The former Iowa basketball coach of nine years was back Thursday for Iowa vs. Iowa State.
Kenny Arnold will attend this year’s Fry Fest honoring Iowa’s only Final Four basketball team from the past 60 years.
“It will be very good for him to get out of the nursing home and see Hawkeye fans,” says Mike “Tree” Henry, Kenny’s best friend since they becoming teammates at Iowa in 1978.
Listening to Tree, I couldn’t help but think as good as it will be for Kenny to see everyone, it will be even better for us to see him.
Kenny Arnold’s story is well known to Iowa fans.
A three-year starter under coach Lute Olson who led the 1980 Final Four team in points and assists, Kenny was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 25 that had physicians predicting he didn’t have long to live.
Though Kenny survived, his condition deteriorated over the decades. Today he is largely paralyzed. His speech is limited to monosyllables. He suffers epileptic seizures. He is bedridden and even finds it difficult to sit. Kenny lives in a round-the-clock nursing facility in Chicago where he is clearly a favorite. Some of his popularity stems from the celebrity he occasionally enjoys, but talking with staff it is obvious that they marvel at his attitude and genuinely care for him.
Kenny may not be able to speak but his mind is sharp and it’s not uncommon to see him erupt in stitches of silent laughter.
As a teammate, I remember Kenny as soft-spoken, funny and unassuming. He didn’t have a penchant for parties, he was always where he was supposed to be and he dated the same gal throughout college. Off the court, Kenny was shy and humble, but on the court he was fearless and unflappable. The contrast was striking. He wasn’t the best athlete, nor was he a great defender, but his determination on offense meant Coach Olson rarely took him out of games. Teammate Mark Gannon remembers with some awe that Kenny never missed a free throw under pressure.
Playing on a Final Four team creates a lifelong bond. If not for this bond, I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to trek into Chicago to see Kenny at his nursing home. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But as I exited the freeway at Halsted Street, I realized my fears were unfounded. The wide boulevard leads into an orderly black working-class neighborhood with single family homes and small businesses. Staff at the four-story, brick nursing facility were both kind and welcoming. Sure, it is a state financed long term care facility for the underserved, but it appeared well organized and everyone seemed to know Kenny.
Visiting can be challenging, as conversations with Kenny take effort and patience. There is plenty of silence, but stitched together by our bonded camaraderie it doesn’t feel overly awkward. With his good hand, he thumbs through basketball magazines I bring while I try to anticipate his struggles to speak. Sometimes I’ll bring chocolates or a Frosty from the Wendy’s down the street. If Tree or someone else is present, our conversation allows Kenny to absorb the moment without pressure to respond. My time with Kenny serves as a startling reminder of how much I take for granted every day.
Nearly all of the 1980 Final Four team members will attend Fry Fest and I know everyone will be eager to see Kenny. To watch his eyes dance as he laughs silently —despite living in a ravaged and broken down body — defies reason. I find his life both humbling and an inspiration.
This year’s Fry Fest will honor some of the best in women’s and men’s teams while the entire Iowa basketball family will rally around Kenny.
I hope that many of you will have a chance to do the same. If you do, I suspect you will share my sentiment that Kenny’s gift to us is far greater than any we give to him.
Jon Darsee is a frequent contributor to the Register's feature pages. He was a member of the University of Iowa 1980 Final Four team and a three-year basketball letterman. He lives in Iowa City.
Fran McCaffery has seen ravages of disease as a son and a father