Woodson era comes with warm embrace of Knight years

On his way west for a speaking engagement, Bob Knight was going to make sure he saw Mike Woodson.

Knight just wasn’t going to be on time.

A change in flight plans pushed back Knight’s arrival in Kansas City. His secretary at Indiana had to call Woodson, the Kings’ 6-foot-5 shooting guard, just to let him know.

Knight wasn’t going to make lunch.

Woodson could meet later. He was at the airport at 2 o’clock in the morning, in fact, when IU’s coach finally arrived. It wasn’t until around 6 or 7 that Knight and Woodson finally left their table at a local Denny’s, having pulled an all-nighter. Knight went to his hotel, took a shower, and then went to give his talk.

“I had the utmost respect for that,” Woodson said of that night, sometime in the early 1980s. “He didn’t have to call me and say ‘Pick me up’ when he did. That’s just how much respect and love he had for me.”

One of IU’s greatest players and its legendary coach are tightly bonded. While it may seem like intense loyalty for a pro in his mid-20s to drive to the airport at such a late hour, to Woodson, now IU’s men’s basketball coach, it wasn’t much of a favor. He owed Knight more.

The debt, in Woodson’s eyes, goes back to 1975. It’s actually two-fold, because a sixth-grade teacher, Bill Hamilton, urged the senior at Broad Ripple High to attend one of Knight’s camps. Hamilton paid for the trip, which netted Woodson an IU T-shirt after a victory in a three-on-three contest. The win also earned Woodson a promise.

Knight said he’d keep an eye on Woodson.

A scholarship followed, opening the door for an NBA career as a player and coach. But Woodson’s love for the alma mater remained. When IU reached out to the 63-year-old New York Knicks assistant in March, Woodson only requested to meet IU athletic director Scott Dolson face to face. Dolson booked a flight east.

Woodson will call this going full circle, but his hire offers a direct line to the past. In recent years, lines drawn by coaches like Tom Crean or Archie Miller had to curl around the thorns of IU’s relationship with Knight, a rift that spanned two decades after his firing in 2000. It wasn’t until last year those tensions were set aside, when “The General” returned to Assembly Hall, surrounded by his former players. Woodson was on Knight’s left arm as the 79-year-old stood at center-court, flooded with cheers.

Miller could say, as he did postgame, the moment meant “a lot to a lot of people.” But as he sat there in his crimson suit jacket, businesslike in speech and expression, per usual, it wasn’t certain Miller was one of those people. Woodson was one, for sure, and the Indianapolis native didn’t speak more than a couple of dozen words at his introductory news conference before mentioning Knight. With feeling.

“I pay tribute to Coach Knight in the utmost way,” Woodson said, “because Indiana Basketball will always be Bob Knight.”

It remains to be seen if one of Knight’s former players can link a glorious past with a fruitful future. IU has never tried this before. But a tie from Knight to the present moment is clearer than ever, from a camp and a T-shirt to an all-nighter in a Denny’s. Knight is a main character in Woodson’s story, not some ghost looming in the rafters.

He’s a friend and mentor, someone Woodson paid a visit to just days after arriving in Bloomington. On a couch they sat, continuing a decades-long conversation.

***

The respect Woodson has paid Knight, it’s returned. When Woodson was introduced as IU’s coach, Knight released a statement, saying, among other things, “I’ve never known a better person than Mike. He is just a great man.”

Woodson can further prove Knight’s love with a tale of another, more awkward car ride with the iconic coach.

Only the person in the driver’s seat was Bloomington sportswriter Bob Hammel. In Woodson’s version, Hammel called Knight and said he was going to watch “Michael” play in Indy. It’s only in the car, on their way up north, that Hammel broached the subject of which Michael.

Michael Jordan.

“Bob, there’s only one Michael in this program,” Woodson recalled Knight saying, but in a much softer tone than the famously temperamental coach.

“ … that’s Mike Woodson.”

It’s a good story. The details are just a little off.

It was Knight who called Hammel, inviting him to watch practice. But the Herald-Telephone sports editor explained he couldn’t come. He was heading north to watch “Michael” play. Knight assumed too much. He cut practice short and told Hammel to pick him up.

“Nothing bothered him more than cutting practice short,” Hammel said. “That was a real tribute.”

