M aybe we should start with the chair itself, four metal legs riveted to a piece of molded plastic, which was red, in keeping with the school’s color scheme. The “bench” for the Indiana basketball team was no bench at all. It was an assemblage of these plastic chairs. And this particular chair had the misfortune of belonging to the team’s combustible coach.
It started off on a linear path that afternoon, sliding across the floor of the Assembly Hall court. But then, like a stone skipped on an Indiana creek, it darted abruptly and began curling toward the section underneath the basket, occupied by fans with physical disabilities.
Indiana would go on to lose the game to Purdue that day, 72-63. It was one of 14 defeats the Hoosiers would eat that season. But no one, of course, recalls the score or the game’s impact on the Big Ten standings—the conference being both “big” and “ten” back then. The Indiana-Purdue game, held on Feb. 23, 1985, 30 years ago to the day, is recalled for that damn chair and the man who turned it into a projectile.
Far from courtside, safely out of the path of hurled furniture, I was in the stands that Saturday when Bobby Knight staged one of the signature acts of his singular coaching career. I was in middle school, and what I remember most vividly is the reaction of the crowd. There were no gasps of horror that a grown man, age 44 at the time, had snapped— “lost his persimmons” as I distinctly recall a radio caller term it the following week—and chucked a chair in the manner of a pro wrestling heel. After the initial shock there was no outrage. There were boos, but they were directed at the officials, the three blind mice whose incompetence had occasioned this act.
A freshman trombone player in the IU band, Charlie Miller was sitting courtside that day. “It was surreal,” says Miller, now an editor at The Post-Standard in Syracuse. “But his throwing the chair was the affirmation we were seeking. See, it was a bulls--- call.”
MAYOR ED KOCH holds a ceremony to announce that “New York, New York,” the song made famous by Frank Sinatra, will become the official anthem of New York City.
Mostly, there was cheering and vocal approval. Knight was The General and he was just standing up for his troops. I can say with relative certainty that I was among those applauding. This was great stuff, a cartoon come to life. We had been wronged—those weren’t fouls—and our intrepid leader was just being demonstrative in highlighting the great injustice. Knight may have been an ungovernable coach; but he was our ungovernable coach.
Knight’s demand for perfection, his unbending will, his unwillingness to suffer fools? It was what made him so successful at his job. If this was an uglier manifestation of those traits, well, so be it. That’s how he rolled. Or skidded, anyway.
Ejected from the game, Knight walked across the court—not far from where the chair had landed—and disappeared into the courtside tunnels. Long after he had disappeared, the collective chant continued to echo. “BOB-BEE. BOB-BEE. BOB-BEE.”
A s with so many stories, context is important here. In the mid-1980s, Indiana was a—the?—dynastic program in college basketball. The Hoosiers and their young, fiery, complex coach should have won the NCAA title in 1975. They did win in ’76, the last college team go to through a season without a defeat. And then Indiana won again in ’81.
Back then, like pizza, even when the Hoosiers were bad, they were still pretty darn good. The 1983-84 season was supposed to be the equivalent of a rebuilding year. But with a silky locally-harvested freshman (Steve Alford), darting off picks and defiantly refusing to miss shots, and with a seven-foot red-headed German center (the spectacularly named Uwe Blab), improving his low-post play, Indiana nearly stole the Big Ten title. Then in the NCAA tournament, the Hoosiers knocked off top-seeded North Carolina, stifling the Tar Heels’ best player in what would be his last college game. (Michael Jordan would rebound from that disappointment.)
Indiana went on to lose in the Elite Eight, but it augured well for the following season. And hope was stoked further in the summer of 1984, when Knight coached the U.S. Olympic basketball team. This was yet more certification in Hoosier Nation that Knight was the best amateur coach on the planet and that Bloomington represented the center of the hoops universe. Armed with that honeyed shooting touch, Alford made it through a series of cuts and joined Jordan as the prime shooting guards on the team. The U.S. would win the gold medal.
At the start of the 1984-85 season, the Hoosiers were poised to compete for the national title. sports illustrated placed Indiana at No. 5 in the preseason rankings; other polls had the team as high as No. 3. Mostly on account of a soft pre-conference schedule, the Hoosiers started 11-3. And then it all went to hell.
The team never coalesced. Knight was short-fused in the best of times. With no summer off to go fishing, with an underperforming team (and with his first marriage breaking up), Knight was a Roman candle. Plus, the losses mounted.
