Columnist Mark Heisler covers the NBA for the Los Angeles Times. Steve Delsohn is a correspondent for ESPN. Both live in California and together penned Bob Knight: The Unauthorized Biography.
texasmonthly.com: Which aspect of Bob Knight’s life and career most inspired you to further explore and chronicle his life?
Mark Heisler: There’s no doubt that the different parts, you know the fact that he’s got a temper and gets in trouble a lot, certainly sets him apart from the crowd. But I’ve been around the guy enough to know he is just a truly fascinating guy, a charismatic guy, as smart as anything, and as anybody will attest, anybody who follows basketball knows he is just a tremendous coach—probably more so than most people even understand, because one of his problems is, or was at Indiana, he began doing it with lesser players, and almost seemed to prefer it that way. They’re gonna be nicer, you know they would do exactly what he said. He could make his lesser players the equal of other peoples’ greatest players. And he’s just fascinating, the whole package. You don’t see it every day.
Steve Delsohn: It’s a combination of excellence and borderline madness in a guy whose behavior is extreme, and whose success is also extreme. There seems to be no neutral ground with Knight and that’s really why he’s such a fascinating character.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, why did Coach Gerald Myers of Texas Tech go out of his way to secure the head coaching position for Knight after he was fired from Indiana University and criticized so harshly?
MH: Well, even with the baggage, Knight is a tremendous coup for a school like Texas Tech, which would’ve been way down the food chain if Knight hadn’t been in trouble, out of work. Sports is a very competitive thing and your troubles in one area don’t necessarily mean very much in another.
SD: Well, of course, there was the new and expensive arena, with the meager attendance history, so you know they wanted to fill the place. Knight is a proven moneymaker. Also, there was an old friendship there that went back years. When Myers looked at Knight, he saw someone who could resurrect the program, and when Knight looked back at Myers, he saw someone who would grant him autonomy with his team, which has always been a big thing for Bob Knight.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that Texans, more than most Americans, sympathize with and encourage Knight?
MH: I’m a person who believes that people are more alike than common lore would lead you to believe, so I think that anybody would’ve been happy for Knight to come in and take over his basketball team. I guess there’s something to say in Texas for self-reliance, and his wife certainly believed that the Southwest would be a good place for him. If he wins, people are going to like him, and if he pulls the same stuff as the past couple of years at Indiana, he’ll get in trouble there the same way he did at Indiana. I think the same standards really do apply.
SD: No, the bottom line is always gonna be the same. As long as Knight wins at Tech the university will stand behind him. If he starts to lose, he’ll be held more accountable for his actions. Maybe Texans are more tolerant of his temper than others; I don’t really know, but I think the same thing would happen anywhere, really. You win, it’s all good, start to lose, and people will question your actions, ask what’s going on.
texasmonthly.com: Your book has been critically lauded for the extensive inclusion of sources, both lovers and loathers of Knight, many who had never previously gone on record. Of all of your interviewees, who do you think provided the most valuable insights into Knight’s life and career?
MH: First of all, Steve Delsohn did most of the reporting on this. When I saw what he had I was amazed because I didn’t know there would be that much lying around waiting to be gathered on Knight. A lot of his players were great. One guy who was especially good was Christopher Simpson, who was the VP of Public Affairs and Government Relations at Indiana. He gave us a lot of insight into the backstage action that was going on in the months leading up to Knight’s dismissal, because he was [former Indiana University president] Myles Brand’s right-hand man but also close friends with Knight. He knows both sides, quite directly, although Knight later acted like they had never been friendly in any way. There was a long list of players—Pat Graham, Todd Leary, Steve Risley, Isiah Thomas. Andre Emmett, who was the big star for Texas Tech when Knight was there, had a lot to say and was very straight about it, unbiased.
SD: That’s hard. See, a lot of different people brought different insights. One interview that stands out is Steve Risley, who played at IU in the early eighties, and his detailed account of how Knight used the word “nigger” while reaming out Isiah Thomas, a star player. You know there was tons of controversy surrounding the incident, and Knight fervently denied it, but Risley remembered everything vividly; he’d been sitting on it all these years. He was just a real straight shooter in the interview.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that getting fired from IU in 2000 resulted in any discernible change of behavior in Knight? Why or why not?
