CHICAGO – Anyone who saw him Wednesday during his appearance at a press conference at the State Farm Center knew Lou Henson was struggling.
He said as much.
More than 12 years battling Non-Hodgkin lymphoma has taken a toll, with countless trips to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, chemotherapy treatments there and more in Champaign, setbacks like infections and falls and illnesses that latched onto him because his immune system had long since been unable to fend them off. That’s what the soon-to-be 86-year-old former Illini head basketball coach has been up against.
So on Wednesday, his voice raspy because one of those diseases had dug a hole in his lung, he showed up with the aid of a walker and friends who carefully delivered him there.
Yes, Lou was still fighting but the diseases that try so hard to engulf him were clearly not giving up.
So it was heartbreaking when the very next day Lou woke up feeling more puny than usual. So much so that an examination determined he needed to be hospitalized.
That meant he was unable to attend the massive party thrown in his honor, Saturday’s Chicago basketball bash created by the two schools who care so much about him they each named their basketball floors, “Lou Henson Court.”
One can only imagine the colossal disappointment Lou Henson felt. On Wednesday he talked proudly about the 25 to 35 family members who were coming to the United Center to see him saluted during a game between Illinois and New Mexico State. He was clearly looking forward to the pre-game reception that would be attended by about 150 of his former players, coaches, managers and staff members.
He had his wardrobe all planned out – a red jacket for one half of the game that would allow him to properly represent New Mexico State, then an orange jacket that he’d wear for the other half to remind people of his 21 years running the Illini program.
“I’m going to have my daughter flip a coin and decide which one I wear in the first half, which one in the second half,” he said.
The highlight of his midweek appearance came prior to Illini practice when players and assistant coaches took a minute to visit individually with him. He slid his arm around freshman Mark Smith and sophomore Te’Jon Lucas, offering words of encouragement.
Lou could not have looked more pleased, which only makes it tougher to take that within hours he was feeling so poorly that doctors said he’d be unable to join the festivities in Chicago.
I’ve known Lou for 35 years or so and, sure, I could tell this last year had battered him with some pretty tough body blows. But when asked to choose between a fighter whose grit and gumption have refused to give up, or a disease that can be relentless and unforgiving, I’m taking Lou every time.
Even though his closest friends said he wouldn’t be here, I was among those who would not have been surprised to see him shuffle through the United Center doors, pushing that walker onto the court and heroically barging his way into the spotlight as fans stood and cheered.
Alas, when it was time to honor him at the second timeout of the first half, it was only a video tribute that brought his face to life.
Mary stood in for Lou at the reception and Lou’s detractors will say that they wish she had stood in for him a few times when he was coaching. Mary might have been more receptive to Andy Kaufmann’s spin move. She might figured out a way to keep Michigan’s Sean Higgins from interrupting Illinois’ quest to reach the national championship game in 1989.
We can joke about that because Lou would joke, too.
Asked once why it seems his approval rating had soared in recent years, he just laughed. “Because it’s been a long time since I lost game,” he said.
Even though he wasn’t there Saturday, we assume Lou was watching from his hospital bed. He had a better deal than most of the fans at the United Center. He was guaranteed that his team would win.