My first encounter with Bob Hammel came when I was still working as a photographer for the Exponent newspaper at Purdue. I was with writer Duane Schuman at the Big Ten men’s basketball preseason media day in Chicago. Knight arrived and I snapped a few shots as he was walking in. There was a guy walking next to him, and the two were chatting away. I asked who the other guy was, and was informed that it was Bob Hammel, the sportswriter from Bloomington who had written books on IU basketball and was a good friend of Knight.
The one thing I noticed was that Hammel was carrying a book, “Red Storm Rising,” by Tom Clancy. I thought it a bit ironic, because anytime Knight took the court could be considered a red storm rising.
It was just a few years later, and I had just moved into the sports editor’s chair at the Herald-Press in Huntington. On the bookshelf was “A Season on the Brink,” the explosive book by John Feinstein that had told the inside story of a year within Knight’s program. Next to it was “Beyond the Brink With Indiana:1987,” which was Hammel’s chronicle of the Hoosiers’ national championship season.
It was then I learned that Hammel was a Huntington native who got his start at the Herald-Press. I learned about his background and that he was not only the best sportswriter in Indiana, but was one of the legends across the country.
I won a Hoosier State Press Association sportswriting award in December of 1991, and not long after, I received a note from Bob, congratulating me, and offering and appreciation for doing his hometown proud. I gave him a call to thank him, and we chatted for a while. He said he would stop by next time he was in Huntington. He had finished a book on Jim Russo, another Huntington native who had gone on to be the top scout for the Baltimore Orioles during their heyday in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Bob stopped by the next spring with copies of the book, “Super Scout.” I talked to him about the book so I could put together a story, and we continued to chat about sportswriting. I hadn’t been a writer very long and was still working at the craft. He gave me some good advice, but it must have been like Picasso teaching painting to a first-grader.
Still, he couldn’t have been nicer. That began a friendship that lasts to this day. We talk every so often, and I try to see him when he comes back to Huntington.
I knew that Bob Hammel was writing Bob Knight’s long-anticipated biography, “Knight: My Story” (well, technically, co-writing, billed as “Bob Knight with Bob Hammel”). It was 2002, and while the book was getting big pre-release press, but I knew that I would be writing a story on Hammel’s involvement.
As I began thinking about the story, the focus became clear. Just about everything that went on in Knight’s life over the previous 30 years, Hammel had been there. Their two lives were intertwined. Their relationship went beyond the normal coach-sportswriter connection. They were friends and confidants. Knight’s story was also Hammel’s story. The fact that the name of the book was “Knight: My Story,” made the headline for my article and easy one.
By this time, Knight had been fired from Indiana and was coaching at Texas Tech. Hammel was in Kansas City to see Texas Tech play in the Big 12 tournament and he was getting ready for the publicity tour for the book, set for release in just a few weeks.
It was in Kansas City that Hammel collapsed with a diabetic seizure caused by some of his medication. He was fine, but it made some headlines ahead of the book release. I talked him not long after as I prepared to write the story on him, and it gave me an opportunity to find out how my friend was doing. Once I knew he was OK, I was able to use the episode as a lead for the article.
Bob gave me some background as to how the idea developed to write the biography and how they went about compiling the stories. The fact that they had shared so many of those memories helped clear up any missing details.
I wanted to make a point about the shared memories, because while Hammel was writing the Knight’s memoir, he was also chronicling his own experiences over 30 years of their friendship.
Hammel was open and candid about the Knight’s darker side and controversies that had dogged him over his career.
We put together another nice package for the front page of the paper. I called Bob later and thanked him for the time and said that I hoped I had captured his career and the book process successfully.
Ever humble, he chuckled about it. As a writer, he never wanted the spotlight to be on him, but understood it was part of the business. He gave me his stamp of approval.
Bob would often call me, or send me a note when he read an article of mine that caught his eye. He kept tabs on what was happening back in Huntington, and I always appreciated his accolades or feedback.
Bob had retired from the Bloomington paper by then and off working on his next project, a biography of another Bloomington legend, Bill Cook. Bob’s mother died in 1999, so his trips to Huntington had become less frequent. But he still found his way back to his hometown, often to visit Bob Straight, a legendary Huntington High School coach and another Knight confidant. Straight’s health was not good, and he enjoyed the visits from Hammel.
I left the Herald-Press in 2008, but continue to correspond with Hammel from time to time. I let him know the situation at the Herald-Press had turned for the worse, and he understood it was time for me to leave.
In the years since, another Hammel project brought us back together. He had been involved in a Monroe County Hall of Fame in Bloomington, and thought it would be a good idea to have something similar in Huntington County. It wouldn’t be a Hall of Fame in the traditional sense. It would go beyond just honoring sports figures and would recognize people from all walks of life who had made some kind of impact on Huntington County.
Bob contacted Joe Santa, the former Huntington North High School athletic director, and me, to pitch his idea. Before long, we had the framework for Huntington County Honors, and we inducted our first class of honorees in 2016. We’ve honored the famous, and those whose names might have been lost to history. Of course, Hammel was part of the inaugural class, along with the likes of former vice president Dan Quayle and legendary sportscaster Chris Schenkel.