When we first began studying to be a journalist at the University of Illinois — as much as one ever "studies" to be a journalist — one of our professors told us that you're not really a journalist until you've done the worst, but necessary, job in the journ world: You've called up the family of someone who has died in an accident. It's part of the job, and, if you'll exclude the crudeness, it's a cherry you have to break to become the hard-bitten, aggressive, clear-eyed reporter you're expected to be. In the sports department at the Daily Illini, there was an equivalent: Standing up and asking Bob Knight a question. It involved less of a moral stand, but just as much intestinal fortitude.
We've quoted this before, but it bears repeating. In his book "To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever" - which is about hating Duke - author Will Blythe quotes from a work by 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt called "On The Pleasure Of Hating."
Nature seems made of antipathies. Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. ... Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is a bittersweet, which never surfeits. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: Hatred alone is immortal.
Any growing young sports fan needs someone to hate. The Red Sox have Jeter and A-Rod. Eagles fans have Terrell Owens. North Carolina has Coach K. And we, growing up, had Bob Knight. To us, Bob Knight wasn't just an angry man coaching our rival basketball school; he was the personification of fire-breathing rage, the uncontrollable monster who, some day, we all suspected, would finally flip out, attack a referee and destroy everything he had built.
Yet you still were both in awe of him, and you respected him. For a 10-year-old kid, this red-faced, floor-stomping, snorting wildebeest almost served as a father figure, the nightmare authoritarian figure always waiting for you, if you deigned to screw up. (It didn't help that, when our dad would get mad at us, he'd have the the similar red-faced nostril flare that Knight did. This was not something that would have been wise to mention to our father at the age of 10.) Bob Knight was that little self-flagellating part of you that was ready to pounce if you made a mistake; he was an authoritarian who was constantly in our heads. We can't imagine what it must have been like to actually play for him; we were terrified of him, and we displaced our terror with the more acceptable fan hatred.
In the later stages, at the end of the Texas Tech run, it was actually kind of sad to see Knight so sedate; age finally got to him. That's probably for the best; we're pleased he retired before finally attacking that ref after all.
Bob Knight was one of those grand figures that only sports can give us. In the real world, his antics would never be tolerated; in sports, as long as he won, he could stomp and curse all he wants. College basketball seems a little emptier already without him in it. Also: A little safer.
Oh, and yes: We did finally stand up and ask Coach Knight a question, at a postgame press conference after the Hoosiers had beaten the Illini. We don't remember what we asked, but Knight looked us up and down, paused for a moment and went quiet. Then he exhaled and, calmly, answered the question. We don't know if that made us a real sports journalist or not, but we will say this: We were relieved he was not mad at us. Even as a senior in college, we were terrified of him. We kind of still are. We'll probably miss that.