This was right around the time the movie Hoosiers was being filmed, and Knight could have kept up with Gene Hackman’s Coach Dale character, motivational ploy for motivational ploy. He was good cop one day, bad cop the next. He kicked the team out of practice; he ran them until they vomited. Sometimes, he grabbed fistfuls of jersey when yelling at players; other times he remained silent for the entire halftime, letting the team reflect on its personal and collective inadequacy. He benched starters, sometimes for entire games. In one contest against Illinois, Knight started Blab and four freshman, exiling even Alford to the bench, a punishment for a perceived lack of defense. He kicked the team’s leading rebounder, Mike Giomi, off the team. (Two other players, Marty Simmons and Delray Brooks, would eventually transfer.)
By the time Indiana hosted Purdue on Feb. 23, the team’s fabric had frayed and the players were wearying of Knight. In the locker room before the game, Blab sidled up to Dan Dakich, then a senior guard. “Danny, Coach Knight is going to get thrown out of the game today,” Blab predicted.
“How do you know that?” responded Dakich, now a popular Indianapolis radio host and ESPN commentator.
After a nasty winter, Bloomington was starting to thaw and this was an unseasonably warm Saturday. Blab had noticed that Knight wasn’t wearing his trademark sport coat, but rather, a red-and-white striped short-sleeved shirt more suited to an outdoor activity. “Look how he’s dressed,” said Blab.
“I was like, ‘Huh?’” recalls Dakich.
Four minutes into that Purdue game, with Indiana already trailing, Knight complained about a foul call against Alford. Fifty-eight seconds later, he erupted again when the officials called Simmons for a foul. On the ensuing inbounds play, another Indiana player, Daryl Thomas, was called for a (questionable) foul. Knight cursed audibly and was handed a technical foul by the nearest ref, Fred Jaspers. So far, it was intensely unpleasant, but business as usual.
WHITNEY HOUSTON releases her self-titled debut album, which has a slow commercial start but eventually produces three No. 1 singles in 1985: “How Will I Know,” “Saving All My Love for You” and “Greatest Love of All.”
As Purdue’s Steve Reid stepped to the line to shoot the technical free throw, Knight was still fuming. Muttering and stomping, he wheeled around. “You don’t really see this [on the video], but I swear I did,” says Dakich. “He went to grab his sportcoat and he realized he didn’t have it on. So he grabbed the chair.” Which is to say: Uwe Blab had it pegged.
Unencumbered by sleeves, Knight gripped the chair with one hand on the top and another at the base. He took a step, straddling the sidelines, one foot on the court, the other out of bounds. Then he let fly. It was less of a football throw than it was the motion of a sailor hurling an anchor overboard. “Looky here, looky here,” the broadcaster intoned. “Bobby Knight just threw his chair clear across the free throw lane.”
No one quite knew what to do. Those on the Indiana bench have claimed it happened so fast that they couldn’t react. But they weren’t exactly paralyzed by shock and surprise. Dakich was standing on the sidelines waiting to check into the game. He has seen photographs and was struck by how nonchalant he looked. “The truth of the matter?” says Dakich. “He used to throw those red chairs all the time in practice.” So much so that Dakich and Randy Wittman (an Indiana teammate, now coaching the Washington Wizards) once took inventory. “I think his record was 52 one day. He kept firing them against the wall.”
The 17,000 or so fans, we were momentarily stunned. So were those watching at home. In the course of reporting his bestselling book Season on the Brink, John Feinstein spoke with Knight’s 81-year-old mother. Hazel Knight was home in Ohio watching on TV that day. She simply said, “Oh, Bobby, oh, no.”
Jaspers, London Bradley and Phil Bova assessed Knight his third technical foul and ejected him. The three officials had worked together as a crew that season. During this interval, they made constant eye contact. Let’s just stay in control. “You always prepare for the unexpected, but this was a new one,” says Bova, who was missing the 16th birthday of his daughter, Shelly, to officiate the game. “We just wanted to administer everything correctly. That was our biggest concern as a crew.”
Meanwhile, Reid had placed the ball down near the free throw line and run to the corner of the court, as if to retrieve the chair. It seemed like an odd impulse, and when Indiana players later watched tape of the game, they thought Reid was showing them up. “We should’ve slugged him,” said one former player. But you can hardly fault Reid; one doesn’t exactly prepare for a moment like this. Recalling that moment today, Reid says, “If you look at the video my initial reaction was to go get the chair and bring it back to the bench. My dad always taught me to help out the officials, you may get brownie points with them, so my first reaction was to grab the chair.” (Reid was a 90% foul shooter but was sufficiently shaken that he missed three of his six free throws.)
