Personal Foul: One-On-One With Bob Knight

That time <em>IM</em> editor emerita Deborah Paul interviewed IU’s basketball coach.
Okay, so, I admit it. I’m preoccupied with Bob Knight. At IU games I sit on the sidelines and stare at him, waiting for the fur to fly. I write him letters requesting interviews, and he writes me back. No, my wife’s not interested in having your readers meet her; yes, I’ll cooperate on a piece about Jay Edwards’s drug problem.
We came face-to-face once, in 1982, wherein I hammered away at such important issues as whether or not women should work. At that time he not only offered his opinion, he gave me a little unsolicited personal advice about my own home-vs.-work situation. Needless to say, those choice words never saw print.
I always swore that if given the chance to interview him again, I’d be a little tougher and wear taller shoes. This time, my patent leather pumps sported 3-inch heels. The tough part, however, is a matter of opinion.
On the early-morning, one-hour drive to Bloomington, I stopped at a Hardee’s and two doughnut shops to visit the ladies’ room. In the parking lot outside Assembly Hall, I dried my palms on the air-conditioning vents and reviewed my notes. And then, my high heels and I clicked our way up the deserted ramp into the Basketball Office.
Once inside, we took our positions on two facing card-table chairs—he tipping his back with power and finesse, me perched on mine like a bird on a wire. He was Michael Jordan with a home-court advantage. I was the Flying Wallendas without a net.
Discounting a few profane interludes, things went smoothly at first, and we covered sufficient ground to produce this issue’s cover article. And then it happened: the eggshells I trod cracked and then crumbled; the minefield that is Knight’s mind began to erupt.
“When did the sport coat give way to the sweater?” I asked. “Why did Bobby become Bob?” Questions hardly so nervy as to provoke the explosion that followed.
As his face reddened and his voice rose, I kidded offhandedly about “knowing you’d yell at me” sooner or later.
Banter to me, however, was intolerably snotty impertinence to him, setting off a blowup of nuclear proportions. Like an enraged lion, he leapt from his chair, his nose less than one inch from mine. “YELLING?” he bellowed, with a force that sizzled the skin on my face and sent the ashes blowing to the floor. “I’LL SHOW YOU BLEEPING YELL-ING.” An inexplicable 200-decibel tirade of four-letter words and accusations (“Why would you bring up that bleep-bleep? You bleeping bleepers are all alike—just like that bleeper Feinstein …”) followed, with me stuck to my seat like gum to the sole of a shoe. I was Isiah Thomas without my teammates, a hunkered-down ref without my stripes.
Shaking off the shock, I prodded him to resume the interview, an offer to which he responded with a heavy pat on the shoulder that signaled the door. Notes and tape recorders flying, I half-tripped in that direction: a drunken cowboy tossed out of a Western saloon.
Alone in my car, I flipped down the visor to examine what remained of the skin on my face. My curly hair had become straight clumps that hung in damp disarray; I was Moses after he saw the Burning Bush. My heart in my throat, I lambasted myself for only keeping half my promise with my high-heeled shoes.
I realize now, however, that it wasn’t lack of toughness at all that kept me from bolting from my chair and shouting, “Don’t you DARE scream in MY face, you raving lunatic!” What kept me from doing it was 40 years of human decency—a lifetime of learning what’s proper behavior and what’s loutish theatrics.
You’ll easily recognize me on the IU sidelines this basketball season. I’ll be the one with the curls in her hair whose eyes are steadily cast on the players on court, confident that while they might relax their defenses on occasion, I really hadn’t done so after all.