ACKERMAN: How Bob Knight Comforted Me
The following column was originally published two years ago on KMOX.com. As we approach the weekend, we found it appropriate to run again. Happy Father’s Day.
ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – I did a lot of thinking yesterday, as I always do on Father’s Day.
I thought about how blessed I am to have a beautiful wife and two sweet little girls, ages four and six months. I thought about how lucky I am to be able to do what I love for a living — and still have time for my most important job: a dad and husband.
And I remembered the good times I spent with my dad, Bill Ackerman, who passed away in 1993 from a sudden, massive heart attack.
It was a difficult time for an almost-18-year-old, fresh out of high school. Two months later, I would be on my way to Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., determined to move forward in spite of a swirl of emotions. My dad — in many ways the reason I became interested in sports — was gone at age 54.
Rewind to the summer of 1991. St. Louis native Larry Ziegler, a dear friend and fixture on the Senior PGA Tour, was playing in the Jerry Ford Celebrity Golf Tournament in Vail, Co. As we vacationed nearby, we made it a point to attend a couple of rounds to support our pal.
Upon arriving at the golf course, we learned that Ziegler was playing that day with a friend of his — Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight. Coming off the putting green, the two approached the ropes and we shook hands.
“Tommy, why don’t you caddy for Coach Knight today?” Ziegler asked, looking at me.
“Sure,” I replied. As a fan of college basketball, I was thrilled to just meet a legend of the game. Moments later, I was seated next to Bob Knight in a golf cart, driving him to the first tee box.
What followed was a brilliant ice-breaker from me: “So, Coach…you ready for basketball season?”
It was July.
“Tom, I’m never ready for basketball season,” Knight said, staring ahead. “I’m just thinking about golf right now.”
Terrific. I’ve managed to irritate Bob Knight with one line, I thought. Only Knight wasn’t irritated; he was intrigued.
“How old are you, young man?” he asked.
“Sixteen,” I replied.
“Looking at colleges?”
“I am,” I said proudly. “Missouri, Miami of Ohio, SMU, Miami (Fla.)…” I continued, rattling off school after school. Knight turned and looked at me.
“What about Indiana?” he asked.
“I haven’t thought about it, but I know it’s a good school,” I said.
“It’s a great school,” Knight answered, quickly. “How about I set up a tour for you?”
OK, I thought. I woke up this morning hoping to follow some golfers around Vail. Now I’m being recruited by Bob Knight.
I didn’t believe it would actually happen, but a couple of weeks later I received a call at home from Buzz Kurpius, the associate athletic director in charge of academics at Indiana University.
“Coach Knight says you’re interested in IU,” she said. “Would you like us to show you around?”
Well, I took her up on the offer. And I fell in love with the campus. And the people. Knight, an avid fisherman, had hooked this young St. Louisan and reeled me all the way to Indiana.
Two weeks after my high school graduation — June 27, 1993 — my dad died of a heart attack. Two months later, I enrolled in freshman classes at IU and began a life away from my mom and sister. Father’s Weekend was a tough one. It wasn’t easy to focus, either.
One day, walking through the hallway downstairs at Assembly Hall, I bumped into Coach Knight. I hadn’t seen him since that day on the golf course. After saying hello, I thanked him for encouraging me to look into IU…and I informed him that my dad had passed.
Knight put his arm around me and asked about my mom. He inquired about my first semester of classwork, and if there was anything he could do, please call his office.
I never took him up on it, but I spent enough time around the basketball program as a student radio broadcaster (and a student in Knight’s “Coaching of Basketball” class) that I felt connected to Coach. Even though he was a larger-than-life celebrity in Bloomington, it’s hard to describe…but his presence filled a void, a space that I sometimes didn’t realize was there. He spoke with such confidence that I became inspired.
I’ve seen Knight off and on through the years — at Busch Stadium, charity events, etc. I’ve broadcast basketball games on national radio with Knight serving as a TV analyst on the other side of the court. But it wasn’t until this past spring training that I approached Knight and did something I’ve wanted to do for years: thank him.
We happened to cross paths in an upstairs hallway at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. We recalled our player-caddy, teacher-student relationships. Then there was brief silence.
“Coach, I just wanted to say thank you for being there for me,” I said. “You’re the reason I went to IU, and you were there for me at an important time in my life, after losing my dad.
“I know you’ve helped a lot of people through the years, a lot of people to remember. But I’ve always wanted to thank you for what you did. So thanks.”
Knight smiled. He put his arm around me, just like he did to this young freshman in 1993. “I’m glad I was able to provide some comfort at that time. And thank you for saying that.”
I do a lot of thinking on Father’s Day. I sometimes wonder where I’d be if I hadn’t caddied for Knight that day. I’m not sure, but I do know that given the chance, I’ll always take the time to help someone in need. I’m never too busy for that.
My dad wasn’t, and neither was Coach Knight.
Happy Father’s Day, guys.
Tom Ackerman is Sports Director at KMOX. He can be heard weekday mornings at :15 and :45 past the hour on “Total Information A.M.” Follow him on Twitter: @Ackerman1120
Copyright KMOX Radio