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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Did Coach Bobby Knight’s legendary temper lead to his death?

Dr. Gabe Mirkin

Bobby Knight was one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991 as the coach of college teams that won 902 games and lost 371. At Indiana University from 1971 to 2000, his teams won three NCAA championships, one National Invitational Tourney and 11 Big Ten Conference championships. His teams won 20 or more games in a season 29 times and were in the NCAA Invitational tournament 24 times in 29 seasons. He also coached the United States basketball team to an Olympic gold medal.

He died on November 1, 2023, but the news media did not list a cause. I have never examined him and have never seen his medical records, but I think that he probably died from a heart attack or stroke. He was a known diabetic for many years, and had a history of difficulty controlling his temper and relating to people. He had a stroke in 2015 that left him with speech problems, he suffered from dementia for at least five years before his death, and he had pneumonia in April 2023.

Links Between Diabetes, Anger and Dementia
Repeated conflicts with other people and inability to control one’s temper can be caused by anything that damages the brain. In Knight’s case, he was a type II diabetic which markedly increases risk for brain damage and dementia (JAMA, Apr  27;2021;325(16):1640-1649). High blood sugar levels can increase amyloid-beta release to cause Alzheimer’s disease (JCI Insight, 2023;8(10):e162454). He suffered from risk factors for diabetes that are also major risk factors for dementia, including a decrease in muscle strength and size, and an increase in fat in muscles, liver and underneath belly skin (J Am Geriatr Soc, June 7, 2023).

Knight had an incredible coaching record but the reports of his numerous controversies and violent incidents were even more memorable. The instances I have listed here are taken from the Wikipedia article on Knight; books and articles describe many more.
• On December 7, 1974, Indiana defeated Kentucky 98-74. Near the end of the game, Knight complained about a call by the referee and hit Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall in the back of the head.

• Olympic gold medalist Douglas Blubaugh was head wrestling coach at Indiana University in the 1970s. One day he was jogging around the basketball court during basketball practice, Knight screamed expletives at him to leave the building. Blubaugh pinned Knight to a wall and told him never to do that again, and Knight never did.

• On February 23, 1985, during a Purdue-Indiana game in Bloomington, a foul was called on Indiana’s Marty Simmons. On the next play, a foul was called on Indiana’s Daryl Thomas. Knight received a technical foul for screaming that the first call should have been for a jump ball. After he received the technical foul, he threw a chair from Indiana’s bench onto the court and was charged with a second and third technical foul and was ejected from the game.

• Former Indiana basketball player Todd Jadlow wrote a book saying that from 1985 to 1989, Knight punched him in the face, broke a clipboard over the top of his head, and squeezed his testicles and those of other Hoosiers, among many other abuses.

• In 1976, Knight grabbed Indiana University basketball player Jim Wisman and jerked him into his seat.

• In the 1979 Pan American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Knight was accused of assaulting a police officer while coaching the U.S. basketball team before a practice session. He was later convicted in absentia and given a six-month jail sentence, but extradition efforts by the Puerto Rican government were unsuccessful.

• At a practice leading up to an Indiana-Purdue game in West Lafayette in 1991, a tape was made of him yelling I am “f . . . ing tired of losing to Purdue.” It received more than 1,484,000 views on YouTube.

• On February 19, 2000, Clarence Doninger, Knight’s boss, alleged that he had been physically threatened by Knight during a confrontation after a game.

• Knight berated and physically intimidated a university secretary, throwing a potted plant in anger that showered her with glass and debris. The university asked him to issue an apology to the secretary.

• Knight was accused of throwing assistant coach Ron Felling out of a chair after overhearing him criticize the basketball program in a phone conversation.

• On March 14, 2000, the CNN Sports Illustrated network ran a piece on Robert Abbott’s investigation of Knight in which former player Neil Reed claimed he had been choked by Knight during a practice in 1997. Knight denied the claims in the story. However, less than a month later, the network aired a tape of an Indiana practice from 1997 that appeared to show Knight placing his hand on Reed’s neck. In response, Indiana University president Myles Brand announced that he had adopted a “zero tolerance” policy with regard to Knight’s behavior.

• In September 2000, Indiana freshman Kent Harvey reportedly said, “Hey, Knight, what’s up?” to Knight. According to Harvey, Knight grabbed him by the arm and lectured him for not showing him respect, insisting that Harvey address him as either “Mr. Knight” or “Coach Knight” instead of simply “Knight.” Indiana University president Myles Brand asked Knight to resign.

• After Knight was accused of choking an Indiana player during practice in an incident that was recorded on video, the university instituted another “zero tolerance” policy specifically for Knight. Following a subsequent run-in with a student, Knight was fired in the fall of 2000.

• He went on to coach at Texas Tech, mostly without incident, from 2001 to 2008. On November 13, 2006, Knight was shown allegedly hitting player Michael Prince under the chin to get him to make eye contact.

• On October 21, 2007, James Simpson of Lubbock, Texas, accused Knight of firing a shotgun in his direction after he yelled at Knight and another man for hunting too close to his home. Knight denied the allegations, but an argument between the two men was recorded via camera phone and aired later on television.

In the seven full seasons that Knight coached the Red Raiders at Texas Tech, his teams qualified for a post-season tournament five times. He retired partway through the 2007-2008 season and was replaced by his son Pat Knight at Texas Tech. Knight remains “the object of near fanatical devotion” from many of his former players and fans.

Lifestyle Changes to Improve Brain Function
Many studies show that lifestyle changes that help to improve brain function can be made at any age.
• Previously sedentary people who started exercising in their 70s and 80s, including those who had already experienced some cognitive decline, showed improvement in brain function after they started an exercise program (Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports, May, 12, 2023;7(1): 399-413).
• Control of blood sugar levels can help to preserve brain function in diabetics (J Gerontology, Biol Sci Med Sci, 2016;71(Suppl 1):S62-S71).
• Diabetes often causes high rises in blood sugar after meals that often occurs many years before a person develops high fasting blood sugar levels. When a person has a normal fasting blood sugar (<100 mg/dL), even though they have a high blood sugar (>145 mg/dL) after meals, their doctor may fail to diagnose that they are already suffering the cell damage caused by diabetes. Some doctors call this pre-diabetes. Having a normal fasting blood sugar does not rule out diabetes.
• A high rise in blood sugar can cause sugar to stick to and damage cells throughout the body. In particular, diabetes damages blood vessels to increase risk for every disease associated with blood vessel damage (Circulation, 2006;114(6):597-605), strokes (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 1995;92(9):3744-3748), and dementia (Neurobiol Aging, 2011;32(6):763-767). No tissue is spared.
• This can affect the brain so a person can become argumentative and disagreeable many years before he receives the diagnosis of diabetes (J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2017 Oct; 72(6): 922-931).
• Dementia, heart attacks and strokes are all associated with diseases that damage blood vessels. Indeed, every risk factor for a heart attack is also associated with increased risk for dementia (JAMA Neurol, 2017;74(10):1246-1254).
• Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart attacks and strokes and is also a major risk factor for dementia (Lancet, 2012;379:2291-2299).

Lessons from Bobby Knight’s Later Years and Death
A person who is mean to you and gets into arguments with you much of the time is often suffering from early brain damage of some sort. Knight had a stroke eight years before his death, which showed that he had significant blood vessel damage that increased his risk for dementia. Diabetes is a major cause of dementia in later life.

Anti-social behavior can be an early sign of diseases such as dementia. If you can’t get an argumentative person to seek medical help, you may be better off avoiding them completely.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com

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