You think Lou Henson was tough to beat on a basketball court? You should have played checkers against him.
A College Basketball Hall of Famer and the winningest coach in University of Illinois history, Henson never made it into the International Checker Hall of Fame. Still, he was formidable in front of a board.
Ask Gary Brunner, an Illini basketball manager from 1985-90.
“One thing people didn’t know about him was how ultra competitive he was at everything,” said Brunner, athletic director at Pontiac High School. “On plane trips we would play checkers. I never did beat him. He taught me a ton just in how to think things through.”
It was among many lessons Brunner gleaned from Henson, who died July 25 at age 88. One was learning what true class looked and sounded like.
Brunner rated Henson as classy as anyone he’s met, in part because of Henson’s wife, Mary. They were a great team in every respect, Brunner said, including names and faces.
Brunner found that Henson knew who people were, but if they weren’t around the Illini coach all the time, he didn’t always know their name. That’s where Mary came in.
“She knew everybody by name,” Brunner said. “I was shocked at that. You’d be like, ‘How in the world did she know who that was?’”
You didn’t have to be one of Henson’s star players. He had a lot of them at Illinois, especially on the 1989 Final Four team.
Brunner was a senior manager that year, working in the shadows for a team led by Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo and Lowell Hamilton.
They grabbed the spotlight and deservedly so. Yet, Brunner and his fellow managers received the same respect from the Hensons as the headliners.
That was evident in June 1996, six years after Brunner graduated and a few months after Henson retired as Illinois coach. Brunner and his future bride, Kristina, invited the Hensons to their wedding.
Henson replied: “I can’t be at the wedding, but I’ll be at the reception.”
“He had another wedding of a family member that day,” Brunner said.
Sure enough, Lou and Mary Henson showed up at the Pontiac Moose Lodge for the reception. Henson posed for pictures and signed autographs. He shook hands with strangers and made them feel like old friends.
“I apologized up and down and said, ‘That’s not the reason I invited you here to be a public figure,’” Brunner said. “He says, ‘This is great. This is a blast.’ That was a pretty cool moment.”
It didn’t end there. After the Brunners’ twins, Garrett and Griffin, were born, the Hensons routinely asked about them. Gary Brunner occasionally received notes from Henson saying, ‘Hey, I’m keeping up on you. Keep having success.’
When Brunner was hired at Pontiac, Henson sent a note of congratulations.
“He went above and beyond,” Brunner said.
It’s the kind of thing that stays with you, long after the thrilling victories and postgame locker room celebrations.
Brunner remembers the person underneath that famous orange sportcoat, calling him simply, “A great, great man.” He cherishes the fact Henson took in “this little farm kid (from Herscher) who was naive to the world and taught me a lot about life.”
Among Henson’s assignments for the managers was to keep stats during practice. One day, he asked Brunner to read his numbers to the team.
Brunner came to rebounds and said, “Lowell, three rebounds.” Hamilton scoffed.
“Lowell, you don’t agree?” Henson asked.
“No, I don’t coach,” Hamilton said.
“I don’t agree either,” Henson replied. “I don’t think you had three rebounds in this practice. I think Gary’s padding your stats for you.”
Not exactly a tongue-lashing, but the point was made. Henson needed to see more from Hamilton on the boards.
Brunner’s experiences with Henson were not confined to time on the court or on buses/planes traveling to and from games.
Henson would ask him to drive the coach and, on occasion, then-Champaign News-Gazette sports editor Loren Tate, to a high school game to watch a potential recruit.
“He’d say, ‘What are you doing tonight,’” Brunner said. “I’d be like, ‘Umm, I guess I’m going somewhere.’ He’d say, ‘Can you take us?’
“I was the chauffeur. He wanted me to drive because he knew I was from Kankakee County. He’d say, ‘Let’s drive and go to the Redwood Inn.’ It was a smorgasbord (in Kankakee) and his favorite restaurant.”
One such trip was to watch Gill play for Rich Central. That one paid off many times over.
It was part of a journey Brunner holds dear. Early in his freshman year as manager, Brunner wasn’t sure Henson knew who he was. One day at practice, the Illini coach walked over and said, “Hi Gary. How are you?”
It was Henson’s way of saying, “Welcome to the family.”
It meant the world.