Asmussen | Henson is breaking out his orange coat

Asmussen | Henson is breaking out his orange coat

CHICAGO — Twenty-one Illini greats are being honored at Friday night's Hall of Fame Gala.

But there is no doubt about the star of the show: Lou Henson.

The winningest basketball coach in school history leads the second class at the Field Museum of Natural History.

"Years ago when I started coaching, I never dreamed of this," Lou said Tuesday in his Champaign living room. "It's quite an honor to be inducted into the Hall of Fame."

It is not his first Hall call. Actually four related to college basketball. His alma mater, New Mexico State, inducted Lou way back in 1978. Hardin-Simmons, which gave Lou his first job as a college head coach, honored him in 1997. In 2015, the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame selected Lou.

And now, Illinois. The place where he spent the longest time. The place he continues to call home.

The honor means a lot to the Hensons.

"This is a big one," Lou said. "We think the world of the university and the community. I will treasure this forever."

Lou's wife, Mary, family members and friends are making a night of it, riding in a 20-passenger limo from Champaign. Here's hoping the traffic is light.

ESPN's Rece Davis is serving as Friday's emcee. The plan is for Davis to ask each of the honorees three questions.

Lou will be on stage with basketball star Dave Downey and football great Jim Grabowski.

Don't be surprised if the coach goes off script.

"I'm not supposed to, but I'm going to anyway," Lou said. "There are a couple things I need to say."

He's 86 and can do whatever he wants.

And wear whatever he wants. Lou owns a tuxedo but plans to leave it at home. Instead, he will bring out one of his trademark orange jackets from now-closed Delbert's Clothing in Arthur.

"I wouldn't wear anything else," Lou said. "That orange jacket means too much to me."

Feeling better

Lou has had more than his share of health issues in recent years. But the guy is Oklahoma tough.

The native of Okay works out an hour every day. And he is back swimming at Bromley Hall after taking a break from the pool because of an illness.

"I swam practically every day for all those years," Lou said. "I need to swim."

Lou's biggest physcical issue is his balance. During one of his early hospital stays, Lou was taught how to fall.

The training paid off one morning six months ago when Lou went out to grill. He had a plate full of brats, burgers and other goodies when he lost his balance. He hurt his back but managed to save the food.

"Definitely, he is blessed," Mary said.

He continues to receive chemotherapy treatment. Lou praises the work of his Carle oncologist Dr. James Egner.

"He is outstanding," Lou said.

Lou's upbeat attitude is contagious.

"We have heard from people who said that he inspired them to keep going," Mary said.

Lou has always been an optimist. A glass half-full kind of guy.

"In coaching, I think you have to be," Lou said.

The Henson are thankful for the prayers and well-wishes they have received.

"He's here because of all the wonderful fans and friends out there who have sent prayers and caring messages," Mary said. "Emails and letters and cards, every kind of correspondence. He has been so uplifted by all of that throughout the years."

Lou and Mary have been married for 64 years. They playfully tease each other. Always in good fun.

If not for Mary, Lou wouldn't have come to C-U. After a successful run at New Mexico State, including a trip to th Final Four, Lou had his pick of the Illinois and Oklahoma jobs.

As the story goes, Lou preferred the Sooners in his home state.

He asked Mary, certain she would say "Oklahoma."

Not this time. Mary said "Illinois."

"It just shows who's boss," Lou said.

Illinois wasn't a quick fix. Lou took over an 8-18 team from one-year coach Gene Bartow and was three games over .500 his first three seasons.

Today, that kind of record might get you fired. But Illinois wisely stuck with Lou and watched it pay off. In a big way. After going 19-11 in 1978-79, Lou led the Illini to 22 wins and an NIT bid the next season. Then, nine NCAA tournament berths in the next 10 years.

Hoop dreams

Five of Friday's honorees have basketball ties. Kendall Gill, who played for Henson in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is the second Flyin' Illini Hall of Famer. Nick Anderson was in the first class.

"Kendall was such an outstanding player," Lou said. "Kendall is my ideal of an athlete."

Gill won't be the last of Henson's Illini to make the Hall. Future classes should include Deon Thomas, Derek Harper, Eddie Johnson, Bruce Douglas, Kiwane Garris, Kenny Battle and Ken Norman.

"We have a lot that will be going in," Lou said.

Lou admits he was hard on his players. At times.

"I think they know that I care for them," Lou said. "Our players responded."

Lou isn't one of those grumpy ex-coaches who talks about the game being better back in his day.

He watches basketball all the time. And likes most of what he sees.

"I really think basketball is improving," Lou said.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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