A look at former Illinois coach Lou Henson.
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CHAMPAIGN — For 35 years, a doctor poked on Lou Henson's stomach during his routine physical.
“It’s a waste of time,” Henson would say.
But then a regular office call in 2003 changed the course of his life. The physician immediately scheduled more tests. Mary Henson, Lou's wife, didn't know the severity of the concern until after telling the doctor she couldn't make the follow-up appointment the next day because of a trip to the beauty parlor.
“He said, ‘You better be there,’” Lou Henson said.
Eventually, doctors diagnosed stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Henson was already in his 70s and still coaching, and he would survive the battle with cancer and later overcome viral encephalitis and a paralyzed right leg.
Henson, a native Oklahoman who rebuilt Illinois basketball into a national power in the late 1980s, will turn 80 in January. Despite an NCAA investigation that tarnished his reputation and slowed the program's momentum, the death of his son in a car crash in 1992 and the health concerns over the last decade, the smile is hardly ever gone from Henson's face.
He remains active to keep his body and mind strong. He hasn’t let life’s downs affect him.
“You’ve got to have a little luck along the way,” Henson said, referring to life and basketball. “You have to be optimistic.”
Knocked off his feet
After the diagnosis of cancer, Henson checked himself into MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Houston facility known as a leader in the field. The amount of cancer found in his body left Henson uncharacteristically discouraged.
Within a year, doctors said the cancer was in remission, but the strong chemotherapy left Henson's immune system weakened. Henson continued to coach through the medical treatment, and one evening he felt dizzy. Henson told the coaches and a recruit he would see them the next morning.
“That's the last thing I can remember for 3½ weeks,” Henson said.
In fall 2004, viral encephalitis overpowered Henson, who was soon fighting for his life. With help, he signed over power of attorney.
“At some point, it was touch and go,” Henson said. “The attorney came in. Mary says, ‘He will sign it.’ She took my hand and made the X.”
Henson was then sent to a rehabilitation facility in El Paso, where he worked to regain his strength and sharpen his mind. He lost memory, and the body wouldn't do what his brain told it. His right leg was paralyzed, confining Henson to a wheelchair for five months. When he started rehab, he had the strength to stand for only 15 seconds, so therapists also taught him how to fall. It turned out to be good training.
“I stopped counting at 40,” Mary said of Lou’s falls.
Months later, Henson finally moved a toe, then his right leg. After six months, he climbed out of the wheelchair. Henson no longer uses a cane, although he still isn't as steady as he'd like. The right leg has about 25 percent of strength compared with his left.
Rise and shine
Henson is an early riser, getting out of bed at 4 a.m. after five hours of sleep.
“I'm strange,” he said.
Henson usually plans a trip to the Bromley Hall pool on the Illinois campus, often arriving before 5 a.m. He has a key, a locker and full use of the facility. He will go five times a week for the cardiovascular exercise from swimming and a chance to strengthen his right leg.
It was good Henson had learned how to fall. Or maybe he was just lucky. One winter morning, he slipped on the ice, fell backward and hit his head on the curb. Perhaps only a knit winter hat, rolled up around the bottom edge, kept him from catastrophe.
“It probably saved his life,” Mary Henson said.
Henson still swims and works with some weights, but he might quit playing golf. He exercises his mind by playing bridge and working the crossword puzzles in the newspaper.
By the numbers
Officially, Henson has 779 major-college wins in his career at Hardin-Simmons, New Mexico State and Illinois. That doesn't count 18 wins taken away by the NCAA when Henson served essentially as a volunteer coach after New Mexico State fired Neil McCarthy in 1997 during an NCAA investigation into violations. Henson worked for $1 a month and finally retired in 2005 while still trying to regain his strength.
His win total ranks 11th all time among major-college coaches, but he gave up hope on induction to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He led both Illinois (1989) and New Mexico State (1970) to the Final Four. Two more Aggies teams lost to UCLA in the regional finals, but no NCAA titles and just one Big Ten championship might make it difficult to get a call. The NCAA investigation during his run at Illinois didn't help.
