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The lightning rod legacy of college basketball's Bobby Knight

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Coach Bobby Knight, Hoosierland's general, died yesterday at the age of 83. Even to casual basketball fans, he was known as a force to be reckoned with.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBBY KNIGHT: Somebody says to me, how do you get your teams to play as hard as they do? What's your secret? Well, there is absolutely no secret. You're either going to play hard, or you're not going to play.

SUMMERS: What was also no secret was his erratic and sometimes violent behavior, from yelling to throwing things to allegations of sexual misconduct. Still, college basketball can't forget the Hall of Famer's results on the court. Gregg Doyel is a sports columnist at Indy Star who's written extensively about Coach Knight. And when we spoke earlier today, I asked him what the mood was in Bloomington, Ind., and in the college basketball world in light of Knight's passing.

GREGG DOYEL: Well, those are two different things. In college basketball world, people are sorry that one of the all-time greats is gone. But they understand that, man, was that a roller coaster ride he took everybody on. And, really, his legacy is quite complicated. And you got to get into that. That's everywhere but this state. In this state, it is - you know he's the legend, the general. And don't you dare even mention anything negative about this, not in the 24 hours after we found out about his death, which I disagree with. You know, my job and your job, our job is to address every elephant in the room, and there's a lot of them there.

SUMMERS: OK, let's dig into this a little bit more here. I want to talk a little bit about Bob Knight's coaching style. Your piece from yesterday really gets into it. Can you remind us of the story about the red chair and what it tells us about Bob Knight?

DOYEL: IU was playing Purdue. Whoever they were playing almost doesn't matter anymore because what happened was a referee made a call Knight didn't like. He was so frustrated, didn't know what else to do until he had - he saw a chair. It was empty. It was probably his chair - flung it across the court. And what that shows is two things. It shows that his temper was outrageous, and, two, he really couldn't control it. Or - and we'll never know because we can't read his mind - or maybe he could control it and did these things as theater.

SUMMERS: I mean, he's known outside of your state, as you point out, for that temper, his hard exterior. But we should also note that he had a number of meaningful relationships with past players and a coaching influence that resonates today still in college basketball. Can you talk a little bit about that?

DOYEL: Yeah, there's so much good there. There really is. And it's not just the basketball, although, yes, he was brilliant. He did reshape the game. He didn't invent what's called the motion offense. He did not invent that. But he perfected it and brought that everywhere. Even teams like Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson - they have run motion principles that they no doubt got because Bob Knight mastered them 40 years ago. So Knight's influence is enormous. Beyond that, off the court, he donated money to libraries, and he got books for kids. And he did not cheat in a sport and an era where everybody cheats. He didn't do it. So there's so much - and he wanted his players to graduate - very impressive man in so many ways.

SUMMERS: His accolades are well-documented, but as some of your column suggests, Coach Knight also had a good side that he didn't want broadcasted. What is at the heart of that?

DOYEL: There are some people that just don't want to be praised for the sake of being praised. You know, they don't do it for the headlines. And that's who he was. I hear all the time from his former managers, from people that didn't play for him at all - just that bumped into him somewhere that he did some small act of kindness, the beautiful kind, the acts of kindness that are huge. Yeah. That's great. That's wonderful. But it's the little things you do on a daily basis that make you special. Bob Knight had that character to him, but then he had - you can't even finish that sentence without saying, but then, because you just can't - if you stop there, that's almost like saying everything about him is OK because this. No. No. There's a but then that follows every sentence you want to say about him.

SUMMERS: Bob Knight certainly complicated his own legacy. But today, the day after his death, how do you see it? How do you think that, by and large, he will be remembered?

DOYEL: Well, he's got a 40-year track record of who he was, and I think that's going to follow him everywhere in the best of ways and in the worst of ways. I think 20 years from now, when people talk about Bob Knight, they're going to talk about arguably the greatest coach of his generation, maybe even all time. But holy cow, did he have issues. I think that's going to always be his legacy everywhere. It's got to be.

SUMMERS: Gregg Doyel is the sports columnist at Indy Star. Thanks for being here.

DOYEL: Hey, Juana. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jason Fuller
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.