Todd Leary was nose-to-nose with Bob Knight, posing for a photo with his former coach Saturday when he turned and looked him in the eyes. “You know, I will always love you coach.”
“He said back to me, ‘I will always love you, too.’ But coach doesn’t know he is talking to me,” said Leary, who played for Knight from 1989-94 and later was a radio color commentator for the team. “That’s not the Bob Knight I know. The Bob Knight I know would have hit me in the back of the head and I would have loved every minute of it.”
For that reason and so many other little things that happened Saturday, it was bittersweet for the nearly 50 former Hoosiers who played for Knight, there at Assembly Hall for his historic return.
‘THIS IS WHERE HE BELONGS’:How Bob Knight’s 20-year absence from Indiana finally came to an end
They were happy he was back, after a 20-year absence. They were thrilled the rift between Knight and the university had seemingly dissipated. It was a relief in so many ways, Leary said.
“We used to have to choose the Knight family or the IU family and now we don’t have to,” he said. “It allowed me to kind of close the door on that chapter and turn the page. It’s all about the team now.”
Before Knight walked out on the court, he spent the first half of the IU-Purdue game sitting on a couch watching it on television. Players were walking up to say hello.
“That’s more for us than him,” Leary said. “He doesn’t know the difference.”
The issue of Knight’s health was first raised early last year by IU basketball announcer Don Fischer in a Michigan radio broadcast. The reality of Knight’s struggle was driven home in April when Knight appeared at Center Grove High to speak.
At that appearance, Knight was witty but had many memory lapses, including a moment where he seemed to forget his wife had already been introduced. He mistakenly said that former player Landon Turner, who was paralyzed in a car accident, had passed away. Knight told a story about one game twice — once naming Damon Bailey as the subject of the anecdote, once naming Michael Jordan.
Knight, who was fired as IU coach in 2000, had in the past refused numerous invitations to return to the university, including passing on the opportunity to be honored with the undefeated 1976 championship team he led.
He recently moved back to Bloomington, Indiana, purchasing a home near the IU campus. Rumors started swirling that, perhaps, he would return to Assembly Hall.
“Karen (Knight’s wife) is the person who makes this decision (for him) to come back,” Leary said. “He is not making any of these decisions.”
Still, Knight’s return — in whatever form — meant so much to so many.
‘I can wear my IU gear again’
As the former players from Knight’s three decades at IU surrounded their coach on the court Saturday, the emotions were overwhelming, Leary said.
When Knight walked out on the floor, Leary looked over to Isiah Thomas and Randy Wittman, both with tears running down their faces. He looked up at the fans in the stands, men and women crying.
“The hair on my neck was standing up,” said Leary. “And then I was crying.”
He looked over at Knight’s son, Pat. “I saw Pat and it hit me what this was to Pat, from the standpoint of coach getting back here,” he said.
Pat Knight told Leary on Saturday, “I can wear my IU gear again.”
“He made the comment to me as genuine as anyone can. It’s out of complete respect for his family that he didn’t,” said Leary. “I saw the sense of relief in his voice and in his face. That’s what comes out of this.”
What also came out of it were moments where Leary said players thought they saw flashes of their former coach.
“He was having way too genuine of a smile, belly laughing,” said Leary. “Two to three times in my life I’ve seen him belly laughing. It was like he was a child and his emotions were overtaking him.”
The letter the former players received Feb. 3 inviting them to the game made it clear that due to Knight’s health, there was a chance he might not be able to be there, Leary said.
“That he was, I can’t write the ending for me better than what it was,” Leary said. “Other than if it was 20 years ago and none of that would have happened. The Knight we all knew grabbing the microphone and telling everyone off. But this is how it is now. It’s closure. We don’t have to choose anymore.”