THE FIRST TIME I sat down and conversed with Bob Knight, he was naked.
I mean: BUCK. ASS. NAKED.
It was 1979, I was a sophomore in college working for the school newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, and I had just been put on the basketball beat. Exciting, of course, but a little intimidating, too. For years, I had heard about the boorish side of Bob Knight, especially when it came to his dealings with reporters. So I was a little skittish—and over prepared—when the sports information director told me and another reporter, Dan Barreiro, then with Louisville’s Courier-Journal, to wait for Knight in his office.
After a couple of minutes, he entered. He’d just showered. He was completely naked. And he seemed totally disinterested in the idea of putting on some clothes.
He plopped down in an oversized red leather chair and said, “OK, what do you want?”
I told him I was there to introduce myself, and I wanted to make the case that the student newspaper had as much right to attend practices as folks like Bob Hammel, then with Bloomington’s Herald-Telephone (now The Herald-Times).
We talked, and he scratched. Seriously, he just kept scratching—down there, let’s just say. It was as if Barreiro and I weren’t even there. Was he trying to throw me off my game, intimidate me? I assumed so.
And guess what: It worked. I was thrown off. I was intimidated. I liked to think of myself as a hard-ass, smart-guy New Yorker, but my heart was in my throat a good part of the time. Still, we had a decent discussion. We reached agreement on some access issues, and before I left, he told me this: “If you have a story that needs a comment from me, don’t be like all these other pussies who are afraid to come to me. If you need something, you know where to find me.”
I took that to heart.
That was my first mistake.
So our relationship was pretty good for a couple of months. I wrote an Isiah Thomas piece that I was told he liked quite a bit. He may have had a reputation for being an ogre and all the rest, but we were cool—or so I thought.
Then I had an idea, which, at age 19, seemed like a good one. In retrospect, not so much, but at the time it at least seemed like it could be an interesting feature.
See, one year earlier, Knight had dismissed three IU players from the team for allegedly smoking weed at the Alaska Shootout (an NCAA Division I basketball tournament hosted annually at University of Alaska Anchorage from 1978 to 2017; the women’s tournament still exists). So I had the bright idea of doing a one-year-later type of piece. I reached two of the three players; one appreciated Knight’s tough love, and the other was still bitter about how the whole thing went down.
I told our adult journalism advisor, Mr. Siddons, that I was going to approach Coach Knight with my brilliant story idea and try to get some quotes. Siddons did everything but tie me to a word processor to keep me from going back to Assembly Hall. Siddons knew Knight, and he knew how Knight was going to react to this story.
But I remembered Knight’s words about not being, um, soft about coming to him when a story required his comment. I thought I was doing the right thing. Maybe I was.
The General wasn’t having it. Almost as soon as I explained the story, Knight went bananas, screaming at me, veins popping out of his neck, loudly wondering why anybody would give a damn about some misbehaving players from last season. And in retrospect, I can’t completely blame him, but hell, I was 19. I was learning how to be a journalist. As Knight was upbraiding me, I saw Isiah Thomas out of the corner of my eye, laughing uproariously. For once, Coach was yelling at somebody else, not the players.
So, um, that didn’t go well. And then it got worse.
The next game was at Kentucky. I was in the meal room getting something to eat beforehand when I noticed all the IU managers whispering and pointing at me. I sensed something was up.
I wasn’t wrong.
After the game, several managers stopped me outside the locker room door and told me I didn’t have access. Not after this game. Not after any game. Never again.
At the post-game press conference, I asked Knight a question.
“Anybody else got a question?” he answered, blowing me off.
This became a little dance we did at every press conference. I would ask a question, and he would say, “Anybody else”?
Knight had a small but steady number of journalists he liked and respected—Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, Paul Daugherty, to name a few. But most, he didn’t have time for. I became a member of the latter group.
But all these years later, I just have one question: Why did he show up buckass naked the first time we met? What kind of mind game is that? Couldn’t he even find a small washcloth, for crying out loud?
But that was Knight, always trying to get the upper hand, make others uncomfortable, intimidate, bully even, especially when it came to journalists. He liked to say that we all learn to write in the second grade, and then we move on to more useful things. Which always made me wonder, When did coaching basketball become akin to curing cancer or rocket science?
I’m 1,000-percent sure Knight wasn’t trying to teach me a lesson about journalism, but I learned a few nonetheless from dealing with him: Stand up for yourself. Don’t put up with any bullshit. Ask smart questions, even if they won’t be answered. Be prepared to defend your point of view. And be willing to challenge coaches and athletes when necessary.
Thanks, Coach. I think.
A longer version of Kravitz’s Bob Knight memorial can be accessed via bobkravitz.com.