Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Ben Smith: Knight leaves on own terms

Published: February 5, 2008 6:00 a.m.
Fort Wayne Journal Gazette

Bob Knight makes a gestures after his introduction as Texas Tech's new basketball coach in this March 23, 2001 file photo, in Lubbock, Texas.

Maybe it had to happen this way. When has the man ever been what we thought he was, ever been consistent in anything but the way he consistently surprised us and awed us and charmed us and appalled us?

And so here it came across the wires Monday night, Bob Knight walking away, Bob Knight quitting in mid-stream of a season that rapidly was turning sour. He had his 900th win (902, actually, but who’s counting?). He had his place in both history and infamy. Why wait until it made sense?

Forty-two seasons he’s been at this now, and he’s never not done it his way, to both his glory and torment. Why stop now?

Texas Tech chancellor Kent Hance told The Associated Press that Knight was tired. “I think Bob is through with coaching. I think he got to the point where it wasn’t fun for him,” Hance said.

Could be.

Weariness does come immediately to mind, since Knight is 67 years old. But three decades of observing the man make me suspect something more.

Let’s take his team, first.

His Red Raiders are 12-8 overall and 3-3 in conference right now, and Texas just eviscerated ’em by 26. And so maybe he senses it was just, you know, time. His son Pat is in the wings, ripe to step in. There’s still a month left to steady the boat in time for March. And, hell, what’s 905 or 910 or 915 wins do for Bob Knight that 902 hasn’t?

Former U.S. Pan American Games coach Bobby Knight yells at guard Isiah Thomas (12), of Indiana, during U.S.-Brazil basketball action in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in this July 6, 1979 file photo

And so … off he’ll go. And we’ll know why only if he decides to tell us. And after 42 years in which he’s often been his own worst enemy – though neither he nor his cult of Bobbyheads would ever admit it – he’s earned the right to quit without explanation.

Without him college basketball will be poorer and less loud, not to say less thoughtful. No one had a more clear moral vision of where his game should be going; when he flayed the NCAA, it usually had it coming. No one did the right thing more stubbornly or with firmer conviction.

And yet …

And yet, doing the right thing, and also doing it right , was a skill that forever eluded him. Demanding discipline, he never mastered it himself. Unerring in his rectitude, he never understood that no one, not even him, is ever unerring.

And so all the bullying and shrieking and head games. And so the endless, unwinnable wars with officials and university presidents and a media animal that never questioned his knowledge of the game, even if he always insisted we did. And so the unraveling at Indiana, a Greek tragedy in which Knight finally ran up against an ego as inflated as his own, and which thus could not have ended any other way.

In 30 years in this business, that was the saddest thing it’s ever been my misfortune to cover. I’ll remember the Day of the Chair, when Knight came very close to inciting a riot in Assembly Hall. I’ll remember the night he fired the starter’s pistol at Russ Brown of the Louisville Courier Journal, and the time he talked fishing after the Purdue game, and mostly all the times he coached the game off its feet.

Genius, benefactor, bully. Saint, sinner, hypocrite. A man of many parts, not all of them healthy.

Last time I saw him, just a few weeks ago, he brought his young grandson into the postgame with him, and it was a revelation. He bounced the toddler on his knee. His voice was soft and loving. He told the child, gently, that if he didn’t want to say anything to the media, why, that was exactly the way Grandpa would advise him to go.

Of course, the next day it was all over ESPN that he’d cussed out a reporter in front of his grandson – and never mind the kid was too young to know the difference. And so again the moment backfired on him.

I’m just guessing here, but maybe that’s when he decided to hang it up.

Or not, of course. Or not.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by e-mail at bensmith@jg.net ; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648 or at the "Ben Smith" topic of "The Board" at www.journalgazette.net.

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