Monday, January 11, 2016

The Dark Knight of the Soul

Last week Indiana University celebrated the 40th anniversary of its undefeated 1976 national
championship men’s basketball team. The players and their families returned to Bloomington to receive the love and appreciation of one of college basketball’s greatest fan bases. And that team certainly deserves adulation. Not only was it the last undefeated college team in NCAA Division One basketball, it could have easily been undefeated for two straight years. One of IU’s stars, Scott May, broke his arm late in the prior season, and that injury most likely cost IU its only loss of the 1975 campaign, a two-point defeat by Kentucky in the NCAA regional finals.

So it was a great night for one of college basketball’s great traditional powers. But someone was missing.

Coach Bob Knight.

If you follow college basketball, you know that IU fired Knight a few months before the start of the 2000-2001 basketball season. In the spring of 2000, a video from one of IU’s practices from several years earlier began circulating, showing Knight grabbing one of his players (Neil Reed) by the throat. As a result, IU president Myles Brand placed Knight on a “zero tolerance” order of no further physical contact with student-athletes. But in September of 2000, an IU student claimed that Knight grabbed him by the arm and scolded him for yelling, “Hey Knight.” That was enough for Brand, and Knight was gone.

Before I say more, I need to offer some “full disclosure” about my feelings toward Bobby Knight. I grew up in Kentucky, and part of that birthright is a love of basketball. In high school I was a manager for our basketball team, and the head coach my first two years was a disciple of Knight in many respects, so I came to learn a lot about the technical side of basketball from him. As a basketball nerd, I fell in love with Knight. I used to love to watch old VHS tapes of his clinics. And I read everything I could about him. A Season on the Brink by John Feinstein, Playing for Knight by Steve Alford (my personal favorite), and the lesser known BobKnight – His Own Man by Joan Mellen.

Not only was Knight a great coach, he was also serious about coaching genuine student-athletes. His kids went to class, they graduated, and they stayed out of trouble. And Knight didn’t cheat, in stark contrast to some of the people involved with my beloved Kentucky Wildcats. And by all accounts, once a player graduated, Knight would do anything he could for him.

So I was a huge fan of Knight. For a long time one of my prized possessions was a letter I received from him in response to a letter I wrote to him expressing my admiration (he answers all the mail he receives from fans). And one of my sports fantasies was to be invited to go fly-fishing with Knight! Needless to say, this love for Knight was much to the chagrin of my fellow Wildcat fans!

Imagine my surprise, then, when after reading Knight’s long awaited autobiography, Knight: My Story, my feelings for him completely changed. And I’m not exactly sure I can pinpoint one reason why. To some extent I suppose it had to do with the way he discussed the Neil Reed controversy. I don’t want to rehash this – you can YouTube for it and decide if you think Knight choked Reed (which is what Reed claimed), grabbed him briefly by the chest (which is what Knight claimed), or grabbed him briefly by the throat (which is what I think happened).

Knight intimates in his autobiography that tape was tampered with (“what was shown was fuzzy and greatly magnified, and unexplainedly blurred in the central area.” p. 312). I don’t buy that for a second. But he was happy to have the tape released, because – as he declares in his autobiography – “I knew it couldn’t do anything but absolve me, because I knew I had never choked anyone” (p. 311).

Except Knight had choked someone, and told the story himself, and thought the story was funny.

In Bob Knight – His Own Man, Knight recounts an episode with a player he coached at West Point named Schrage. Schrage missed a free throw, which Army rebounded.

I call time, and I have him by the throat. I can remember my fingers slipping off his Adam’s apple or I would have killed him. I had his shirt in my fist in the time-out and I said,
“I want to tell you something. Some day do you want to be a ____ general?
“Yes Sir.”
“You’ve got no chance being a ____ second lieutenant if you shoot that ______ one more time. Do you understand?” (p. 102)

If Knight was willing to tell a story about choking a player to the point he could feel his Adam’s apple – and think it is funny! – I have a hard time imagining that Knight did not put his hands on his players many times. The reality is that in previous generations, coaches were often verbally and physically abusive to players, and no one thought anything of it. I’m not saying this to defend or excuse any abuse, but just to provide a context for what coaches like Knight did. I  must say that I never saw a coach do what Knight did in the video with Reed, but I am sure some of you have.

The point is that rather than just simply say, “Yes, I grabbed Neil Reed in a moment of anger, and I realize that grabbing a kid even near the throat is not a great move,” Knight couldn’t do that. And if there is one trait that emerged in the course of reading his autobiography, it was the abiding belief that Knight always knows just a little bit more than anyone else. And if that is what you think, then admitting you are wrong is the most difficult thing in the world.

But none of this is the main point of this post (hey I’m a preacher and I love basketball, so I tend to go on once I get started!). The main point has to do with bitterness, with the poison of resentment, and the darkness it brings to the soul.

Because Knight was so famous, when he was terminated by IU, he undoubtedly felt a keen sense of painful and public humiliation. And considering how much he had done for the university, he must have felt betrayed as well. No one likes to be fired. It is a deeply wounding experience, especially when you feel like you have poured your heart into the job, only to be treated unfairly from your point of view.

But that was sixteen years ago. And despite the fact that many officials from IU repeatedly asked him to come to the celebration last week, despite the desire of his players for him to return and share with them in the amazing record they accomplished, and despite the loyal affection of the majority of IU fans, Knight refused to return to Bloomington.

Though from a Christian point of view it is unhealthy to nurse personal grudges, I can understand why Knight would still be angry with Myles Brand and Neil Reed (both of whom have tragically passed away). But neither those two individuals, nor even the handful of trustees that agreed to the decision to fire him, are the entirety of the Indiana University basketball tradition. That legacy represents the dozens of staff and administrators, the hundreds of players, and the thousands of fans, who have converged to make IU great, and by refusing to overcome his bitterness against a few, Knight has severed himself from so many who wish to embrace him.

Maya Angelou once wrote, “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host.” And just as cancer diminishes the body, bitterness shrivels the soul. It is a sad spectacle to observe the coach I once idolized disintegrate before my very eyes.

Proverbs 14:10 says, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” Only Bob Knight truly knows what it is going on in his heart. It seems to me that someone who prides himself on being so tough has in fact succumbed to one of the greatest weaknesses of all. But he doesn’t have to answer to me. The main thing here is for me (and for you) to constantly be on guard against the insidious and suicidal temptation of bitterness.

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