Harty: The courage and grace of Kenny Arnold is truly inspiring

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Editor's note: This story was originally published on AllHawkeyes.com in April 2016. We posted it again with Iowa preparing to honor Kenny Arnold on Saturday by staging a White Out against Illinois in which fans are encouraged to wear Arnold's No. 30 shirt. 

 

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Until this past Saturday, my parents were the only real heroes in my life.

No disrespect to Gale Sayers or Walt Frazier or Larry Bird, but it takes more than being one of my favorite sports legends to be a hero. It takes kindness and courage and an incredible amount of human spirit. It takes perseverance and the ability to love somebody as much or more than yourself.

It takes the kind of unwavering bond that exists between members of Iowa’s 1980 NCAA Final Four men’s basketball team.

As good as they were 36 years ago, the players on the 1980 team have lifted their performance to a higher level in the game of life. That was obvious on Saturday when I had the privilege to meet former Iowa guard Kenny Arnold for the first time ever.

It would be easy to dwell on the sad side of Arnold’s story because there is plenty to be sad about, considering how much his life changed after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1985. But Arnold has refused to let sadness prevail.

Nor have his former college teammates, especially Mike Henry, who is almost literally Arnold’s right-hand man. They're in this fight together, one day at a time.

Their fight took them to Iowa City this weekend.

“I’ve been with him since he was first diagnosed with the tumor and they told him he had like a 10 percent chance of living and what it was,” Henry said Saturday from his hotel room in Iowa City. “They went in and tried to do the brain surgery, but the part of brain the tumor was on, they just couldn’t do it because it was right in the spot that controls everything. “So even that didn’t deter him. He goes, ‘I’m beating it.’ That was from day one his message. And he has never gotten down or wavered from that.”

Henry and Arnold traveled together on Thursday from Chicago where they now live so Arnold could receive medical and dental treatments over the weekend at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. Henry also saw the trip as a weekend getaway for two former college teammates and best friends for life. It was a chance for Arnold to see a change of scenery, something different than the care facility in Chicago that he now calls home.

Arnold presence in town brought a steady flow of visitors to his cramped hotel room on the east side of Iowa City, including several members of the 1980 team. When I arrived Saturday morning, Henry was sleeping on the floor in the hotel room, his giant body stuffed between two beds. Former Iowa forward Mark Gannon also arrived at the hotel at approximately the same time as me. And then several minutes later, former Iowa center Steve Waite joined the group.

“He always expresses to us how much it means to him that we’re there,” Henry said of Arnold, who was a three-year starter for Iowa under former coach Lute Olson. “We just see the smile on his face and that just says it all. We go to visit him and we say we’re going to cheer Kenny up and we walk out feeling just ten times better. “We’re the winners out of this whole thing, there is no question about it because I know he appreciates everything. Even now, he takes care of us as much as we take care of him.”

This weekend was hardly a typical getaway, though.

Not when Henry has to help Arnold do what most of us take for granted like getting in and out of a car or just getting dressed.

“This guy here,” Gannon said while pointing to Henry. “He has lifted Kenny in and out of the car every day, every movement, every chair, every appointment. “He’s got the, biggest heart in the world.”

Gannon was in tears by the time he finished praising Henry. Right about then, I looked over to Arnold, who was sitting up in his hotel bed and smiling. You could tell how much the conversation at the foot of his bed meant to Arnold.

“I get emotional even thinking about it,” Henry said. “We are super close. You’d like to think if I was in that situation I know these guys would help me and we help each other. We wouldn’t even think about it. That’s what we do.”

Henry tries to deflect some of the praise, but it's scary to think where Arnold would be without his former college teammate at his side.

"Everybody who knows the story gives me so much credit," Henry said. "But it is a team effort. Literally, everybody that knew him or knows him has done something. I end up getting a lot of credit for it because I’m close by. But if Mark was there he would be doing it. Any of these guys would do the same thing. So it’s not about me. "(Kenny) is just such a great guy so you want the best for him. You want to see him be comfortable, be happy. But again, it’s family. It literally is family.”

Henry and Arnold have been close friends since before college. They both grew up in or around Chicago and met for the first time at Lute Olson’s summer basketball camp in Iowa City. Henry was a junior in high school at the time and a grade ahead of Arnold. Henry also hosted Arnold on his recruiting visit to Iowa.

“We hit it off day one and have been best friends ever since,” Henry said. Henry and Arnold are more than just best friends. Each is a hero to the other. “Yes he is,” Henry said. “To see what he’s going through and how he’s handled it, it’s just inspiring. He's a hero to me every day.”

Still mentally sharp

Arnold’s ability to speak has been ravaged by his health issues. But his mind and his personality are as sharp and as colorful as ever. He listened intently on Saturday as Henry reminisced with Gannon and Waite about their playing days.

“He has the physical limitations, but the personality is still the same,” Henry said of the 56-year old Arnold. “He’s just a very outgoing, humble guy, a lot of fun to be around because we laugh and joke and tease each other.”

I witnessed some of the teasing, like when Gannon reminded Arnold about the times he was open, but Arnold shot instead.

“He could have passed more in college,” Gannon said with a sly grin on his face as he glanced over to Arnold, who was laughing.

The conversation on Saturday shifted dramatically in terms of emotion. There were tears mixed in with laughter. Gannon became emotional as he talked about the bond between the players on the 1980 squad. He was a freshman forward that season.

