Bob Knight always had a large white U.S. mail basket on his desk.
Like the kind you see at the post office.
“That was just how much mail he got,” former Indiana player and Knight assistant at Texas Tech Stew Robinson said. “Everyone is writing him, trying to find him. Every day he had this huge white basket of mail.”
One day when they were sitting in Knight’s office at Texas Tech, the coaching legend caught Robinson off guard.
“Your mother’s name was MaryAnne,” Knight said matter-of-factly to Robinson.
By that time Robinson’s mother had passed away, and he wasn’t sure where Knight was going with the remark.
“Yes, her name was MaryAnne,” Robinson replied curiously.
“Well here, I want to give this to you,” Knight said.
A native of Anderson, Ind., Robinson was an all-state basketball player at Madison Heights High School. As a high school senior he famously made two free throws with no time on the clock to clinch the 1982 Anderson Sectional championship game.
A 6-foot-1 guard, Robinson played for Indiana form 1982 to 1986. He was a freshman on the 1983 Big Ten championship team.
Now more than twenty years after his IU playing career, Robinson couldn’t imagine what Knight wanted to give him.
And what did it have to do with his mother?
“He gave me a letter that my mom wrote to him after my senior year (at IU),” Robinson said. “It was just amazing that he held onto it for twenty years.”
MaryAnne Robinson’s letter thanked Knight for taking in her son, taking care of him, and helping him become a man.
“It was a great letter, Robinson said. “Those were the type of things that he cared about. He held onto it for 20 years.
“I hadn’t even kept letters from my mom when I was in college. But for him to hold onto that because those were the type of things that meant so much to him.”
Robinson’s mother never told Stew that she had written the letter. Knight never mentioned it either.
But somehow, through the daily baskets full of mail, Knight kept track of MaryAnne’s letter.
“How does he keep something like that for 20 years unless it really meant something to him,” Robinson said.
There was always something a little different about Knight’s relationship with Robinson.
Madison Heights in Anderson, Ind. delivered a pipeline of elite talent to Bloomington.
Bobby Wilkerson started on the Indiana 1976 undefeated national championship team, and Ray Tolbert started on the 1981 title squad. Both were Madison Heights alumni.
Robinson had a connection to Wilkerson and Tolbert, and that meant that he knew Knight at a young age.
Perhaps he gained some insight on how to survive in the program.
While some feared the at times volatile coach, Robinson had a unique ability to keep things light when Knight was around.
Robinson was a senior at Indiana when John Feinstein wrote one of the best selling sports books of all time, A Season on the Brink.
In the book that documented Indiana’s 1985-86 season, Feinstein described a day when Robinson showed up in the locker room with a Puerto Rico t-shirt on.
Knight had an altercation with a Puerto Rico police officer in 1978, and it was well known that he wasn’t fond of the U.S. Territory.
“Robinson had a knack for keeping things loose,” Feinstein said in A Season on the Brink. “More than anyone around he could make Knight laugh.”
The t-shirt ended up ripped into pieces that day, but Knight ended up with a grin on his face.
That’s just how it has always been with Robinson.
“If there was something that coach was saying that was off the hinge, I would bring it to his attention, say it to him in a funny light so that he knew where we were coming from. I think at that time he appreciated that,” Robinson said.
Like every Indiana player, Robinson couldn’t fully escape Knight’s wrath.
But that’s where knowing Wilkerson and Tolbert helped.
Robinson knew how to handle the days when Knight wasn’t smiling too.
“I was the type of player that could shrug things off and do what you needed to do to get the job done,” Robinson said. “And I think that was a big thing that he appreciated. It didn’t matter how he asked to get it done, I would just get it done and shrug everything else off.”
Robinson helped lead IU to the Elite Eight in 1984 when Indiana shocked No. 1 North Carolina. Although the legend from that game is that Dan Dakich shut down Michael Jordan, Robinson actually outscored Jordan in the contest, and he shared some of the responsibility for guarding the future NBA megastar.
With a career nestled in between the 1981 and 1987 championship seasons, that win over Jordan and UNC was Indiana’s finest moment during Robinson’s career.
