Bob Knight is and was a basketball coach, such a coach that happened to win lots of basketball games.
This is, for everyone, the easy part.
Today, by all indications and reports, said basketball coach will return to Assembly Hall for the first time since he was dismissed unceremoniously for violating his imposed zero-tolerance policy on September 7, 2000 when he assaulted Kent Harvey while walking on the Bloomington campus. Do not whitewash, or lighten this next part. It was part of a pattern of behavior — being a boorish, abusive coach for the majority of his time in Bloomington. He’s on video choking Neil Reed. It’s absurd he wasn’t fired and blackballed from the sport in 1988 after the Connie Chung interview for his comments on sexual assault. If you want to lead a sentence with something about Bob Knight’s ability to coach basketball, the next four need to be devoted to the person he was while he did it.
Perhaps even beyond the allegations, Bob Knight was an unrepentant asshole. He has continued to be an unrepentant asshole. He has turned away and failed to show up for players that requested him at various events through the years. He’s rebuffed Indiana’s overtures. As of a few years ago, he hadn’t ever spoken to Mike Davis, a man that idolized him. He wished actual death on those involved in his firing and his critics at Indiana just three years ago. For the unsavory characters we’ve had to confront and reconcile, there is usually some sort of turn, some remorse, some celebrated change-of-heart in old age that allows us to soften the blow of this reconciliation. For Bob Knight, that has never happened.
So, today, we’ll sit decidedly in two camps — those who will view today as a homecoming for some long-lost war hero. And those that don’t have to reckon with any sort of reconciliation, and see today as a lionizing of an abusive jackass who wanted nothing to do with Indiana University or anyone connected to it for the past twenty years.
I’m decidedly in the second camp, and today is easy for me. It would be just fine if we’d strip every memory of Bob Knight from Bloomington, from the candy stripes, to the banners, to the murals. It would be completely fine if we didn’t hear one peep from Bob Knight after his shitty press conference on Dunn Meadow in that hideous Cardinals polo, we would have all been better off. Indiana’s continued groveling to him has been pathetic, and we all would’ve been best served with him living out his days in some remote Montana cabin. For the most part, it seems Bob would’ve been fine with that too.
But for those of that other set, this isn’t hard to understand. Bob Knight represents a time when you were younger, brighter, things were different, things were better. I had a college professor that told a story about the ‘87 championship. Homeless and broke in Philadelphia at the time, he fell in love with that particular Indiana basketball team. Even as a cynic and an academic, he’ll admit to you there was something about that Keith Smart shot that gave him the mental energy, the joy, to right his life again.
Sport shouldn’t do this, it shouldn’t represent this, it shouldn’t have that kind of power. It’s a child’s game, but confront the reality that it does. It’s powerful, it creates emotional attachment, it causes the brain to bend and distort in ways to rationalize the unsavory. The mind clings to the good feelings. Today, for a brief moment, it’ll be a chance for those with such associations to feel good again. No one that gives into those emotions is a bad or impure person. Reconciling that the person you held up as a hero for decades isn’t easy. It forces confrontation with the things we’re engineered to block out.
With Bob Knight, it’s the dissonance that causes the frustration. Everyone, deep down, knows better than this. You can’t choke players. You can’t treat people — everyone from players, to fans, to media — like dogshit for years. None of this is productive, and everyone in Assembly Hall today will deep-down know it. They might not willingly admit it, because that’s how the human brain works. Anger and frustration rise when the brain can’t reconcile to conflicting feelings. The brain contorts. We look past the bad. We yearn for how it was.
We yearn for nostalgia.
The problem with nostalgia is when it becomes something more than what it is — a memory, a feeling, a warm blanket in the uncomfortable passage of time. It’s the easy, cheap, snake-oil antidote to a far more existential, complex problem. It is standing on a stage, whipping up a crowd, with simple solutions. You know, we’re going to bring back the coal, and the big trucks [big truck noise]. How much do we love those Big Trucks? Weren’t things better when you could go out and buy a Big Truck? They said we weren’t, I know folks, but we’re going to bring back Big Trucks.
Indiana basketball fans love Big Trucks. For years, the north star of Indiana basketball has been nostalgia. The edicts and the shadow of Knight still govern and loom over the program, saddling it with baggage that weighs it down from every reaching what it once was in a world that has materially changed. Recruit the state. Play defense. Respect the aura of the self-importance of Indiana basketball. You must not just win, but you must win a certain way, and kiss certain asses while doing so.
If he walks out, today will be cathartic. Most will probably cheer, it’s the easy thing to do. Some will boo. Some just won’t care.
If there is anything good to come of today, perhaps it’s finally the ability to shut the door. Reconcile the dissonance. Remove nostalgia as a guiding principle. Moving on from Big Trucks.
Then, maybe finally, Indiana basketball can be something more than a cult of personality.