Seeing former college basketball coach Bob Knight as a weepy old man in an on-court ceremony this weekend brings back some indelible memories that show how media in our culture has changed in recent decades and how it hasn’t.
As a 21 year-old cub reporter for a radio station, I was sent to cover a charity golf event where Knight was appearing. It was just prior to the NBA Draft, which I would be covering as a floor reporter. My assignment was to get some “tape” with Knight about the Draft, as one of his players, Calbert Cheaney, was expected to be a top pick.
The event was scheduled to host many iconic sports personalities, but my target interview was Knight. I was nervous the whole way to the venue. This, after all, was the best known media combatant in the country. He publicly dismantled anyone who dared, in his mind, to do anything other than praise him. The next year, he would infamously say “When my time on earth is gone, and my activities here are passed, I want they bury me upside down, and my critics can kiss my ass!”
When I arrived, I carefully thought about what I would ask him, then I spotted him on a practice green. I went up to him, introduced myself, as asked him if he had time for an interview. He obliged. I took a deep breath.
I asked him a question or two about the charity and why he was appearing and the relationship he enjoyed with the event’s host, former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. He answered. It was cordial. Then, I got to what I really wanted to ask. I remember my question and his answer like it happened this morning.
“I’m working on some stories in advance of the NBA Draft. Some of the analysts say Calbert Chaeney may slip because of your system. But sending players to the NBA isn’t what your program has been about, has it?”
Reasonable, I thought. Not to him.
Knight took his hand and dug in into my shoulder. I could feel all of the force of his hand digging into my skin and muscle.
“Let me tell you something. I’m about winning championships and I’ve won more than anyone else combined. Not about sending player to the N…B…A.”
He let go of my shoulder and flicked me away with the tops of his fingers, again on my shoulder. I just let the tape roll.
Around me, several event attendees, hearing my question and his answer, showered him with applause. I saw one in particular. An older (to me) woman. This shocked me in the moment because Knight had repeatedly been accused of misogyny, after leaving a tampon in a player’s locker and saying in a national TV interview ”I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”
I walked away unsure of what to do next. He did say something that was completely untrue. He had won three championships, certainly not more than anyone else combined. But I decided to walk away, focus on my job and somehow, gained the composure to interview others in attendance including Dan Dierdorf and John Havlicek.
Getting back to the station, I played the tape for my boss. He was extremely supportive and praised the way I handled it. He used it in soundbites in sportscasts in morning drive over and over again the next morning, telling the audience that “Knight got upset with our Matt Friedman for asking the question…” But, in those days, it was considered just “Knight being Knight.”
What has changed? Today, an encounter like that would have been a national story. Someone, probably me, would have had it on video. It would have lit up social media and ESPN. The debate shows would have debated about it. It may have even come up at the NBA Draft. Maybe there would have been assault charges?
What hasn’t changed? The applause on the practice green. Unacceptable behavior – the hand in the shoulder, the lie – in any other context became acceptable. Knight-like figures still stir anti-media sentiment. A journalist just doing his or her job, respectfully, can get jeers and be put into uncomfortable, unprofessional, even physical situations. Think about the campaign rallies held by no less than the President of the United States.
Knight sure had has supporters then. Based on what we saw this weekend, he still does. Yes, he was “just” a basketball coach. But he was also a personality type. And despite the fact that when those types act out now it’s bigger news, we, as a society, put them on even bigger stages.