In his home in the dusty flatland of West Texas, the aging legend was surrounded by memories of his victories and his defeats.
The artifacts included the red sweaters and ties he wore across three decades of goading, swearing and winning at Assembly Hall. Also included were the chairs where he had presided courtside during his trio of national championships, plotting domination over Michigan, North Carolina and Syracuse. Even the championship rings he had earned with those victories were part of this collection of memorabilia.
One of the most revered and most infamous coaches in history, Bob Knight decided last fall to clean house, putting pieces of his legacy up for sale. Hundreds of items were to be auctioned online through a sports memorabilia firm.
Knight told the Associated Press he was selling the rings and the other artifacts to raise money for his grandchildren’s college fund. But here in Indiana, it was hard not to wonder. After a lifetime as a coach and an analyst for ESPN, it seemed unlikely that he was strapped for cash. Was it a coincidence that the auction would begin as the Hoosiers entered the season ranked No. 1 for the first time since he left?
The coach’s messy departure from IU — the firing, the lawsuits, the riot — was almost as legendary as his winning record. Since then, the university had repeatedly tried to reach out to him, inviting him to be honored at public rituals of commemoration. But the answer was always no.
Now, when the Hoosiers were back on top, Knight was selling off emblems of collective memory, even the ring symbolizing the unmatched perfection of 1976.
Was he just being a good granddad? Or was he telling IU that all those years together meant nothing?
The auction was only the latest chapter in the long saga of the coach’s tempestuous relationship with IU basketball.
Knight is famous for doing nothing halfway, including holding a grudge.
Even amid the controversies of his tenure at IU, the coach was known for his epic support of the university. He raised nearly $5 million for the University’s libraries and endowed chairs in the history department and the law school. His players testify to his ability to inspire them to become better players, better students and better men.
“He challenged you every day to take you places you never thought you’d go in your life,” said Quinn Buckner, who played on the 1976 team. “That’s what I appreciate about him.”
Knight was committed to academics. If you played at IU, you were going to get a degree at IU.
Dean Garrett, another former player, remembers how he and Keith Smart hurried back to campus after they won the championship in 1987, foregoing the opportunity to prepare for a professional career.
“Keith and I didn’t have the option to go to Colorado Springs and train for the NBA draft,” Garrett said. “We had class! We won the championship, got back to Bloomington. Class was off the next day but the day after that we were back in class.”
After a tough loss, Knight was torn apart. In the book “A Season on the Brink,” journalist John Feinstein chronicled Knight’s highs and lows over the course of one season.
“Knight was incapable of accepting failure,” Feinstein wrote. “Failure on any level all but destroyed him, especially failure in coaching because it was coaching that gave him his identity, made him special, set him apart."
University Chancellor Emeritus Kenneth Gros Louis, who knew Knight during his time at IU, would find Knight alone after a loss at home, hitting golf balls into the large net at Gladstein Fieldhouse.
Even in a good season, Knight was volatile.
“People who knew him well as I did could tell over the course of a basketball season, to use a metaphor, when the springs were getting tight and when they were about to burst,” Gros Louis said.
In March 2000, a video of Knight placing his hands on the neck of a player prompted then IU President Myles Brand to put Knight under a “zero-tolerance” policy. Any more violations and Knight would be locked out.
On Sept. 7, 2000, an unsuspecting freshman named Kent Harvey saw the coach in Assembly Hall.
“Hi, Knight,” he said.
The coach grabbed Harvey.
“And as he’s moving, I put my hand on the inside of his elbow and I looked at him,” Knight said at the time, “and I said, ‘Son, my name isn’t Knight for you. It’s Coach Knight or it’s Mr. Knight. I don’t call people by their last name and neither should you.’”
For Brand, that was enough. Knight had broken the zero-tolerance policy.
Riots hit Bloomington and campus. Property was destroyed. Brand was hung in effigy. Harvey was threatened with death.
During the summer of 2012, representatives from Steiner Sports — an auction house that specializes in sports memorabilia — sorted through boxes in his home and garage to find artifacts from his past life. By mid-October they had collected, photographed and appraised all the items he wanted to send away.
Knight was having a veritable garage sale of all the things he’d collected over the years. There were trophies, plaques, shoes, guns, photographs, an Olympic gold medal, newspaper clippings, signed baseballs, pocketknives, ball-caps, clocks and even an edition of Guitar Hero — still in the box.
“I’ve got stuff I didn’t even know I had,” Knight told the AP. “I don’t put anything up in the house. If you came into the house you would think I was a mailman. And I don’t even wear rings.”
Bidding for Knight’s NCAA Championship rings started slow. The 1987 ring was the most active item with five bids and $20,000 in the last days of November.
Knight’s 1976 ring from the Hoosier’s perfect season was going for $15,100 with five bids and the 1981 ring held steady at $7,500 with only two bids.
