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January 22, 2013

Farewell Coach Bob





I don't know where to start with this.

After learning this morning of the passing of Robert "Coach Bob" King, I felt this overwhelming, yet somewhat unexplainable, sense of joy.

I will admit my reaction is a bit strange when learning of the death of a man who had been on this earth since August 20, 1920. But that is how I felt.

Yes, he died of a heart attack last night at age 92. But he also passed from this earth after so many of his friends took advantage of the opportunity to be in his presence. His 90th birthday party a couple of summers ago was one of those memorable days.

Yet, I also know the feeling is bittersweet for his two children, Mike and Sue. They saw a different side of their dad than the rest of us, but they will take great comfort in the outpouring of affection that will come from the Purdue family as a whole, and specifically the basketball community in the hours, days and weeks to come.

To say King was one of the greatest basketball men this state has ever known would be a true statement. It would also shortchange his legacy.

He was one of the truly great men of our time.

A pioneer in so many ways he devoted countless hours to his beloved basketball, whether serving as one of the founders of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, to his days as an assistant coach and chief recruiter at Purdue, to his work in athletic administration, where he counseled countless Boilermaker athletes in academics, yet all the while offering a blueprint of how to live life.

"He's the type of man who always did the right thing," said former player and longtime friend Randy Shields this morning. "Whether it was Purdue basketball, Indiana high school basketball, or anything else, he just did the right thing."

King was a simple person. His signature buzz haircut told you that. That hairstyle never went out of fashion for him, never wavering for as long as I have known him dating back to 1966. His values were simple. He could be strict, but he was always fair. He was serious, but he loved to sit around and tell stories and jokes. He was tolerant in a conservative sort of way, not always readily embracing the morals of today, but still accepting of the notion that he was not in control of the ways of the world. Instead of fighting some of the ills of society, he would often say his piece, and then move on.

I never met a man who was more at peace with who he was.

He was the master of listening first, and then speaking; the rarest of traits in these times. Or any times, for that matter.

King was an intensely private man, who still found a way to share himself with the world. His funeral will be private, but the celebration of his life will be in all the stories told by those who came in contact with him.

In his later days, I would often see him surrounded by his former players, or coaches he knew from the far reaches of the state of Indiana and elsewhere. Those in his midst found themselves on the edge of their seats. Not because they were nervous, but because you never knew when a pearl of wisdom or insight would come from his soft-spoken voice. You needed to be ready.

Those who knew Coach Bob would also know that he navigated skillfully through the most difficult of times and topics: The 1960s and race. He was hired at Purdue at a time when African-Americans were just becoming a part of the Purdue community, in athletics and as a whole.

He helped Purdue take advantage of the racist and restrictive dogma that ruled the South. It was an environment that allowed Boilermaker legends like Leroy Keyes and Herman Gilliam to attend Purdue, because they weren't allowed to go to schools in the South.

King was no fool. He knew talent when he saw it. But he also knew that when Gilliam and Keyes and others came to Purdue, they deserved the best experience, one that included a Purdue degree.

I often thought that if King had a dollar for every mother who tearfully thanked him for helping her son (and sometimes daughter) earn a Purdue diploma, he would be a rich man.

But, then again, he was the richest of men.

Personally, I will miss him on so many levels. The lunches at Stookey's in Thorntown, Ind. when he would hold court with Rick Mount, Billy Keller and other icons of Indiana basketball were legendary in their sometimes embellished stories about the sport they loved. We had one planned for next Thursday no less. But man plans and fate laughs, as they say.

I am grateful that I was able to spend significant time with him on two occasions in the past three months. And we did what we always did. We talked basketball.

The fact that he became a surrogate father to me after my father passed 17 years ago. There was no one on this earth my dad would rather have spent time with than Coach Bob.

I hope in a small way I can understand and accept people the way King did. His friendship never wavered for those who were close to him whether it be Frank Kendrick or Mount or many others. He had the keenest ability to see the best in everyone, no matter the circumstance.

His most difficult days had to be have been the painfully early passing of two of his prized pupils: Gilliam and Roger Blalock. Yet, he helped us all move on from those dark days because we knew how difficult it was for Coach Bob to accept those tragedies and move on. So with heavy hearts we had to move on as well.

I am glad he lived to see his alma mater, Butler, have a resurgence and to be honored at Hinkle Fieldhouse recently. I am also thankful his beloved Boilermakers delivered him gracefully to the next world on a three-game winning streak. When I saw him last, he was still bullish on Coach Matt Painter's team, though he admitted having his patience tested a time or two.

Determining his legacy for me is simple. Yet, I know it will be a personal journey for all who knew him.

The lessons are these: Listen before speaking; praise before scolding; simplicity before complexity. They're just a few that come to mind. But foremost will be love and respect.

Thanks Coach Bob for all you have done for me and for all you have touched.

I am so thankful I was able to say those words to you the last time I saw you. That might be one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given.




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