BLOOMINGTON — Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall has seen a lot in its 52-year history.
But the 50 hours from Wednesday through Friday evening were unlike any others in the history of this storied building.
And yet, they were also strangely normal.
Fans strolled into the arena Wednesday evening for Indiana women’s basketball’s exhibition against Northwood, and there was no reason to think they’d experience anything significant beyond attending a basketball game at Assembly Hall. And then, around 40 minutes before tipoff, news circulated on X, formerly known as Twitter, that legendary IU men’s basketball coach Bob Knight had passed away.
The arena was maybe half-full Wednesday — a great turnout for a women’s basketball exhibition game, but not close to the full Assembly Hall experience. Still, nothing felt off leading up to the game despite the news. Typical upbeat pregame music blared through the speakers as the players warmed up, and things felt mostly normal.
But behind the scenes, as some IU employees learned the news, they became emotional. And when the teams lined up for the national anthem, the scoreboard displayed a graphic commemorating Knight as public address announcer Jeremy Gray read a statement announcing the news and calling for a moment of silence.
Many in the crowd — and on the court — learned of Knight’s passing in that moment. Audible gasps and expressions of surprise and sadness chimed in from around the seating bowl. A memorial was quickly set up outside the arena, with candles, flowers, and a chair sitting next to the plaque honoring Knight’s undefeated 1976 championship team.
From then on, it was a normal evening of basketball — as it should’ve been, with IU women’s basketball tuning up to defend its Big Ten title. Head coach Teri Moren talked about Knight’s impact, and Mackenzie Holmes and Sara Scalia did their best to weigh in when prompted to.
But it was obvious, the next two days would bring more scenes Assembly Hall hadn’t witnessed before.
Indiana head men’s basketball coach Mike Woodson walked into the Assembly Hall press room Thursday evening, sat down at the podium, and began speaking about his former basketball coach and lifelong mentor.
IU called a press conference with Woodson, director of player development and former Knight player Calbert Cheaney, and current team captains Trey Galloway and Xavier Johnson, to talk about Knight.
Cheaney didn’t show much emotion as he spoke, and the current players could only offer so much on Knight.
But it was clear, pretty quickly, that this was not any standard media availability for IU’s head coach.
Woodson is a man — shaped by his years coaching in the NBA, with six years as Atlanta Hawks head coach, and five total years spent around the New York media market, including two as Knicks head coach — who typically has his shields up when talking to reporters. His answers are often short and to the point, and his press conferences can feel shorter at times because of it — in comparison to both counterparts around the Big Ten and at IU (Moren).
But Woodson always liked to reference his own playing days — occasionally in third person — and even if he wasn’t directly naming Knight in those responses, the references were implied when discussing that era of Hoosiers basketball. Those moments, when he talks about that time period, are often when Woodson is most candid.
And Thursday, Woodson was as candid as you’ll ever see him. It wasn’t so much in his words — the transcript doesn’t do justice to the 15 minutes Woodson spent in the press room. His answers gave insight, but his body language spoke volumes. The emotional weight of the previous 24 hours reflected through his eyes and his voice.
“The program will truly miss an icon,” Woodson said. “It’s hard to really describe in words what he meant to me, but boy, I wouldn’t be sitting in this seat today if it wasn’t for Bob Knight.”
And sometimes, what he didn’t say spoke even louder.
When asked how he learned the news of Knight’s passing and what that last day was like afterwards, Woodson shared that longtime head athletic trainer Tim Garl informed him after he showered following Indiana’s practice. He then thought about what he’d gone through after that bombshell landed, and could only muster, “It’s tough. I mean…”
And then Woodson paused, for five seconds that felt like minutes, shook his head and bit his lip. He tried to find the words, but seemingly realized he couldn’t verbalize it without breaking down.
Then came another pause — this time seven silent seconds that felt like hours — as he blankly stared towards the back of the room, trying to stay composed. It was, perhaps, a fitting tribute to Knight’s tough-guy persona to avoid displaying too much emotion.
“Next question please.”
Knight’s death gave entirely new meaning to Indiana’s exhibition against Marian on Friday, which the Hoosiers won 94-61.
Suddenly, it was no longer just an exhibition game. It was the first time Woodson and his team took the floor since “The General” passed. IU donned its commemorative jersey patches — with Knight’s initials and three stars for his three national championships — for the first time.
Assembly Hall was a little more than half-full when the lights dimmed and a Knight tribute video played before the game. The crowd stood and applauded at its conclusion. The “Martha The Mop Lady” video followed on the scoreboard, but it wasn’t the same video that plays before every other game in this building. It was a different version, from the 1980s, that featured Knight at the end of the video.
IU held another pregame moment of silence, this time introduced by longtime broadcaster Don Fischer. During timeouts throughout the game, the video board displayed messages about Knight from former players and other notable figures, with photos. At halftime, IU showed the video of Knight’s public return to Assembly Hall during the IU-Purdue game in 2020. Fans responded with a standing ovation and chanted “Bobby!”
Other notable Hoosiers have passed through the years, but none that carried such significance as Knight. In that sense, these were unprecedented scenes in this arena.
But despite the tributes, it felt like any other exhibition game would. There weren’t constant crowd shots of fans holding up “R.I.P. Coach” signs. It wasn’t a two-hour memorial for Knight. The focus was — rightfully — on the current players. This contest didn’t count for IU’s record this season, but fans came to Assembly Hall to watch a basketball game, not to attend a wake.
Woodson didn’t prepare for this game any differently than he normally would, but Knight was certainly in his thoughts.
“Knowing that he’s not around anymore, it means more now, to me,” Woodson said. “I wish I could do all the things he’s done as a coach, which is impossible, for me. My thoughts will always be with him. They’ll never go anywhere. As long as I come into this building, knowing that this Bob Knight’s building, I’m going to always think about him. And just hopefully I can make him proud. That’s all I think about every day when I come here and work and coach.”
Yes, Friday was the first time Indiana men’s basketball played a game since Knight passed away. In the shadow of the three championship banners he helped raise. On the same court as the many memorable wins he authored. The same floor that staged his many outbursts, and where he grabbed a player by the throat, one of the things that ultimately led to his downfall in Bloomington.
The court at Assembly Hall is named for Branch McCracken, but Bob Knight’s legacy — both the good and the bad — is as much a part of this floor’s makeup as the wood panels that physically form it.
He made the public return in 2020, and he came back in private on several other occasions since to attend practices, particularly after Woodson took over as head coach. But after refusing to mend that fence and step foot in the building for 20 years after he was fired, his larger-than-life influence on the state of Indiana, the university, and the program diminished.
It didn’t completely evaporate. But the Bob Knight that Indiana fans revered showed his face publicly in Assembly Hall one time in the 23 years spanning from his firing to his death. If this hallowed building lost a relative, it was more of a long-lost relative.
The tributes won’t be as frequent all season as they were on Friday, nor will they be as obvious. But this is a story that will figuratively — and, with the jersey patch, physically — surround IU games all season.
Many visiting teams and coaches will commemorate Knight when they play at IU. Broadcasters will continue to talk about Knight — that occurred even before his passing, but it’s sure to continue with IU sporting “RMK” on its uniforms.
In a way, that’s an embodiment of the moments within those 50 hours at Assembly Hall after Bob Knight passed away.
Unprecedented, but the same as it ever was.
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