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Billy Reed: Knight, walking slowly, needing help with his balance, was (sort of) back at IU’s Assembly Hall

So here came Bob Knight, making the journey he had made hundreds of times. Except this time, it was different. His nose as red as his Indiana sweater, Knight now is an old man who walks slowly and needs help with his balance. He now is controlled instead of always being in control. He looked a bit uncertain about what he was walking into.

This was at halftime of Purdue’s visit to IU’s Assembly Hall on Feb. 8. After boycotting the university for 20 years to protest his firing in 2000, the prodigal son had at last decided to come home to honor his 1979-’80 Big Ten championship team that was built around precocious freshman guard Isiah Thomas and ranked No. 1 in the nation much of the season.

When the news leaked out late in the week, the market for tickets went into the stratosphere. It seemed every Hoosier fan, including those who had yet to be born when Knight was fired, wanted to be able to say he or she was there when their own version of Gen. Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines – or, in this case, Assembly Hall – in triumph.

The folks who ran the show didn’t allow him to speak, which was good for both Bob and the university. That way, he didn’t get the chance to trash the administration that fired him. For 20 years, he has been consumed by bitterness and vindictiveness. As recently as 2017, he told a national radio talk-show host that he hoped everyone who had anything to do with his dismissal was dead.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

Like anybody who knew Knight well enough to call him a friend – and I’m one of those – I was glad to hear that he was going to appear on the Assembly Hall floor again. I hoped that would end the vendetta that Knight waged against IU for far too long. Sadly, however, it was obvious that Knight had waited too long to come home. No longer the force he once was, Knight was only a shell of his old self.

At times, Knight seemed to be shedding tears. At other times, he beamed at his former players and hugged them. And there were a couple of times when he got into fake altercations with a former player and ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, one of Knight’s biggest fans. As the celebration dragged on, I began to feel uncomfortable and awkward on behalf of Bob, his family and friends. Nobody seemed to know what to do, including Knight.

Four years ago, Knight campaigned for Donald Trump in the Presidential election. Some of his Democratic friends thought, not entirely in jest, that it was proof Knight had lost his mind. Nobody, however, was really surprised because Knight and Trump have some things in common. Going back to his days at West Point in the 1960s, Knight always was a hawkish conservative. Besides, other than the womanizing, he and Trump have a lot in common. Both were vindictive toward their critics. Both at times were guilty of disgusting lapses in taste and civility. And both punished one-time friends who they thought had betrayed them.

In Knight’s case, he turned on C.M. Newton when Mike Davis, an assistant and former Newton player at Alabama, was named to replace him. Newton came to Bloomington to be a mentor to Davis, just as he had been to Knight for many years, but Knight saw it as a betrayal of their friendship. Newton and his wife Evelyn both were devastated. But far as I know, he never apologized to Newton or reconciled with him. Given Newton’s reputation for integrity, it was petty beyond belief.

Unlike Trump, Knight did have some compassion, much as he tried to hide it. He did a lot of things to help a lot of people, but never wanted the media to know about it because publicity would have damaged his sincerity. Maybe Trump also is like that. However, I’ve never heard anybody, publicly or privately, talk about doing something like what Knight did for Landon Turner, a member of the ’80 team who was paralyzed in a car accident only a couple of months after the ’81 championship.

Also unlike Trump, Knight sometimes would apologize when necessary. For example, he apologized to NBC’s Connie Chung for saying that if rape were inevitable for a woman, she might as well “relax and enjoy it.” It was a graphic example of how somebody so smart could also be so insensitive.

The last time I talked to Knight was three or four years ago. Sitting at home one afternoon, I got an unexpected phone call from him. He said he wanted to compliment me on the way I covered his teams. He also said, “I think you would agree that we had a good relationship, right?” Thinking of all the times, Knight had given me special access to himself and his players, I said, “Of course.” And then, after a few more pleasantries, he hung up.

Bob Knight was back in the house

As I later told friends, I had the weird feeling that he was saying good-bye to me; that he wanted to have a final conversation while he was still able. Only a few months later, I heard the first rumors that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. That made me wonder even more about the purpose of his phone call.

His legacy will forever be mixed. On one hand is the brilliant teacher, tactician and motivator. In Indiana, he became bigger than the game, almost bigger than the university. He always was fascinated by Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and how big he was in the South. “I got a letter from Bryant,” he once told me, and all the envelope had as a return address was, ‘Bryant.’ That impressed the hell out of me.” Well, of course it did.

But then there’s the litany of chair-throwing, intimidation, coarseness, and all-around ugliness. I admit to being an apologist for him most of the time because whenever he got into trouble, Bob would go to great lengths to explain to me exactly what had happened from his perspective. Most of the time, but not always, it was enough for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. That earned me a lot of scorn from colleagues who hated him, but when I add up all the pluses and minuses, I wouldn’t change much. As I told him in the surprise phone call, we did have a good relationship.

One more phone call story.

One night I was sound asleep when the phone rang shortly after midnight. It was my friend Dave Kindred of The Washington Post. He said he was working on a late-breaking story about Knight and needed his phone number. Knowing that Bob liked and trusted Dave, I gave him the number and tried to go back to sleep.

The phone rang again 10 minutes later. It was Knight, furious that I had given Dave his number. He called me every name in the book, and some that weren’t, and then hung up on me with a slam of his phone.

I was still thinking about this when my office phone rang the next morning. I picked up the receiver and heard this: “This is your old friend Bob. That SOB from last night is gone. Now, what was it you wanted to talk about?”

As the old coach was helped off the floor and into a tunnel on Feb. 8, I knew only one thing for certain: We never will see the likes of Bobby Knight again.

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