Lou and Mary met in June 1954 while working at a vegetable packing plant in Lanark, Ill., her hometown. He quickly asked her for a date, but she turned him down.
“I told my friends I wouldn’t go out with her anyway,” said Henson, chuckling now after raising his wife's eyebrows. He asked again in August, and they married the following December.
A native of Okay, Okla., Henson became a man and a coach in Las Cruces, where he played guard for New Mexico State, then coached Las Cruces High School to three consecutive state championships, a run that ended in 1961. He compiled a 145-23 record in six seasons there.
After stepping up to college coaching at Hardin-Simmons in 1962, Henson returned to his alma mater in 1966 and led the Aggies to the NCAA tournament six times in nine years.
In Las Cruces, the Hensons live in a condo just down the street from campus. The home’s feature attraction, besides the bunkhouse out back, is the New Mexico room, which is loaded with memorabilia. There are pictures of state championship teams — three for Lou, two more for Lou Jr. The basketballs along the ledge each commemorate another 100 wins.
In Champaign, the couple resides in the home they purchased when moving to town in 1975. Nearly all of their original neighbors are gone, but the Hensons stayed, even though they could have moved elsewhere. This is home, a typical brick-and-siding ranch.
“In my first year here, I made $30,000,” Henson said. “We couldn’t afford any more than this. We've loved it here.”
Inside, the feature attraction is the Illinois room, a den less than half the size of its rival out west. The pictures of teams and Henson’s glory days spill into the hallway.
Henson made an impression on both towns. In Champaign, the street named Lou Henson Court is in front of Assembly Hall. Outside of Las Cruces, a stretch of state road 28 is named Lou Henson Highway.
He piddles like folks his age. Henson sometimes joins other men down at the bowling alley for lunch, where he shakes hands and listens to stories.
The Hensons raised four children. Lori Henson is a retired teacher who moved to El Paso. Leigh Anne Edison lives in Cincinnati. Lisa Rutter resides in Houston. Lou Jr., the former Lincoln Land Community College coach who later took the job at Parkland, is buried in the cemetery just east of Memorial Stadium. When their time comes, Lou and Mary also will be buried there.
The Henson have 12 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild is expected in August.
35 great years
Maybe the only other people who can understand losing a child are those who went through the same thing. A letter from Tommy Lasorda, the Los Angeles Dodgers manager at the time, helped the Hensons after Lou Jr. died in a car crash on Nov. 20, 1992.
Lasorda's son died in his early 30s, and the letter's theme helped the Hensons grieve.
“You had him for 35 great years,” Mary Henson said, referring to the letter's message. “That's how you have to think about it.”
Henson went to Wrigley Field the following summer to meet with Lasorda, who talked with Lou for 45 minutes before a game against the Cubs.
All in the mind
State of mind is important. Henson learned that years ago, then found himself reminded of it recently on an early-morning trip to the store.
"There's a guy about 40,” Henson said. “I went up there to the checkout lane and said, ‘How are you?’”
Great, said the employee. Henson told the man he must really be enthusiastic.
“He said, ‘I’m an optimist,’” Henson said. “If you’re an optimist, you never have a bad day in your life.”
Henson leaned back in his chair, smiled and said, "There's a lot of truth to that.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.
LOU HENSON BY THE NUMBERS
Most major-college basketball victories
(Minimum 10 head coaching seasons in Division I)
1. Bob Knight 902
2. Mike Krzyzewski 900
3. Dean Smith 879
4. Adolph Rupp 876
5. Jim Phelan 830
6. Jim Boeheim 856
7. Jim Calhoun 855
8. Eddie Sutton 804
9. Lefty Driesell 786
10. Lute Olson 780
11. Lou Henson 779
Henson’s record by school
1962-66 Hardin-Simmons 67-36
1966-75 New Mexico State 173-71
1975-1996 Illinois 423-224
1997-2005 New Mexico State 136-81