Here Be Dragons—Bonefishing with Bob Knight, By Kevin Koenig (continued)
Photos by Billy Black
Bob Knight is nothing short of a tour de force. Think of the strongest, most charismatic personality you’ve ever met. Now multiply it by 10. That’s Bob Knight. He is constantly testing people. Bullying, cajoling, charming, asking pointed questions out loud so everyone can hear. One minute he will lean over conspiratorially and whisper a joke in your ear. You will laugh, because Knight really is a funny bastard. You will think, This man really likes me. Then you will ask him a question he doesn’t quite like the bend of. And he will look you square in the eye with nothing short of malice and go stone silent. You will think, Wow, this guy actually hates me. Truth be told, in my five days with Knight I was never quite sure where I stood with him, which is ironic, since Knight is famous for not mincing words. His naked contempt for the media is no secret. He calls us “the press,” and spits it out like it’s an epithet.
He has his reasons. Knight has been a public figure since 1965, when he accepted the head-coaching job at West Point at the ripe old age of 25. And ever since then The General (another nickname, though he was actually a private first class) has been waging war against those who would purport to tell the world about him. Because despite the best efforts of journalism professors and well-meaning editors, newsrooms are far too often brutal places for those who refuse to sugarcoat hard truths. If it bleeds, it leads, and Knight’s words can cut to the bone.
His temper is legendary, and part and parcel of who he is. He understands this and wields his fury like a man who brought a baseball bat to a fistfight. Even at his age, when Knight unleashes he can be terrifying. Not that he seems to do it very often these days. “I don’t really get mad at people much anymore,” he says to me in an early moment of reflection on the skiff. “But I still get mad at things. If I brought the wrong fly out here, or packed the wrong box for this trip, I’d get madder than hell. But by now I know who the people are who make me angry, and I just stay away from them.”
This is major progress.
You know about the chair. Everybody knows about the chair. The one he flung onto the court in a fit of rage during a game in 1985 to protest a call. In a career full of incredibly high highs, that low low became his signature moment. I suggest you not ask him about it if you see him on the street.
His temper, of course, has gotten him in trouble too many times to count. There was the time he was arrested in Puerto Rico during the Pan-Am Games in 1979, while serving as head coach of the U.S. national team, for allegedly striking a cop (more on that later). The press had a field day with that one. Truckloads of sanctimonious columnists spilled ink calling for his head, saying he had no place representing America in international competition. Indeed it would take the unmitigated support of legendary U.S. congressman Tip O’Neill to get Knight instated as the U.S. Olympic coach in 1984. Knight led the U.S. team to gold, but not before sending Charles Barkley packing for being too fat. “He came in at 283,” Knight says of the Round Mound of Rebound. “And he lost 9 pounds in the first week, and then we had a week off. I knew he was going home, and I told him he had to lose 9 more pounds during that week. But when he came back to practice, he had actually gained weight. I told him ‘Charles, you’re gone.’ ”
You may also have seen the grainy YouTube footage of what looks like Knight grabbing one of his own players by the throat during practice in 1997. That incident got him put on a “zero tolerance” policy at Indiana. Three years later he was alleged to have grabbed Indiana freshman Kent Harvey by the arm, delivering a somewhat spirited lecture to him on civility and respect for his elders. Harvey complained to the school. And that was the end of Knight’s time in Bloomington. Harvey’s stepfather, it turned out, was Mark Shaw, a former Bloomington-area radio host and an outspoken critic of Knight. Many smelled a conspiracy. During his farewell speech, Knight asked 6,000 adoring, enraged supporters not to hold Harvey responsible for his firing. He may very well have prevented a lynching.
Knight’s good friend, former college roommate and all-time NBA great John Havlicek was also along on this fishing trip. He says of Knight, “He’s always been like that. Since he was 17. Everybody’s got buttons. Robert’s just got a lot of them. And they’re big.”
But with all the backstory on what a tyrant Knight is, the surprising thing is how charming he actually can be. There’s a twinkle in his eye. He smirks a lot, though rarely smiles. He is constantly joking and taking the piss out of people. That nickname Dragon? He got it after he showed up freshman year at Ohio State and told everyone he was in a gang of car thieves back home called The Dragons. Everyone believed him. But as it turned out, The Dragons were a total figment of his imagination. “I just make up these stories to amuse myself sometimes, to see how gullible people are. Life can get pretty boring otherwise,” says Knight.
Another thing about Knight that you might not expect is that he is surprisingly good-looking. He looks like an aging movie star who was cast to play Bob Knight in a biopic. A shock of stubborn white hair that he cuts himself (you can tell), fiery blue eyes, tall — mix that with the mantle of his celebrity and it’s a killer combination. He’s 74 and women still respond to him. A few of the native Bahamian girls, workers at the hotel and plump in the island way, literally clung to his side whenever they saw him. Shy, middle-aged housewives approached him nearly every time we ate in the restaurant at the Bimini Big Game Club, where we were staying. They stand meekly off to the side, waiting to introduce themselves, their sons, their husbands. And Knight eventually notices them and says something disarmingly funny, and you can see it, the women actually melt. Right there in front of their husbands.
As we posed for a photo in front of the Big Game Club’s front sign, a passing tourist, in her mid-30s with an infant in her arms, stopped and stood off to the side so as not to interrupt the shot. Knight saw this, and half jogged out from the back of the photo to grab her lightly by the shoulders. “Miss, you need to get in here with that baby to brighten this shot up. Come on now, stand right here … of course I’m sure.” She did as she was told, wide-eyed. After the picture she came up to me and asked, “Who was that guy?” As if Superman had just swooped down from the sky.
I said, “That’s Bob Knight.”
“Who’s he?” she responded.
“Go tell your husband you just met Bob Knight,” I said. “He’s a basketball coach.” And she hurried off.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Anglers Journal, available here ▶