CHAMPAIGN — More than at any time during the prime of his Hall of Fame coaching career, those who know Lou Henson marvel at what he’s doing right now.
They can look beyond the walker that helps steady an uncertain gait. They see beyond the scratchy voice caused when two recent diseases created a hole in his right lung. They understand that Henson has slowed down a bit this year, taking into account a fall he had outside his home that resulted in a broken back.
Faced with severe health issues since being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma 13 years ago, friends realize most mere mortals without a functioning immune system would have already thrown up their hands in surrender.
Not Lou Henson. His unrelenting fight and determination has earned admiration far beyond what he built while becoming the winningest basketball coach in University of Illinois history as well as the winningest coach in New Mexico State history.
Knocking on the door of his 86th birthday, a basketball matchup was created in order to pay tribute to Henson. That game — Illinois vs. New Mexico State — will be played at 7 p.m., Saturday at the United Center in Chicago. Henson will be honored at a pre-game reception to be attended by about 150 of his former players, coaches, managers and staffers. He’ll also be saluted on the court during a timeout in the first half.
The hope is that Henson and his wife, Mary, will be around for years to come. But recognizing that advancing age and uncertain health makes anyone vulnerable, the University of Illinois has taken several steps to recognize Henson’s unique contribution to the school and the Champaign-Urbana community.
With the renovation of the Assembly Hall and its rebirth as the State Farm Center, the university christened the basketball playing surface as “Lou Henson Court.”
Henson is one of only two coaches in the country to have two courts named in his honor. New Mexico State also has a “Lou Henson Court” inside its Pan American Center in Las Cruces.
The other coach to be so honored? Legendary John Wooden, who has courts named for him at UCLA and Indiana State (where he coached from 1946-48).
Henson visited with the media and the Illini basketball team on Tuesday of this week at the State Farm Center. Although using a walker to get around, he still lights up in any social gathering. He enjoys meeting people, talking about basketball, swapping stories and calling people by name while asking about their families.
He remains closely tied to each school, and Lou and Mary Henson retain homes in both Las Cruces and Champaign. At Saturday’s game, he plans to wear a crimson red jacket for one half (New Mexico State’s primary color) and his trademark orange sport coat (Illinois’ color) for the other half.
But he doesn’t split the loyalty exactly down the middle.
“The best thing Mary and I did was come to Illinois,” he said, recalling a difficult decision made prior to the 1975-76 season, shortly after Gene Bartow left after just one season at Illinois to take over at UCLA.
“I didn’t even want to come to Illinois,” he said. “I wanted to go to Oklahoma. I thought that might be the better job. But Mary is the one who insisted. It’s the best decision we ever made.”
Henson would go on to win 423 games at Illinois.
His time at his alma mater, New Mexico State, may have been even more interesting.
When he was hired there in 1966, Henson insisted he be allowed to racially integrate the roster, something that hadn’t been done before. The school agreed and by 1970 Henson had assembled a Final Four roster that included three future NBA players — Jimmy Collins, Sam Lacey and Charlie Criss.
Five years later and it was time for Henson to parlay his success at New Mexico State into a move up the coaching ladder and with his wife’s urging, Illinois was the choice. He stayed there 21 seasons then after “retiring” following the 1995-96 season, Henson was lured back to New Mexico State for six more seasons until he resigned upon being diagnosed with blood cancer.
On Tuesday, Henson was brought to a courtside seat so that he could watch a portion of Illinois’ practice. Before it began, players took turns sitting next to him and Henson glowed as he put his arm around each one, engaging in a conversation that brought laughter and smiles from his captive audience.
On Saturday, more than two dozen family members will gather in Chicago to witness the tribute game and the reunion with his past players and assistant coaches. Then they’ll reassemble in Champaign for an early Christmas celebration.
Henson has already been named as the first inductee into the University of Illinois’ second Athletic Hall of Fame class.
Since Henson retired from coaching at Illinois, every subsequent head coach (Lou Kruger, Bill Self, Bruce Weber, John Groce and now Brad Underwood) has maintained a close relationship with him. When Henson stops by for a visit, all activities immediately cease to accommodate the special guest.
To Henson’s credit, he’s been supportive of every coach yet has never interfered with their efforts.
Underwood, who is likely to wear an orange sport coat in Henson’s honor on Saturday, said Henson is a living legend.
“One of the reasons I wanted to be the basketball coach at Illinois is because of everything he built,” he said. “I’m so thankful to have a coach who reaches out and calls. It’s an opportunity to have him visit and come to practice. It’s special. And it’s something I don’t take for granted.”