CHAMPAIGN — It shouldn't end here.
When the banner is raised at the Assembly Hall on Tuesday night for 80-year-old birthday boy Lou Henson — that banner to be joined later by UI coaches Harry Combes (Jan. 22), Doug Mills and Ralph Jones (both Feb. 5) — this ceremony should be one more step toward the honor he most deserves:
Inclusion in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But my admittedly prejudiced vote doesn't count. Neither does that of Jerry Colangelo, the current chairman of the Naismith Hall of Fame and, along with another former Illini Mannie Jackson, a member of its Board of Governors.
"Lou is highly respected and most deserving," Colangelo said this week, "but the selection process is hard to pinpoint. You must first be nominated. Then 100 names are sent to a screening committee and reduced to 10 or 12 for vote. Character is considered along with the basketball record and any black marks. And the committee rotates with members from the media, the pros and the colleges."
Colangelo noted that controversial UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian is not in the Hall even though the Rebels won the 1990 NCAA title, and Tarkanian shows 729 wins with a top-five winning percentage of 78.4. Nor is longtime pro coach Don Nelson installed, despite his most-ever NBA victories.
"Henson had a storied career and is certainly worthy of Hall of Fame consideration," said Las Vegas reporter Steve Carp, 2009-10 president of the U.S. Basketball Writers.
"It is not a transparent process and tends to lean toward pros and women. We're still trying to get Tarkanian in. They have their own way."
More than 300 players, coaches and contributors reside in the Naismith Hall, and numerous coaches bested Henson's winning percentage (.649). But none inherited four more downtrodden programs than he did.
"That's how you get jobs," said Henson, referring to the failures that preceded him.
After three state titles at Las Cruces High, he moved in 1962 to downtrodden Hardin-Simmons (one winning season in the previous seven) with the assurance that he could break the color barrier there. He had two returning guards from an eight-win team the year before. After four years and a 67-36 record with the Cowboys, he took over a New Mexico State program that was 4-22 in 1966 and 24-72 in the four previous seasons. His move to Illinois came on the heels of 8-18 and 5-18 records, and he returned to New Mexico State in 1997 on a $1 first-year salary as the school was being placed on probation.
It took a major medical setback — non-Hodgkin's lymphoma — to knock him out of the saddle in 2005. And there are indications that medication for that ailment led to viral encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) that caused a still-troubling paralysis in his right leg. In a coma for days and surviving a near-death experience, Henson improved steadily from bedridden (lost 50 pounds) to a wheelchair to a cane and finally to his present status as a near-daily swimmer and avid golfer. He swims in early mornings to strengthen his weakened leg, and he is a relentless bridge player as a means to sharpen his mind. To say he is a fighter is redundant.
"Hodgkin's is not curable, but it is manageable," said wife Mary Henson. "His health is fabulous. And everything about his life is organized."
For one so engaged and well-chronicled, there isn't much new to relate. Here are a couple.
— When he returned here from Las Cruces on Dec. 9, he had already contacted his doubles bridge partners to set up games, and he made calls to arrange luncheons in advance. He is as much at home with businessmen George Shapland and Tom Harrington at Champaign Country Club as with his buddies at "Savoy International" or the Old Orchard Bowling Lanes. Henson is a social animal who works every crowd. Everybody is his friend, even those who will sheepishly admit (as did Monticello's John Eades) that they used to complain about Henson's coaching.
When new UI athletic director Mike Thomas arrived on campus, Henson was one of his first sitdown contacts. Out of that meeting came an arrangement for Mike and wife Jenifer to move into the vacated Henson home for three months.
— "Something About Mary" was a movie starring Cameron Diaz. There's something about this Mary, too. She is a powerhouse partner, joining Lou in receiving honorary doctorate of law degrees at NMSU in 2005, Rotary awards here and in Las Cruces, and the mayor's Distinguished Service Award in Las Cruces in 2009.
While Lou was serving on a board to select current NMSU President Barbara Couture, Mary has been even busier. They had to return to New Mexico on Sept. 6 because she was one of four co-chairs for the "Tough Enough to Wear Pink" fundraiser for breast cancer. Her autumn season is packed with responsibilities as she serves with three other cancer survivors in charge of this huge operation ($570,000 raised this past year): former NMSU Board of Regents president Laura Conniff, auto marketer Pat Sisbarro, and AD McKinley Boston's wife, Magellia.
Mary and Lou are also involved in the Cunningham Children's Home here and the Las Cruces Boys and Girls Club, old friend and former LSU coach Dale Brown serving as the upcoming fundraising speaker there.
"It took 40 years," joked Mary, but in 2011 she (with her co-chairs) received the Citizen of the Year award that Lou got in 1970.
