The General’s Shadow: How author John Feinstein survived a year with Bob Knight
By Caleb Coffman
A nervous hand rose to knock on a grey door deep within Assembly Hall. Then it paused.
Few reporters would dream of walking into one of college basketball’s famed arenas, strolling right down to the head coach’s office and entering. Even fewer would do it to Bob Knight in the winter of 1985, during one of the General’s worst seasons at IU.
Only John Feinstein would do it three hours before tipoff.
Feinstein was lucky though: He was on the List that lived in Knight’s mind. For those writing about college basketball in the 1980s, it was an exclusive one. If you were on it, Knight would give you anything. Interview requests were welcome, access unprecedented — you may even be able to even call yourself Knight’s friend. Names were rarely added to the List— far more frequently, they were crossed off.
Feinstein had landed on it by luck.
Two years before that contentious season, Feinstein never got more than Knight’s answering machine. But when he was writing for The Sporting News he got his opportunity.
While walking through a terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Feinstein spotted the legendary coach. Knight was sitting by himself, waiting for a friend, University of Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, to pick him up for a golf tournament.
Feinstein did not hesitate to walk over and introduce himself. He explained to Knight he was working on a story about his protégés and asked if Knight had time to talk with him.
“What else do I have to do?” Knight replied.
It took Phelps another half hour to show up, so the two sat there talking. Knight told story after story about Mike Krzyzewski, David Bliss, Bob Weltlich and Gerry Gimelstob, all of whom had left Knight’s staff to find varying levels of success.
After the story ran, Feinstein received a note in the mail. Knight wanted him to know how much he enjoyed the article and their time at the airport.
Feinstein didn’t know it yet, but he’d just made the List.
Two years later during the winter of 1985, working for the Washington Post, he stared at that door deep within Assembly Hall. After one final deep breath, he knocked.
Feinstein could hear a barrage of profanity from inside the office. Suddenly, the door swung open. He found himself face-to-face with Knight.
“John, would you just show up on Dean Smith’s or Mike Krzyzewski’s doorstep on a game day like this?” Feinstein recalled Knight yelling.
“Well, probably not,” Feinstein replied. “I figured if I called, you’d probably say no.”
Knight laughed, then invited Feinstein into the coach’s locker room, or “The Cave.” Feinstein explained why he was there: The Washington Post wanted to know why the Hoosiers were in a tailspin, and he was the reporter on staff who knew Knight best.
Feinstein came with no agenda, no planned story. He just wanted access.
“Stick around,” Knight replied.
The door to the hotel room slammed shut as Feinstein and Krzyzewski left.
“Are you out of your fucking mind?” Feinstein remembers Krzyzewski saying.
This wasn’t the first time Feinstein heard this response to his new idea. It was an idea for a book following Knight, and every time he asked someone about it, this was the reaction.
For those who knew Knight, their concern wasn’t whether Feinstein would have a good book — that would be the easy part. The idea was brilliant: Spend an entire season with Knight and the IU basketball team, watching the inner-workings of one of the most demanding college basketball programs in the country.
Their concern was whether Feinstein could survive the winter.
He’d made it through those two days in Bloomington, there to chronicle the Hoosiers for the Washington Post. For 48 hours, Feinstein had a front-row seat for the intensity and genius the General carried himself with.
During those two days, Feinstein was there in the locker room as Knight built his team up before taking on Illinois, and he was there a few hours later when Knight yelled at them after a 16-point loss. He spent the entire next day with Knight, watching practice, studying film and grabbing a meal with him, trying to crack the code of IU’s woes.
The problem? Knight couldn’t figure it out either.
As Feinstein flew back to Washington, D.C. on Saturday — missing one of Knight’s most memorable outbursts, the infamous chair toss in a loss to Purdue — he came up with the idea which would become the best selling sports book of all time. What if he took those 48 hours of access and experienced it over an entire season for a book?
