Hero of this sports story is no athlete

Published in the February 2005 issue of BioMechanics

By Jordana Bieze Foster


If the man were an athlete, this would be a sports medicine comeback story.

It wouldn't be a sports medicine comeback like those of Grant Hill or Neil Parry, of an athlete coming back from an injury sustained while playing or practicing. It would be a comeback story more like those of Alonzo Mourning or Khiawatha Downey, of an athlete triumphing over a functionally debilitating condition not specific to the playing field (see "World of sports just gets wider," August, page 5).

If the man in this story were an athlete, each step in his recovery from the paralysis that can accompany viral encephalitis would be one painfully slow, walker-aided step closer to jogging, running, and eventually sport-specific activity. If he were an athlete, the pneumonia that sent him back to his bed just when he was about to show the world how far he had progressed would have been not just a physical setback but an additional plot twist in the heroic comeback awaited by his teammates and fans. After overcoming the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the cracked ribs, the neural inflammation that left him in a coma, and now pneumonia on top of it all-how sweet a sports medicine story the athlete's return would have been.

But the man in this story is not an athlete, hasn't been one for many years, although back in the 1950s he did start at guard for his beloved New Mexico State Aggies. Now he's a frail 72-year-old man in a wheelchair, an elderly rehab patient you wouldn't think twice about if you weren't from the Las Cruces area and didn't know him as the Aggie head coach whose men's basketball teams made headlines in the 1960s and 1970s and who returned in 1997 to coach the team again on-get this-a pro bono basis. Even if you had known Lou Henson at the University of Illinois, where his teams won 423 games in 21 seasons, you might not recognize him now, 40 pounds lighter than before he contracted the virus.

No, Henson's story is not a sports medicine comeback story. A positive outcome for him does not involve running, dribbling, or dunking. But it is a comeback story just the same, as is the story of any other rehab patient battling for three months to return to the job he or she has excelled at for the past half-century.

And, not insignificantly, Henson's comeback is also very much a sports story. He needs 21 more wins to reach 800 for his career, a milestone previously reached only four times, by legends Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Bobby Knight, and Jim Phelan. And he'd very much like to get win number 800 for the school that has meant so much to his career.

"I doubt they're ever going to have a coach win 800 games here again," Henson told ESPN.com in January. "So if I can stay healthy-and I think I can do that-it would be a really big boost for this place."

That was on Jan. 6, the day Henson was supposed to make his return to the sidelines at an evening practice. But he tired before reaching the court, and that night was diagnosed with the pneumonia that would set him back once again.

At press time, Henson was recuperating at home and was expected to make a full recovery. And in spite of everything, one can't help believing that, one day, he will be back.

If Lou Henson were an athlete, this would be a different type of comeback story. But it wouldn't be a better one.


Copyright 2008 Jordana Foster – 24 Kirkland Dr, Stow, MA – Email: – Fax: (815) 346-5239