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Coach Henson Discusses Health, U of I Honors ... And Playing Bridge

Former Illini basketball coach Lou Henson at his home in Champaign.

Former Illini basketball coach Lou Henson at his home in Champaign. Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

Sunday’s 104-69 Fighting Illini basketball victory over the U of I Springfield team at the Prairie Capital Convention Center was the first-ever Illini game played on Lou Henson Court.  The winningest coach in Illini history took time last week to talk about a year of health-related challenges, his daily physical routine, and his legacy at Illinois.

Now all ‘home’ games, a few more at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center, and those at the refurbished State Farm Center in Champaign starting in December, will be played on Lou Henson Court. 

It’s been another year of health-related challenges for the winningest coach in Illini history. Twelve years after his battles with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and viral encephalitis, Henson has had to make frequent visits this year to hospitals in Houston (MD Anderson Cancer Center) and Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.

He’s being diagnosed with pre-leukemia, now undergoing 21 day intervals of chemotherapy at Carle, then have seven days off.

“I’m doing really well,” said the 83-year old Henson, talking with Jeff Bossert at his home in Champaign last week.  He sticks to a daily routine that includes a strict regimen of swimming, running errands, and playing bridge.

“I can only sleep five hours a night,” he said. “It’s been worse since I’ve been sick.  I wake up at 3 a.m., the paper comes at 3:45, I do housework, I go shopping, I swim about every day, and do the exercises for 40 minutes.  So there, a lot of my morning is shot, and then I study Bridge, so I stay busy all the time.”  

The health problems of the last decade required Henson to undergo physical and speech therapy. One leg was paralyzed, and he spent five months in a wheelchair.

He says it took him a while to recover mentally as well, not remembering simple historical facts.

“Because it was a brain problem,” he said. “Now I’m basically (recovered), other than one thing.  When I’m playing cards, I have to be careful to make sure I reach for the right card.”

Henson has been playing Bridge for 60 years, taking up Duplicate (a variation of the game) a few years ago, playing on average three or four hours at a time, saying exercising the brain is important.

“Some people have been playing Duplicate for 35-40 years, so I don’t know all the conventions, but I know enough to do a pretty good job," he said.

(Illinois head coach Lou Henson walks from the court hand in hand with players Nick Anderson, left, and Kenny Battle, following their 83-69 victory over Louisville in NCAA action in the Metrodome, March 25, 1989.  Doug Mills/Assocated Press)

Henson, who coached at Illinois from 1975 to 1996, is planning to wear the familiar orange sport coat when attending games, including a couple of those in Springfield this month. 

It’s that coat that launched a key supporter of Illini games and many charitable groups. He said nearly 41 years ago, when he started at Illinois, very few people wore orange for basketball games, including the football coach, who insisted on blue.

“We got seven kids in our living room here, and said we’re going to organize a student organization, and we decided to name it the Orange Krush,” he said.  “And we gave out 60 shirts, and maybe five or ten students showed up. You didn’t see orange any place. I started wearing an orange coat at that time.  And the last few years – a sea of orange.”

Henson said he has the fans to thank for Lou Henson Court.

“Because the fans here supported me,” he said. “We had lean years. They supported me through lean years and good years.  That’s the reason my name is going to be on the court."

Lou Henson is the winningest coach in Illini history, with 423 victories (779 total, including his time at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas, and two stints with New Mexico State.)  He’ll also be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City on November 20.