“The Last Days of Knight” is an unusual entry in ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series on multiple levels, but the most unusual thing of all is where it initially will be shown.
The film, which chronicles the journalistic quest that led to Bob Knight’s firing as Indiana’s basketball coach, is timed to help launch ESPN+, the direct-to-consumer streaming service that opens for business on Thursday.
The service costs $4.99 per month (or $49.99 per year) and will include the full library of “30 for 30” films as well as live events not currently available on ESPN’s television or digital networks, including baseball, hockey and soccer games, boxing, rugby, cricket, college sports and more.
Within the past week ESPN has announced deals with the Ivy League, mostly for games on ESPN+, a monthly boxing card and a show called “Detail” written, produced and hosted by Kobe Bryant, on which he will offer NBA playoff analysis.
Is it worth the money? That is a matter of personal taste, of course. Soccer and boxing fans might get more out of it than hockey and baseball followers, based on volume. But the early days figure to be somewhat experimental.
What is the best way to explain what ESPN+ is?
“It’s really important to start out with saying what it’s not,” said John Lasker, ESPN vice president of digital media programming. “It’s not ESPN or ESPN2. It’s not the content or the networks that you would normally get through your cable operator.
“What we’re building here is a brand new network, not dissimilar to what we’ve done in the past in building ESPNU, SEC Network. It’s finding an opportunity for us here to serve fans a little more than we have.”
One of those opportunities will come in the form of original programming. Lasker said “The Last Days of Knight” had been in production and “lined up perfectly for us” for Thursday.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to tell this out of the gate,” he said. “We thought it was really important for us to have something new and exclusive to tie into to get people into that roadway.”
Back to what else is unusual here. First, the film pulls no punches despite the fact that Knight was an ESPN college basketball analyst from 2008 to 2015.
The second is that it is directed by, narrated by and essentially stars Robert Abbott, who as a producer at CNN did the journalistic legwork, starting in 1999, that led to Knight’s downfall.
Abbott initially was reluctant to turn his efforts into a film after a career spent behind the scenes. But ESPN Films executive producer John Dahl, who has known him for 30 years, pressed him to tell his story.
Dahl viewed it as a tale in the spirit of “All the President’s Men,” about the journalists who led the investigation into the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.
“That film was no more about [Richard] Nixon, ultimately, than this film is about Knight,” Dahl said after a screening. “This film was about what it’s like to go against a power structure.”
Said Abbott, “I watched that film 10 times and said, ‘I’m not Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman. What the hell are we doing?’”
Other than Abbott and Knight, the central figure is Neil Reed, the former Indiana player upon whose neck Knight once forcefully placed his right hand during a Hoosiers practice.
The video of that incident was the last straw. Sort of.
Did Abbott find it strange watching himself onscreen? “I love the film,” he said. “I don’t see a new career in this. I’m a journalist.”