I grew up in Fairland, IN, a town without a stop light. Fairland was as small as small towns get. In that time in Indiana, basketball was king and Coach Bob Knight was God. He was an angry God, but he was our God…and we loved it.
Everyone that grew up in Indiana during the Knight era, had heard all the rumors about what a tyrant he was, we’d seen him drop a not-so-subtle head butt to a player on the bench, and every high school locker room had a copy of the “secret” recording of his profanity-ridden tirade to his players in 1991. In 1998, we all heard about Neil Reed’s allegations that he had been choked by Coach Knight at a practice. We had heard very negative thing associated with Bob Knight and we couldn’t have given less of a shit. When it came to Bob Knight, we were Ride or Die! Except my grandma. She didn’t like him because he cussed. But no one gave a shit what she thought.
Nearly every kid that grew up in Indiana dreamed of playing basketball at IU for Bob Knight. He was bigger than life! We had the occasional weirdo that wanted to play for Purdue because they were raised wrong, but they were few and far between. We all wanted to be on TV, wearing the cream and crimson and getting screamed at during a timeout by Coach Bob Knight. That would make you a legend in Indiana forever.
So, if we all felt that way and certainly thought we knew what to expect if we got the opportunity to play for his program…why didn’t Neil Reed know this? He played 2 years of High School basketball in Bloomington, IN. The home of IU! How was he not ready for this?!
Well, here’s the problem. It appears that very few young men that played for Bob Knight enjoyed playing for him. There are a few notables, like Isiah Thomas, that have spoken well of their relationship with him but it appears the majority would be fine never speaking to him again. Dan Dakich, who played for 4 years and coached for 12 years under Knight, has gone on record with this several times and expanded on it even more during his call-in during the December 4th episode of The Pat Mcafee Show 2.0.
I don’t think any 17-year-old kid can fully know what they’re getting into when it comes to things like this. Besides, you shouldn’t have to possess the intestinal fortitude of a Navy Seal to play Division I basketball. I understand this now, but at the time I thought you should. At least if you wanted to play for us.
So I had joined the chorus by calling Neil Reed a liar who had sour grapes over not being mentally tough enough to start for a Bob Knight team. Then in 2000, the tape from that practice finally surfaced. Yup, Knight grabbed him by the throat. But so what? I had seen worse done to my friends by coaches and I had certainly had worse done to me, so I was like “Ok, he was telling the truth. But who cares? He’s just a crybaby.”
Last night I watched ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary Last Days Of Knight. I’d seen most of the coverage before, when the story broke in 2000. I had seen the choking video, Reed’s interview and the reaction to Knight being fired. What I hadn’t seen before and what this documentary added to the narrative, was the human element associated with Neil Reed.
This documentary showed Neil Reed watching the choking video for the very first time and his reaction was haunting. He squirmed in his chair and fought back tears as he watched the monitor. You could see that his mind’s eye had instantly transported him back to a traumatizing time in his life. He struggled to verbalize how he felt watching the video and I felt so sorry for him. This changed everything.
Whether or not I would’ve been less affected by the same experience Reed had at IU, no longer mattered. The dad in me took over real quick as I watched him melt on camera. Neil Reed isn’t me or anyone else. He is an individual. And as such, he grew up idolizing Coach Knight and the IU program and dreamed his entire life of playing there. He made it 3 years and then left, or was forced out, depending who you talk to.
Was Neil Reed traumatized from his time there because Coach Knight bullied and terrorized him for 3 years? Was he traumatized because he spent 3 years watching his childhood dream slowly burn to the ground while he was inside it? It’s most likely a combination of both. Either way, he was clearly traumatized by his time at IU and seeing that had a deep effect on me.
Ultimately, Bob Knight was never able to adapt with the times and change his coaching style as it related to the treatment of players. Hell, I went to Marine Corps bootcamp in 1990 and they had already established a policy that the drill instructors couldn’t put their hands on you. That was the Marines! Who’s job it is to prepare you for war!
Bob Knight knew better and he was wrong. He was the most powerful person in the State Of Indiana and he ruled IU for decades with complete autonomy. That was power. A power that I believe corrupted him.
There’s no doubt he’s done his fair share of philanthropy and I’m sure he’s a great father…but as a coach, he became a tyrant and young players suffered from it. The program suffered from it. During his last five years as head coach, IU was mediocre at best. Despite the talent on the roster, the players just didn’t seem on board with Knight and their lack of passion showed on the court. IU’s last Sweet 16 appearance, under Knight, was in ’94.
It’s taken me 47 years to come to this conclusion but Coach Bob Knight was a real asshole. I met him once and he was an asshole to me, but at the time I thought it was a badge of honor. “Coach Knight embarrassed me in front of my friends. And it was awesome!!!” But I didn’t work my entire life to be good enough to be able to play for one of the top Division I Basketball programs in the country, just to have it become the worst 4 years of my life.
That happened to Reed and plenty of others and I hate that for them. I hate that another one of my heroes has fallen. But I don’t hate that I watched Last Days of Knight. I’m glad I was able to learn more about Neil Reed and that, for the very first time, I didn’t see him as the whiny-ass kid that got our coach fired. I saw him as a young man that showed true courage and faced some serious demons in order to help make us all aware of what was happening inside IU’s Men’s Basketball Program.
Neil Reed was a beloved father, husband, teacher and coach who died of a heart attack in 2012. He never got to see this documentary and that’s a damn shame. #RIP Neil Reed. I was wrong about you buddy. My bad.