Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 28, 2015, in the Indianapolis Star.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It’s behind this door. That’s what I’ve been told. It’s a chair, red molded plastic on cheap metal legs, and it wouldn’t fetch two bucks at a garage sale unless it was this chair, the chair, the one Bob Knight threw across the court in 1985 against Purdue.
The chair is stored deep inside Assembly Hall, down this hall, behind this door, and I’m thinking this chair – the chair – deserves better. Better than this. An anonymous door, black metal, unmarked and unremarkable.
Treasure, buried in an unmarked grave.
“This is it,” Indiana University Facilities Director Chuck Crabb says as he pushes open the door. It’s warm in here, musty, just concrete for floor and cinder blocks for walls and eight light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Seven lights work.
Below the eighth bulb, the one that’s burned out, is a stack of something red. They’re chairs. Thirteen of them, red molded plastic on cheap metal legs. A single chair is to the left of the stack. Two more chairs are on the right; a gray dustpan, dinged up and dirty, sits on one of them. A plastic drop-cloth is wadded between the stack and a transformer that Crabb tells me is powering an industrial washer/dryer upstairs.
“This is a machine room,” he says. “A switch-gear room.”
This is an unworthy room.
Because that’s the most famous chair in college basketball history.
* * *
The season hadn’t gone well.
Indiana was a top-five team in November 1984, but the season unfolded in spasms of unacceptable losses. The season opener against Louisville, the regional rivals’ first meeting in 25 years, an 11-point drubbing at Assembly Hall. The third game against Notre Dame, also by 11. Four straight losses early in Big Ten play, three by double digits. Three straight wins followed, against the bottom three teams in the Big Ten — Minnesota, Northwestern, Wisconsin — but then two more losses.
It was Feb. 23, 1985, Indiana was 14-9 — and heading for the NIT — and the referees were not having a great day.
“They were terrible,” says Jeff Stuckey, a 1985 IU manager.
Five minutes into the game, Indiana had six fouls. Steve Alford dove for a loose ball, tied up a Purdue player and was called for a foul. Seconds later, Daryl Thomas was called for a ticky-tack foul in the post. Bob Knight was yelling at referee Fred Jaspers, who came over to warn him. Knight sat down, muttering, and Jaspers heard him. Whistle. Technical.
Bedlam at Assembly Hall.
Purdue’s Steve Reid was at the line about to shoot the two free throws when Knight grabbed a chair from his bench and threw it onto the floor. It skidded past Reid toward the corner, veering into the photographers sitting on the baseline.
“After he threw the chair,” Stuckey says, “I was ready to hand him another one because I was so (ticked) off.”
What happened next to the principal characters, you can see on video. Knight was ejected. Indiana athletic director Ralph Floyd met on the court with the three officials, verifying that the IU coach had in fact been tossed from the IU-Purdue game. Knight walked out to the thunderous sound of “Bob-by, Bob-by.” Reid was given six technical free throws, but the thunder undid the Big Ten’s leading foul shooter (95 percent); he missed three of six.
What happened next to the chair? Lots of people think they know. Lots of people are wrong.
* * *
“Stories about the chair are many,” Crabb is telling me as we stare at the chair inside that warm, dingy machine room. Or maybe we’re not looking at the chair. The chair could be in that stack. It could be gone. Nobody knows.
Not even the guy who paid $8,000 for it in 2003 while visiting the Nevada governor’s mansion.
“A handful of people think they really have it,” Crabb says. “So many people over the years have mentioned it to me on emails or on Facebook: ‘I have the chair.’
“Do you? Really?”
Here’s what Crabb knows about the chair, and this is all he knows:
“After the chair went across the court, a manager picked it up and took it away,” Crabb says. “Later that day, the court was converted back to its practice settings — and the chairs were set on a rack and wheeled away.”
Wait. So you’re telling me the chair — sorry, the chair — is unaccounted for?
“It’s like the ending to Indiana Jones,” Crabb says. “The Ark of the Covenant is on one of those crates in a giant warehouse. But which crate? Nobody knows.”
The analogy comes out of Crabb so fast, I’m thinking he’s used it before. How many people, I ask him, have come looking for the chair?
“You’re the first,” he says.
* * *
Bob Knight signed a chair.
It was 2003, and a former IU student named Kurt Esser, an assistant athletics director at Nevada, asked Crabb for a chair like the one Knight threw against Purdue. Knight was speaking at a Nevada fundraiser, and Esser was hoping Knight would sign the chair for auction. A week later, a big box came in the mail.
Esser had been an IU freshman that day in 1985, watching the IU-Purdue game from his dorm room at Foster Residence Center.
“I’m not an expert in chairs,” says Esser, now the senior associate AD at New Mexico, “but what I pulled out of that box sure looked like the one coach Knight tossed.”
Knight was great about it, signing the seatback. The fundraiser was at the Governor’s Mansion in Carson City, and the winning bid came in at $8,000. But was the chair, you know, the chair?
The odds are 100-to-1.
See, when Assembly Hall opened in 1971, IU ordered 100 red molded plastic chairs to serve as team benches and to fill the gaps next to the bleachers. Over the years they were replaced by padded chairs, including a handful that Knight punctured with fingers.
“Coach had all that nervous energy,” Crabb says. “He’d grab those chairs and dig his thumbs into the sides, and he’d dig a hole into the chair. We sent them to an upholstery shop on campus.”
Over the years those 100 red molded plastic chairs became 90, then 80, then 70. On some, the plastic broke away from the chrome casters and the ruined chair was tossed into the garbage. Other chairs just sort of disappeared. These were historic chairs, remember. Take one home. Tell your friends it’s the chair. Who could say it isn’t?
“There have been a number of raffles and auctions for that chair,” Crabb says. “So many people have bid on one, thinking they have it.”
But those chairs up for auction, I ask Crabb, how did they leave Assembly Hall?
“People, maybe workers, bring friends into the building and they find themselves here in this room,” Crabb says. ” ‘Hey, what do you know? There’s the chairs.’ And one goes missing.”
You’re saying there are just 16 chairs left – 16 out of 100 – because some broke and the rest were stolen?
“Not stolen,” Crabb says, smiling. “Procured.”
I look at what’s left. The stack of 13 chairs, the three chairs alongside them. I run my finger across the stack, and it comes back full of dust.
“I can’t recall the last time they’ve been used,” Crabb says. “I don’t know why we still have them. Someone must think they have value.”
If this is how it ends, it’s a sad finish for such a famous chair. Cable and electrical wires cover the walls like kudzu. A steel ladder is on the floor. The room has transformers with electrical distribution switches like something out of Frankenstein’s lab, not the kind you flick with your thumb. The kind of switch you grab with your hand and slide from one side to the next, like you’re firing up an electric chair.
“That’s a lot of juice you’re looking at there,” Crabb says, and I suppose he’s looking at the electrical switches. I’m looking at 16 red molded plastic chairs. I’m looking for scratches, any sign that this is the chair that skidded across Assembly Hall and into college basketball legend. I’m looking for greatness, for history.
But I’m seeing red molded plastic chairs, the kind you’d buy for $2 at a garage sale and wonder if you were ripped off.
Find Star columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel