Friday, December 29, 2023

A Complicated Knight

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The NFL was my first sports love.  As I was coming of age, my football team, the one in Washington D.C., was consistently among the best - even the very best, several times over.  It is hard to imagine now.  The relics I retain from that era seem as much magical fiction as historical fact.  But it all happened, “Once upon a time”, as all good stories begin.

A close “2” and “2a” to the NFL were the NHL and college basketball.  I owe my love of hockey to my dear Uncle Wayne.  He dedicated so much time taking his son and me to Capitals games.  I’m eternally grateful.  Every nephew should have an Uncle Wayne.

As for college basketball, my timing was impeccable.  I was nine when Patrick Ewing and Georgetown lost to Michael Jordan and North Carolina in the national championship, 10 when N.C. State upset Houston’s Phi Slama Jama, 11 when Georgetown beat Houston to win the national championship, and 12 when they lost to Villanova.  I saw Ralph Sampson, Chris Mullin, James Worthy, Tim Duncan, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill.  I worshipped Terps such as Adrian Branch, Juan Dixon, Joe Smith, Walt Williams and Len Bias, my first sports hero. 

Unlike the NFL, NCAA basketball games were on every night.  A game between giants on a random Tuesday was a fabulous distraction from my horrendous attempt to flirt with the cute girl at lunch earlier in the day or the upcoming math test I had no interest in studying for.  Gleaning a few new moves to try at the next day’s basketball practice was emotionally safer than forays into adolescent infatuation and far more appealing than algebra.

After Maryland icons Gary Williams and Lefty Driesel, and long-time Duke head coach and Maryland nemesis Mike Krzyzewski, Bobby Knight was the college basketball coach who most preoccupied my mind.  The curiosity of Knight was multi-faceted: a brilliant basketball coach who won over 70 percent of his games and three national championships at Indiana, and an equally indisputable hot head who coached and seemingly lived like a 24/7 drill sergeant (hence his nickname “The General”). 

When a friend texted me last week that Knight had passed away, several superlatives and criticisms flooded my mind.  Ultimately, I managed but a two-word reply: Complicated dude.  

Knight won nearly 900 games.  He hung a bunch of banners.  He made Indiana basketball a national power.  His structured and disciplined approach and demanding coaching style turned many teenage boys into strong young men well-equipped for life.

Knight was also a bully.  He tossed chairs across the court and feigned use of a whip on players as a motivational technique.  He could be verbally and emotionally abusive.  And in the case of former player Neil Reed, there was documented physical abuse.  He was so spiteful over his dismissal from Indiana after an incident with a student that he shunned the university for years and skipped a 2016 reunion for his undefeated 1976 team. 

Selfish.  Generous.  Mean.  Kind.  Highly effective.  Self-destructive.  It was all simultaneously true of Bobby Knight.  His traits were impossible to reconcile.  In a way, he embodied our complex world of coexisting contradictions. 

After his death, social media was filled with positive stories.  It was as if Knight’s supporters felt compelled to influence the narrative of his legacy, counterbalance the “yeah buts” and passively apologize for his significant shortcomings.  But Knight was certainly self-aware.  He had to have moments of self-examination where the broader impact of his behavior was considered.  That he never evolved and never yielded, despite a world yearning for him to do so, is disappointing.  It left qualified praise as the tone of his farewell. 

And that’s a shame.  But it was Knight’s choice.  There was – is - another way.  Coaches like John Wooden, Dean Smith, Bill Walsh, Mike Krzyzewski and Joe Gibbs followed a different, and more admirable leadership model.  Like Knight, they all won big, built a culture, benefitted a community and reached young men in meaningful ways.  But they did it with a grace that Knight never grasped and absent a complicated legacy. 

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