A month later, at the Final Four, Feinstein proposed the idea to Knight.
He sat in a hotel room with Knight, Krzyzewski and Pete Newell, one of Knight’s mentors, and pitched the book. While Feinstein walked Knight through the idea, the coach’s intrigue in the book grew. The others listened in stunned silence.
By the end of the conversation, Knight was sold. “A Season on the Brink” was born.
Feinstein left the hotel room with a grin stretched across his face. Krzyzewski followed.
“You’re volunteering to spend a winter with him?” Krzyzewski asked.
“Mike, you played for him for four years,” Feinstein replied, confused. “You coached for him for a year.”
“Yeah, I needed a place to go to college,” Krzyzewski said. “Last I looked you’ve been to college. I needed a job, the last I looked you have a job.”
“You’re out of your fucking mind.”
On the first day of the season, Knight walked into the locker room with a short 30-year old man wearing a tweed jacket over a golf shirt and carrying a notepad.
Knight stood at the front of the locker room, his gaze signaling that what was about to be said was not up for discussion.
“John’s going to be around a lot this year,” Knight told the team. “He’s writing a book about our year, so give John whatever he wants.”
The players were stunned. Friends of Knight were common guests, but they always came and went without much fanfare. They weren’t used to someone sticking around.
Why would Knight invite not just an outsider, but a reporter to spend the year with them?
The players were not alone in their concern.
“We were surprised there was no heads up,” assistant coach Joby Wright remembered. “But to be fair, Coach didn’t really have to. We also wondered how long John would last. I’m not saying we were betting on when — one week, maybe a month — but he made it.”
Knight did not give them any time to question the decision. He turned to the board behind him.
“Now, on those downscreens…” star guard Steve Alford remembers Knight saying next, according to his book, “Playing for Knight.”
The players opened their notebooks and started taking notes.
So did Feinstein.
Feinstein walked out of his apartment and crossed East 17th Street to Assembly Hall. He strolled into practice, pulled up a chair on the sideline and sat there, sipping coffee and pouring through a stack of newspapers.
Every once in a while, he’d glance up. Rare was a dull practice for Knight’s team.
New day, same episode of “BK Theater,” a phrase Feinstein coined to describe Knight’s methods of motivation.
For nearly five months, Feinstein watched Knight’s one-man show and learned why he was called the General. His orders were absolute.
At first, Feinstein remembers, it was shocking.
He expected the yelling — he knew how competitive Knight was and that perfection was the unachievable baseline. He expected Knight’s stubborn nature. The coach always needed to have the last word.
What he did not expect was the psychological warfare.
Immediately Feinstein saw the military mentality Knight brought with him from his days as Army’s head coach. Knight sought to do the same thing to his players that West Point does to its cadets: break them down, then build them back up in its perfect image.
Feinstein got his first taste of “BK Theater” six days before the season tipped off.
While watching practice, Knight was concerned. He knew the team needed to be tougher, so he took it upon himself to manufacture it. In his mind, if the team could endure what he would put them through, no opponent or situation would prove too difficult to overcome.
Unfortunately, Knight needed a catalyst for his outburst. That day’s victim was junior forward Daryl Thomas.
Knight knew Thomas had the potential to be great. He just had to pull it out of him.
Thomas was 6 feet, 7 inches. He could run the floor with grace and finish at the rim with ease. He was everything Knight wanted in a forward, but he’d turn out to be one of the coach’s biggest headaches that season. In Knight’s mind, Thomas was never giving enough effort, and his soft-spoken, easy going nature was infuriating to the combative coach.
All morning, Knight was in Thomas’ ear, criticizing his every move. He’d been banished to the far side of the court once already, and his return to practice would be short-lived. A few plays after rejoining the team scrimmage, backup Courtney Witte scored on Thomas, giving Knight the opening he was looking for.
“Just get out Daryl!” Knight yelled, according to Feinstein’s book. “Get him the f— in the locker room. He hasn’t done a f— thing since we got out here.”
