IOWA CITY, Iowa | I landed my first speaking gig 30 years ago, master of ceremonies for the athletic banquet at Starmont High School near Strawberry Point, Iowa, my hometown.
I spent 10 minutes spinning tall tales about my peers and coaches, getting a few laughs and lots of groans before handing the microphone to Iowa Hawkeye Kenny Arnold.
I’d grown up with a basketball in my hands, imitating Arnold, who, as a sophomore point guard, led the 1980 Final Four team in scoring and assists. He played on four straight NCAA Tournament teams for Coach Lute Olson.
At the Starmont banquet, Kenny shared truths about a foe tougher than the Indiana Hoosiers or Louisville Cardinals. Kenny fainted twice while working out the previous summer. Doctors at University of Iowa Hospitals found a brain tumor. Because of the tumor’s location and how it might affect motor skills, surgery was deemed too risky. They attacked the mass with chemotherapy and radiation.
Kenny was 26 at the time, in the midst of his athletic prime.
That night in 1986 at Starmont, Kenny talked about perseverance and faith, and how his grit served him on Big Ten basketball courts and hospital rehab facilities.
Three decades later, he’s still fighting, armed with a positive mental attitude and incredible teammates. Mike “Tree” Henry would likely be the captain of Kenny’s squad these days. Henry, born on the same day as Kenny (June 7, 1959), has been his champion for years. The Chicago natives who met 40 years ago at a basketball camp were best of buddies during their playing days at Iowa. The bond has only grown stronger.
Henry accompanied his pal to Tucson, Arizona, in 2005, on a trip former Iowa Coach Lute Olson funded. The 1980 Hawkeye team gathered in Iowa City for a 25th anniversary of their Final Four berth. Kenny Arnold, who had told his teammates his health was fine, didn’t want to make the trip from Chicago. That’s when an insistent Ronnie Lester, the star of that squad, flew from Los Angeles (he worked for the Lakers) to Chicago and drove Kenny to the reunion.
Kenny’s weight had plummeted to 130 pounds. Henry, who had visited by phone with his buddy several times that winter, was shocked by his appearance. They all feared the cancer was back.
“Lute provided airplane tickets and told us to get Kenny to Arizona,” Henry said.
The pair flew to Tucson and rented a car to drive to the athletic facilities at Arizona, where Olson coached at the time. Henry, who stands 6-feet 8-inches, got out of the car and put 6-foot, 2-inch Kenny Arnold over his shoulders and literally carried him to see Lute.
Doctors in Arizona, where Olson’s wife, Bobbi, had been treated for cancer, ran tests, and concluded that Kenny’s outdated anti-seizure medication had caused much of his muscle mass to atrophy, leading to problems that have persisted for a decade. Kenny now resides in a nursing home on the south side of Chicago. His parents are both deceased. He has a sibling in Chicago and his Iowa basketball “brothers,” men who call themselves “Teammates for Life.”
Through the years they’ve been credited with “assists.” They visit Kenny and keep Iowans updated on his battle. Sadly, his spirits sank this summer as an abdominal aneurysm kept him bedridden for much of each day. His ability to communicate was increasingly compromised because of mini strokes.
Mike Henry shared an update with Pat Harty, an Iowa City-based writer who covers the Hawks for AllHawkeyes.com. My brother, Marty Gallagher, of Storm Lake, Iowa, read Harty’s report concerning Kenny’s condition and his struggle to communicate. Marty, CEO of Talk To Me Technologies, which manufactures and distributes speech-generating devices and related accessories, reached out and connected with Henry. In August, Marty and Matt Dunning, chief technology officer for Talk To Me Technologies, traveled to Chicago to assess Kenny’s needs.
“Kenny could very slowly get a word out,” said Marty. “We had him try a device and he was able to move his left arm and could identify messages to press.”
Talk To Me Technologies provided a Wego 10A speech device that has since been upgraded to a Zuvo12, which allows Kenny to tap his finger to communicate his needs, access Facebook and YouTube videos, including the 1980 Final Four game in which Iowa lost to Louisville despite Kenny’s 20 points and five assists.
“Kenny’s attitude turned around with that tablet,” Henry said. “The combination of pain and not being able to communicate had taken so much out of him. This summer, for the first time, he’d grown depressed. Now that he can communicate, we’ve got that ‘Old Kenny’ spark back.”
Henry continues to visit his teammate several times per week. On Friday, he launched an effort on Facebook to raise funds for Kenny by selling shirts emblazoned with his jersey No. 30 and a “Teammates for Life” logo. The shirts, designed by Marty’s son, Ben Gallagher, are being sold for $30 on a Kenny Arnold Fund Facebook site.
“Ben designed these shirts for a small group of us,” Henry said. “But then I posted a picture of one of the shirts on Facebook and I had over 100 requests in the first day as Iowa fans and friends of Kenny wanted to know where they could get one.”
Henry’s hope is that this effort generates a little cash for Kenny to tap to boost his quality of life as he fights. In due time, there may be seed money for an Iowa scholarship bearing his name.
Henry said he and his teammates will do all they can to help their old Hawkeye mate.
“A few years ago, Vince Brookins and I were with Kenny and we were complaining about our day-to-day stuff,” Henry said. “And then we caught ourselves, because he’d been through so much and had never complained.”
According to Henry, Kenny Arnold still hasn’t. Rather, he figures he drew the short straw — brain cancer — as part of God’s plan; because he has the strength and determination to keep fighting, and a quiet ability to show others they can, too.
Article by The Sioux City Journal