BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It was the fall of 1978, and the leaves had done their turning on that late chilly October day. I remember ducking out of the wind and strolling into Assembly Hall, nervous as hell as a 19-year-old sportswriter on assignment.
I was armed, as I would be for most of my four decades. I had my notebook and two pens – and one other thing on this day.
A birthday card.
It was Bob Knight's 38th birthday on Oct. 25, and I was about to have my first-ever face-to-face meeting with him. I was going to cover Indiana basketball that season and had written some nice things about Scott May – one of Knight's all-time favorite players and now friends — a few days earlier. He liked the story, I was told later, and my interview request, which were always denied out of hand, was accepted this time. I had passed the first test.
Be there after practice, she said. She gave me the time, and I started to prepare my questions. This might be a one-shot deal, so I put them in order to get as much as I could if he cut the session short.
A friend of mine who knew about the both the interview and Knight's birthday, stopped at my desk. 'You should buy him a birthday card,'' she said. 'That would make you memorable.''
"Is that the goal?'' I recall asking.
"If it's not, it should be,'' she said.
She was right, so I walked over to the Indiana Memorial Union from Ernie Pyle Hall and pored through the birthday cards, as if the decision was a monumental life-or-death choice or something. It sure felt like it. I mean, it had to say the right thing. All I remember all these years later, was there was some sort of cartoon, a duck with a gun, I think, and it said something about "having a blast'' on your birthday. Knight was an avid hunter, so I thought that would work. It said enough without saying a lot.
I remember struggling with the perfect words to write on the card, too. I wrote something about thanking him for the time, scribbled "Happy Birthday'' and signed my name.
And I was off, reporter's notebook and birthday card in hand. I waited about 20 minutes for him to come up to his office – I always prefer to be early. When I got there, I introduced myself, thanked him for his time and wished him happy birthday. He sat down at his desk, and laid the card down unopened.'
He didn't say anything about it.
"You've got 15 minutes, Go,'' was all he said. He answered all my basketball questions, with one great answer after another, as I recall. He was always a great interview when he wanted to be. Right at 15 minutes, he said "One more.''
I stammered a bit, because I probably had a dozen questions still written down inside my notebook (a habit to battle nerves). "What are you doing for your birthday?'' I asked.
"They must not be teaching you anything over there,'' he said. "You get one question, you should ask something you'll get an answer to.''
He stood up, and I stood up as I remember all these years later. I thanked him for the time, and told him how much I appreciated it. I did, always. As I left his office, the card was still on his desk.
I wondered if he ever opened it.
Birthdays never really mattered
When Bob Knight turned 50 years old in 1990, Indianapolis Monthly magazine did a big cover story on him.
For Knight, the birthday didn't mean anything to him. Born in Massillon, Ohio and raised in nearby Orrville down from the Smuckers plant, Knight was never much for occasions as a grownup.
“I don’t feel any different than I felt when I was 30,” he told them, saying that the Oct. 25 date means “nothing to me.” He was a healthy non-smoker non-drinker who was active enough with golf and hunting. He wasn't going anywhere soon he said, though “I could get hit by a truck this afternoon. There are too many other things for me to worry about.”
The interviewer said something about society often recognizing milestones like this. “I’m not necessarily a reflection of what society thinks,” Knight said.
At the end of the article 30 years ago, Knight talked about getting old.
It'll happen how it happens, he said then.
“Why worry about it? Why not simply take care and go? How the hell do we know? I hope that as long as I live, I’ll be able to do things,” he said, “that I’ll be able to play golf, fish and read. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve done.”
Turning 80 today with a smile
There was a time back in early February where a lot of us thought that 2020 was going to be the greatest year ever. We saw Bob Knight back in Assembly Hall, surrounded by dozens of his favorite players, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Bob Knight was back after a 20-year absence since his firing from Indiana.
Tears flowed that day because the love for Bob Knight among the Indiana fan base is unlike anything I've ever seen. Even 20 years later, you can't write a story about the current Indiana basketball team or its coaches and not have fans weigh in "how Bobby would have done it.''
Legend barely defines him. It's beyond that. So far beyond that. And just having him living back in Bloomington now sort of gives everyone that warm feeling, that he's back where he belongs, back among his friends, back among his people. He's still ours, in one way or another.
He's 80 years old today, and that's a wonderful thing. He's got some health issues, and he's not the intimidating personality that he used to be. That February weekend was wonderful, and just seeing him around town has been nice. Because of COVID, we haven't seen him out and about lately, and that's kind of sad.
I know in my case, it's nice that he's back in Bloomington, with his wife Karen there with him every day and his closest friends nearby. It's as it should be, it seems. Life, going full circle.
We've lost some of his biggest coaching opponents and contemporaries this year, guys like Lute Olson and Lou Henson, and others like John Thompson and even Jerry Sloan, whose son Brian played for Knight.
But Bob Knight turns 80 today, and I hope he has a wonderful day. Because of him, Bloomington and Indiana University will never be the same. Not for me, not for thousands of us.
He deserves a great day, although if it's anything like the past, it'll just be another day for him. Don't make a fuss, because he won't.
Happy 80th, coach.
I should go out and buy a card.
Related stories on Bob Knight
- RETURN TO ASSEMBLY HALL: Bob Knight came back to Assembly Hall for the first time in 20 years in February, and it was a lovefest from the get-go. CLICK HERE
- PATRICK KNIGHT TALKS ABOUT HIS DAD: He loved returning to Assembly Hall with his father, Bob Knight, on Saturday. CLICK HERE
- THE FORGOTTEN GREAT TEAM: Indiana's 1980 team that was honored Saturday "was better than the 1981 team that won the national championship.'' CLICK HERE