BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Halftime at a college basketball game usually involves a hot dog and a pit stop, but Saturday afternoon at Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall, none of the 17,000 Indiana fans left their seats.
They were waiting for The General.
It only took 20 years for legendary basketball coach Bob Knight to make his way back to the iconic arena where he spent 29 years coaching the Hoosiers, winning three national championships along the way. But he was fired in 2000 for what was deemed boorish behavior, and Knight’s hatred for the university ran deep for years because of the dismissal.
It wasn’t until Knight, who will turn 80 years old in October, decided to move back to Bloomington last year that the idea of returning to Assembly Hall even became something on a dream. After all, he had ignored being a part of celebrations for all three of his championship teams over the years, and openly ignored being on hand when his players were inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
But last fall, when a celebration for Indiana’s 1980 team that included Isiah Thomas, Mike Woodson, Randy Wittman was being set up for Saturday, Wittman reached out to his former coach. After several conversations, Knight finally said yes.
“It was a special day. We may never see another coach like this again,” said former Indiana great Quinn Buckner, a starting guard on Knight’s 1976 undefeated national championship team who was one of several Knight players on hand. “Today we had an historic day, and why does not matter. He came back to Bloomington, and to IU more importantly. It was an important day for him, and we all got emotional.”
The game itself between in-state rivals Indiana and Purdue almost seemed like a sideshow. The first half, certainly felt like an opening act at a concert. But when the half finally ended, the lovefest began.
Several members of the 1980 team were introduced, as were a couple dozen former players from the 1970s through the 1990s. Then, accompanied by Buckner, teammate Steve Green and his son, Patrick Knight, Knight slowly walked out on the the Assembly Hall floor. He shuffled around slowly and worked his way to the Indiana logo at center court. The crowd roared, chanting “Bobby, Bobby,” many of the fans, young and old, crying while they cheered.
Knight didn’t speak at all at halftime, nor did any of the players. They simply worked the room, and everyone loved it.
“It couldn’t have gone any better,” Wittman said after the ceremony. “I am still emotional. I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about how it was going to come off. He’s a big part of who I am. I came here as a kid and left as a man, and I owe a lot of that to him. I’m so glad that this day finally got to happen. It’s really good for everyone involved.”
Knight and his players met a few hours before the game and visited at Cook Hall, which is Indiana’s practice facility attached to Assembly Hall. They all visited, with Knight and each other, and took lots of pictures. Just prior to halftime, they walked into the building.
It just seemed right, Wittman said. His coach, his mentor, back in Bloomington where he belonged.
“When he moved back here, I knew he was in a good place. He was very happy being back here in Bloomington, living,” Wittman said. “And I just told him there’s a reason why you’re happy, because this is where you belong. It’s where you belong.
“And we’ve all gone through it. I’ve been fired four times (as an NBA coach). It’s not fun. But this state still loves this guy and as we saw today this guy still loves these fans.”
Knight spoke to the current Indiana team before game. (They lost, by the way.) It meant a lot to current Indiana coach Archie Miller, who’s certainly aware of the Knight legend and the long shadow he casts.
“Coach being able to come see our team before the game today was really, really special,” Miller said. “Having Pat (Knight) here was really special. Karen (Knight’s wife) wasn’t in the locker room before the game, but I know she came as well. So that’s a big step.
“I know this means a lot to a lot of people. And, like I said, I’m really happy for a lot of people that they were able to experience that today.”
Knight coached at Indiana from 1971 to 2000. He won national titles in 1976, 1981 and 1987. He coached at Texas Tech after his firing, and worked at ESPN from 2012 to 2015.
Knight’s health has been failing the past several years. At a few public engagements, he repeated a few stories and confused several names. Moving back to Bloomington, where he and his wife have many friends, has been helpful for him. He’s seen out at restaurants often, and is cordial with fans asking for pictures or autographs.
He can still be feisty though, and he showed that Saturday. He got physical with ESPN’s Dick Vitale and even led the fans in a few “Defense” chats. He even got after a few players on the court.
All in all, though, it was a special day, even for guys like Butch Carter, who was a senior on that 1980 team and played and coached in the NBA for three decades. Carter and Knight have battled often through the years, and he wasn’t going to come back.
Isiah Thomas, his former teammate, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I kind of needed a kick in the pants, and Isiah made sure I got it,” said Carter, who was one of 12 players from that 1980 team that played in the NBA. “He knows a lot of time coach and I haven’t agreed on things, but it was a great, great event to be at and it was great to see all the guys again.
“When life is good, time flies, and life has been good for a lot of us. Indiana University set us up to have a better life. I wish it would slow down, but I don’t think so.”