BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Is this jambalaya good?
Everything else is the same. The tables. The counter. The chalkboard above it -- which predated the chic-urban-coffee-shop-chalkboard trend by years, and which is actually written on, rather than artistically designed -- detailing the cajun dishes du jour. The same hot-sauce bottles lined up on the same shelf; the same fountain-drink machine in the back corner of the dining room; the same cutout in the same wall, revealing the same pans simmering on the same burners.
Bob Crowley, the owner of Dats on Grant, serves a customer a heap of food on the same, wide Styrofoam plate and strikes up a conversation. It's game day in Bloomington -- then-No. 13 Indiana will host then-third-ranked, unbeaten North Carolina in the evening -- and the chat quickly turns to college basketball. Indiana is awfully fun to watch these days, huh? The defense just needs to be decent, the way they score, though the turnovers are problematic ...
Have you seen the new Assembly Hall, yet? Oh yeah, it's very nice. Huge improvement. But then again, for the money they spent, they might as well have just torn the whole thing down and started over ...
At some point, the customer will briefly zone out, suddenly stuck in invisible internal debate.
It's obviously good. It's almost gone, so it must be. And the bread, no question. Mmm ... bread. But no, seriously, is something different? Is this crazy? Is this jambalaya as good as it used to be?
Did it change? Did you? How can you even tell?
IT'S WEDNESDAY, NOV. 30, and the word is that Bob Knight might -- just might -- show up at Assembly Hall.
It's implausible, to put it mildly, but not completely unbelievable. Not only are the Tar Heels in town, after all, but so are Isiah Thomas, Randy Wittman, Ted Kitchel, Landon Turner and the rest of Indiana's 1981 national championship team, the one that earned Knight the second national title of his first decade at IU.
A pregame gala and a halftime ceremony in honor of that season's 35th anniversary are on the docket. Thus, in the days and hours leading to the game, rumors that Knight might attend buzz publicly and privately. ESPN analyst and Indianapolis radio host Dan Dakich, a former IU player and longtime assistant under Knight, posits on Twitter that the "Indiana fan cash cow has dried up for Coach Knight ... tonight MAY BE the night he tries to get it back."
No one around the program has heard anything about a sudden Knight show, though maybe that doesn't mean much. Surely, The General would relish the element of surprise. In any case, Indiana coach Tom Crean, athletic director Fred Glass and the rest of the university have long made it known that the door is permanently, informally and respectfully open. Coach Knight is welcome to walk through it at any time.
Spoiler alert: He doesn't.
The closest thing is a message -- a tablet handed down from Mount SiKnight -- relayed by 1981 forward Phil Isenbarger. The coach was "grateful for the opportunity to coach this group at Indiana University" and "proud not because of the games they won, but how they won, playing as hard as we did." At the entry to the pregame banquet, there are placards on easels, each with quotes and memories from Knight about that 1981 season. There are photos everywhere -- in Assembly Hall and the adjoining Cook Hall athletics facility -- and casual memories from former players throughout the event.
There is even a plea, at halftime, from Thomas himself, for his coach to "come back home." There are cheers -- not halfhearted, but nowhere near the loudest of the night.
But there is no Knight. It is the obvious outcome. Less obvious is whether anyone still truly cares. Knight could not be reached for this story.
"For the longest time, it was always like someone was just holding on to the program until we get Bob Knight back," Dakich said. "With where the program is now and everything that's happened, I don't think it's like that anymore. I really don't."
Sixteen years later, Knight still hasn't changed. Indiana has.
IT SEEMS HARD TO IMAGINE NOW, but in 2000, the firing of a man who once said, "I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it," sparked legitimate on-campus riots. Students raged through campus, ripping up street signs and tearing sculpted iron dolphins from Showalter Fountain (an act of stupidity made only slightly comical by the fact that one student carried a fish "at least a mile over earth, tarmac and gravel, bereft of shoes, before depositing it as an offering of sorts at Assembly Hall"). State troopers were called in to surround the on-campus home of then-president Myles Brand, whose investigation of Knight's conduct and subsequent "zero tolerance" policy laid the groundwork for his firing. Those around the program at the time remember seeing people drive up to the south entrance of Assembly Hall, drop off their officially licensed apparel at the door and drive away.
Once the dust settled, it was clear Knight's departure had upended Indiana basketball's entire self-identity. It split former players and Indiana fans into loyalist camps. For the next decade, the coach's specter hovered ominously over the institution's every move. That Knight hadn't won a Big Ten title in his last seven seasons -- or advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament in his past six -- was quickly forgotten. His replacement-under-duress, former assistant Mike Davis, led IU to a surprise national title game appearance in 2001-02, but Davis was pilloried long before his teams began to legitimately dwindle in later seasons. When Knight took over in Lubbock, Texas, in 2001-02, Texas Tech apparel experienced a sudden, geographically targeted spike in sales.
"For Indiana fans -- and at that time, the fans who had grown up with Coach Knight and how he went about his business -- the culture was a Bob Knight culture at Indiana," said Don Fischer, the Hall of Fame Indiana radio broadcaster who arrived at IU in 1973-74. "There's just no question about that. And it was going to be hard for anybody to overcome it."