The coach, meanwhile, has the Aggie basketball court named after him, as well as the 20-plus miles from Las Cruces to the Texas state line (Lou Henson Highway), and the street outside the Assembly Hall is designated as Henson Court. The award to the Mid-Major Player of the Year, which went to Butler's Matt Howard last year, was named after him. These honors keep piling up, both civic and sports-related, and it is virtually certain that as he travels back and forth, no coach is so revered at two sites simultaneously (OK, maybe Bob Huggins, but in a different way). NMSU will match Tuesday's birthday celebration at a Jan. 27 game against Fresno State, receipts from a connected $80 affair being split between the Henson scholarship fund and breast cancer research.
Two of the UI's strongest and most-lasting basketball institutions were formed in the Henson home: the student Orange Krush and the Rebounders support group. The Krush has raised more than $300,000 for the Louis R. Henson Development Fund as part of its philanthropy.
"I was the first president of the Krush 36 years ago," Chicago attorney Alan Solow said. "I worked Lou's basketball camp in 1975, and the whole thing was Lou's idea. Attendance wasn't very good, and there was an area on the floor with no seats, so we set out to sell 164 student seats by going to fraternities, sororities and dorms. We started a policy of standing up and cheering until the opposing team scored a basket, and we heard a lot of complaints from the people behind us.
"Lou invested time in us and made us feel important."
More recently, Lou and Mary invited about 25 members of the Krush to their home prior to the Coppin State game Dec. 11 and then sat with them in the south end of the arena.
"I couldn't see anything," laughed Mary. "There was always somebody standing right in front of me."
The coach also got the Rebounders rolling after the support group under coach Harv Schmidt got sideways with the NCAA in 1974.
Henson will surely remain more of an icon for his character and social relationships than for his win-loss credentials.
"I don't expect to get in the Hall of Fame," he said matter-of-factly.
But for the record, only eight Division I coaches have won 800 games, from Eddie Sutton at 804 up through Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, plus-900 and counting.
That group of eight includes two other active coaches, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Jim Calhoun of UConn. Jim Phelan, credited with 830 at Mount St. Marys, earned most of them in Division II.
Henson has 779 officially, although the number was actually 797 because 18 victories were removed due to academic infractions committed by Neil McCarthy at New Mexico State before Henson came out of mini-retirement in 1997. At one point, Henson was informed that those 18 wins would be returned to his record, but that decision was quashed because it would have created multiple problems for the NCAA in dealing with others seeking reinstated wins.
Of course, 800 is just a number, and numerous Hall of Fame coaches named since the 1980s were well short of it. Ohio State's Fred Taylor had 297 wins, Marquette's Al McGuire produced 404 and Georgetown's John Thompson had 596. All three, of course, won NCAA titles.
Lou Carnesecca of St. John's had 526 wins and reached just one Final Four. By contrast, Phil Woolpert won two national titles at San Francisco with Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, but he accumulated just 243 wins at two schools.
The question is: How should you value Woolpert's short, spectacular run with two superstars against longevity and lifetime achievement?
Using a baseball example, the Braves' Hank Aaron never came close to 60 home runs in a season, much less 73 (Barry Bonds' total in 2001). Aaron's peak home run season was 47, but his consistency and durability allowed him to leave baseball with more homers than Babe Ruth, 755 to 714. Henson is basketball's Aaron.
Seldom mentioned in Hall of Fame considerations is what the coach inherited. This wasn't Roy Williams moving from Kansas to another all-time power, North Carolina. No, Henson found himself in quicksand at every turn.
"At New Mexico State, the previous coach (Jim McGregor) left after losing at New Mexico and never returned," Henson recalled. "There wasn't much talent on the squad, maybe one 6-2 forward who could play. I had seen the Aggie center, Wes Morehead, get upset and walk off when we were playing them at Hardin-Simmons, and he sat down during the game and drank a Coke in the stands. I figured he had a bad attitude, so when I got to New Mexico State I told him that we didn't need him. But he asked to return, so I let him.
"Freshmen weren't eligible in those days, so I did the same thing I had done at Hardin-Simmons. I looked for junior college transfers, and I was able to pick up several. One was Rob Evans, who I had talked into a Baptist education at Hardin-Simmons. I convinced him that he could take bible classes at New Mexico State."
Evans later followed Henson into coaching, and they remain friends to this day.
What took place at NMSU was one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of college basketball. Just 25 miles away — on a highway now named in Henson's honor — was Texas Western, the renowned NCAA champion in 1966. The Miners' achievement was such that coach Don Haskins earned Hall of Fame credentials, and a popular movie ("Glory Road," 2006) was filmed about the team.
