I always hated Bobby Knight. Let’s face it—it was easy to do, being in my position as a Purdue fan and all. And 30 years ago—February 23, 1985—when he decided to throw the chair across the court during that Purdue game, this lone act epitomized his very evilness and made me dislike him even more. The audacity of this coach to physically inject himself into this contest was reprehensible.
But all these years later, a conversation with author Joan Mellen has me on the cusp of rethinking my stance. When contacted about this anniversary, she was surprised. She couldn’t believe it had been so long ago and didn’t understand why anyone would want to mark such an occasion.
Mellen wrote a book about Knight in which she spent the better part of two years with the coach in the late 1980s. She was privy to a side of him hardly anyone ever saw except those in his inner circle. She saw the humanitarian streak many had heard about but couldn’t believe existed because of the way he conducted himself in public.
In her book Bob Knight: His Own Man, Mellen, a longtime professor at Temple University, was given unprecedented access to a man she calls a “genius.” She was impressed with him the very first time she saw him, while at a basketball clinic. “Knight told the coaches, ‘I never ask from a player what he can’t do,’” she said. “I was very impressed with that. It was a very down-to-earth approach.”
But when reflecting on Knight’s actions of that February day, Mellen said: “It’s really too bad that all these years later, [people remember].” Being from Philadelphia, she doesn’t realize people around here, a lot of people around here, do remember the event. It is part of our basketball history, like it or not.
Mellen described Knight’s reaction to the chair toss by saying “he saw [the resulting backlash of attention] as a distraction. It was an intemperate moment amongst many temperate moments for him.” She later added, “Of course it’s not right to throw a chair across the court. Listen, things happen. Everybody makes a mistake.”
And there it was. The moment of forgiveness hit me. After three decades, I could let it go and say to myself, “Yeah, 30 years ago Bob Knight threw a chair across the court in a game against Purdue, and it was freaking awesome!”
“Bob Knight is not the type of person who explains himself,” said Mellen. “He figures everybody should know.” Bingo. Nail on the head.
Once he wasn’t coaching against Purdue anymore, my stance against Knight softened. I enjoy his color-commentating during games, and I think he has done a fine job playing a version of himself in the occasional commercial. These have given him a kinder, gentler persona.
Mellen has always seen Knight that way.
Unsolicited, she offered two stories that demonstrate Knight’s nobility. There’s the time she was sitting in practice and a former player, already graduated, came over to her and said he lost his scholarship but continued to play for the Hoosiers despite footing the bill. “When he was done, Knight gave him a check for the full amount of his education.”
Then there was the time when Mellen was under the weather and Knight arranged for her to be taken to the hospital and undergo a battery of tests. Knight paid the bill for the services. “He was a very honest and good man,” said Mellen. “He was the definition of the right thing to do. He tried to define what was right.”
But just as the coach tried to define what was right, he was an occasional poster child for just the opposite, and Mellen admits the coach was a little unrestrained.
“Bob Knight has standards,” she said. “The man has standards.” She went on to say that Knight is an “absolutely extraordinary human being. I hope they [IU fans] look back and appreciate him.”
Well, I for one appreciate all of his shenanigans the years he coached Indiana. He always treated Purdue and its fans as the enemy, so he was always an easy target. I concur with Mellen when she said, “I look back on the whole thing with fondness.”
But 30 years? Really? Seems like yesterday.