Searching for Bobby Knight in Lexington
I will be honest with you, I grew up hating Bobby Knight.
As a young Kentucky fan deep in the mountains of Appalachia, I viewed Bobby Knight as the epitome of evil in my small sports universe. Not only did he coach one of the Cats’ biggest rivals, but he also seemed to be a bully that yelled, screamed and overpowered anyone in his path (time only proved that young impression to be entirely correct).
My dislike for him was so visceral and overwhelming that I refused to wear not only anything red, but also sweaters for a short time, lest anyone think that I had any affinity for the General. While that decision may have made me slightly chilly on a windy day, it kept me true to my fan roots. My sports loyalty began with Kentucky basketball and Bobby Knight was officially the enemy of the state.
I would like to tell you that as I got older, my opinions mellowed and I no longer considered Bobby Knight to be everything that was wrong with college basketball. But alas, that would not be true. The Knight I saw through the end of his career was just as much of a bully, only he did so with less success. The players changed, he did not adapt and his act wore thin.
When he retired and entered the world of announcing, my dislike for him only grew. He seemed ill-prepared at the vast majority of games, causing his one true skill (understanding and explanation of the game) to be obscured by his lack of knowledge of basic facts about the teams he was broadcasting. As his dislike of Kentucky and coach John Calipari caused him to take on a series of childish actions that culminated in refusing to say the team’s name on broadcasts (referring to UK as "that team"), I continued to be anti-Knight. If his name came up, chances were I was ready to criticize.
I say all that as background for what occurred Thursday on the FOX Sports College Basketball Road Trip. Drew and I found out prior to the game that Knight and I would be in the same arena for the first time since his last IU-UK battle thanks to his color announcing assignment for ESPN.
My mission immediately became clear: I had to get a picture with Bobby Knight, one that might break a world record for awkwardness, but one I would cherish in my college basketball archives. It was a must. If nothing else happened on Day One of the tour, a picture with Bobby (preferably a selfie, as my guess is that he would detest the mere notion of this modern picture type that focused on the individual) was required. And if possible, I would be in action, possibly making a silly face or sticking my tongue out as my own personal act of rebellion against the old-school mentality Knight represented. I couldn’t wait to make it happen.
Fully one hour before tipoff between Arkansas and Kentucky in Rupp Arena, Knight walked onto the court. At that point in the pre-game, there were very few people around and it seemed like my best chance to make a move. I scouted out the scene, saw only one real "bodyguard" in his vicinity and thought I would do what I always do in such situations: Practice the adage "Fortune favors the bold" and go up and ask for the money shot. If someone tried to stop me, I would push through. I would get my picture by whatever means necessary. After all, it is rare one can get so close to a person that they have disliked for so long.
As I approached the table, memories of my dislike for Knight ran through my head. This was the man who threw the chair, took the picture with the whip and slapped Joe B. Hall in the head, for goodness sake. Now I was just mere feet from him.
I went up to a familiar Rupp Arena usher and asked what Knight was doing about potential picture seekers or autograph requests. Much to my surprise he said, "We told him that we would keep people away, but he said no. ‘If they want to talk to me, that’s fine.’"
"If they want to talk to me, that’s fine?" Well, I want to talk to you, Bobby, so let’s have at it.
But wait, could he really be this accommodating? Such news took me slightly off-guard. I was prepared to mock my expected vision of old, nasty Knight telling the powers that be that no mere mortal could get near him and that he was to be left alone. But here was Knight being, dare I say, gracious and allowing fans to meet him in the flesh.
Like I said, I was thrown off my game. Did I have Knight wrong? Was he a victim of the media, a coach given a bad public perception thanks to a few less than stellar moments, someone falsely assumed to have a terrible personality?
As I approached him for a picture, all of the years of visceral dislike went away in an instant. Instead of a warrior waiting to cast decades of revenge, I became a fan going up to a celebrity and simply asking for a moment of his time.
I tapped Knight on the shoulder meekly and said in a whisper, "Coach (I can’t believe I called him Coach … I hate when people call someone "Coach" who is not a coach, as if the title is like “President” or “General,” one bestowed for life), may I have a picture?"
He looked back and said "Sure, sit down."
I completely lost the entirety of my mojo … instead of a rebellious selfie that could go viral, I handed my phone to a lady next to us and asked, "Can you take a picture of us?" as if we were tourists in the middle of Times Square.
She snapped the photo and I thanked Knight and scurried off before he could add more to the conversation.
Abject failure. I realized that was the only true explanation of my mission as I walked away. I blew the moment I had waited on for years. In fact, I blew it in the worst way possible, not by chickening out, but by instead acting in the utmost lame manner.
I sat down in the Rupp Arena media room and checked out the photo, hoping for the best. Maybe it would salvage the moment.
Tell me that is not the perfect Bobby Knight picture. One person smiling like a school kid thrilled in the moment, Bobby Knight being Bobby Knight. He looks not only uninterested, but downright disdainful of the moment and the scowl on his face would make a child cry. In short, it is perfect.
No, it didn’t happen the way I planned. But as musician David Allan Coe once realized after penning his iconic country western song, I have created the perfect Bobby Knight picture. What more could you want?