BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) — Nearly 20 years after he was fired from his Hall of Fame career at Indiana University, Bob Knight did something Saturday that he had repeatedly said he would never do.
Knight returned for a public appearance at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, his home base for 29 seasons, where he coached the Hoosiers to three national championships.
On a weekend when the entire state of Indiana celebrated its love of basketball, Knight appeared at halftime as IU honored his 1980 team, which won the Big Ten championship. IU played Purdue, Knight’s primary rival during his run with the Hoosiers, and the Hoosiers lost 74-62.
"This is where he belongs," former Indiana All-American Mike Woodson said. "This is where he made his name — at Indiana. We were just happy he was able to come today."
"This game has been circled on the calendar for a long time," IU coach Archie Miller said. "And I think this was the goal for those guys to make this happen.
"And over the course of the last month or month or so, as the talks went, it looked like it was going to be favorable. But I think as this last week approached, I thought it was going to come down the line that hopefully, cross your fingers, that everything was able to work out."
Surrounded by more than three dozen of his former players, Knight was escorted to center court at halftime by his son, Patrick, as well as former players Quinn Buckner, Scott May and Steve Green.
The standing-room-only crowd, which included IU alums Mark Cuban (owner of the Dallas Mavericks), Sage Steele (of ESPN) and players from Knight’s 1976, 1981 and 1987 NCAA championship teams stood and roared with approval for more than five minutes.
"He loves the fans, and they responded to him," said Randy Wittman, a starting guard on IU's 1981 NCAA title team.
“Play defense,” Knight yelled back to the crowd. Keith Smart, the Most Outstanding Player from the 1987 Final Four, promptly dropped into a defensive stance. Perhaps the coach noticed the Boilermakers led 37-28 at the intermission and had made half of their 10 3-point shots.
He then walked to the sidelines and cut up with ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, faking an exchange of slaps.
Knight also talked to the IU players in the locker room before the game.
"I was standing there and to me it was like it was Coach Knight again," Wittman said.
The appearance signaled the official end of Knight's frosty and often-contentious relationship with IU administrators. That started Sept. 10, 2000, after Knight was fired for violating a zero-tolerance behavior policy during an incident with an IU student.
Knight’s achievement on the court resulted in his induction to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. In addition to his three NCAA titles, Knight also coached the U. S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1984. He won 11 Big Ten championships and 662 of his 902 career victories at Indiana.
But Knight’s tenure was controversial, and his reputation was stained by his behavior, especially an incident with IU player Neil Reed, who claimed Knight choked him during a practice.
After finishing career at Texas Tech and working as a college basketball analyst at ESPN, Knight and his wife, Karen, moved to Bloomington, Indiana, last fall. After turning 79 in October, Knight wanted to be closer to his many friends in southern Indiana.
Indiana athletic director Fred Glass had invited Knight back several times, including a reunion of his 1976 NCAA title team as well as Knight’s induction to the IU Hall of Fame.
Knight was not interested, but his attitude began to change last spring — when he attended an IU home baseball game with his best friend, former Bloomington Herald-Times sports editor Bob Hammel.
Former players Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Dr. Steve Ahlfeld and Steve Downing, as well as Hammel and Dr. Larry Rink, encouraged him to move from Lubbock, Texas, to Bloomington, where he had lived from 1971-2000.
That group, along with Wittman and Woodson, encouraged Knight that Saturday was the proper time for him to return to the building that opened for basketball on Dec. 1, 1971, when Knight coached his first game against Ball State.
“I just told him that he came back for a reason," Wittman said. "This is where he belongs. I told him (these reunions) don't mean anything to us anymore unless you're here. This was a great day for me."
Will Knight make a return trip?
"I wouldn't be surprised," Wittman said.
"I hope so," Woodson added.
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