Davis was replaced in 2006-07 by Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, whose penchant for three-way phone calls cost him his job by his second year. It also cost Indiana its cherished reputation for NCAA compliance; Knight's program was (save his own behavior, perhaps) famously clean. The contrast was too easy for fans to draw.
For years, it went like this at Indiana: No matter what the topic, any online conversation about Indiana basketball would eventually devolve into Knight-related comparisons, no matter how nitty or gritty.
"It was all the time," said Mike Pegram, the founder of Peegs.com, which has hosted an active Indiana message board since 1998. "My personal favorite was if a player off the bench played well in the first half, he would start him in the second, which seemed like a logical thing to do; you don't really hear about that much anymore. Another is he always used to emphasize the last few minutes of the first half and the first few of the second half as being a really key time. People would bring that up all the time. I haven't heard that one in years."
Meanwhile, the cult of personality remained persistent and widespread. Former players were asked to weigh loyalty to their beloved coach or their alma mater; if the former was found wanting, they would be cast out forevermore. Something as simple as appearing at an Indiana game could earn a far-flung rebuke. Emotions were raw. The details of their legendary coach's firing were controversial. Many players took the schism for granted.
And last but not least, there was Knight's silence. Other than the occasional clever quip -- at his introductory news conference in Lubbock, he said he was wearing the "most comfortable red sweater I've had on in years" -- or a suit against the school he filed shortly after his firing, Knight basically pretended Indiana didn't exist. The aura stayed intact.
"Probably for 10 years, maybe even 12 years after he was fired, it was constant," Fischer said. "The continuation of the Bob Knight legend and what he was able to accomplish followed everybody that was his successor. You just had to deal with it."
ALAN CONNER REMEMBERS where he was on March 22, 1975: The Red Dog Saloon, a bar on Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington. He and some friends had driven down from Indianapolis, where Conner, a native of Jeffersonville, Indiana, and a Class of 1973 IU grad, was attending the Indiana School of Dentistry. It was Bob Knight's fourth season. The Hoosiers had finished the year 31-0, had beaten Big Ten foes by an average of 22.8 points per game and had four of the league's five first-team all-conference players on their roster. Now they were in the Elite Eight, facing a Kentucky team that had lost by 24 in Bloomington in December; but the Hoosiers were doing so without star forward Scott May, whose broken arm was in a cast.
Indiana lost 92-90.
"We were like everyone was: devastated," Conner said. "Wait, what? They can't lose."
A few months later, Conner was in St. Louis to see Indiana beat UCLA in the 1975-76 season opener, the first game in what would become the last undefeated title run in college basketball history.
It's still vivid, how excited -- how inspired -- people were to watch great defensive play, to revel in the Hoosiers' pulverizing opposing offenses into a fine dust. In his early 20s, Conner had a front-row seat to some of the greatest basketball ever played. The black-and-white photos of old plaid checkered sports coats? Imagine seeing Bob Dylan at Cafe Wha? or Talking Heads at CBGB. He was there. He lived it. The way Assembly Hall sounds for a big game now? You should have heard it back then.
Where do you even go from there? How can it ever get better than that? And even if it somehow does, can the present ever really live up to the memory?
"We were all-in on him," Conner said of Knight. "We knew he was the master. Everybody knew there was something special going on here."
None of which made Conner, now 65 and living in Jeffersonville, blind to Knight's flaws later in life. He blamed the university more than the coach for the way his tenure eventually ended all those years later, sure, but much of that blame was for allowing the man the free reign to become an obvious bully in the first place. Nor does Conner ignore the fact that college basketball as a whole is vastly different than it was back then, from the shot clock to the 3-point line to the diffusion of talent and resources across vastly more programs. In some ways, it's barely the same game. And even if the game hadn't passed Knight by in 2000 -- and it surely hadn't -- the way elite student-athletes viewed their college careers almost certainly had.
Even so, there is a cohort of fans, Conner said, "that can't help but still kind of long for the good old days, even though they know it's not possible."
Can you blame them? The Red Dog Saloon is long gone too. But it sure does sound like fun.
MEMORY IS POWERFUL, but so is time. Indiana fans' Knight-related pathos would surely have atrophied on its own, without help, as the months and years drew the current collective consciousness further and further away from that wild September in 2000.
But there has been help. Mostly from Knight himself.
In 2009, Knight ignored the school's invitation to his own Indiana Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Despite the slight, IU's policy remained steadfastly open, even downright cheery, about its hopes that he might return. In 2010, longtime Bloomington Herald-News sports editor Bob Hammel, one of Knight's closest friends, helped broker a meeting between the former coach and the current athletic director in Indianapolis. The summit lasted five hours, Glass later told the Indianapolis Star and made him "hopeful, again on [Knight's] terms when he's ready, that we can make him feel more comfortable with the IU family."
