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The night I saw good Bobby Knight at his best


Bobby Knight kicked me out of Assembly Hall during an Indiana basketball practice. That’s not a bad thing to have on your journalism resume.

I was reminded of that day, October 15, 1977, with the news Knight, the iconic and controversial basketball coach, died on Wednesday at age 83 after a long bout with dementia.

Knight sent a student manager to up to climb the to the top seats of Assembly Hall to tell both Mike Klocke, my friend and colleague at the State News, and me we had to leave. Mike was the MSU football beat reporter, I was the State News sports editor.

We were on campus early for the Spartans’ football game that afternoon at Indiana’s Memorial Stadium. We wanted to see Assembly Hall, the 17,000-seat arena that opened in 1971 as a college basketball citadel. This was only a year and a half after Knight won his first NCAA title with a 32-0 team – the last unbeaten NCAA championship team.

We found, to our delight, an open door. We intended merely to walk around and take in the sights. We were surprised to the see Knight’s Hoosiers practicing far below on the court. So, we settled into a couple of the seats at the top of the arena. Soon enough we saw a student manager trudging up the steps to us.

“Coach Knight says this is a closed practice and you’ll have to leave,” he told us.

Knowing what I know now, we could have earned a place in Indiana/Bob Knight history by shouting down to the court, “Hey, what’s up, Knight?”

That, of course, is the infamous comment from an Indiana student at the start of 2000 school year when he encountered Knight on campus. Knight grabbed him by the arm. At that point, Knight was on a zero-tolerance probation following the videotape that showed him choking an Indiana player, Neil Reed, at a practice. He was fired for grabbing the student.

But we followed the rules and departed. After all, we were there to cover a football game, and we left for Memorial Stadium.

Knight incidents would continue accumulating without Mike and I on the list. You can read a multitude of stories about bad Bobby Knight elsewhere, including John Feinstein’s story in the Washington Post explaining the good and bad Bob Knight.

I’ll finish this story with one about the good Bobby Knight. It helps explain why so many people stood by him despite his many inexplicable transgressions. When Knights wants to be, there wasn’t a more charming or quick-witted man.

I saw the best of Bob Knight on March 4, 2008. I was the media coordinator then for the San Diego Hall of Champions. On that night, Pete Newell, the basketball icon who spent time in San Diego as the general manager of the San Diego Rockets (before the team moved to Houston), was inducted into San Diego’s Hall of Fame. I was able to arrange for Knight to travel to San Diego to introduce Newell, whom Knight considered his basketball father.

It’s funny how events dovetail together like on that night in 2008. It started with my phone calls to see if Knight, who was then Texas Tech’s head coach, would make a special video for Newell’s induction. Soon afterward, Knight made his surprise decision to step down as coach. The invitation was upgraded to personally introduce Newell.

After Knight talked with Earl Shultz, a long-time doctor in San Diego and horse race owner, he agreed. Shultz was someone I had written about in the past. He played for Newell’ 1959 NCAA championship team at Cal that beat Cincinnati and Oscar Robertson in the semifinals and West Virginia and Jerry West in the final.

Shultz told Knight how much the 92-year-old Newell, who was aging rapidly, would appreciate having him at the dinner. Knight rearranged his plans so he could attend, but he asked me not to promote his appearance to the media. He wanted to keep it a surprise for Newell.

When Knight introduced Newell, people saw the best of Bobby Knight. His introduction included a dig at Shultz and two other Cal teammates from the championship season, Bill McClintock and Tandy Gillis. Knight had them stand up to be recognized. The audience thought Knight was going to praise the old war horses.

Instead, showing he was deftly keen speaker, Knight switched gears seamlessly.

“They talk about championship teams and that the players made the coach,” Knight said. “You look at these three guys, and the coach made them.”

There were laughs all around the ball room of 850 people at the Town and Country Hotel ballroom.

Knight, who graciously posed for dozens upon dozens of photos throughout the night, also praised the other honorees and Hall-of-Fame inductees because he was so impressed with their speeches. They included San Diego pro and college athletes, male and female.

“I’d like to say from a coaching standpoint, a coach can win if he has the athletes,” he said. “But after the presentations I’ve heard tonight, you could tell that with just their hearts and minds, they’d be tremendous for any coach.”

He looked up and down the dais at the various athletes.

He also got a laugh with a joke about Willie O’Ree, a Hall-of-Fame inductee who was the Jackie Robinson of the NHL in 1958 with the Boston Bruins. He finished career playing for San Diego’s minor-league hockey team and settled in San Diego.

O’Ree, who spoke earlier than Knight’s introduction of Newell, explained losing 97 percent of the vision in his eye from a puck that hit him early in his career.

Knight started out somberly telling O’Ree he couldn’t have played for him. Then, on his way to the punchline, he explained he preferred O’Ree was a referee.

“You can see better than most of the referees I’ve had in my career,” Knight said.

By the time Knight finished speaking, he choked up as he introduced Newell. Bobby Knight choked up? Yep, he was that night.

As it turned out, Knight unwittingly gave me a gratifying moment.

Tom Cushman, the sports editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune when I wrote there who was retired by 2008, had often written about how he and Knight were close. Cushman was a good writer but bad leader. I was no fan of him as a boss. He held me back on promotions. He never understood my talent. He even promoted a guy on our staff who made up stuff that got into a print. Everyone knew he wrote fiction as comedy — except Cushman. All he saw was a funny writer without understanding why.

Well, it turned out Knight didn’t tell Cushman he was in town. He didn’t learn it until he saw a TV report on the 6 o’clock news. Cushman was locked out of the ballroom until the doors opened at the end. Cushman rushed toward the dais like a little kid to say hello to Knight. I saw him and gave him a sardonic grin and nod of the head, noting he had missed out.

If that sounds petty, so be it. Maybe you know it’s tough living with bad decisions made by bosses impacting your career. Especially when the boss, as in this case, was out of touch by not being in the newsroom and promoted a conman who finally had to leave journalism.

So, on that night, Knight gave me satisfying chuckle at Cushman’s expense to remember. I’m sure glad I didn’t yell at Bobby Knight that morning at Assembly Hall, October 15, 1977.

RIP, Bob Knight.

I owed it to you to write a story about the good Bob Knight.


I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055.

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