They have been waiting nearly 20 years for this, since the day in September 2000 when Bob Knight stood on his front lawn as an enormous crowd of Indiana University students gathered and beseeched him to declare he wasn’t really fired and wasn’t going anywhere and still would be their coach.
It was all true, though. Knight had been dismissed by the IU administration and would not be back to coach the team in the 2000-01 season. The university found he had violated the zero-tolerance policy installed against him the prior spring and chose no longer to employ the state’s most famous and popular figure.
He would not be back on the IU campus until Saturday, when Indiana fans who longed for the opportunity merely to say thank you got their chance at halftime of the Hoosiers’ home game against Purdue.
The estrangement between Knight and the university where he became a legend and an icon and a Hall of Famer and a champion endured beyond the death of Myles Brand, the school president who had dismissed him; beyond the passing of Neil Reed, the former Hoosiers guard who had been struck by Knight during a practice session and whose experience helped lead to Knight’s punishment, and beyond changes in the athletic administration and board of trustees.
He made many public appearances in the state during those two decades, infamously at a Purdue fundraiser in February 2016 at the Indiana State Fairground in Indianapolis, the same year he also campaigned in Indiana for presidential candidate Donald Trump.
He heard myriad pleas from people close to him, people who loved him, to make his return to the university and give his people one more chance to applaud him. He declined. Until now.
They have been waiting nearly 11 years for this, since the day in September 2009 when he was elected to join the Indiana Athletics Hall of Fame. There were two months between that announcement and the induction ceremony, plenty of time for Knight to come to grips with the idea he would be returning to the campus where he still was revered.
He is in so many Halls of Fame, and this one covered the smallest universe. He is in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, the National College Basketball Hall of Fame, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. What’s one more? Except this one was different.
Former Hoosiers All-American A.J. Guyton wrote an open letter on Facebook asking Knight to put aside the resentment he felt toward the university. Guyton would be going into to the Hall that same night. Knight’s return would have overwhelmed the night for every other member of the class, but Guyton was willing to be disregarded on his big night if it meant his coach would come home.
“I feel the Indiana basketball community is torn,” Guyton wrote. “My loyalty is and has always been with Bob Knight. I attended IU because there was an opportunity to play (and) people said I couldn’t make it under Coach Knight. He didn’t overly recruit me, there was no press conference. He simply asked after my visit, ‘So are you coming to Indiana or not?’, as he gripped my shoulder tightly.
“‘Yes, sir,’ I replied. That was it!
“The turning point from deciding to go to Michigan State was Coach Knight’s one simple statement to me and my parents. ‘I can’t guarantee you’re going to play right away but you will have a fair opportunity to earn minutes, you will graduate in (four) years, you will leave here a better person, and there’s nothing I won’t do for you once you graduate.'”
Guyton wrote that he called on Knight on four occasions after he completed his studies at Indiana, and each time Knight was willing and able to fulfill the request.
Guyton then said he was extending Knight “a public invitation for you to do ME a favor, attend the induction ceremony.”
That was one time Knight was not willing to “do anything” for a former player.
They’ve been waiting nearly four years for this, since the night in November 2016 when Indiana staged a 35th anniversary celebration for the most improbable of Knight’s three national championship teams, the one that featured the most famous and talented player he ever coached, Isiah Thomas, but that had stumbled, at times, to a 21-9 regular-season record.
Eleven players showed up to be acclaimed at Assembly Hall, on the night IU was playing North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Thomas was there. Landon Turner, the gifted power forward who was paralyzed in an automobile accident just months after the Hoosiers claimed the 1981 NCAA championship.
Knight spoke privately in advance of the occasion to one of the reserves on that team, Phil Isenbarger, and conveyed a message. “As you might imagine, when you have a conversation with Coach Knight you do a lot of listening. What he said, what he wanted me to convey to everybody up here — and these were his exact words — he ‘could not have been more thankful or grateful for the opportunity to coach this group at Indiana University.'”
He declined to spend the evening with them, however.
It was worth the wait. A man famous for his stoicism, for his temper, for his intransigence, Knight laughed with joy as he was surrounded by scores of his former players during a Hoosiers reunion staged on the day of IU’s rivalry game against Purdue. Even longtime rival Gene Keady showed up to applaud his return.
And, eventually, Knight was moved to tears.
It’s doubtful anyone had ever seen Knight cry in public. With former greats Quinn Buckner and Randy Wittman and Mike Woodson nearby, with players fighting through screens to embrace him, with the love of the Indiana fans pouring from above, cascading down the steep sideline seats at Assembly Hall, he held out for a while but not for long.
His health is obviously not great. He walked gingerly out of the tunnel, accompanied by several former players. Knight did not speak to the crowd, except to engage the sideline nearest to ESPN announcer Dick Vitale in a chant of “Defense!”
Afterward, Wittman and Woodson spoke with reporters to tell what the moment had meant to them. Woodson called it “one of the best highs I’ve had in a long time.” Wittman chose not to explain what finally broke this impasse.
“But he’s here,” Wittman said. “I think a lot has transpired over the last couple of years. He’s moved back here. He’s happy back here. And I just think at this point in his life it was time to not only let the fans see him and respond to him, but as we saw today, he loves the fans. And he responded to them. . . . It was one of the greatest and emotional things for me personally.
“I don’t know if we’ll see something like this again in college basketball that he came back. This is where he belongs. He moved back here. I told him, when I called him I said, you’re back here for a reason, because this is where you belong. And I said you need to come back with us. We love coming back and seeing each other in these reunions. And I just told him it doesn’t mean anything to us anymore if you’re not a part of it. Because we came here because of him. It wasn’t because of the weather.”
The ice melted at last on Saturday, even though it was freezing outside.
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