Directed by Robert Abbott
The 30 for 30 brand has done a lot for ESPN, expanding their reach into the world of documentary filmmaking. In nearly a decade, and almost 100 films later, the series is still as strong as ever in terms of the product delivered on screen. Heck, they just won an Oscar recently for O.J.: Made in America. And yet, ESPN has decided that with the release of this film, they will run their 30 for 30 content exclusively through their new ESPN+ streaming service. It both makes a ton of sense and is excruciatingly frustrating. The 30 for 30 brand is a great way to help sell the new service, while marooning it behind what amounts to a paywall will likely seriously hinder the ability for a lot of people to get their eyes on these usually stellar documentary films about the sports world. I will certainly be interested in how this plays out.
As the content wars continue in the realm television, ESPN’s latest sports documentary covers the wars of one man’s legend within a state of diehard basketball fans. Bob Knight was a living legend in Indiana. After successful stints as a role player on an Ohio State national championship team and a winning run at West Point as a very young head coach, Knight landed in Indiana where he built a monster program, winning multiple national titles and countless conference championships and games. He cemented his status well before the time came to reckon with his coaching style, which made his scandal and exit all the more impossible for the Hoosier fan base and loyal administrators at the university. But as investigative journalist Robert Abbot goes back to explore the sensational story he broke while working for CNN, he begins to see that Knight choking a player was less about the coach, and perhaps more about the player.
Often what ESPN does best in these films is retell the story of some significant event or sports milestone. And while they certainly cover all their bases when it comes to chronicling the success of Bobby Knight and the Indiana program, as well as his eventual downfall, what separates The Last Days of Knight from many in the pack of 30 for 30 films is in its human story, which is told beautifully by Robert Abbott, the director of this film, and the man who originally broke the Bobby Knight scandal. What makes this film such a rewarding experience is in Abbott’s ability to do his job, simply tell the truth. Certainly there is some amount of personal bias and emotional manipulation as a result of having someone as close to the story as Abbott retell it, but that personal, emotional touch is honestly what makes this documentary stand apart.
Abbott clearly has a handle on the facts and timeline of events of the Bobby Knight downfall, and that part of the film is flawlessly produced. The interviews he gets, then and now, are what tell the personal side of things, the moments where we get to peel back the layers and find out who Bobby Knight really was, what he meant both to the state of Indiana and its fans as well as to his players, ones that stuck around and those that departed the program for now obvious reasons. Seeing all this put together in on place is a bit like it was seeing O.J.: Made in America, wherein the evidence against is so egregiously horrendous that it’s hard to watch archival footage of people defending Knight, and attacking his accuser Neil Reed. It all becomes so obvious in hindsight. But that’s not even the most heartbreaking aspect of the story.
When all focus is placed on Knight and both his accolades and shortcomings (and he is an asshole, this film does nothing to dispell that opinion, but rather reinforces it), we forget about the human story of Neil Reed, and the courage it took to come forward, and also the scars that likely remained after being shunned as the man who got the beloved Bob Knight fired. When Abbott begins down the road of telling Reed’s side of the story, the film really delivers an emotional gut punch. Why do we, as a society, put so much stake in winning? So much that we’re willing to sacrifice morals, turn a blind eye to abuse and let horrible humans continue to “craft” our young people? A story like this is sick in many ways, but the fact that Knight was given all the chances he was, that his story was swept under the rug by Indiana in favor of continued winning, is such a shameful act. We need to be better.