Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Adios Bob Knight...

Bob Knight: great basketball coach, big jerk. Retired.

Knight finally decided to hang up his sweater. His kid will take over the basketball program at Texas Tech in another weird example of Big XII hoops nepotism. I thought I'd take a moment to say goodbye to Bobby.

Amongst basketball fans, there are two groups--those who love Bobby Knight and those who hate him.

The lovers have a strong argument. Knight was a winner (over 900 times) and winning is pretty damn important when it comes to sports. Even though we're ostensibly talking about "student athletes" and situations in which winning isn't (officially) supposed to be everything, winning matters. Big time. Knight won, ergo, Knight was a good coach.

When it comes to a polarizing figure like Knight, you find a lot of weirdness in the positions of onlookers. The lovers, some of whom often seem to have a spooky and sado-masochistic love of authoritarian figures, turned a blind eye to borderline psychotic behavior. They found comedy in violence and poo-pooed concerns about sportsmanship.

The haters pretend as if the wins and losses don't really mean anything. They concentrate on Knight's temper and tantrums instead of the titles a victories. It often puts them in an awkward situation, too.

I've heard countless people attack Knight the Jerk while simultaneously defending abhorrent behavior on the part of their favorite team's players and coaches. I've also seen them lust for victory at all costs. Knight's antics were a vivid extension of their own desires, they just couldn't stomach the logical extension of their own "win baby, win" attitude.

I do think it's possible to find middle ground, though. Now that Bob is out and Pat is (probably very temporarily) in, it seems like a good time to stake out a more reasoned position on Knight's career.

First, Bob Knight was a great basketball coach. He found ways to motivate his players to achieve and he consistently produced results. He was committed to his work and demonstrated a tremendous determination to win. He combined talent and drive in a way that reminds all of us that effort and dedication can merge to produce goal-achieving action.

Second, Bob Knight was an insufferable prick. He couldn't go to a salad bar without getting into a fight. He threw chairs. He put college kids into strangleholds. He was an ass to fans and the media on many occasions. He argued with officials, cussed up a storm, belittled people and couldn't stay out of trouble for more than a few weeks at a time. He was an atrocious role model in many respects. He was a poster child for poor sportsmanship.

I want to keep those arguments in perspective, though. Bob Knight has friends. People say he's got a great sense of humor. They say he loves his family and the generations of student athletes with whom he's worked.

Still, there's no use in embracing pro-Knight arguments without conceding at least some of the anti-Knight perspective (and vice versa). Both are true. Good coach and jackass. All wrapped up in one person.

We have a tendency to choose between love and hate. We worship or condemn. We have a hard time with in-betweens. I've discussed that before with respect to the Ronald Reagan/Barack Obama mini-controversy and framed that discussion in terms of Bobby Knight's brother in the chess world, Bobby Fischer.

Bobby Knight and Bobby Fischer were both masters of their chosen field and massive asses. Fischer certainly occupied the extremes on both poles more so than Knight, but the Bobs are both examples of how good and bad simultaneously occupy the same person.

It's not time to eulogize Knight, just "Knight the Coach". I hope his fans know that I understand the difference. I also want to make it clear that I don't put tossing a chair onto a basketball court on the same level as rabid anti-Semitism ala Fischer. That's not the point.

The point is that we take the good with the bad. The lovers should recognize their hero's real limitations while the haters should acknowledge his substantial talents and achievements. At least that's what we should do if we're being honest.

Later, Bob.


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1 comment:

  1. That's essentially how I see him, too, John.

    For the longest time, I was a Bobby Knight hater who just could not phatom how a coach/teacher who treated young people, referees, other teams and coaches and everyone he encountered the way he did and noone seemed to care about what a jerk he was because he was a winner.

    I understand better, today, that people is people and they have their flaws, that are often hard to see and that we are all often defensive about, and they need some appreciation (I think more appreciation) for their strengths to understand the whole person.

    It did matter that Bobby Knight was a winner. He knew the game of basketball better than most people who had that position. He was also a jerk, much of the time. It does seem to me that he seemed to account for that, better, after leaving Indiana and coaching at Texas Tech. And he coached a pretty decent team at Texas Tech, while he was there. I was impressed, for what that's worth.

    And, generally, I think as a matter of supporting people (and their mental health) and being decent human beings, we all need appreciation for our strengths more than our weaknesses, so we can really appreciate what is great about people without getting all mired down in what is shitty about them and all of us.

    Obviously Charles Manson is a murderous prick and an insane motherfucker. He probably has good qualities, too. But most people, and certainly Bobby Knight, are not Charles Manson. They're people trying to sort through life the best they can like the rest of us. Even Bobby Knight, especially in his bigger asshole days.

    As someone who grew up with Bobby, through the good and the bad, I'll miss him. He was a hell of a coach. And a flawed human being who, I believe, tried genuinely to make some amends for that in his last years of coaching.

    It's sad to see him go.