Writing 101

Several have written about Bob Knight, but there's only one autobiography

Bob Knight was 34 when the first book was written about him. Not by him, about him - the first of, oh, boy, many.

Knight was in his 10th year as a head coach and fourth at Indiana when, in January, his team was unbeaten, No. 1 in the polls, and a friend of his - Rich Clarkson, a photographer whom he had met when Clarkson was on an assignment for Sports Illustrated - suggested the season he and his team were having might make an interesting book.

Clarkson suggested me as the writer, since I was filing daily stories on the team for the newspaper I served as sports editor, the Bloomington Herald-Telephone.

The book went from that start to fruition - Knight not part of the writing or publishing, his part simply assurance that Clarkson in particular would have necessary access.

"Knight With the Hoosiers" (Clarkson's choice of titles) turned out to be much more of an artistic success than in revenue or sales. It was the second regular book produced by the Josten Yearbook Co. of Topeka, Kan.

The problem was squeezing Clarkson's exquisite art, gorgeous in both full color and black-and-white, in with the overwhelming yearbook obligations that were the Josten staple. A book scheduled to be out in fall 1975 was moved back to the night of the 1975-76 Hoosiers' opener - not bad, we felt, because that opener was a nationally televised game with defending champion UCLA. But the books weren't out that night, or any other night while IU was filling Assembly Hall all through December.

The first copy I saw was in Knight's hands while I rode with him on the team plane in January on the way to the team's Big Ten opener in Michigan. Not a word was said on the full trip up. The plane landed, Knight closed the book, and gave his review in five words:

"War and Peace is safe."

Clarkson and I did one other book together: Silver Knight, a beautifully illustrated book that came out after his 25th season at Indiana. There was a chapter, with some data, on each of the 25 teams. I did four other post-season books that were published and sold by my newspaper - on IU's 1976, '81 and '87 NCAA champions and the '93 team that was No. 1 throughout the season but, after a key late-season injury, lost in the regional finals. All six had sales in the 10,000-and-up range. For some reason, the '87 book outsold all the rest added together. Sales topped 90,000, making it by far the biggest seller among traditional books ever published by Indiana University Press.

Outside publishers and agents began to besiege Knight with book requests after the 1976 team's perfect season. He declined every one, saying he would do one book when he retired.

That didn't shut off "Bob Knight books." The most successful, by far, was John Feinstein's "Season on the Brink," which focused on Indiana's 1985-86 season - the one after "The Chair," when Knight tossed a chair on the court during a regular-season game against rival Purdue. Feinstein began that project with Knight's full cooperation.

By the end of the season, that had cooled into a strained relationship, though Knight never went back on the access he had agreed to provide. When the book came out, Knight got six or so pages into it, said he "got sick" that the agreements he thought Feinstein had agreed to had not been followed, and insists he never picked it up again. It became one of the best-selling sports books in history, the hard-back sales figure reported at 400,000 within months after publication. It spent weeks at No. 1 on the non-fiction list, and it established Feinstein as one of the most recognized sports authors with guaranteed access to new book contracts for the next 20 years. The two have had some conversations at times in that period, but not a lot.

Other books on Knight have come from a variety of authors, taking a variety of stances. The star of that 1987 Indiana championship team, Steve Alford, titled his own autobiography "Playing for Knight."

But, as he had repeatedly told publishers and would-be authors, Knight never participated in a book until retirement apparently had been forced on him with his firing by Indiana University Sept. 10, 2000. Within a couple of weeks afterward, Knight had reached an agreement with International Management Group, his long-time agent, to work on an autobiography with me in the "as told to" role.

In March 2002, "KNIGHT: My Story" came out, just about the time Knight's time out of coaching was ending with his agreement to take over as coach at Texas Tech.

That book was in the top five of the New York Times Best-Seller list for five weeks, topping out at No. 2.

Some day there may be a follow-up. There have been a number of expressions of interest, for Knight in any of several roles: motivation, business ideas, basketball teaching, athletic administration, hunting and fishing.

May I say that no "as told to" writer ever had more aggressive participation than I did with Knight on "My Story." The words for it were put together by me off dozens of hours of tape. Every word of every page was gone over by Knight before it went in, and there was considerable editing - almost all of it to satisfy him that it "sounded like me."

Bob Hammel is a former sports editor of the Bloomington (Ind.) Herald-Telephone.