“I had dinner with him just this last week in New York,” Woodson told me in his office after a recent practice. “We sat and chatted for about three hours. We talked basketball. What better advice to take? He’s done everything you could possibly do in basketball, and done it as good as anybody who has ever coached the game. How do you not respect Bob Knight?”
Woodson has more than just respect for Knight. He says he owes his whole life to him. (He showed me a picture of himself with Knight, though the most prominent photo in his office is golf-related.) Woodson was born in Indianapolis; his father died when he was 13, and his mother was a nurse. In Indiana, basketball is essentially a religion practiced from birth. Woodson has joked that he was raised by the motion offense. He was heavily recruited at Broad Ripple high school, the same school that David Letterman had attended a few years earlier. (“I’d love to meet him now that we’re in the same town again,” Woodson says.)
In 1976, Woodson agreed to play basketball for Knight at Indiana University. Knight promised Woodson three things: a quality education, a first-rate basketball team, and a summer job. “All three came true,” Woodson says. “I worked every summer, I got better as a basketball player, and I got a degree. You follow people like that.”
Woodson’s college playing career was distinguished by a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1980, when he played in the nation’s best backcourt with a charming and accomplished point guard named Isiah Thomas. (That’s right: The 1980 Indiana University guards basically own the past decade of Knicks culture, for better or worse.) Woodson was thrust into the spotlight in the 1980 NBA draft, where he was taken twelfth overall by the Knicks. He was on the cover of the team’s media guide that year, looking thinner than he does now but already sporting his trademark goatee. Something of a disappointment for a first-round pick, particularly with his college backcourt mate taking the country by storm in Detroit, Woodson lasted only one year in New York before ultimately ending up with the Kansas City Kings. He bounced around the league for eleven seasons, retiring during the 1991 season. (He missed playing with current Knick Kurt Thomas by four years.)
After a few years of “being a dad,” Woodson returned to the NBA as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. But it wasn’t until 2004 that he made his coaching mark. Working as an assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons, Woodson received considerable credit for that team’s heralded blue-collar work ethic—no small feat considering the Pistons’ abundance of superstars, from Chauncey Billups to Rip Hamilton to Rasheed Wallace. Detroit won the NBA title that year, and Woodson, seemingly overnight, became the hottest coaching commodity in the league. That off-season, the Atlanta Hawks hired him to be their head coach. His skills were seen as an ideal fit for a team with an abundance of young talent (Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Josh Childress) but no leader and no clue on defense.
Woodson immediately set about changing the team’s culture. In a semi-famous speech documented by Slam magazine’s Lang Whitaker, Woodson spelled out his philosophy to the team clearly: “I have zero ego as a coach, none. If you think you see something that’s going to work better than what we’re trying to do, speak up! Say something to me! But what I’m telling you guys is that if you guys will just consistently do what we’re asking you to do on defense, we’ll win games. I don’t give a shit about the offense; you guys can score more than enough points to win games. The offense isn’t the problem. But you have to get stops on defense, and if you’ll listen to what we’re telling you, I promise you’ll get stops. The shit works, okay?”
The shit definitely worked: Woodson coached the Hawks for six seasons, and their win total improved every year, from 13 to 26 to 30 to 37 to 47 to 53. The problem was that the Hawks could never make it out of the second round of the playoffs, and after they were swept by the Orlando Magic in 2010, the team essentially fired him. Woodson won’t get into the details of his dismissal. “They did what they had to do,” he says. “All I know is that the six-year run was fantastic.” But it is still a sore spot—the team he helped build dropped him, as he sees it, right when they were poised to break through. (They never did advance further, by the way, and now they’re rebuilding.) Woodson was reportedly especially upset with assistant coach Larry Drew, a former teammate of Woodson’s in Kansas City. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Drew went behind Woodson’s back to convince ownership he would implement game plans that Woodson would not. Woodson still refuses to talk to Drew, an ongoing subplot whenever the two coaches face off, which they did twice last year without incident.