“We put together a group of guys that believed in teammates for life,” said Gannon, who was born and raised in Iowa City and still lives there. “It wasn’t a matter of playing together for a couple of years in college. “We’re teammates forever and that takes you through the good times when you celebrate great things, and it takes you through the time times when you come together and have to comeback from a deficit like a halftime deficit or something. And we’re here for each other. It’s nice.”

Lute Olson's impact

Gannon and Henry both credit Lute Olson for recruiting high-character people to play for him at Iowa. That character now shines brightly with how Arnold’s teammates have rallied behind him.

“Coach Olson really emphasized that,” Henry said. “I think with his recruiting process he got those kinds of guys where the greater goal was the important thing. We really cared about each other then. “And then, obviously, with Kenny’s situation, it has kept us together, which is great for us. It’s not a burden. It’s just what we do. Any of us can pick up the phone, it could be any of us, and the first question is what can I do? It’s not how did this happen or whatever. It’s how can I help you?

It’s a confident feeling to have.” Arnold's situation also brought out the good side of former Indiana coach Bob Knight. Shortly after Arnold's tumor was diagnosed, the fiery and controversial Knight reached out to him several times. “He has this tyrant and terrible reputation, but he has one of the biggest hearts," Henry said of Knight. "He does stuff that he doesn’t want people to know about, the soft side of him. He called Kenny several times when he first had the surgery. He sent him packages of Indiana gear and letters to keep fighting and stay strong and things like that. He didn’t want anybody to know, but he was there for Kenny when he needed it the most.”

I knew something was wrong

Time hasn't erased any of the details leading up to that dreadful day in 1985 when Arnold was diagnosed with having a brain tumor. He had been a picture of health before fainting twice after two workouts in Iowa City.

“He called me one day and said that he had fainted after a workout," said Henry, who was living in Chicago at the time. “I was like, that’s crazy with all the workouts we had done together and never had anything happen. But he said, `well, it was hot and I didn’t eat.’ You know, he kind of played it off. “But he called me a month later and said he had fainted again. I knew something was wrong immediately. So I said get to the doctor. I said something is wrong. You don’t just faint. He still was in real good shape.”

Sadly, something was seriously wrong as doctors eventually found the tumor, which didn’t show up on preliminary tests. Henry said doctors went out of their way to help Arnold not only out of respect for a former Hawkeye, but also because Arnold was loved by so many.

"Everybody just jumped in with both feet to do what he needed to take care of him,” Henry said. “It’s been a long process over the years, but he’s such a heck of a fighter and one of the toughest people that I know. He never complains about anything. He just keeps fighting day to day. And that’s inspiring, no question.”

Neither Henry nor Gannon can remember a time when Arnold has felt sorry for himself or asked, why me, since Arnold was first diagnosed. Even with all the medical setbacks that Arnold has suffered over the years, including a stroke, his attitude never changes.

“And that’s what is amazing because we’ve asked that question,” Henry said. “And his answer was because he could take it so we don’t have to go through it. And that just makes us breakdown because who would take on that burden willingly knowing what he’s had to go through? “With what we’ve been able to do in our lives, each and every guy, we just do what we want to and he can’t. So it makes us appreciate every day so much more.”

That is probably the saddest part of Arnold’s ordeal. He has missed out on so many of life’s milestone moments such as getting married and having children.

“He would’ve been such a great husband and father,” Henry said, his voice cracking with emotion.

More than Ronnie Lester's sidekick

It is easy to forget how talented and productive Arnold was as an Iowa combo guard. The Hawkeyes advanced to the 1980 Final Four, even though star point guard Ronnie Lester was hobbled by a knee injury for most of that season, including the stretch drive.

Iowa hasn't been to the Final Four since then.

“When he got hurt Kenny just took over and did whatever we needed and I thought that was kind of reminiscent of the team,” said Henry, who was a reserve forward on the 1980 team. “Everybody just did what needed to be done and there was no questions about who was scoring or whatever. It was just get it done. I think we were the true definition of team and still are.”

No place like Iowa City

Henry would like to bring Arnold to Iowa City more often. It makes Arnold happy to be with friends and former teammates, and where he spent four of the happiest and most fulfilling years of his life. Henry and Arnold both attended an Iowa basketball game in January and received the royal treatment. In addition to getting a standing ovation from the fans in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Arnold and Henry also met with Iowa coach Fran McCaffery and with the Iowa players and assistant coaches before and after the game.

“Each current player came over and introduced themselves, shook hands and and could not have been nicer and more appreciative to have Kenny there as part of it,” Henry said. “Fran and the team could not have been nicer or more appreciative and supportive of Kenny. And that means a lot to us old guys that we’re still part of the Hawkeye tradition.”

The 1980 squad is much more than just part of the Hawkeye tradition. It's the last Iowa team to advance to the Final Four, but sports hardly defines Arnold and his former teammates.

They're heroes in my opinion for understanding the true value of friendship and for doing whatever it takes to make somebody less fortunate comfortable.

Arnold is a hero for handling adversity with courage, dignity and grace. I've thought of little else but his smile since meeting Arnold on Saturday. The message behind that smile is simple yet strong:

"Keep fighting and don't ever give up," Gannon said.

It's easier to keep fighting when so many others are fighting with you.