In 2009, the University began trying to reconcile with the estranged coach who had brought Assembly Hall three NCAA championships.
A new University president, Michael McRobbie, a new athletics director, Fred Glass, and a promising new head coach, Tom Crean, meant that few, if any, faces from his time at IU were still in Bloomington.
So Glass led a push to induct Knight into the IU Athletics Hall of Fame. Glass wrote a personal letter to Knight, asking him to come to Bloomington for the induction ceremony.
“I didn’t want to be part of an induction process that didn’t involve Coach Knight,” Glass said, “because I felt he belonged in the Hall of Fame.”
Knight refused. There were too many people he didn’t want to see, according to a letter read in his absence. He said his appearance would take attention away from the other inductees.
Last season, plans were made to honor Knight’s 1987 team on the 25th anniversary of their NCAA Championship. Crean has said he admires Knight and said that he hoped the coach would be in attendance.
“I would hope Bob Knight knows he has a 365-day invitation to come back,” Crean said last year. “For him to come back, that’s totally up to him. I wouldn’t hesitate in welcoming him back — there’s no question about that. And if we knew he was coming back, I’d be running out there opening the doors.”
Knight didn’t show.
At the beginning of this season, only a few weeks into the auction of Knight’s rings, the Hoosiers went to Brooklyn for the Progressive Legends Classic. The game against Georgia was broadcast on ESPN and called by Knight. What happened next was chronicled in a series of nine photos by Herald-Times photographer Chris Howell.
After the game, Crean walked toward the broadcast table but play-by-play analyst Dan Shulman stepped in front of him. Shulman and Crean shook hands, but Crean moved past Shulman and extended a hand to Knight.
Shulman kept a hand on Crean’s shoulder and Knight, hands full with jacket and coffee, did not make eye contact.
Crean continued to speak to Knight, Shulman continued to speak to Crean and Knight continued to look away. He allowed Crean to shake his hand but walked forward, eyes ahead.
Finally, Knight stopped for a moment and Crean was able to say a few words to his predecessor, who responded with a scowl.
In the series of photos, Knight didn’t make eye contact with Crean until the end of the encounter. Crean later said Knight wished him good luck.
In the final frame, Shulman was still standing between the two coaches. Crean had turned away as well, a smile on his face. Knight was looking away, expressionless.
The auction took off in its last 24 hours. At 5:00 p.m. Dec. 5, the last day of the bidding, the 1976 ring was going for $34,950. The 1981 ring was at $5,100, the 1987 ring at $25,000.
The slowest starter, the 1976 ring now sprinted higher and higher: in two minutes, the price jumped $20,000 with three bids. At 10:07, the ring reached $119,950 and continued to climb. At 10:14, the final bid was cast for the 1976 ring for a whopping $174,950.
Fifteen minutes before the close of auction, the 1981 ring broke the $10,000 mark, ultimately ending at $12,600. The 1987 ring went for $45,000.
Fans paid thousands of dollars, but Gros Louis said the material objects aren’t as important as the memories they represent.
“People who don’t have championship rings or trophies, et cetera, assume that the things are very meaningful to the person who has them,” Gros Louis said. “And they are meaningful, but after the career’s passed, they are just objects, they’re just material objects.”
Quinn Buckner is one of three basketball players to have won a championship on every level — high school, college, the NBA and the Olympics.
He said he sees why Knight would sell his rings. Buckner doesn’t even remember where his are.
“The items and rings from the championships, I know I’ve got them but I couldn’t tell you where they are,” Buckner said. “The reality is you always have the memories. It was more the relationships you get from having that experience. The ring may be symbolic of that, but the memories are what you have.”
For Dean Garrett, the rings symbolize a lot more than just the championships. Each player received two rings for the championship, he said, one from the NCAA and one from IU.
He periodically wears the IU ring and gave the NCAA ring to his father. When his father died, Garrett didn’t want to take the ring from him. He put it in his father’s casket.
“To me, the ring means pretty much everything. For most of us — we didn’t win another championship, it’s the only ring I’ve ever had. I could not see myself parting with that,” he said. “I wouldn’t sell it for charity. If I needed money I wouldn’t sell it. It means something different to different people.”
When the auctions started, Knight said he doesn’t wear rings. But when he was coach of the Hoosiers, he was often photographed with a large ring emblazoned with an IU on his left hand.
It’s not certain from the photographs, but it looks like the ring from the undefeated 1976 season.
Courtside, while he coached his players and screamed at referees in Assembly Hall, he wore an IU ring.
Carrying a bullwhip on the sidelines in a practice at the NCAA tournament in 1992, he wore an IU ring. When he tossed a chair across the free-throw line during a 1985 loss to Purdue, he wore an IU ring.
Even in the hours after he was fired from IU, when he calmed his rioting supporters and told them to go home, he wore an IU ring.
Through the good and the bad, he wore a ring. Then he stopped.