It’s Complicated

Reflecting on Robert Montgomery Knight's thorny coaching legacy

Calbert Cheaney was a self-professed mama’s boy until he played basketball for Bob Knight at Indiana University.

“He made a man out of me,” said Cheaney, a William Henry Harrison High School graduate who became the Big Ten’s career scoring leader.

Cheaney led the Hoosiers to the Final Four in the 1992 NCAA Tournament.

His and Knight’s personalities meshed, partially because his mother was even more of a disciplinarian than Knight. Enduring the physical pain was one thing, but gaining enough mental toughness to play for Knight was quite another.

“I was very competitive, but at the same time, if he yelled at me or told me something, ‘You’re not doing such-and-such,’ OK, I’ll show you,” said Cheaney, who sparked IU to two Big Ten titles. “Then once I’d show him, he’d go over there, and sit right down and shut up. That’s the type of relationship we had. I think he had that type of relationship with all of his players.”

Cheaney agreed that Knight was more of a teacher than a coach during a press conference Nov. 2, the day after Knight died at 83. He had battled health issues the last few years.

Currently IU’s director of player development, Cheaney still has the notebooks from his playing days with the Hoosiers in his office.

“A lot of players, they don’t understand how the game works,” he said. “They just want the ball in their hands, and they just want everybody to get out of the way. But you’ve got to know how the game works because you got four other guys out there on the floor.”

When you saw Knight stalking the sidelines, his sheer presence made any game he was involved in seem important. Irrepressible, sometimes nearly impossible, Knight was cruel to others. On other occasions, he was thoughtful and kind, a walking paradox of Shakespearean proportions.

“Larger than life,” Cheaney said. “Everybody wanted to play for Coach Knight and play for their (home) state. Back when I was growing up, to have an opportunity to play for the man and to be recruited by him, I think that’s unbelievable. … The dream came true, for me and I’m glad it happened.”

Cheaney was the least heralded player in a celebrated recruiting class because he broke his ankle near the end of the regular season his senior year at Harrison. But he became by far the best, playing in the NBA for Washington, Boston, Denver, Utah, and Golden State from 1993 to 2006.

So Many Stories, So Many Issues

You’ve heard some of the stories, how so many IU fans had his back and their excuses ever-ready, no matter what he had done.

After Knight sent a chair spinning across the floor when Purdue University’s Steve Reid was attempting a technical foul free throw on Feb. 23, 1985, some IU fans joked that Knight’s grandmother needed a chair to sit down in. When Knight did yet another controversial thing, a Knight apologist told me, “That’s Bobby.” Knight guided IU to three NCAA championships — in 1976, 1981, and 1987 — and that’s all that mattered. I would tell them if then-Illinois coach Lou Henson did something like that, they’d go crazy. They would simply shrug their shoulders.

Growing up 60 miles west of Champaign, Illinois, I found it ironic that I covered some of the pivotal moments of Knight’s tumultuous career for the Evansville Courier & Press newspaper. I didn’t know it then, but I covered what would turn out to be his last game coaching IU, when the Hoosiers lost to Pepperdine University in the first round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament in Buffalo, New York. I remember the press conference following the game in which Knight — up to his eyeballs in the Neil Reed choking scandal — walked off the stage midway through. He had had enough of what he considered insulting and/or stupid questions. Michael Lewis, then IU’s senior point guard, was alongside Knight on that stage. Now Ball State University’s head coach, Lewis wore a red sweater in Knight’s honor during a recent game.

“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Coach Knight,” Lewis, a Jasper, Indiana, native, said in a statement. “His legacy as a basketball coach speaks for itself, but his impact stretches far beyond the court. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to have played and worked for him, but I will always cherish my relationship with him as a friend and mentor more. As great a coach as he was, he was a greater friend and mentor to many of us. I am forever indebted to coach for the profound impact he has had on my life.”

Along with a photographer, I was sent to Bloomington, Indiana, by the Courier to cover the aftermath of Knight’s dismissal by IU president Myles Brand in September 2000. What struck me most was the ignorance and arrogance of some of the IU students, who were little kids when the Hoosiers reigned supreme on the national landscape. “What have you done for me lately” was their basic reprise.

What Knight did was become one of the most important figures in college basketball history, continually courting controversy along the way. Henson once called him a “classic bully.”

Showing another side of his multi-faceted persona, Knight spoke fondly of Henson before the latter’s last game coaching the Illini against IU in Bloomington on Feb. 29, 1996.

“Is this really the Bob Knight that I know?” asked Henson, who shared a hug and a laugh with his archrival.

“It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” — that’s what United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in a 1939 radio address, describing the early days of World War II.

It’s also an apt description of Robert Montgomery Knight.

Sportswriter Gordon Engelhardt has covered everything from two NCAA basketball Final Fours to the American and National League Championship Series, several Indy 500s and state championship high school games, plus more than 20 Thunder on the Ohio unlimited hydroplane races. One of his most favorite and memorable endeavors was joining the University of Southern Indiana men’s basketball team’s drive to Louisville, Kentucky, for the 1995 NCAA Division II championship.

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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