The officials summoned Indiana’s athletic director, Ralph Floyd, the man who was, notionally anyway, Knight’s boss. Floyd walked from his seat to the bench and tried to subdue Knight. “He says, ‘Phil, you didn’t eject Coach Knight, did you?’” recalls Bova. “I said, ‘Yes, we did, Mr. Floyd. His behavior warranted ejection.’ That was a no-brainer.”
Cult hit coming-of-age movie THE BREAKFAST CLUB premieres at No. 3 in the box office, behind Beverly Hills Cop and Witness.
Check on YouTube and note the full-throated approval as Knight departed. The band played the fight song and the cheerleaders led cheers, as if this were any other break in the action. Some fans made a touchdown sign. Others began throwing coins, one of them pelting Gene Keady’s wife, Pat, in the head. (Reid would later suggest that the fans likely figured, If the coach could throw a chair, what’s the harm in throwing a few nickels?) There was not exactly media outrage either. The TV broadcasters yukked, echoing Blab’s prognostication, “He came dressed to play golf. Maybe he’ll go do it now!...I’m just glad nobody was in that chair!”
Something resembling order was eventually restored, but the remaining 35 minutes of play that followed smacked of anti-climax. With the top two Indiana assistants, Jim Crews and Royce Waltman, co-coaching, the Hoosiers would lose still another game. Meanwhile, Knight met with Floyd and University president, John Ryan, in the locker room. “He was in tears,” Floyd would later tell Feinstein. “He knew he had made a mistake. He understood what he had done.”
This being a time predating texts and email, Knight’s concerned friends began to call him. Digger Phelps, then the Notre Dame coach, proposed driving down from South Bend and meeting Knight in Indianapolis. “I worry he’s going to go out like MacArthur did,” Phelps told Feinstein. “One day, the president is going to say, ‘General, enough. Come home. You are relieved of your command.’”
Four winters earlier, Frank Deford had written the seminal SI piece on Knight, “The Rabbit Hunter,” which in central Indiana at the time was considered required reading. In the piece, Deford quotes Pete Newell, the former Cal coach and a mentor to Knight, as saying: “There are times Bobby comes so close to self-destructing.” Which echoed the sentiments of Edwin Cady, a professor who chaired the committee that recommended Knight’s hiring at Indiana in 1971. Cady told Deford: “He’s in a race now between overcoming immaturity and disaster.”
In the retelling, Knight lost the race that day. This moment marked Knight’s downfall, one part Woody Hayes, one part King Lear. But, really, this was only a blip, more farce than tragedy—“Bobby being Bobby,” we would say today.
The immediate fallout was almost laughably minimal. The next day, Indiana released a curiously-worded statement of apology attributed to Knight. “I do not think my action in the Purdue game was in any way necessary or appropriate. No one realizes that more than I do.” Indiana did not punish Knight, leaving it instead to the Big Ten to mete out what, by definitional courtesy, we’ll call discipline. The commissioner, Wayne Duke, announced that Knight was suspended by the Big Ten conference for…one game.
Beyond the toadying administrators, technology was Knight’s friend too. Imagine today the spectacle of a prominent coach throwing a chair across a floor mid-game. We’d have a GIF by the next TV timeout. By halftime the video would be viralling around the Internet at escape velocity. Inevitably it would be conferred a shorthand—#L’Affaire Chair, #Chairghazi. Hot takes would dominate the next 24-hour cycle. In 1985, there was none of that. By the time the clip made it to the sports segment of the news-at-11 shows, passion had cooled.
A week after “the chair incident” as we all benignly called it, Phil Bova officiated another Indiana game. Knight behaved as though nothing had happened. That summer, Bova conducted a weeklong camp near his home in Cleveland for novice basketball officials. Knight flew in and appeared as a guest. He stayed for three hours and refused a fee, telling Bova, “Many guys I tolerate; you, I respect.” At one point, Knight asked Bova if he wanted to take a seat. “If you don’t be careful,” Knight joked, “I’ll throw the chair to you.”
