Friday, November 3, 2023

Days With Knight

Bobby Knight, legendary basketball coach, passed away on Wednesday, November 1st, 2023just two days ago. He had a reputation and was an oft-seen figure in the news, and I’ll admit I didn’t know him well, but he did have an impact on me that I’d like to share.

I’ve never been very athletic, nor have I ever had a penchant for sports. So, working in athletics wasn’t a place I imagined myself to ever be. But, after moving to Lubbock, Texas in 1999 to study business at Texas Tech University, a job opened up as a student assistant in the athletic department...and I jumped at it.

I had already studied a couple of years at Binghamton University, but instead of studying business my focus was initially on biology with pre-med intentions, then I switched to psychology for three semesters. While in Binghamton, my hometown, I continued to manage my parents’ three Pack & Mail stores, an industry I had been in since they opened their first in 1991. So, when I moved to Texas, my job at the athletic department was actually my first-ever job outside of the mail and business center industry (an industry I’ve found myself back in over and over again for well over 30 years now), and my first time considering a career in business instead of in the sciences.

One big reason for my move to West Texas was to be near my grandmother, whom my siblings, cousins, and I called “Mam-ma” (pronounced “ma’am-maw”) who lived in Lubbock. I had some other family there too, as well as some friends I had made from visiting there over the years. I was excited for the move and transfer, as I’ve always been a lover of adventure and change. I bought a pair of boots, made dear friends, found my tribe, and was able to take Mam-ma out on a shopping and dinner date every Tuesday—days I still treasure and remember fondly, gossiping over chicken fried steak at the local dive restaurant while she puffed on her Virginia Slims (back then, you could still smoke in restaurants in Texas), going to JC Penny to find the special brand of taupe pantyhose she preferred, playing Skip-Bo back at her apartment while we drank Coke from glass bottles that she opened with her old beer bottle opener, and snacking on her famous Frito pie made with the flattest Vidalia onions we could find while watching the Cowboys play, trying to spot my distant cousin Angie, one of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, in the lineup, Mam-ma using the wall calendar Angie had sent, signed by all the cheerleaders to “Dear Aunt Hullie” (as she was nicknamed by her niblings), as a visual reference to try to pick out which blonde dancer among them might be Angie.

While I technically did work for the Texas Tech Athletic Department, my primary responsibility was working in the Double T Shoppes, which, even though plural, when I arrived was just one store in a small building next to the football stadium. This was the football stadium of 1999, not the behemoth they’ve built since in its place, though still it was considerably more colossal than any stadium I had experienced in Binghamton. That’s for dang sure. Football is certainly a giant part of the culture in West Texas.

One thing that we did at the Double T Shoppes was merchandise concessions at all of the major sporing events. I also did merch concessions at non-sporting events, which is how I had my own private Elton John concert, a true story I shared on in April of 2017 (in case you want to go searching in the archives to read it). Anyway, for sports concessions we had satellite booths in the football stadium, baseball stadium, and old basketball arena. When I came there, Texas Tech was in the process of building a gigantic, shiny new basketball arena—the United Spirit Arena—and, when it opened, the old arena was eventually converted into the home of the Lubbock Cotton Kings, the first ice hockey team to come to West Texas, which was…let’s just say…entirely amusing to experience.

Inside the new United Spirit Arena, the Double T Shoppes opened its second full-on location and I got to be part of that store’s design and layout and on the team that got to open its doors for the first time to the public. It was exciting! It was right inside the main entrance to the arena, at the foot of the grand staircases, surrounded by glass, and absolutely beautiful.

Around the corner from our store in the arena were the offices for the Lady Raiders and Red Raiders management and coaching teams. Marsha Sharp, legendary Head Coach of the Lady Raiders, less than a decade past winning the national championship and still going strong, would be in and out often and usually wave while she walked by the store coming to and from her office. I liked her a whole lot.

Not long after we opened that location, news broke that Texas Tech was hiring a controversial new Head Coach for the men’s basketball team, the Red Raiders, which to this day I believe was in part to help them get attendance up at the new arena so men’s games could come up to somewhat par with the oft-sold-out popularity of the Lady Raiders games. Bobby Knight was going to come down from Indiana where he was making national headlines and move to Lubbock to be our new coach. It was a local (and national) media event that was very exciting to be in the middle of!

Before he arrived, my coworkers and I had t-shirts made to welcome him. See, in Indiana Coach Knight had been involved in an incident where he threw a chair at a player. It wasn’t cool. He had temper problems and I am in no way condoning that behavior. But, the chair had taken on a life of its own and, by the time he was coming to Texas Tech, was all over headlines. So, we capitalized on that and had an image of a chair on a shirt that just said “Welcome, Coach Knight” on it…and people ate it up! It sold out fast.

In my experience, Coach Knight turned out to be a very nice man, and his two sons who coached with him were also nice to be around. (Well, speaking frankly, one son was much more amiable than the other, but neither was completely unfriendly.) Like I mentioned in the beginning of this ramble, I didn’t know Coach Knight well, but he would wave like Coach Sharp from time to time and the good he did at the university during his tenure there as Head Coach was very worthy.

In 2001, as a going away present when I left the Texas Tech University Athletic Department, Coaches Sharp and Knight both signed a basketball for me. I treasured that ball for a few years, though eventually gave it away when I went into mission work in 2004 and downsized my life considerably.

Thank you, Coach Knight, for adding excitement to my life while I was in Texas and for being one of the first famous people I got to know in my younger years (aside from Coach Sharp, aside from my former Binghamton University theater castmate and friend, Ingrid Michaelson, who wasn’t famous at that time but is now, and aside from, of course, Elton John). And thanks for playing a part in getting this notoriously unathletic guy who didn’t have much interest in watching a game if there wasn’t a theatrical halftime show or a find-your-cousin challenge into one who enjoyed and somewhat followed college sports, even for just a little while. I left my comfort zone, learned a lot, became much more understanding and appreciative of a world that I didn’t often experience before, and made friends that I certainly may not have encountered otherwise.

Rest in peace, Coach.

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