BLOOMINGTON — The chants began shortly after 79-year-old Bobby Knight first appeared out of the tunnel at halftime of Indiana’s game Saturday against rival Purdue.
In unison, the sellout crowd of 17,222 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall began chanting “Bob-by … Bob-by” then followed with “Thank you, coach.”
Knight’s first public return to Assembly Hall since being fired in 2000 was met with a standing ovation and cheers that lasted throughout the five-minute ceremony. Helped on the court by his son, Pat, and members of the 1980 team he coached that were honored before him, Knight displayed some of his fiery persona. He circled the court, pumped his fists toward the crowd and yelled “play defense” as IU trailed Purdue 37-27 at halftime. The Boilermakers went on to win 74-62, dealing another blow to the Hoosiers’ NCAA Tournament hopes.
For Knight and IU, it was a chance for closure. He hadn’t been back to Assembly Hall for a basketball game before Saturday. Knight shared an embrace with NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, the point guard of IU’s 1980 team, then got another one of his former players, Keith Smart, to get into a defensive slide.
“This state still loves this guy,” said Randy Wittman, who played for Knight on the 1980 team and was among the players honored. “And as we saw today, this guy still loves these fans.”
For IU fans, it was a chance to see Knight for possibly one last time. Knight has been dealing with memory loss and declining health for close to two years.
It was a special experience for John Wehrle, a season ticket holder from Fort Wayne. Wehrle lived in Bloomington during IU’s 1981 national title run, and his wife lived in Bloomington the year the Hoosiers won the 1976 national title.
“It was almost like an exorcism because maybe now the ghost of Bobby Knight can be lifted, and now we can get on honoring him the way he should be,” Wehrle said.
Christian Montgomery of Redding, Calif., made the trip from the west coast for the game, not knowing Knight was going to appear. Montgomery was born in 1988 but said he’s been able to watch documentaries of some of Knight’s best teams.
“It was very emotional, but I thought they put on a great presentation,” Montgomery said. “I’m a new IU fan from the west coast. But I always respected Bobby, and you could see the tears in people’s eyes.”
Reports of Knight’s return began filtering out throughout the week. On Friday night, ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale posted on Twitter, “After sharing time with the Knights — Karen, Robert, and Patrick — this afternoon, I am optimistic he will return to Assembly Hall for the first time since Sept 10, 2000. Hoping and praying. Bob was my presenter when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.”
Demand for tickets immediately increased with the news of Knight’s impending arrival, with the cheapest tickets on StubHub going for $342.
Knight left behind a complicated legacy at Indiana. He led the Hoosiers to three of the school’s five national titles, including the last undefeated college basketball team in 1976. Under Knight, Indiana also won national titles in 1981 and 1987 and reached Final Fours in 1973 and 1992. He led IU to 662 wins and 24 NCAA Tournament appearances in 29 seasons.
But his tenure at Indiana wasn’t without controversy, beginning in 1985, when he threw a chair across the floor at Assembly Hall after being frustrated with the officiating in a game against Purdue. In a 1988 interview, Knight, in an interview with Connie Chung of NBC Nightly News, responded to a question with, “I think if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” After the interview, Knight claimed he was misrepresented, claiming he wasn’t referring to the act of the rape, but using rape as a metaphor.
As Knight’s sideline outbursts and temper became more dramatic throughout the 1980s and 1990s, speculation centered on whether a new generation of athletes were comfortable playing for him. It came to head in 2000, when CNN obtained and aired a video of Knight putting his hands around the neck of former IU guard Neil Reed during a 1997 practice. After the CNN investigative story aired, then IU president Myles Brand retained Knight but instituted a zero tolerance policy toward the iconic coach. Then, in September 2000, Brand fired Knight after the coach grabbed a student by the arm and confronted him after the student addressed him by saying “What’s up, Knight?”
Knight went on to coach at Texas Tech from 2001-08, then worked as a broadcaster at ESPN before retiring in 2015. Knight finished his coaching career with 902 career wins and a .709 winning percentage.
Knight vowed never to step foot on IU’s campus since his firing, a stance he doubled down on during a 2017 interview on “The Dan Patrick Show.”
“Well, I think I’ve always really enjoyed the fans. I always will,” Knight said in the interview. “On my dying day, I will think about how great the fans at Indiana were. And as far as the hierarchy at Indiana University at that time, I have absolutely no respect whatsoever for those people. With that in mind, I have no interest in ever going back to that university.”
That stance, however, softened in recent years. In April 2019, Knight attended an IU baseball game, the first Hoosiers sporting event he attended publicly since 2000. In fading health, Knight moved back to Bloomington last summer to be closer to longtime IU team physician Dr. Larry Rink. Reports surfaced last month Knight may return to Assembly Hall to see his alma mater, Ohio State. Instead, Knight attended a game at Marian University to support former IU center and current Marian athletic director Steve Downing.
Knight addressed current IU players at Cook Hall before Saturday’s game, following a gathering with his 1980 players.
“It was really nice talking to him, having him here,” IU freshman forward Jerome Hunter said. “He’s an IU legend. It was nice. It was nice talking to him, and he was talking to us, and he told us to play hard.”
The charged atmosphere included a handful of other celebrities in attendance, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and ESPN broadcaster Sage Steele, both IU alumni. Cuban and Steele sat next to each other courtside. Vitale called the game for ESPN. Knight approached Vitale courtside during the ceremony before chanting “play defense” again toward the crowd.
Former IU guard Mike Woodson, one of the captains of the 1980 Big Ten title team, said Knight was back where he belonged.
“This is home,” Woodson said. “I mean, he made all his marks right here at Indiana University. So for him to come back — I’ve spent the last month back here in Bloomington with him and had dinner a few times with him. And we were just happy as hell knowing that he was going to come today.”