"My life has been excellent. No regrets. Like everyone else, I have had my ups and downs. But generally speaking, I could not imagine it being any different than what it was. If there is a 'Hereafter' and I could not come back as Bobby Knight, I would not want to come back."
Penned from the hands of Hartford native and local basketball legend Bobby Knight shortly before his death May 23 at the age of 79.
The mood was set days ago.
Friday was going to be the day to celebrate a life. An extraordinary life. A life lived, oh, so humbly, and a life that impacted hundreds in Hartford and Springfield, many of whom attended the memorial service, which was what it was supposed to be: a celebration of Bobby Knight's life.
All week stories were told of the kind of person he was to the kind of basketball player he was at Weaver in the 1940s, for the Harlem Globetrotters in the '40s and '50s and the Knicks, but more so in the industrial/semipro leagues in the area that added to his legend and led him into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame two years ago.
Many told of how he combined his compassion and humility with his athletic ability to form a positive message that taught youngsters how to succeed. How he encouraged the young and old, the black and white to be the best they could be at whatever they did.
It all culminated at Phillips Metropolitan C.M.E. Church in Hartford's North End, not far from where the legend of Bobby Knight began on Bellevue Street. Many spoke glowingly of the man who, despite all he did for others, was adamant about not being in the spotlight.
There were many stories about that, too.
This was not going to be a sad day. Knight didn't want that. His family honored those wishes. With a collage of Knight photos and his customary smile facing the congregation, it was hard not to smile back.
But there were tears shed when Knight's oldest son, Kevin Andrade, spoke of his dad and how overwhelmed he and the family were by the outpouring of support.
Knight spent the last 30-plus years living in Springfield and was a volunteer at the YMCA of Greater Springfield. Two vans chock-full of folks young and old came from the Y.
Connecticut state treasurer Denise Napier sent some riveting words about Knight in a proclamation, as did Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez. Hartford police chief Daryl Roberts stood among a long line of folks awaiting the opportunity to share a story about Knight.
That's what this celebration was about. Great stories with Knight as the star.
"I wouldn't be standing before you today in this position if it wasn't for Bobby Knight," said Roberts, dogged many times on the court by Knight but also encouraged to be everything he could be in society.
Tears also fell when opera singer Elizabeth Lyra Ross-Norman — wife of John Norman, a close friend of Knight's and a member of Weaver's 1957 New England championship team — sang "If I Can Help Somebody." One verse stood out: "If I can help somebody as I travel along; If I can help somebody with a word or song; If I can help somebody from doing wrong, my living shall not be in vain."
The Mahalia Jackson tune never sounded sweeter than it did Friday, because it spoke directly to what Knight was all about.
Of course Knight wouldn't have wanted so much attention drawn to him.
"No, he wouldn't," said Bob Countryman, also a member of Weaver's '57 team who now lives in California and flew in for the celebration. "That's just how he was. That just added to the kind of person he was. And he loved the kids, man."
Just to the left of Countryman was former Bulkeley High basketball coach Lou Bazzano, who also was a former director of athletics for the city. Bazzano was inducted into the New England Hall the same night Knight was.
"What a man," Bazzano said as he flipped through a handful of photos he brought. "What a caring human being. My family had never met him before, and I remember they were very taken aback by the kind of person he was; very gifted player, but extremely humble."
Knight was a player many believed would have been a star in college and the NBA if not for the color barrier. He ended up playing for the Globetrotters, but he wasn't making a lot of money. His friends say he kept coming back to Hartford because he was homesick. He played two games for the Knicks in 1955 before going back home.
Knight soon became a mentor to many in Hartford, and in 1979 Doc Hurley, also recognized as a Hartford icon, approached him about a Doc Hurley/Bobby Knight scholarship basketball classic, like the version that's in Doc's name now. Knight declined.
It was the spotlight thing again.
"He said, 'No, no, that's not me,'" Hurley said.
Hurley would end his words to the congregation by saying, "As far as I'm concerned, Bobby Knight is the No.1 role model in Hartford," which was met with great applause.
Knight was part of the Breakfast Club, a group of friends and former players that meets on Tuesdays at the Cracker Barrel in Enfield, sharing stories about the old days.
There was a session that convened there Thursday night that included Countryman, Frank "Boo" Perry, Ron Jefferson and Benny Thomas.
Oh, the stories.
Before the service started, Thomas told one where his idol, Knight, had picked him to play on his team at one of the parks. He knew Knight was good but not this good. During a fastbreak Thomas got an up-close introduction to one of Knight's legendary no-look passes. It was so fast and clean that it hit him in the head.
Perry stood before the congregation and told of when Knight worked for Hood, he would get all his work done by lunch time so he could play basketball. He said Knight used to park the truck on the street and its length stretched across two parking meters.
"But Bobby never got a ticket," Perry said. "That's because Mrs. Martin was the meter maid and her refrigerator stayed stocked with ice cream."
And, of course, Knight being who he was, many kids got ice cream on his dime.
Knight was private, too. He was adamant that his cause of death not be revealed publicly. In his final days, he really didn't want any medical assistance, friends and family said. He knew the end was near and he was ready to go home.
"I was supposed to go and see him Friday afternoon and he died that morning," said his daughter, Tamie Andrade. "I loved him. I really did. We all did."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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