“So Karen (Knight), Coach (Bob Knight), I love you guys and for me this is a complete circle,” new Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said in March, paying homage to his former head coach in his opening remarks at his introductory press conference.
Only a year earlier, it was Woodson who played a key role in Knight’s circular path back to IU.
Woodson said at the time he spent a month in Bloomington last year prior to Bob Knight’s return to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on February 8, 2020, seemingly on watch to do what he could to ensure that the historic day actually happened as planned.
Although he was a college All-American, an NBA player, and a 25 year NBA coach, there is still a selfless humility that permeates the room when Woodson speaks. What did it mean to him to play such a central role in that cherished moment in the program’s history?
“It was all about Coach Knight today, as far as I’m concerned,” was all Woodson really had to say about it.
If the circumstances were right and his former Indiana head coach was willing, Woodson would no doubt have Knight on his staff at IU in some capacity.
The news today of Woodson hiring Anitra House, his former tutor when he was a student at IU, is just the latest example of Woodson’s long history of paying it forward and maintaining lifelong bonds with those who helped forge his path.
Woodson’s journey started in the Indianapolis inner city, where he and his 12 siblings lost both parents at a young age, had next to nothing, and were guaranteed nothing.
From those humble beginnings, each and every helping hand became a blessing that was never to be forgotten. One of the first was Broad Ripple High School head coach Bill Smith. Under Smith, Woodson became a high school All-American and an Indiana All-Star, but the lessons he learned extended far beyond the basketball court.
“He was tough, He was very demanding, he really pushed guys to do things the right way, especially off the court,” Woodson told the Pacers’ Mark Montieth of Smith back in 2014. “You had to go to class, you couldn’t be late for anything, you had to dress well. And he stayed consistent throughout his life.”
After playing for Smith and then Knight, Woodson was selected with the 12th overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. Soon thereafter began Woodson’s pattern of repaying those who helped him along the way.
In at least one case, literally paying.
“I can always remember Bill Smith talking about Mike Woodson, and the fond memories he had of him and the glowing reviews he gave of him,” Cathedral High School head coach Jason Delaney recently told The Daily Hoosier.
Delaney worked as an assistant under Smith at Broad Ripple, and himself cites Smith as a mentor.
“One of the stories I’ll always remember that Coach Smith talked about was in high school how hard he pushed Woodson, but then when he got drafted in the NBA he came back to Coach Smith’s house one day and put a check on his kitchen table,” Delaney recalled. “Coach Smith was like ‘what’s that for’ and Woodson said ‘I just wanted to thank you for all that you’ve done for me.’
“That has always stuck with me, along with all of the good things that Coach Smith had to say about Coach Woodson,” Delaney said.
Coming out of his junior year of high school, Woodson was a star locally, thriving under Smith’s tutelage, but it still wasn’t clear where basketball would take him. That’s when another early influence intervened, and it was another individual Woodson thought to mention during his first press conference as the Indiana head coach.
“I remember my sixth grade teacher, when I couldn’t afford at that time to go to Bob Knight’s camp, pay for me to come down and I ended up winning a three-on-three contest that at Coach Knight’s camp with two other kids and Coach gave me a tee shirt and told me he would follow me my senior year in high school and that’s all I needed to hear,” Woodson recalled.
Knight did of course follow Woodson and ultimately offered him the chance to play in Bloomington, a decision that was rewarding for both the coach and the player. Woodson would go on to score over 2,000 points, and he was the Big Ten MVP in 1980 after he returned from back surgery to help Indiana rally to win the Big Ten title.
But Woodson had a mission larger than basketball at IU, which ties back to his hiring of House today. House began tutoring Woodson in 1976, and with her help he became the first person in his family to earn a college degree. That degree was more than a piece of paper for Woodson — it signified that he had kept his word with his family.
“I was trying to get an education, which I promised my mother and sisters and brothers, and I got that,” he said in March of his pursuit of a degree at IU.
After 11 seasons in the NBA as a player, and moved to influence young men the way Smith and Knight had done with him, Woodson turned to coaching.
“The juices started to flow and I just felt after I left the game of playing, I had something to offer some young kid as a coach on and off the floor,” Woodson said.
Ultimately his journey led Woodson to becoming a head coach twice in the NBA, first with the Atlanta Hawks and then with the New York Knicks. Each time he turned to Smith, in part as a tribute, but also because Woodson never forgot the value he gained more than a quarter century earlier, and he knew Smith still had more he could offer.
In 2004, when Woodson was coaching the Atlanta Hawks, he hired Smith as a personal consultant. He asked Smith to periodically watch practice and games according to a New York Times report, and he trusted Smith’s evaluations and opinions. In 2012 he brought Smith with him to New York for the same role.
“It’s a great relationship, like a father-son or a brother-brother relationship,” Woodson said of his decades long relationship with Smith. “I’ve known him a long time. I asked him to come to Atlanta when I first got the head job to learn the NBA game, and he’s done that. He knows the game, and the comfort level of him being around me as a confidant and friend, being able to tell me things that sometimes I might not want to hear, it’s been all positive.”
Smith was an Indiana high school coaching legend, the first black coach to lead an integrated school to a state championship. After passing away in 2014, he cannot join Woodson on this leg of the journey, but there are others, now like House, who will both provide support and serve as reminders of a journey made possible with so many helping hands along the way.
And Smith is no doubt there in his former player’s core values, philosophies and mannerisms, still serving as a guiding light as Woodson completes his circle — and continues to recognize those that helped him with each step along the way back to Indiana.
Now back at IU, Woodson will sit in the chair of another great mentor in his life, with a chance to shape even younger lives than he has to this point.
Already we’ve heard the stories from high school recruits like incoming freshman Tamar Bates, who reported that Woodson didn’t promise much more than to “make me a better man.”
That is all Knight ever promised Woodson when he gave him a chance in 1976, and in his own selfless, humble way, Woodson approves of the outcome.
“I like to think the years that I played here at Indiana University, Coach Knight did something right because I turned out just fine,” he said.
Now it is Woodson’s turn to be the great influence that people like an unnamed sixth grade teacher, Smith, House, Knight, and no doubt many others were for him.
But as Woodson illustrated today with his hiring of House, just don’t expect him to go it alone.
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