The trip to the legendary gym now called Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall this past weekend in Bloomington, Ind., was about more than watching the University of Illinois start a running race in bare feet, then celebrating that at some time in the second half they managed to find their shoes.
The Illini fell behind 15-0 before realizing they were in a crater-sized hole without a ladder. The deficit reached 22 points although Illinois closed the margin to nine before losing by a final tally of 96-80.
Saturday wasn’t the first basketball nightmare Illinois has experienced at Indiana’s Assembly Hall. There have been a number of them through the years with a few miracles sprinkled in as well.
But this has been a haunted hall for many teams.
Before Saturday’s game, Illini radio analyst Doug Altenberger said during his distinguished career, Assembly Hall was the toughest place to play.
“This place and then Purdue — Mackey Arena was brutal — and maybe Iowa, those were the three toughest,” said Altenberger, the tough-as-nails guard who shined for the Illini from 1982 to 1987.
Assembly Hall has undergone a recent renovation. Thanks to a $40 million gift from alumna Cindy Simon Skjodt (her father, Mel Simon, was a billionaire mall developer and owner of the Indiana Pacers), the 45-year-old building sparkles again, particularly with a glassed-in grand entrance that is advertised as a new front window to the campus community.
As we’ve learned with most of these arena renovations, a facelift of any magnitude is the perfect time to take those cushy media seats that once provided a floor-level glimpse of the action and sell them for about $2,000 per seat, per game, to high rollers who don’t at all mind being seen by their friends on television.
Sure enough, the media seats at Indiana have now been moved to the absolute top of those steep ski slope-like seating structures on each side of Assembly Hall.
I used to laugh at the people who were sitting way, way, way up there. I’d squint, knowing I’m a bit afraid of heights. The thought of hiring a Sherpa to scale those steps was terrifying but, thankfully, I’d never have to do that.
There’s humor to be found in the new seating arrangement, at least after one overcomes vertigo, popping ears and the breathlessness it takes to locate the new press row.
Face it, most people don’t give a hoot where the media sits and some would snicker if they found out the new media seats were located outside in a snow drift.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think Bob Knight was still around. The former Indiana coach loathed the media. If he had thought of it, he would have dispatched us up into the clouds decades ago.
Maybe the lack of oxygen in the new media seats got me feeling a little sentimental about Knight.
The storied coach won three national championships at Indiana and became bigger than the university president and the governor of the state, or so it seemed until in 2000 Knight’s pot boiled over and he was fired.
A brilliant tactician and motivator, he also was mean-spirited and became combative the minute anyone questioned his methods.
I shed no tears when he was fired but all these years later, here’s the truth:
As much as I disliked the man, it would be incredible to be present the day he walked back into a place that for years was his personal temple of intimidation.
This is where in 1985 Knight became so outraged at the officiating that he protested by heaving a chair across the court. It’s where in 1998 against the Illini that he was ejected by official Ted Valentine. Knight then stalked directly at Valentine in a threatening manner that made a sellout crowd believe Knight was determined to have a career-ending physical confrontation.
Alas, he veered away at the last second, buzzing past Valentine and bringing the enraged home crowd to a crescendo.
But Knight has never returned to the gym that still houses all those memories. Neither reunions of his national championship teams nor pleas from his favorite players have lured him back onto a campus where the administration had the gall to end his coaching tenure here.
For years there was an assumption that at some point he would grace the grand building with his presence. But now, with Knight at age 76 and no signs of having softened, the bitter, stubborn one-time king seems resigned never to return.
And no matter what happens in that building now, it will never seem as loud or as frenzied or as special without him.
I never thought I’d say this, but I’d pay big money to climb to the top row of the Assembly Hall just to listen to the roar when one more time that white-haired lion marches onto the floor.
Alas, Knight’s return to Assembly Hall is like floor-level media seating. It’s just not going to happen again.