There are times in every family when relationships forged over years are torn asunder by something said or presumed. All of a sudden, people that loved and depended on each other stop talking and personal pride prevents reparation.
On Saturday night in Bloomington, Ind., the University of Indiana and its former men’s basketball coach, Hall of Famer Bob Knight, whose relationship was damaged by his firing 20 years ago, finally made up.
“It was one of the greatest and most emotional things for me,” former player Randy Wittman told the media. “I don’t know if we’ll see something like this again in college basketball. When he moved back here (to Indiana) I told him, ‘You’re back here because this is where you belong.'”
It was an emotional night at the university, a chance to reconcile with the man who built one of the greatest basketball programs of his generation there over 29 seasons. Knight won a school-record 662 games and 11 Big Ten championships. His teams played in five Final Fours and won three national titles.
Of course, he did so in a state of turmoil, his unforgiving nature and volatile temper constantly getting him into trouble with other coaches, players, authority figures at the university and leadership at the NCAA.
This was a man who cut Charles Barkley from the 1984 Olympic team. He castigated and bullied players for lack of effort or performance. He hounded officials and berated sportswriters. And one night against Purdue in 1985, he even threw a chair.
It all finally came to a head in Sept. 2000 when the university, which felt it no longer could abide Knight’s behavior, fired him following an investigation into whether he had choked a former player, Neil Reed, during a practice.
Knight felt as though he’d been treated unfairly and called a now infamous press conference to explain himself. Before the end of the week, the university had fired him.
Knight went on to coach Texas Tech and work as an analyst for ESPN. And even though he often was in the area for various other reasons, Knight had not returned to Assembly Hall since.
Now all was forgiven. The crowd responded warmly to Knight. It cheered him and chanted his name as video highlights of his career played. Not only were fans in attendance, but a number of his former players were there, as well.
Truth is, Knight did not look very well. He’s 79 now and appeared frail as he walked into the arena with his son Pat and former players Quinn Buckner and Scott May. He quickly hugged perhaps his greatest player, Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. Knight pumped his fist. There appeared to be tears in his eyes. But he summoned enough strength to lead the crowd in a cheer of “Dee-fense, Dee-fense.”
The only thing that disappointed was that Knight did not address the fans.
Indiana had come to the conclusion long ago it wanted to make things right with Knight, but the coach had always rebuffed them. He didn’t even return when he was inducted into the university’s athletic Hall of Fame a decade ago.
According to the Associated Press, Indiana decided to try again over the summer when Knight returned to Bloomington after previously living in Lubbock, Tex.
“When he moved back here, I knew he was in a good place,” Wittman said. “I knew he was happy here, living, and I told him, ‘You belong here.'”
It finally happened on the night Indiana honored Knight’s 1980 Big Ten championship team. Coincidentally, the Hoosiers were hosting Purdue which meant former Boilermakers coach, Gene Keady, was also at Assembly Hall.
“Being back in Bloomington has done wonders for him in terms of his spirit and being around people who truly love him,” Isiah Thomas told The Athletic. “It’s like he’s come back home. I just think the love the university and the state have for him, living now in Bloomington makes him realize just how loved he truly is and has been for a long time.
“We all took turns calling him or visiting with him, just to let him know how important he was, and is, and the impact he had on all our lives. Coach has always been there for all of us in our down moments, so to be here for him in the twilight of his years, I guess it speaks to the life lessons he taught us.”
Knight even spoke to the current Hoosiers before their 74-62 loss.
“I was standing there and he was Coach Knight,” Wittman said. “It was like he hadn’t left that locker room. The words he gave to those players before they went out on the floor, it was fabulous.
“This state still loves this guy. And he still loves these fans.”