"I don't think that's fair to put that all on coach Knight and at his feet," Glass told the Star at the time. "My thing is that when coach Knight is ready, I don't want to hot box him. I don't want him to feel pushed or prodded. ... Coach Knight has never impressed me as being someone you give the bum's rush to. And it's hard for me because I'm a planner, and a doer and a list-maker, but I think you have to take this relationship as it comes. I try to be careful not to push it, but at the same time do things that can help bring the family back together again."
In 2010, Crean told the Star that Knight was "one of the greatest who has ever done it, at any level, at any sport, at any time." In 2012, when Knight was assigned to an ESPN broadcast of an IU game, Crean reveled in the chance to shake his predecessor's hand, and said he was looking forward to watching the broadcast just to get Knight's thoughts on his team.
Two days before playing then-No. 3 North Carolina in November this season, Crean answered the first question on his weekly coach's show -- about Indiana's upset loss at Fort Wayne -- with a Knight koan about basketball being more mental than physical. Crean began with "three parts physical to one part mental" before stopping short to have Hammel double-check his proportions.
"Is it four-to-one or three-to-one?" Crean asked.
"Four-to-one," Hammel replied.
"Four-to-one," Crean continued. "And that was very apropos for us that night ..."
For the better part of a decade, Crean and Glass have maintained this hospitable, generous tone -- welcoming without being pushy, friendly without being needy. They've relieved the awkwardness by refusing to dance around the topic. And they've been met, time and again, with silence.
So have Knight's former players. In 2014, A.J. Guyton, the 2000 Big Ten Player of the Year, was announced as the school's latest Hall of Fame inductee. After he learned the news, he wrote a heartfelt public letter to Knight on Facebook, explaining what it would mean if his coach would attend with him -- and about how IU basketball still felt "strange" for former players and how they needed Knight to embrace it to feel OK doing so themselves. Knight ignored it.
Then came 2016 and two events early in the year. The second came in February, when Knight made it clear he was still very much able and willing to travel to the state of Indiana ... for the The Famous Purdue Agriculture Fish Fry.
Which would have felt like a good-natured walk on the rival side ... if it hadn't come just five weeks after Indiana's own 40th anniversary celebration of the undefeated 1976 national champions. To which Knight was invited. To which invitation Knight did not even respond.
All of the players from that 1976 team were there in January, among them some of the staunchest remote-island-in-the-Pacific holdouts in the Knight-IU conflict. Perhaps the staunchest, in fact, was May, who had severed ties with the university for a decade and a half before his son, former North Carolina star Sean May, urged him to think about his teammates.
"He wasn't going to come back, and we had a long talk the night before, and I just reminded him of the 16 guys on that team. That's what meant something to him," Sean May told the Indianapolis Star in January. "Obviously, Coach Knight not being there was one of the reasons he didn't want to go, but everybody that was in that gym and sweated with him in '76, going 32-0, I felt like he owed it to them. That's ultimately why he decided to go -- for his teammates."
The juxtaposition was unflattering, even among Knight's longtime supporters. Suddenly, even to some former players, the old lessons about loyalty -- about playing for each other, about Indiana basketball as a lifetime commitment -- began to ring a little more hollow.
Meanwhile, it's hard for Indiana fans to get their heads around whom, exactly, Knight still holds a grudge against. The key figures surrounding his dismissal are all gone. Even to those for whom "Indiana basketball" and "Bob Knight" were inseparable synonyms, what once looked like defiance now just seems sad and played out.
"We beat that horse so bad," Pegram said. "I've never seen an argument -- it had a life span of several years after he was fired and kept up because he was coaching at another school, but after he retired, Indiana's program stabilized, and really, it just comes out now in his not participating in reunions. That's really all you see nowadays."
Meanwhile, fans who even remember the good old days are only getting older -- and in a year or two, freshmen enrolled at IU will have been born in 2000.
"It's gotten to a point where it doesn't make any sense," Thomas told ESPN's Jeff Goodman in November. "It's time."
"I honestly think the '76 thing was the straw that broke the camel's back," Dakich said. "And then you go to support Purdue, not to support Purdue, but because supporting Purdue equals sticking it to IU. I think a lot of people have lost a lot of respect for him. It's just so ridiculous, you just go, 'All right, man -- whatever.'"
IF KNIGHT DOES RETURN, the Assembly Hall he will see will look vastly different from the last time he was there. The newly renovated, and newly prefixed, Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall opened in October with scores of new amenities: luxury seating, the Mark Cuban Center for Sports Media and Technology, windowed views down onto the court, a massive scoreboard, a more open, more modern feel all around.
Large windows at the south entrance showcase a large "INDIANA" -- impossible not to notice the first time you see it but almost immediately a part of the understood view once you have. The Simon Skjodt edition still feels like Assembly Hall -- or how a fan might remember Assembly Hall in the mind's eye, even though it's totally different.
If Knight does return to the building, he'll get a legendary ovation, and he'll give that rapidly dwindling group of die-hards something new to remember him by, and he'll see how much Indiana has changed, in ways both obvious and subtle.
And if he doesn't, Indiana will go right on changing, just as it always has.
Back at Dats, it hits you: the name. It used to be called Yats. Did you know that? Did you forget? Does it matter?