MH: Um, well the thing about Knight is that he basically stays Bob Knight. It’s admirable and confounding and terrible at the same time, the strength that he has. I think that a year away is really an eye-opener to what the game really means to you. But he has been much more circumspect at Texas Tech. There haven’t been any incidents in the past few years, except for the cafeteria incident. He certainly hasn’t grabbed anyone in the throat. There is a thirty-second diatribe we have on record, which is just filled with obscenities. And we showed that to Andre Emmett and asked, “Does this sound like the guy you know?” and he said, “Definitely. Yes.” So, I guess a leopard doesn’t change its spots, but Knight seems to have changed direction to some degree.
SD: He’s calmer, but he’s not calm. By his standards, he’s eased up, but not compared with most human beings. He’s slightly less manic on the sidelines during games. His second marriage has really changed things for him a lot, I’d say. Knight is happier; his wife is a basketball coach herself, and she understands him better than anyone could, I think.
texasmonthly.com: You usually cover the NBA (Heisler) and ESPN features (Delsohn). What inspired this intensive coverage of college basketball? Was it Knight himself?
MH: This project was started by Delsohn, but I’ve been around Knight a little bit. I covered UCLA for one year, and I was on the Olympic beat when Knight was here in 1984. I definitely found him different [laughs]. I have written about him quite a lot, for somebody who’s not a college basketball writer. I know a lot of writers who are close to him, so I used to talk to them about him. Before this, I had spent time doing lots of projects on him, writing about him.
SD: Just that he’s a fascinating character and an even more fascinating project.
texasmonthly.com: As experts on sports and sports fans, how do you think that die-hard college basketball fans perceive Knight? Do Texan sports fans differ from the status quo at all?
MH: First of all, I don’t think there’s a big difference between the way Texas college basketball fans or California basketball fans or Indiana fans or anybody would react. It’s basically the same game, and it’s basically about winning. If you happen to really care, Knight really does try to do it the right way. He doesn’t cheat. There’s a real dark side to college basketball, which is all about getting the players, especially if you’re not one of the top two or three places. Duke can snap its fingers and get whoever it wants. Farther down the food chain, people are really fighting for players; they’re buying them and giving them money under the table and so on and so forth. Knight doesn’t do any of that. And I think anyone anywhere would find it admirable that he plays by the rules as written and not the rules as practiced. It’s all about winning and losing. I think if Knight did everything he did and had a career-winning percentage under .500, nobody would’ve paid attention to him. When he went to the tournament last year and won three rounds deep into the tournament, that got people’s attention. And all of a sudden, everybody perks right back up and says, “Oh, Bob Knight, here he is again.” There are people who would tell you that geography makes a lot of difference, but I would be one to say that people are more alike than we commonly say they are.
SD: Texas Tech and IU fans adore him. Above everything, Knight is an amazing coach. He’s made a lot of enemies, but he likes it—the spotlight, the controversy. He knows what will get him negative attention, but he doesn’t care. He likes to blame the media, and he loves the attention, he really does. And no, I think that what applies in Texas applies everywhere.
texasmonthly.com: What do you predict for Knight’s future at Texas Tech? Glory? Infamy? IU again? Victory?
MH: You just can’t say with Knight. But I would say I’d expect the rest of his tenure at Texas Tech to be pretty much like the years he’s already put in there. I wouldn’t expect him to have a meltdown, I wouldn’t expect him to do anything terrible. I wouldn’t expect him to be as successful as he was at IU, because he just can’t get the same kind of players. The other thing is, the longer he’s there, the smoother that program will run and the more it will become his program. The other thing is, I think it’s really great for him to have his son alongside him. Pat’s a very strong personality in his own right, and Bob thinks a lot of him. Pat may play a very important role in not letting his father get down too low, getting in a mood like his down-cycles at Indiana.
SD: He’s not having a great year right now, but I suspect he’ll continue to be successful. I really think he’ll break records for all-time wins in college basketball. He’s close.
texasmonthly.com: Do you know how Bob Knight himself has responded to your book?
MH: As far as I know, he knows about it and isn’t crazy about the idea. He didn’t talk to us, not that that was surprising. I wouldn’t know, but I wouldn’t expect him to be throwing a party because of it.
SD: I’m sure he hasn’t read it, but it’s too early to say what his response will be.
texasmonthly.com: Any other similar works in progress right now?
MH: Uhhh, no. [Laughs] Just working the day job right now.
SD: Mark and I are talking about whether we might want to do something, but so far, there’s nothing concrete in the works.