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Remembering basketball's true gentleman

Remembering basketball's true gentleman

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Remembering basketball's true gentleman

FILE - In this Oct. 17, 1995 file photo, Illinois men's basketball coach Lou Henson gives directions to his team during practice after the team's media day in Champaign, Ill. Henson, the basketball coach who led Illinois back into the national spotlight, has died at age 88. The school said Henson died Saturday, July, 25, 2020, and was buried on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. .(AP Photo/Mark Cowan, File)

Lou Henson was stooping down to pick up the trash.

That was not something I had never seen a college basketball coach do, certainly not in his own arena after a big win. When I reminded him that we had a crew of custodians at New Mexico State University, Lou said, “Those guys have enough work to do without our fans making it worse.”

That was one of my first indications that Lou Henson was very different from other highly successful college coaches. This was November 1997. His alma mater needed a coach, and Lou agreed to unretire. Eighteen months prior, Lou had retired at the University of Illinois to return to New Mexico, but he soon grew weary of golf.

Our team had practiced maybe 20 times before that first game, and Lou had been so resolutely upbeat that I thought, “Nobody can truly be this nice.” I whispered to our other assistant coach one day, “We’ll see how positive he is after we lose a close one.”

A week after helping Lou to pick up trash, we blew a lead in the last few minutes, and we got no help from the referees. “Here it comes,” I thought. We’d witness the real Lou Henson.

“Hey,” Lou said once the locker room was quiet, “we’re a lot better than what we showed tonight. How many of you guys think we can play better? Let’s have a show of hands.”

The entire team hung their heads and raised their hands.

“OK,” Lou went on, “we’ve got to come back Monday and work harder.” All this was said with the tone you might use with an 8-year-old boy who hadn’t eaten his vegetables.

Lou Henson, who died last Saturday at 88, was unflappably forward looking, so much so that he did not even like to talk much about his two Final Fours while coaching at New Mexico State and the University of Illinois.

I worked for three years as an assistant coach for Lou at New Mexico State. I was, I’ll admit, burned out, but I soon got shamed out of my whiny ways by the energy level of the then-66-year-old coach, although I was not yet 40.

Lou did not curse, but he led by example. Near the end of one practice, point guard and Chicago native Billy Keys announced, “Hey, y’all, Coach Henson doesn’t swear. So none of us are going to swear either!”

The other assistants and I gave each other a look. How could we coach if we couldn’t cuss? But now we were all on board, and we’d have to learn to be like Lou.

When practices first commenced, Lou’s wife, Mary, was still in Illinois, not in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where they had raised their four kids in the 1960s and ’70s. On the day Mary was to fly in, Lou realized that her flight would land during practice time. He asked our student manager to pick her up at the airport, and he tossed him his car keys. The manager walked back in the Pan Am Center minutes later. “I’ve never met your wife, Coach,” he said. “What does she look like?”

Lou hesitated like a bad shooter behind the 3-point line. “Well, she’s about 5-foot-5,” he began. “I guess she’s got ... her hair is probably ... I mean she might be wearing an orange ...” and he stopped again, knowing that he was missing some fundamental truth about his college sweetheart. “Well,” he finally blurted out, “she’s beautiful!”

They’d been married for more than 40 years at that time.

Lou coached that first season for a dollar — yes, a dollar — because his alma mater was in dire financial and ethical shape. Things did not go great. Expectations, chemistry, the sudden coaching change all worked against us. The next year should not have been any better, but Lou Henson turned in what I would argue was his greatest coaching performance, taking a ragtag bunch of mostly Chicago kids to the Big West Tournament championship and the NCAA tournament.

That team had a earthbound center named Aaron Brodt who would tally exactly one single dunk in his career, but Lou got him to screen, pass, defend, lead by example — and win. Lou appointed Brodt team captain, along with the reformed curser Billy Keys.

Brodt wasn’t the only player on the team who had trouble dunking. So did Eric Channing, the devoutly religious “A” student who chose New Mexico State over Wheaton College, then went on to use Lou’s precision-based system to become the leading scorer in school history.

Outsiders might wonder how an Oklahoma Depression-era sharecropper’s kid could possibly relate to young urban Black players, many of them from Chicago. Lou was a master communicator, although he did it through genuine concern and love. The players knew when he was really mad, even without hearing an F-bomb.

Once, incensed at a New Mexico State Aggie for his sloppy play, Lou’s tirade ended with, “I’ll bet you don’t even make your bed in the morning!” (Mary Henson told me later, “Oh, Lou never makes his bed in the morning either.”)

Lou Henson did not have enemies, but he had one bitter rival: longtime Indiana coach Bob Knight. It was in regard to Knight that I heard Lou utter his most scathing criticism: “A lot of people don’t understand him.” It simply was not within his personality to say any worse about a man than that.

Perhaps his greatest battles, though, came against Don Haskins, who was University of Texas at El Paso’s coach for about 40 years, the man who won the first 1966 NCAA title with an all-Black starting lineup. Lou’s first tenure at New Mexico State began a month after Haskins’ historic win, so the bar was incredibly high for the new coach at an agricultural school 40 miles north. (Lou’s first college job was at Hardin-Simmons University — a job he had accepted only after school officials in Abilene, Texas, caved in on his two demands, neither of which had to do with his salary: Lou insisted on desegregating the all-white team at the Baptist school. And he had to have Joe Lopez as his assistant, the school’s first Hispanic coach. Lou had done something nearly as profound as Haskins, away from the glare of the national media, in 1962.)

It was against Haskins that Lou really shined. He beat Haskins in their first 10 matchups, something nobody else ever came close to matching. Turning the defending national champs into New Mexico State’s punching bag cemented Lou’s place as a New Mexico icon.

Years later, the sports writer Dan Wetzel wrote a long piece that claimed Haskins was the greatest college coach who ever lived. I was lucky enough also to have worked for Haskins for eight years, and perhaps Wetzel was correct in his assessment. But if it’s true, what does that make Lou Henson, who practically owned Haskins — and his star guard, Nate Archibald — in the late 1960s and early ’70s?

Three decades later, at the Burger Time near campus (that’s the kind of highbrow place where Lou got his coffee) I heard a stranger announce that he had bought a Powerball ticket for the New Mexico lottery. He claimed he would buy a yacht and Mercedes if he won. Then the stranger turned to the famous coach.

“What would you do if you won the lottery, Coach?” he asked.

Lou thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t think I’d do anything. I’m happy with the way things are now.”

That was Lou. He had time to pick up the trash, time to talk to strangers and he wore a genuinely respectful smile for everyone. He was comfortable in his own skin, content in ways that career coaches rarely are. He was old-fashioned in the very best sense of the word, and while plenty will be written about his nearly 800 wins and Final Fours and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame status, and how he deserves to be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, too, his greatness stood in stark contrast with his values, in the way he carried himself.

Maybe that hall of fame honor will come around, like everybody else who came in contact with Lou: the secretaries, groundskeepers, student aides and custodians loved Lou because he was a gentleman.

Rus Bradburd was Lou Henson’s assistant coach for three seasons. A Chicago native and New Mexico State professor, his latest book, All the Dreams We’ve Dreamed: a Story of Hoops and Handguns on Chicago’s West Side, was published by the Chicago Review Press in 2018. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.

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