We saw the best of Bob Knight Tuesday night in San Diego. We saw why his players and those who know him are so loyal to him despite his many controversies.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to be in Knight’s presence when the subject isn’t a headline in the newspaper or a video on ESPN, you won’t listen to a more charming and quick-witted man.
The Hall of Champions (my day job) invited Knight to introduce basketball giant Pete Newell, general manager of the San Diego Rockets and a San Diego resident for four decades.
Knight choked up at the end of his introduction of Newell, a basketball giant Knight considers a second father.
“I never received a bigger compliment as a coach than when Jerry West compared the 1960 Olympic gold medal team with Jerry West to the 1984 Olympic medal team I coached with Michael Jordan,” Knight said. “He said watching the 1984 team was like watching the 1960 team.”
How big is Pete Newell in the basketball fraternity?
Bob Knight, Jerry Colangelo and Ann Meyers, who all traveled at their own expense, attended the 62nd annual Viejas Salute to the Champions dinner for Newell’s induction into the Breitbard Hall of Fame.
If you don’t know who Colangelo and Meyers are, I can’t to impress it upon you with words in print.
It’s funny how events can dovetail together into a night like Tuesday. It started with my phone calls to Texas Tech to see if Knight would make a special video for Newell’s induction.
Once Knight made his surprise decision to step down as coach, he talked with Earl Shultz, a long-time doctor in San Diego and horse race owner that played for Newell’ 1959 NCAA championship team that beat Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati in the semifinals and West Virginia and Jerry West in the final.
Thanks to Shultz, who watches over the 92-year-old Newell, telling Knight how much Newell would enjoy having him at the dinner, Knight began rearranging his schedule so he could attend. Knight sees and speaks to Newell frequently, but he surprised Newell for this when he walked through the door for lunch with him in the afternoon.
Knight’s introduction of Newell included a dig at Shultz and two other Cal teammates, Bill McClintock and Tandy Gillis.
Knight had them stand up to be recognized. The audience thought Knight was going to praise the old war horses. Instead, showing what a deft speaker he is, Knight switched gears seamlessly.
“They talk about championship teams and that the players made the coach,” Knight said. “You look at these three guys, and the coach made them.”
There were laughs all around the ball room of 850 people at the Town and Country Hotel.
Knight, who graciously posed for dozens upon dozens of photos throughout the night, also praised the honorees because he was so impressed with their speeches.
“I’d like to say from a coaching standpoint, a coach can win if he has the athletes,” he said. “But after the presentations I’ve heard tonight, you could tell that with just their hearts and minds, they’d be tremendous for any coach.”
He also got a laugh with an extemporaneous joke about Willie O’Ree, the Hall-of-Fame inductee as the Jackie Robinson of hockey. O’Ree spoke during his induction speech about losing 97 percent of the vision in his eye from a puck that hit him early in his career.
Knight started out somberly telling the man that broke the NHL’s color line he couldn’t have played for him. Then he delivered the punch line that he would have instead preferred to have had him as a referee at his games.
“You can see better than most of the referees I’ve had in my career,” Knight said.
By the time Knight finished speaking, he choked up. Newell had planned to speak too, but the old coach was too emotional from the night and seeing and hearing from those that came to be with him.
“Pete’s voice is weak now,” Shultz said, “but what could have said to top what Bobby said? Bobby came here on his own dime, but I know he recently spoke to some Coca-Cola executives for $40,000. After last night’s speech, I told him whatever Coca Cola paid him, he was underpaid.”
That’s the Knight his friends know, and San Diego got a glimpse of him on a special night for his second father, Pete Newell.
— TOM SHANAHAN