Another mistake two plays later allowed Knight to banish the remainder of the team from practice, sending them to join Thomas.
Feinstein watched from the sideline, wide-eyed and silent.
He wondered whether practice was over. Nothing seemed to justify that reaction, but no one else seemed concerned.
As the last player left the court, Knight’s anger faded into a slight grin. For now, he was happy to let the team stew in his anger.
That was Feinstein’s first experience of what the coming months would be like.
It would take Feinstein more than a month to learn the difference between “BK Theater” and the real deal. The act was loud and obnoxious. The real deal was a tornado.
Water bottles would fly. Chairs and trashcans would be kicked. Knight would spew a string of obscenities that’d make George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” seem tame.
As juicy as these outbursts were for writing the book, they were not exclusive to the players.
Knight and Feinstein were friends, but occasionally Knight felt the need to remind him they weren’t equals. Other times he would read an article about IU he didn’t like and take it out on his resident reporter for the season.
Feinstein was a part of the team. And just like everyone else, he had to pay his membership fee.
“Just survive,” Feinstein told himself throughout the winter. “Just survive because there may be a really great book here.”
Knight sat in the Cave, staring at an article from the Los Angeles Times, when Feinstein walked in.
“John, you better have a god damn good explanation for this,” Knight said as he tossed the article at Feinstein’s feet.
The headline read, “Knight Hopes a Book Will Improve His Image.”
A few days earlier, reporter Mark Heisler had interviewed Feinstein about why Knight was allowing him to write the book. For Feinstein, it was nothing new — he had done so many of these interviews that his answers felt scripted. He would explain that Knight wanted people to see “the real Bob Knight,” and how he was determined after the disappointment of the 1985 season.
Nuts and bolts only — the details were top secret.
Feinstein picked up the article and quickly read through it to make sure Heisler didn’t misquote him. He didn’t. In fact, there was nothing outside of the headline that would upset Knight in the article.
That didn’t matter.
However many times Feinstein tried to explain that it was just a bad headline, Knight remained enraged.
“It’s your fault,” Knight yelled. “It’s your fault because you talked to that son-bitch.”
After a few more minutes of sparring, Knight grew fed up with Feinstein’s stubbornness and refusal to take responsibility. He kicked him out.
When Feinstein returned to Assembly Hall later in the day for practice, he was welcomed by Knight’s silent treatment. Their only interactions were the angry glances Knight shot his way in between fits of rage at the team.
Three-quarters of the way through practice, IU’s athletic trainer, Tim Garl, walked over to Feinstein and motioned to follow him out of the gym.
“You have to get out of here today,” Garl urged. “He’s pissed at you, and he’s taking it out on the players. Do it for them.”
Feinstein reluctantly agreed.
When Feinstein returned the next morning, Knight still refused to talk. Feinstein was allowed to stick around, but that was it.
“John had his invisible act,” said Alford, the star guard and captain of the team. “He knew when to be seen and talk to people. Even more importantly for us, he understood when it was best to back off and give us our space.”
After IU defeated Iowa at home on March 2 — four days after Knight read the Los Angeles Times article — Knight finally spoke.
“I thought seriously about just throwing you the hell out,” Feinstein remembers Knight telling him. “But I’m not going to for two reasons. The first is I thought you showed a lot of guts, just showing up every day knowing how pissed off I was, and you didn’t just duck the situation.”
“The second reason is because I know you rooted like hell for this team.”
He knew Knight never apologized. This was as close as he’d get.
As the other coaches entered the room, Knight made the announcement.
“Feinstein lives,” Feinstein remembers him declaring. “Let’s all go to Zagreb’s and have steaks for dinner.”
Feinstein and Knight sat in a near-empty Big Wheel restaurant well past midnight. The giant neon wagon wheel sign shone through the window.
“Will we ever win another game?” Knight asked, sipping his milkshake.
