By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Family, friends and former teammates and coaches from high school and college gathered at the Embassy Church on the south side of Chicago on Monday to pay their respects to former Iowa basketball player Kenny Arnold.
“There was a sense of celebration because Kenny has not been whole in a long, long time,” said Mark Gannon, who played with Arnold on Iowa’s 1980 Final Four team. “There was a sense of celebration that he is finally whole.”
Arnold passed away on April 27th at the age of 59 after having struggled with serious health issues that started with a brain tumor in the mid-1980s. He also suffered several strokes that affected his speech and his mobility.
It was the kind of struggle that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, but Arnold handled it with courage, dignity and grace.
And he wasn’t alone as Hawkeye Nation rallied around the former soft-spoken combo guard from Chicago.
Gannon said that most of the players from the Final Four team, including star point guard Ronnie Lester, attended Monday’s service, and those who didn’t had good reasons for not being there.
Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery and Iowa assistant coach and former player Kirk Speraw also attended Monday’s service, as did Tony McAndrews, who was an assistant coach during Arnold’s time at Iowa.
“Iowa was really, really well represented,” Gannon said.
The players on Iowa’s 1980 Final Four team already were close, but Arnold’s situation made them even closer and helped to put their struggles and setbacks in perspective.
The players were touched by how Arnold never felt sorry for himself and by how he refused to let his misfortune bring them down.
Arnold told his former Iowa teammates that God had picked him to deal with adversity because God knew that Arnold could handle the pain and suffering.
However, the last few months had become especially hard for Arnold as his body had started to succumb to years of being ravaged by disease.
“They said the last couple months, even the nurse that took care of him, that there was a change,” Gannon said. “He still had that big smile when you came into the room.
“She said she’d ask Kenny if he was in pain, and she knew because that’s what she does for a living. She knew that his pain had gone up. Kenny was always fine, never complained about the pain.”
Arnold’s former girlfriend from college, who is now married and lives in Lincoln, Neb., also attended Monday’s service.
“She had talked to him on (social media) just a few days before he died, and she said she could look at his face and knew that he was really, really tired,” Gannon said. And she said to him, ‘it’s okay Kenny.’”
Gannon nearly became emotional as he talked on his cell phone about his former college teammate and close friend.
There is sadness knowing that Kenny Arnold is gone, but also relief in knowing that he isn’t suffering anymore.
“You knew he was going to a better place and he was getting weaker,” Gannon said. “It was time.”
Arnold played at Iowa from 1978 to 1982 during the glory years under head coach Lute Olson. The Hawkeyes finished first, fourth, second and second in the Big Ten during Arnold's four seasons on the team.
Iowas hasn't won a Big Ten regular-season title since Arnold's freshman season in 1979.
Olson left Iowa after the 1982-83 season to become the head coach for Arizona where he would go on to be a huge success. Olson is now 84 years old and still lives in Arizona, but he was unable to attend Monday's service.
Arnold is gone, but he certainly won’t be forgotten as his former college teammates are determined to keep his legacy alive by raising money to fight cancer through the Kenny Arnold Foundation.
There was an event this past Saturday in Mason City in which former Iowa players helped to raise money by playing in a basketball game.
A fundraiser featuring a golf tournament also will be held July 12-13 at the Lake Creek Country Club in Storm Lake. It will be the third year for the golf fundraiser with all of the money going to the Kenny Arnold Foundation.
Mike "Tree" Henry has been the driving force behind the Kenny Arnold Foundation. Henry dedicated much of his time over the past 30 years to helping Arnold cope with his misfortune.
They first met while Henry was hosting Arnold on a recruiting trip to Iowa and became friends right away.
Henry appreciates that so many different people from Arnold's life attended Monday's service.
"It was what I thought it would be, a lot of great tributes to Kenny from the Hawkeye faithful as well as from his friends in Chicago, which was really neat to hear," Henry said. "A lot of his high school and neighborhood friends were there. We heard a lot of the same things that we know and love, but it was nice to hear from a different perspective."
Henry is helping to start a new initiative in which people can donate $30 a month for 30 months, or whatever they can afford, with the proceeds going to the Kenny Arnold Foundation.
"I have had many calls about what we will do with the money we are raising since Kenny is no longer with us," Henry said. "The foundation was formed to sustain his legacy and we thought this would be a great way to do that."
The number 30 is significant because that was Arnold’s jersey number at Iowa.
Gannon thinks the Iowa players should wear uniforms next season that have a patch with the number 30 prominently displayed in honor of Arnold.
“Fran totally gets it,” Gannon said of Fran McCaffery. “So I think Fran would be behind anything that everybody wanted to do, whether it was a patch on the jersey with the number thirty, whether it was retiring his number. I think Fran would be on board with all of that.”
Sophomore guard Connor McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery’s son, currently wears No. 30 for Iowa.