When Henson was patching together his "Miracle Midgets" in 1966-67, Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) returned David "Big Daddy" Lattin, Willie Worsley and Nevil "The Shadow" Shed from the title team.
NMSU's first game that season against Abe Lemons' Oklahoma City team was so shocking that some radio listeners thought the score had been accidentally reversed.
"I was happy that we were only down 12 at half," recalled Henson, "Then we spread them out and won easily (82-64). Later on in mid-December we won a controversial game (62-61 in OT) against Bob King's New Mexico team that was ranked in the Top 10."
Along the way, Henson's Aggies beat Hardin-Simmons 71-61 and 64-51 a year after Henson's H-S team had beaten New Mexico State by scores of 92-66 and 105-49. Some turnaround! And with one common denominator: Henson.
"When it came time to go to El Paso, I told Mary we'd do well to stay within 20 of Texas Western," said the coach. "Well, we had them down by 18 at the half. We won easily (68-55). Even we thought it was a fluke. Then we beat them again at home (64-53)"
And here's the amazing part. Coming off a 4-22 season and building a makeshift team with JC transfers, and playing the defending NCAA champions with four key returnees, Henson bested Haskins twice that season and the next eight meetings as well. That's 10 straight, even topping Henson's run of eight in a row against Missouri and Norm Stewart in St. Louis.
Henson was not so fortunate in the NCAA tournament that first year, losing a 59-58 thriller to Houston and the great Elvin Hayes. And his Aggies fell to John Wooden's NCAA champions in 1968-69-70, the latter year in the Final Four. In 1970, Henson was named Citizen of the Year in Las Cruces, as well as Distinguished Alumnus of the Year at NMSU.
"I was fortunate to recruit Sam Lacey and others out of Mississippi because neither Mississippi nor Mississippi State would allow black athletes to enroll," he said. "I thought 1968 was our best team, but we couldn't get past UCLA and Lew Alcindor."
Along the way, Henson added the duties of athletic director, which brought him into Missouri Valley Conference meetings with Wichita State athletic director Cecil Coleman. When Coleman moved to Illinois, he sought Henson to replace the late Gene Bartow, who stayed only a year before departing to become Wooden's successor at UCLA. Illinois was 8-18 under Bartow after going 5-18 under Harv Schmidt the previous year.
"I had never sought another job," said Henson, "but on the same day that Coleman got in contact, I received a call from Wade Walker at Oklahoma. I stopped there on my way to Illinois, and he offered to match the contract of football coach Barry Switzer for basketball. That was $30,000. I thought at the time, 'Is that really all that Switzer gets?' Then I came to Illinois and received the same offer. That was the job I wanted."
Once again, Henson faced a serious rebuilding job, and once again he went the junior college route by bringing in two Chicago products, Nate Williams and Mike Washington.
But Henson soon discovered it wouldn't be so easy in a Big Ten Conference featuring high-level programs across the board. Bob Knight coached Indiana to NCAA titles in 1976, 1981 and 1987, Magic Johnson led Michigan State to the 1979 crown, Purdue reached the Final Four in 1980 and, under Gene Keady, won seven Big Ten titles. Michigan fielded powerful teams that culminated in the 1989 NCAA title.
Henson really got Illinois rolling in the 1980s, and it was going full force until it hit a screeching halt when (1) Nick Anderson left early after leading the 1989 Flyin' Illini and (2) the program was impacted by a Bruce Pearl-led NCAA investigation into assistant coach Jimmy Collins' recruitment of Deon Thomas. When serious accusations went unproven, the NCAA settled on "lack of institutional control" and cut Henson's scholarships.
Up to that time, the '80s belonged to Henson. Seven times in that decade, his UI quintets received a top four seed, the 1989 Flyin' Illini earning one of the four No. 1 seeds and reaching the Final Four where they lost on a last-shot putback to a Michigan team they had hammered earlier, 96-84 and 89-73.
Such are the fortunes of tournament play, and therein lies one reason why Henson remains on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame.
In 21 seasons, his Illini shared just one Big Ten title, and his NCAA tournament record was marred by last-second losses ... most notably vs. Kentucky in Lexington in 1984 when an injured Efrem Winters could barely play, the crusher vs. Austin Peay in 1987, the missed free throws late in the Villanova game in 1988, and the third-time's-no-charm loss to Michigan in 1989.
All those games boiled down to key plays that went against the UI in the final seconds. And Henson is forever reminded of the Austin Peay affair even though he pulled off a near-perfect last three seconds, calling time to stop the clock after a throw to midcourt, and running star forward Ken Norman off a pick for an open 15-footer that caromed off in a 68-67 result.
It didn't help that the Illini scored 100 against Austin Peay nine months later.
Loren Tate writes for The News- Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.