And that pretty much became his, well, stance. In 1987, Knight was a guest on David Letterman’s Late Night. Asked about “the deal with the chair” (Letterman, we hasten to add, is of course a Hoosier tribesman), Knight had a response ready. With pitch-perfect delivery he explained: “People jump at conclusions. But the game is going on and I hear somebody across the floor keep hollering, ‘Coach! Coach! Coach Knight!’ I get all kinds of suggestions, I try not to pay any attention to it…. Here’s a little old lady across the floor, reminded me of my grandmother.... I said, ‘Did you want me for something?’ She said, ‘If you’re not going to sit down any more today than you have so far, could I have your chair?’” Ba-da-bum.
“Now that we know the full story,” deadpanned Letterman, “You were doing the gentlemanly thing.”
Knight was on the show, by the way, because Indiana had just beaten Syracuse in the national title game, on that Keith Smart floating baseline jumper we all perfected on our driveway hoops. It marked Knight’s third national championship. He was 46 years old.
T he actual act of throwing the chair hardly signified Knight’s downfall. But looking back, it’s easy to make the case that, indirectly, it was a major plot point. Knight’s sad end game at Indiana was plucked right from classical mythology, a mix of hubris and bravado and a fatally flawed hero. A coach throws a chair during a game—an act so almost laughably outrageous and antisocial we recall it 30 years later—and it’s met with a collective no-big-deal? How does he not conclude that he is above the law and general rules of social convention?
FUTURE HALL OF FAME GOALTENDER PATRICK ROY, 19, makes his NHL debut for the Montreal Canadiens. After entering a 4-4 game in the third period, Roy stopped the two shots sent his way to help Montreal capture a 6-4 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.
After 1987, Knight’s trajectory would level out considerably. He would win no more national titles and lead only one more team to a Final Four. Other coaches supplanted him—most notably/painfully, his former assistant, Mike Krzyzewski. Once unthinkable, a string of Indiana kids (Glenn Robinson, Shawn Kemp, Zach Randolph) decided against playing for Knight. During the last decade of Knight’s career at Indiana, the basketball was overshadowed by the perpetually embattled coach and his increasingly hostile acts. Those were the seasons on the brink.
The enablers—I don’t exclude myself— knew the script cold. For every bad act, there were two good ones. (True as that might have been, this accounting still made for an awful lot of a lot of bad acts.) At least the players graduate. (True, though it overlooked the huge cohort of players who transferred out.) By the time the Neil Reed video surfaced, it was official: We were defending the indefensible. That Knight’s last act before his firing was a physical encounter with a freshman whom Knight deemed to lack “manners and civility” was almost too rich.
Even today—a full three decades after the fact—the “chair incident” specifically, and Knight more generally, remain polarizing and divisive subjects. Knight’s critics are many. So are his supporters. “Did I agree with everything he did? No. Did he agree with everything I did? No,” says Bova, the ref who ejected Knight that day. “But let me tell you, I have nine grandkids, five of them boys that are athletic, and I would have them play for Bob Knight tomorrow.”
Tina Turner’s “WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT” wins Grammys for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.
In my hometown, Knight remains a wound that is still not fully healed. In reporting this piece, I contacted longtime friends and former coaches and parents of classmates. Many had strong opinions; few wanted to speak on the record. As one longtime official in the athletic department put it via email: “To be honest, I really don’t want to be a part of your story—with all that has gone on here since BK’s departure and hard feelings on a lot of people’s parts, I really don’t want to rehash the past, especially if anything I would say would come across as a negative.” Some of this speaks to the persisting loyalty that Knight inspired. But I suspect some of this reflects the guilt many of us feel about our roles, however small, in this tragedy.
North Carolina plays in the Dean Dome. Kentucky plays in Rupp Arena. UCLA plays on Nell and John Wooden Court. Indiana? Mostly because of Knight’s typical refusal to return to campus, there are strikingly few earmarks that he ever coached at the school, much less won three national titles. Last year, A.J. Guyton, a former Indiana player, wrote a poignant open letter on Facebook, encouraging Knight to reconcile with Hoosier Nation and come back to Bloomington. “We think that forgiveness is weakness, but it’s absolutely not,” Guyton wrote. “It takes a very strong person to forgive.” Knight declined this peace offering.
Still, Assembly Hall features this one relic that could be construed as a nod to Knight and the tantrum for which he’s best known. The Indiana basketball bench is, still, no bench. But the array of chairs for the players and coaches—they’re all hooked together.