I’m Indiana born and bred, a Hoosier, through and through. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s when the Indiana Hoosiers basketball program was a juggernaut. At the helm of that program was one of the most legendary and ultimately notorious coaches in the history of the sport, Bob Knight. For most of my childhood through early adulthood, Bob Knight was, without question, the most powerful single person in Indiana. He earned his nickname, “The General” through his iron-willed insistence on perfection and, in fact, his 1976 team actually achieved that goal, the last college basketball team to finish a season undefeated. Knight was always controversial in his methods, driving his teams with ferocious intensity and intimidation. Throughout his career, there were those outside Indiana who questioned The General’s methods, but for most of us Hoosiers, Bob Knight could do no wrong. He gave us an identity that we could wear with pride. In the decade between the mid-1970s through the mid 80s, Bob Knight led Indiana University to three national championships. In the Bible-belt state where I grew up, Bob Knight was just about a half step below God Almighty in the estimation of millions of Hoosier basketball fans. Then, slowly but surely, society and the game of basketball began to change. It became less fashionable for coaches to push their players to excel by using the intimidating tactics of a military leader–but The General refused to change with the times. Throughout the 1990s, Bob Knight still managed to put together winning basketball teams, but the consistent run of national championships dried up. By the time the national tournament rolled around, Knight’s teams often seemed to be worn down and began to make early exits from March Madness. Some fans began to question whether Knight’s intense approach to coaching was too much for modern players to take. Then, disturbing details of alleged abuse slowly began to emerge. The General’s image began to tarnish in the early 90s and by the end of that decade, his reign over a basketball-crazed state was over–for most, at least.
ESPN just aired a documentary in their 30 for 30 series about Bob Knight’s fall from his throne as King of Indiana Basketball called, The Last Days of Knight. I recorded the show on my DVR and waited a few days before I watched it. As a lifelong Hoosier fan and a graduate of Indiana University, I had to see it. I knew it would be an excellent documentary, but I wasn’t looking forward to it because I also knew it would be an uncomfortable experience. I was right on both counts. There weren’t many details of the story that ultimately ended Bob Knight’s career at IU that I didn’t already know. I lived through all of it. I knew well the story of Knight and Neil Reed. Reed was a star guard at IU who claimed Knight choked him in a practice. Reed left the program and transferred to a different school. In fact, lots of players began leaving IU’s basketball program during the 1990s. Most left without much fanfare, but Reed’s departure left a gigantic meteor crater in my state. When Reed’s accusation first came out, many at the university along with thousands of fans around the state began vilifying him as a soft kid who couldn’t hack Knight’s toughness, claiming he made up the story because he had an axe to grind. Then other former players began to emerge, some verifying Reed’s story and some adding their own stories, some of them just as disturbing as Reed’s claim. A reporter from CNN began investigating the whole thing. At some point in his investigation, someone sent that reporter a tape that showed, without a doubt, that Knight had, indeed, angrily and aggressively grabbed Neil Reed by the neck in practice. It was plain as day and there was no more denying it. That was the beginning of the end for The General at Indiana.
You’d think that it would have been the end of Bob Knight’s support among Indiana’s fan base.
You’d be wrong.
It was, in fact, the end of his support from the majority of IU fans. But there was a significant minority of Hoosier fans who doubled down even after the details of the disturbing history of abusive behavior came out. This was the part of the story told in The Last Days of Knight that I was not as familiar with–or perhaps I had blocked it from my memory. After Knight was fired, there were riots on IU’s campus. The university president at that time, Myles Brand–the man whose signature is on my diploma–had effigies of himself burned in his front yard. University property was vandalized and destroyed. Death threats were made against President Brand and his family. An IU professor, Murray Sperber, who had spoken out against Knight during the investigation also had death threats made against him and he was forced to take an unpaid leave of absence and temporarily relocate his family to Canada. While most Hoosier fans, like myself, distanced ourselves from our former coach, licking our wounds in shame, wondering how we could have been so taken in by this tyrant, there was a small but significant portion of Hoosier Nation that was enraged by the firing of their coach and emboldened to act despicably to let the world know just what they thought about it.
Most of us Hoosier fans have long since gotten over the Knight era. We support the program now for what it is, hoping to see it return to the prominence it once enjoyed. We’re still proud of those championship banners that hang in Assembly Hall and the players who earned them, but we are not proud of the dark legacy of the coach who reigned when they were being hung. But if you spend any time at all in the Hoosier Nation’s various online community forums, you’ll quickly learn that there is still a small group of diehard, hardcore Knight supporters among us. Just the other day, in a thread about Neil Reed, I read the following comment from one of those Knight disciples: “I wish Knight had finished the job”, implying, I suppose, that Knight should have choked Reed to death? I couldn’t believe it. Especially in light of the rest of the story of Neil Reed, who went on to become a beloved high school coach in California, positively impacting the lives of many kids in a non-tyrant way that Bob Knight could never understand. Tragically, Neil Reed died of a massive heart attack at the age of 36–making that rabid Knight supporter’s callous comment even more disgusting. I wish it weren’t true, but I have to admit to you outsiders that there are still, after all these years, a small but vocal chunk of IU’s fan base that is all in for Bob Knight. It is the most shameful part of being an IU fan, without question.
As I watched The Last Days of Knight, it was as clear as the nose on my face that these people who still support Knight are just like the small but vocal group of Americans who are still all in for Donald Trump. In fact, I’d wager that almost all the Knight supporters are also Trump supporters.
Sometimes, the prospect of winning blinds us to the methods used to extract victories. When those methods are eventually brought to light, most reasonable people become very uncomfortable with them. Most of us got off the Bob Knight train when we could no longer turn a blind eye to his antics. For others, however, that switch was never flipped. They saw the accusations as an attack on themselves and their identity. They were so drunk with the prospect of winning that they could not separate themselves long enough to take in the difficult facts. They became attached to the denials of their leader and bought in at all costs. They became martyrs for scandal. Similarly, many former Trump supporters have seen the light. They realize that they were taken in by an unscrupulous con man and have distanced themselves from him. Yet, there is a small but significant group that holds fast to the sinking ship. They are prepared to defend the honor of their “general” to the end. Even though Trump has a multitude of “Neil Reeds” in his past, his remaining supporters choose to deflect it all and vilify anyone and everyone involved in the effort to topple their champion.
It came as no surprise to me that when Donald Trump held a rally in Indianapolis in early November–not more than 5 miles from my home–he chose none other than Bob Knight to join him on stage to help whip his supporters into a frenzy. They are two birds of a feather, bullies with a pulpit, tyrants who believe that the end will justify any means. And their supporters are one and the same in my state.
It makes me sad and fills me with shame to think that, when Trump’s last days as leader come to pass, those same followers will again take to the streets and cause all sorts of mayhem. There will be effigies burned, property destroyed, death threats issued. There will be blood.
I wish it weren’t true, but there is small but vocal–and dangerous–chunk of America that is still all in for Trump.
They are martyrs for scandal.
It’s the most shameful part of being an American, without question.
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