thunderous standing ovation continued.

“Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!”

“Thank you Coach!”

The arena was filled all the way to the upper corners of the balcony. The cheapest ticket was $300. It was rumored all week that Knight would make his return, and everyone wanted a glimpse of him. 

Knight continued walking to midcourt to greet the players who had already been introduced. There was a chair set up for him, but he didn’t touch it. Instead he hugged former point guard Isiah Thomas, who played for Knight from 1979-1981. The nearly 50 players and coaches on the court circled around their coach. Standing in the center, Knight held Thomas’ hand and raised it in the air.

In flashes, Knight was still intense, or at least a return to Assembly Hall brought some of that back. He led the student section in a “Defense” chant. He didn’t need a microphone. He pumped his fists and yelled to hype up the crowd. He walked over toward the ESPN broadcast table and grabbed Vitale’s arm before giving him a brief shove. 

He did it all with tears in his eyes. 

Thomas put his arm around his coach, beaming with pride. How much the moment meant to Knight was clearly evident on his face. 

Knight rarely smiles. But in fleeting moments on the court, the controversial coach gave a grin as he was surrounded by his former players and fans who loved him. 

When Knight moved back to Bloomington, his friends tried to convince him to come back to Assembly Hall. For so long, he didn’t listen. 

“I would hope one day, as I’ve conveyed to him, that he would go back to a basketball game there and feel the adulation and the unbelievable love that many of those Bloomington Hoosier fans have for what he did when he was there,” Vitale said in a January phone call.

Former IU guard Randy Wittman called Knight when he moved back to Bloomington. He told Knight that he belonged in Assembly Hall, that there was a reason he moved back to Bloomington. 

Every time there was a reunion or big game, the city swirled with speculation that the infamous coach would make his return. But each day came and went without any glimpse of that shock of white hair at Assembly Hall.

The invitation was there, but it was up to him to take it. On Saturday, he did. 

When Knight peeked around the corner, he ended his own exile. 

After 20 years, there was closure. He was home.

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