Luke Epplin answered a phone call two years ago. He didn’t recognize the Indiana number, but the voice on the other end was unmistakable.
“Luke,” the man said, “this is Coach Knight.”
His voice had weakened, but the intimidating tenor of Bobby Knight, the former basketball coach, was still there.
Epplin had sent Knight a copy of his book “Our Team” after learning he was a big fan of the Cleveland baseball team, now called the Guardians. So he tracked down Knight’s address, sent him a copy of the book and included his contact information.
Epplin, who grew up in a family with strong ties to the University of Illinois, a nemesis of Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, was surprised to hear about Knight. He was also slightly worried about where the conversation was going: Knight looked fragile, but he was known as a volcanic, unrepentant, unrepentant personality on the basketball court.
Instead, Knight wanted to talk about the book, which details the journeys of four figures who helped Cleveland become the first American League team to integrate black players in 1947. Knight, who grew up in nearby Orville, Ohio, was about 7 years old at the time. .
But Epplin thought Knight looked confused.
“You could tell it was foggy, I wasn’t connected,” Epplin said. “I didn’t know what to think about it. I just thought he seemed a little distracted and out of place.
A week later, Epplin would learn that Knight was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Bob Hammel, a friend of Knight’s, called Epplin to let him know that Knight had lost almost all of his memory, including his decades spent coaching basketball. But one memory remained: that of the Cleveland baseball team of his youth.
Hammel had read the book aloud to Knight, who would stop him to talk about specific players or games. The book comforted them both, Hammel said.
Epplin had kept this story to himself for two years until this week, when Knight died at the age of 83; he shared the exchanges on.
Knight was known as a brilliant coach but one of the most polarizing figures in sports when he led the Hoosiers from 1971 to 2000, winning three national championships and 11 Big Ten titles. He rambled and insulted, and he was convicted of assault. His bombastic approach ultimately led to his downfall. He was fired from Indiana after choking a player during practice and getting into an altercation with another student.
Epplin wondered how to reconcile the character he grew up with and the shell of a man clinging to his childhood memories. Perhaps, he thought, “we can reconcile these two ideas.”
“He had a complicated legacy that we shouldn’t dismiss,” Epplin said. “My story does nothing to erase that. But he also experienced these moments of humanity and had friends with whom he interacted.
Many of these moments have come in the form of baseball.
Hammel, 87, a longtime friend, journalist and co-author of Knight’s autobiography, said Knight grew up as a Cleveland fan. His mother used to walk around the house with a portable radio in her ear and listen to Jimmy Dudley calling the games.
Just a year ago, Hammel said, Knight could recite the entire starting lineup of Cleveland’s 1948 team, the last time the franchise won a World Series. Hammel said Knight began losing his memory when he stopped coaching at Texas Tech, where he coached the men’s basketball team from 2001-08.
But baseball was a constant, and his approach to coaching – a combination of fierce intensity and adherence to academic standards – was admired by many of his colleagues, including George Steinbrenner, the longtime Yankees owner; Sparky Anderson, the former manager of the Cincinnati Reds; and Tony La Russa, who managed the Oakland Athletics, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox.
In 1988, La Russa received an unexpected call from Knight. La Russa, who coached the A’s, used a quote from Knight to encourage his players. Knight was concerned that La Russa had misquoted him, so La Russa invited him to spring training that year.
Knight would continue to attend each of La Russa’s spring practices through 2011, gaining a new allegiance to the team he coached.
La Russa’s players looked forward to Knight’s visits, La Russa said; the basketball coach built relationships through his own brand of behind-the-scenes coaching. La Russa even let Knight draft the starting lineup for the A’s spring training game.
La Russa said Knight’s love of basketball and baseball makes sense.
“A lot of what he saw in basketball and baseball was attention to detail and the fine edge of expert, elite execution,” La Russa said.
La Russa acknowledged that his friend “wasn’t perfect.”
“It had a short fuse,” he said. “But most often, we saw pleasure, intelligence, respect. You were lucky to be his friend.