Reviewing ESPN’s “The Last Days of Knight”

– Originally Published April 12, 2018 –

Hoosier fans should pat themselves on the back.  It seems like every time someone does a documentary or feature interview involving Indiana basketball, there is a paywall involved.  Whether it was the Showtime special on the 1976 team, the Joe Buck interview of Bob Knight, or ESPN’s 30 for 30 on Bob Knight’s firing at IU, the networks assume that the large and passionate Hoosier Nation will open their wallets.

Hidden behind a paywall for more than seven months, the network finally aired the documentary on television on Thursday night.  Below is the review we wrote when it was first released in April.

REVIEWING THE LAST DAYS OF KNIGHT

The documentary starts with ominous sounding music that leads you to believe you are about to watch a murder mystery.  With that, right away you know where this is headed.  Another telling aspect about the beginning is that it starts not with anything about Bob Knight, but instead it introduces you personally to the journalist, Robert Abbott, that broke the Neil Reed story for CNN at the time and narrates this documentary for ESPN.

The Last Days of Knight is more about Abbott and his development of the story in the late 1990’s than anything about the last days of Knight.  The 30 for 30 piece doesn’t really cover any new ground, and doesn’t really offer any insights from people that were deeply involved with the story — except for the journalists themselves.

Photo credit – AP

To be fair, of course the documentary does cover old positive ground as it relates to Bob Knight.  The documentary sets the stage by looking back at Knight’s history as a player at Ohio State, and his early success at Indiana.  But this is being done, as the piece admits, to illustrate Knight as an untouchable, larger than life character.

In painting that picture of Knight, the producers seemingly absolve the IU Athletic Department, Presidents and Trustees that always had the ability to make changes.  Sure, there was lip service paid to the notion that those in power should have done more, but it wasn’t central at all to the narrative.

The story even let former IU Athletic Director Clarence Doninger make the unchallenged statement “We can’t let that happen” when referencing how powerful coaches can become more powerful than the institution itself.  No one was closer to the situation or had a greater ability to influence change than Doninger.

The story would also have you believe that Bob Knight was akin to Vladimir Putin, with a horrifying sphere of influence that was inescapable for anyone that crossed him.  Of course there is some truth to this notion, but the hyperbole here was nauseating.

Before going further, it is important to understand one thing about my take on this topic.  I believed at the time and continue to believe that it was time for Bob Knight to go in 2000, and probably sooner.  He had become larger than the University that he represented.  I know that I personally got tired of having to talk about him every time I told a new acquaintance that I went to IU.

Moreover, he really wasn’t even an effective basketball coach anymore.  Whether it was the change in him, the game or the players — or parts of all three, from a results perspective Coach Knight had become just another coach by the mid-90’s.  Some may not like that opinion, but it is hard to argue with.

I felt it was important to preface what I am about to say with my opinion on Knight to make it clear that I am not trying to defend him.  Far from it.  But when the documentary started referencing the tape like it was the Rosetta Stone, once again, I felt nauseous.

I’ve always been troubled by the characterization of what happened as “choking”.  There is a difference between making contact with the neck and choking, but that is something that a salivating and ratings hungry media would never acknowledge.  They had their red meat.

Let’s be clear here:  neither is necessary or acceptable.  Both would clearly illustrate that Knight was at least at times ridiculous.  But one is far more egregious than the other, and the tape never clearly demonstrated which of those things happened.  And that’s important, because one is a violent crime, and one isn’t.

Some may blow off this distinction.  But if you stop and think about it with emotions aside, there is a hell of a big difference between someone constricting your breathing and simply having their hands on your neck.  I’d be fine if Knight was fired for the latter — it would just be nice to hear a little more intellectual honesty and little less sensationalism about it.

In my opinion it seemed clear that Abbott shares this opinion.  I say that because throughout most of the documentary there was this awkward sense that he was still trying to justify things, or that he wasn’t really comfortable with the reporting.  Again, this was more a documentary about Abbott than Knight.  The only new information in the entire piece was the Abbott/CNN internal sausage making back at the time.  And they still want you to believe in and accept the integrity of their work.

So you’ll have to ask yourself whether you even care about this story anymore.  You’ll have to ask yourself if you want to rehash stories of Knight pulling down his pants, Murray Sperber publicly speaking out against Knight, and players coming out both for and against their former coach.  But again, to that last point, all of the player and true insider interviews included in the 30 for 30 came out back around 2000.  There was nothing new today.  Except, that is, for Doninger strangely absolving himself.

The story ends with Neil Reed’s life as a husband and a father.  As you’ll likely recall, Reed passed away in 2012 from a heart attack at the age of 36.  It was refreshing to see that Reed was able to persevere through a tough stretch in his life to become a good husband, father, coach and member of his community.  Similar to how his college basketball career started out with such promise and ended so wrong, it was heartwrenching to see his family still dealing with the pain of losing the man that had moved on with his life and found peace.

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