The reasons for Knight’s affection are obvious. Everyone starts with Woodson’s unheard-of display of toughness as a senior, returning from midseason back surgery to help the Hoosiers win six straight games and a Big Ten title. There was also his 48-point outburst as a junior at Illinois, just after an All-Big Ten poll placed Woodson as a second-team player. Knight was peeved by the slight, too.

Woodson wasn’t the most hyped member of his recruiting class. He wasn’t even Mr. Basketball in Indiana. But from the moment he arrived in Bloomington, no one worked harder. No one was more respected.

“He was a very quiet kid,” Hammel said. “Bob loved Mike’s mother. His mother was a really wonderful lady.”

It’s with some apprehension Hammel uses the word “sweet” to describe Woodson’s demeanor as a student-athlete. “It’s not exactly a competitive word,” Hammel admitted. But Woodson was genuinely kind.

It just made it even more jarring when Woodson corrected teammates on the court, which he wasn’t afraid to do. It wasn’t impossible to see a future coach in IU’s captain. He was smart, loyal, no-nonsense. And so tough.

It wasn’t just that Woodson took the floor in 1980, less than two months removed from a December back surgery. It’s what he had to do in those six games.

“If he comes out, he stiffens up,” Hammel said. “Without conditioning, he played 40 minutes a game.”

He returned and hit his first three shots at Iowa. No iron. Just swish, swish, swish.

He was so perfect in those games, Woodson was named the Big Ten’s most valuable player. He would forever hold a special place in IU lore, as well as Knight’s mind.

“You can’t ask for anybody to be more loyal to you than that,” said Scott May, another Hoosier great and a longtime friend of Woodson. “Rather than saying, ‘I’m not playing, because I don’t want to mess up my draft status’ … and they win the Big Ten. How about that? That’s probably why Coach feels that way about Mike Woodson.”

It’s no wonder Michael means one thing to the basketball world and something completely different to Knight. Hammel couldn’t have been sure, though.

Knight coached Jordan in the ’84 Olympics. He called the North Carolina product one of the best athletes he’d ever seen play. Jordan was having a terrific rookie season, which is why Hammel was heading to Indy that day. It was just north of Bloomington that Hammel finally realized Knight’s misinterpretation.

“I could tell by his comments he thought he was going to see Woodson. ’Woah, wait a minute, the Michael we’re going to see is Jordan,’” Hammel recalled saying. “It was a freeze for about five minutes. He did not say a word.”

“Well, I’ll go and I’ll enjoy it. I like Jordan,” Knight finally replied. “But you — from now on, in this program, Michael is Woodson!”

***

If Knight has a Mike, there is a Scotty, too. Not Pippen.

Scott May, IU’s famed 6-7 forward, was standing near Knight’s golf cart in the bellows of Assembly Hall, just before the coach and his former players took the floor on Feb. 8, 2020. Knight called out, “Scotty, let’s go do this.”

“Let’s go do this” was a line Knight always delivered to his players before they took the floor. During that halftime celebration, the crowd’s welcome of Knight was so fervent, May did a doubletake as he escaped the tunnel.

“Wait a minute? Am I playing again?” May recalled thinking, as goosebumps tingled. “The people were happy to see him, and that atmosphere was electric.”

A long-festering wound for IU’s basketball family, its ointment was found that day. Their coach, who swore he’d never step foot on IU’s campus again, was connected to his adoring public, pumping his fist and screaming “De-fense” as they chanted “Bob-by!” His players could proudly stand by him on the court again, in public view.

It almost makes too much sense that a little over a year after Knight returned to Assembly Hall, a door opened for a former player to become IU’s coach. A line could be drawn back to that era, but May doesn’t draw it himself.

As far as Knight returning, “We got it done,” May said, “and we could move on.” The issue of how IU should proceed with its basketball program, that was separate. He doesn’t know why IU didn’t pick a former player before, or why they did now. May always had his own opinion, of course, which he readily shared with anyone who asked.

“I felt the tradition that I played up under was pretty good, and we always tried to make it be an example for the future guys,” May said. “I thought it would be good for the program to carry that one through. I felt only an IU ex-player who was coaching could deliver that.”

In his time, the Hoosiers had an edge about them. The Hoosiers won. So it’s not surprising, Woodson’s hire brought satisfaction to his Hoosier brethren. Regardless of where he got his diploma, he checks more than a few boxes as a coach.

