When the talk turns to basketball in Kenny Arnold’s South Side nursing home room, the former Chicago high school and University of Iowa standout breaks into a wide smile. He played at a time when legends strode the Big 10, and there are so many good times to recall.
These days, though, Arnold, 57, can’t contribute much to the conversation. The aftereffects of a brain tumor diagnosed more than 30 years ago robbed him of his ability to speak, leaving him reliant on the nursing home’s staff, his family and friends to discern what he needs.
One of those friends is Mike Henry, a former Iowa forward who grew up in Elgin and became an enduring pal for Arnold from the day they met at a summer camp. Now, he drives up from Bolingbrook a few times a week to check in with Arnold and remember the old times.
“When we get together, we talk basketball a little bit, but it’s really the relationships,” Henry said during a recent visit. “We talk more about the times in the locker room, the times in the dorms, the time we did this and this. This guy keeps us together; everyone calls to check on Kenny and see how he’s doing.”
Arnold was a 6-3, do-everything guard for the now-closed Calumet High School in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. He averaged 21 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists for the Indians his senior year, joining future NBA star Mark Aguirre on the Tribune’s All-Public League team.
“He was just always a good kid,” said his Calumet coach, Johnnie Butler. “Never got in any kind of trouble with anybody.”
His skills caught the eye of Iowa coach Lute Olson, a prolific recruiter of Chicago talent, and in the fall of 1978 Arnold reported to the Iowa City campus to begin his career at a time when the Big 10 was awash in immortal players such as Magic Johnson, Joe Barry Carroll and Kevin McHale.
In Arnold’s sophomore year, the team caught fire after barely making the NCAA tournament and went all the way to the Final Four. A YouTube video of their last game against eventual champion Louisville shows Arnold at his physical peak, a lean and springy playmaker who led his team with 20 points.
The Hawkeyes never again reached that height but remained tournament fixtures. Arnold wrapped up his college career in 1982 and tried to make it in the pros, but the brain tumor, diagnosed in 1985, brought that to an end.
Though Arnold beat the odds to survive his surgery, health problems continued to plague him, culminating in 2005 with a cascade of maladies that convinced some of his old teammates that the cancer had come back.
It hadn’t — a course of medical tests, paid for by Olson, revealed that Arnold had been on an outdated medicine that caused muscle atrophy — but Arnold still wasn’t able to recover fully. A few years ago he moved into a nursing home, and over the summer a series of strokes cost him his ability to speak, his brother David said.
Yet that didn’t rupture his relationship with his old teammates. It made it stronger.
Henry became a particularly faithful visitor, stopping by several times a week, though he said communication was difficult at first.
“I can’t even imagine how frustrating that was,” Henry said. “One of those days, we were down here and he couldn’t get anything out. He simply needed to be turned because he was in a lot of pain, but I couldn’t figure out what it was and he couldn’t tell me. We were both sitting here in tears in frustration.”
That changed, though, when an Iowa fan named Marty Gallagher read a blog post about Arnold’s plight. Gallagher’s Iowa-based company, Talk To Me Technologies, makes computers that can speak for people with disabilities, and he donated one to Arnold that, with a touch, can let nurses or companions know what he needs.
“In Kenny’s case, we started with basics — medical needs and basic conversation things,” Gallagher said. “One of his favorite buttons is one that has to do with his Iowa days, showing the team picture and things like that.”
Arnold was without his computer on a recent afternoon — he was swapping it out for a more advanced model that should expand his conversational ability — but he could still show his delight when Henry, Butler and former De La Salle and Northern Illinois ballplayer Ray Rhone stopped by.
They talked about old battles and old mischief, like the time a young hotshot was kicked out of a basketball camp for sneaking off campus. They talked about the icon they installed on Arnold’s laptop that calls out for a Wendy’s hamburger.
“If you bring that Wendy’s, he’ll find a way to eat it,” Butler joked.
David Arnold said he and his siblings are grateful that their brother’s teammates have stuck by him all these years.
“All the ballplayers have been tremendously supportive,” he said. ” … My brother has had some ups and downs, but I think for the most part he’s doing pretty good right now.”
As the visit came to an end, Arnold nodded when asked if he had enjoyed it. Henry, though, said that as usual, Arnold had given more than he had received.
“We’ve all been part of something very, very special,” Henry said. “I’m literally every day thankful for that. Just time with my buddy here is really important … He never gets down, never complains. The guys will tell you that when we visit, we come to cheer up Kenny. But we’re the ones who come out cheered up.”
Article by The Chicago Tribune
John Keilman – Columnist Writer