Luke Epplin answered a phone call two years ago. He didn’t recognize the Indiana number, but the voice on the other end of the line was unmistakable.
“Luke,” the man said, “this is Coach Knight.”
His voice had grown fainter, 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 that he was a huge 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 household with strong ties to the University of Illinois, a sworn enemy of Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, was surprised to hear from Knight. He was also slightly concerned about which way the conversation would go: Knight sounded frail, but he was known as a, unrepentant, volcanic personality on the basketball court.
Instead, Knight wanted to talk about the book, which details the journey 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 then.
But Epplin thought Knight sounded confused.
“You could tell there was a fog, that I wasn’t connecting,” Epplin said. “I didn’t know what to make of it. I just figured he seemed a little distracted and out of it.”
A week later, Epplin would learn that Knight had Alzheimer’s disease. Bob Hammel, a friend of Knight’s, called Epplin to let him know that Knight had lost nearly all his memory, including of 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 brought both of them comfort, Hammel said.
Epplin had kept that story to himself for two years until this week, when Knight died at age 83; he.
Knight was known as a brilliant coach but one of the most polarizing characters in sports when he led the Hoosiers from 1971 to 2000, winning three national championships and 11 Big Ten titles. He ranted and cursed, and he was convicted of assault. His bombastic approach was ultimately his downfall. He was fired from Indiana after he choked a player during practice and had an altercation with another student.
Epplin grappled with how to reconcile the persona he grew up with and the shell of a man who was clinging to childhood memories. Perhaps, he thought, “we can hold both of these ideas together.”
“He did have a complicated legacy that we should not discard,” Epplin said. “My story doesn’t do anything to erase that. But he also had these moments of humanity and had friends he interacted with.”
Many of those moments came in the form of baseball.
Hammel, 87, a longtime friend, a journalist and a co-author of Knight’s autobiography, said that Knight grew up as a Cleveland fan. His mother used to walk around the house with a portable radio held to her ear listening to Jimmy Dudley calling the games.
Just a year ago, Hammel said, Knight could recite the entire starting lineup of Cleveland’s team from 1948, the last time the franchise won a World Series. Hammel said Knight began to lose his memory when he stopped coaching at Texas Tech, where he led the men’s basketball team from 2001 to 2008.
But baseball was a constant, and his coaching approach — a combination of ferocious intensity and upholding academic standards — was admired by many of his cohort, including, the longtime owner of the Yankees; 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 got an unexpected call from Knight. La Russa, who was coaching the A’s, had been using a quote from Knight as a way to encourage his players. Knight was worried that La Russa had been misquoting him, so La Russa invited him to spring training that year.
Knight would continue to visit each of La Russa’s spring trainings through 2011, earning new allegiance to whichever team he was coaching.
La Russa’s players looked forward to Knight’s visits, La Russa said; the basketball coach forged relationships through his own brand of back-seat coaching. La Russa even let Knight write the starting lineup for an A’s spring training game.
La Russa said that Knight’s love of both basketball and baseball made sense.
“A lot of what he saw in basketball and baseball was the attention to detail and the thin edge of expert, elite execution,” La Russa said.
La Russa acknowledged that his friend “wasn’t perfect.”
“He had a short fuse,” he said. “But most often you saw the fun, the intelligence, the respect. You were lucky to be his friend.”