Woodson led struggling franchises like the Hawks and Knicks to 50-win seasons and playoff appearances. He hasn’t been in the college game for 40 years, but the Hawks’ roster wasn’t much older than a college team. He knows how to teach, how to foster competitiveness.

May also knows the person Woodson is, because he’s family. They hail from a time when alums would come back to IU in the summers and play games with current Hoosiers. A mutual love of basketball bridged into everything from business partnerships (May and Woodson own property in Bloomington) and family get-togethers (May and Woodson once paired in a two-on-two game with May’s high school-aged sons, Scott Jr. and Sean — the latter a future Tar Heel and pro — which the elder statesmen won on some petty foul calls), as well as frequent games of golf with their buddy Quinn Buckner.

Buckner and Woodson love to smoke cigars. May doesn’t.

“I can’t stand it. So the first thing they do, if I’m riding with one of them, is bust out a cigar,” May said, laughing. ”And I end up walking most of the holes.”

Knight’s Michael and Scotty were linked, always. Knight was still their mentor. It’s just that those ties are now at the center of IU’s basketball program. At his introductory news conference on March 29, 2021 — 50 years to the day after Knight was introduced as IU’s coach — Woodson spoke about Knight’s influence. He had May and Buckner in the audience. Wayne Radford Jr., the son of the late Hoosier with the same name, a lifelong friend of Woodson’s from Indy, was also there.

That part nearly brought Woodson to tears.

“I know his dad,” Woodson said, tapping his fingers on the podium, composing himself, “is very happy today.”

Woodson is keenly aware of who and what brought him to Bloomington. He mentioned AD Scott Dolson a handful of times, given Dolson — a former student manager under Knight — hired him. Woodson mentioned Knight eight times.

The name Knight doesn’t appear once in the transcript of Archie Miller’s opening news conference in 2017.

Saying the old coach’s name doesn’t guarantee success or failure. It doesn’t mean much of anything, really, other than Woodson is a former Knight player. It’s part of the fabric of who he is and what he brings to IU’s program. It’s ideals based in hard work, discipline, and toughness. Everything that made Knight love Woodson.

Will it translate to today? Who knows. But it is a change.

“It ain’t going to be easy. Don’t think it’s just going to turn around tomorrow,” May said. “Having a winning attitude is more difficult to sustain than is having a losing attitude. If you have a losing attitude, you can keep it around for a while. He has to change everything, man.”

He needs support, which is being provided. Woodson was hired along with former Ohio State coach Thad Matta as an associate athletic director. Woodson pulled IU alum Dane Fife back to Bloomington as an assistant after a decade under Tom Izzo at Michigan State. In the transfer portal, Woodson was able to salvage four of the six IU players that entered, plus the return of a future NBA forward in Trayce Jackson-Davis.

The last couple of weeks have infused some optimism into IU’s program, some hope in the future. But Woodson doesn’t shy away from honoring the past.

Not long after he arrived in Bloomington, Woodson visited Coach Knight. It wasn’t a token kiss of the ring, either.

They will talk, often.

“I’m going to spend a lot of time with Coach,” Woodson added, “because that’s how much he means to me. And he knows that.”

4 comments

  1. Woody and staff will likely end up doing a better than yeomans job as the months move along. What’s really great that he and the General, as well as Fife, are not only physically nearby, but technically and emotionally. Dolson’s moves have allowed this thing to come full circle. The feeling is ‘palpable’.

  2. Emotions and Bob Knight…? Now there’s a conundrum. That’s a “score” of emotions among fans, former players and outside observers which will remain forever unsettled. Best not be under the influence or in a bar when one wants to tackle the conundrum. It creates plenty of issues, unrest, uneasiness and unwavering division in opinions with sober people. It’s about as certain of gray area as a political discussion….

  3. I know it’s the honeymoon phase, but I am way more excited about the prospects for IU hoops than I have been in a long time. Woodson is just so darn REAL. I think he has what it takes to succeed at IU.

  4. So true. I’m particularly beaming about the consortium of of men surrounding the IUBB program and especially Dolson the ‘hands on’ orchestrator for it happening. With 2 more rides to fill Coach Woodson and company can field a damn competitive team.

Comments are closed.