Knight loved this rhetorical question, and it grew into a running joke among the coaching staff that season. He had more confidence in himself and his system than anyone, but still, the coach lived in a constant state of worry.
Did his team stack up? Was it prepared for the challenges that lay ahead?
Nights were long.
Knight could never sleep after a game. He was too wound up. He’d replay it in his head, analyzing every defensive breakdown, every wasted possession and every missed opportunity.
As soon as the players left Assembly Hall, Feinstein would grab a cup of coffee and meet the coaches in the Cave. By the time he walked into the room, Knight usually was already hunched over in his seat, yelling about Alford or Thomas. No matter how well those two played, he always found something in their performance to complain about.
If IU won, the coaching staff was treated to a short evening, leaving around 2 a.m. If they lost, the couches became beds — if they got any sleep at all. Feinstein was there for it all.
“I definitely don’t remember going home early,” assistant coach Joby Wright joked. “I remember that room though. Every inch of it.”
Knight did not need the coaches there as he picked apart the film. He could do it on his own, but according to multiple sources familiar with Knight, he could not stand to be alone. Knight was in the middle of a divorce with his wife and was raising his youngest son, Patrick, a freshman at Bloomington High School North.
Those close to the coach said he was lonely. He needed someone to talk to.
Normally that burden fell on the assistant coaches. Wherever Knight went, one of them would follow.
The coaching staff saw this as the price for learning at Knight’s feet. Feinstein saw it as an opportunity to understand Knight’s complicated personality.
“Usually one of us would go to dinner with him, then back to the stadium to watch film, and all we wanted to do was go home,” then-graduate assistant Dan Dakich remembers. “John was great for that. Instead of us, Coach always asked him.”
To those close to Knight, he seemed to enjoy Feinstein’s company.
“John could communicate with Coach at a high level,” Wright said. “It wasn’t like they were just sitting around telling jokes. You couldn’t be a wiseass, asshole or dumbass and be friends with Coach.”
The two of them would spend hours in the Cave talking. Mostly, it’d be about the team and what the Hoosiers were doing wrong. Occasionally, it’d be about Patrick’s freshman squad, one of the few things that stressed Knight out as much as the Hoosiers. Other times, they’d just trade stories.
After several hours in the Cave, Knight would grow tired. He’d watched all the film, put together his practice plans — usually multiple times — but he still didn’t want to go home and be alone.
“Come on John, let’s grab some food.”
The sun was setting as Feinstein walked along the beach on Shelter Island, New York. He stopped for a moment and stared out over the waves.
It was done. At the end of the summer of 1986, the book’s final edits were complete and ready to be sent back to his publisher.
“I’ve actually written a book,” Feinstein said to himself out loud. “I just hope it does well enough to write another one.”
A month before “A Season on the Brink” hit the shelves, Feinstein sent Knight an advance copy. The coach stopped reading before finishing the first chapter, where Feinstein described in detail his berating of Thomas from that early practice.
“I made one of my biggest mistakes,” Knight wrote in his book, “Knight: My Story” in 2002, talking about granting Feinstein access. “I read the first six pages and I think the word [fuck] was used sixteen times. I put it down, sick, and never read another word.”
Knight felt betrayed.
He thought there was an agreement between him and Feinstein that his profanity would not be included. For Feinstein, that was not an option.
To him, writing the book without the word “fuck” would be the same as not mentioning basketball. The word was a part of Knight’s identity.
“As a reporter, you usually get in trouble because someone says, ‘The story is not true, you didn’t quote me accurately,’” Feinstein said during a speech in 2014. “In this case, Bob Knight was unhappy because I quoted him too accurately.”
Feinstein had already toned down the profanity considerably. He never used another one of Knight’s favorite words — one that “rhymes with bunt,” the author said — or some of the crude, sometimes racist, jokes the coach was occasionally fond of telling. Feinstein joked that if he kept it all in, he’d still be writing the book 35 years later.