Robinson played with IU greats like 1981 national champions Randy Wittman, Jim Thomas and Ted Kitchel on the 1983 Big Ten title team.
“With that class, we didn’t have to do much of anything. They told us what to do and where to be,” Robinson said.
Robinson was an important torchbearer for the program, and he helped bridge two national titles. His senior season teammates Steve Alford, Daryl Thomas, Ricky Calloway and others would go on to win it all in 1987.
But Indiana was knocked out of the 1986 NCAA Tournament by Cleveland State in the first round, and that was it.
Robinson’s Indiana career and his days with Knight were over in the stunning blink of an eye.
As MaryAnne Robinson’s letter arrived in Bloomington, Stew Robinson was headed out, now a grown man.
Maybe Bob Knight just needed to smile a little bit more.
After getting fired at Indiana in 2000, Knight took a year off before taking over at Texas Tech in 2001. In 2003 he had an opening on his coaching staff in Lubbock.
Robinson had gotten into coaching a couple years earlier, and Knight had his eye on his reliable guard.
17 years after his playing career at Indiana had ended, Robinson was asked to join Knight on the Texas Tech coaching staff.
“It was great. I just thought it was the greatest opportunity in my career to go and coach with him at Tech,” Robinson said. “Also he had Pat (Knight, his son) on the staff, and he was just a little youngster when we were playing. To have an opportunity to work with both of them was just tremendous.”
On a staff that at various points included current Texas Tech coach Chris Beard, and current IU assistant Mike Roberts, the Knights and Robinson started having fun again — and they won.
ESPN aired a series called “Knight School” that documented sixteen walk-ons trying to make the Red Raider squad. There were plenty of lighter moments involving Knight and Robinson.
But Knight was still as intense as ever at Texas Tech. Robinson saw no change from the coach he knew nearly two decades earlier.
“He never lost his edge,” Robinson said. “He was the best preparation coach that I’ve seen. Give him game film and time and he can come up with a gameplan to beat anybody.”
Together again in Lubbock, Knight and Robinson reached three NCAA tournaments including the Sweet Sixteen in 2005.
Along the way during their reunion in Lubbock that letter from MaryAnne was handed from Knight to her son.
In 2008 Knight retired, and while they never lost touch with one another, Knight and Robinson were on their separate ways once again.
Robinson went on to assistant coaching jobs at Illinois-Chicago and Youngstown State before stepping away to spend more time with his family in 2018.
The next place that Knight and Robinson would be seen together publicly was perhaps the most unlikely of all.
Back where Robinson played at IU, and in the same building where that letter from MaryAnne was delivered, Coach Knight walked towards center court at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
“You come full circle. During his coaching days, Coach’s biggest days were in Bloomington,” Robinson said.
Robinson believes that because time was working against Knight, like it ultimately does all of us, and because it was important to his players, the coach finally relented on not returning to IU.
On February 8, 2020, nearly twenty years after he was fired by IU, Knight came back to the thrill of his players and fans alike.
Perhaps it was just by chance, but Robinson was the first player that Knight embraced as he met his former players on the Branch McCracken Court. That hug lasted more than 20 seconds before other players got their moment with Knight.
Robinson was never a big star at IU. A solid four year contributor and at times a starter, but never a star.
He didn’t get the fame on that night when the Hoosiers upset Jordan and the Tar Heels – and he is fine with that.
Robinson was a facilitator on the court, with a better than three-to-one assist to turnover ratio as a senor.
And that facilitator would be the first to tell you that Knight is closest with the players that followed him onto the court that day in February — Scott May, Steve Green and Quinn Buckner, along with Steve Downing.
“Coach has got a special place in his heart for a lot of us,” Robinson said.
But Knight has always had a soft spot for Robinson, the guy who could make him laugh.
And the embrace at center court had meaning.
“I maintain a close relationship with Coach, his wife Karen, and of course Pat,” Robinson said. “We talk all the time.
“We have a special relationship.”
A special relationship that stood the test of time.
Just like MaryAnne’s letter.
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