When Feinstein learned that Knight refused to read it, he was crushed. He wrote the coach a letter, explaining that the book accomplished everything they’d set out to achieve: There was a method to Knight’s madness, and everything in these pages proved it.
There was more to the coach than the outbursts. Everything was planned out, everything purposeful. The book revealed how Knight deeply cared for his players off the court, and that on it, he was trying to mold them into one perfect unit.
“He was such a teacher,” Wright said. “The book did a great job showing what our program was like. The expectations were clear when you came to play for Coach Knight.”
A few weeks after the book was published, Feinstein found himself back on press row in the Joyce Center in Notre Dame, Indiana, where IU was set to take on Notre Dame. As he sat there waiting for tipoff, he spotted Bob Hammel of the Bloomington’s Herald-Times — one of Knight’s closest friends — walking toward him.
Before Feinstein could even utter a hello, Hammel reached over and handed him the envelope with the letter Feinstein had written Knight. It was unopened.
Feinstein said what upset Knight more than anything was that the book took away his ability to have the final word. He lived to be in control, but now the narrative was set for him. People would read the book and decide how to view him, and Knight knew it would not be favorable.
“He began to assume a starring role in that most classic of historical narratives—the centuries-old, cautionary tale of hubris and absolute power corrupting absolutely—he was either blind or helpless to stop it,” wrote Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated in 2017. “From King Lear to Ozymandias to Caesar, the arc and choreography of power’s demise is familiar, almost to the point of cliché. Then came the Indiana version of the theme.”
As the book took off, Knight drew a dark line across Feinstein’s name on the List.
For eight years, Feinstein was cut out of Knight’s life.
When IU won the national championship in 1987 — the year after Feinstein was in Bloomington — he was not invited to the celebration. When Knight got remarried, his former friend was noticeably absent. When Knight was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1991, there were no cheerful congratulations between the two.
Knight finally broke his silence at the 1994 Maui Invitational.
While Feinstein walked down the hallway of the hotel with Maryland head coach Gary Williams, the two unexpectedly ran into Knight. “Uh oh,” Williams whispered as Feinstein braced for the worst.
Surprisingly, Knight was pleasant as the two talked about Feinstein becoming a father, but you wouldn’t mistake them for friends. Long gone were the days of watching film until 2 a.m. and late night meals at Big Wheel.
Feinstein’s now 63 and has written 44 books about some of the biggest stars in sports. But his career continues to be defined by the winter he spent in Bloomington, and the explosive words that resulted from it.
While Knight may no longer be the center of attention at IU, the book passes down his legacy from generation to generation.
And even now, 35 years later, the characters in those pages still hear about the 1986 season.
“When [Lakers general manager] Rob Pelinka introduced me to his son and told him I played at IU, the first thing he said was, ‘Do you know “A Season on the Brink?’” Wright remembers. “If you could have seen him when I told him that I was an assistant coach on that team.”
At 79, Knight has finally begun to forgive some of the grudges he’s carried with him for so many years.
After 20 years away, he returned to Assembly Hall last winter for the first time since being fired in 2000 for violating the athletic department’s “zero-tolerance policy”, soaking in a raucous ovation from fans who never thought they’d see the day.
Still, other grudges Knight can’t let go of.
It has been nearly 10 years since he’s spoken to Feinstein.
The last time the two talked, Feinstein was writing his book, “One on One,” a behind-the-scenes look at his first 10 books. He wanted to end the book with a quote from Knight, hoping “A Season on the Brink” could come full circle.
Knight was in Madison Square Garden, calling a game for ESPN, when Feinstein arrived unannounced looking for a favor, just like he had that afternoon in Assembly Hall in the winter of 1985.
“Bob do you have a minute?” Feinstein asked while Knight walked off the court.
“No,” Knight responded.
“Bob, I literally want to ask you just one question,” Feinstein said.
Knight whipped around.
“John, do you speak English?” he barked. “I said no!”
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