In life and death, former Hawkeye star Kenny Arnold shines bright

Jon Darsee
Special to the Register
Former Arizona coach Lute Olson, right, shares a moment with his former player, Kenny Arnold, in Tucson, Arizona, in 2005. Olson and the rest of the team raised money to help pay for Arnold's medical expenses.

How does one measure the impact of a life? I’ve been pondering this question ever since my former University of Iowa basketball teammate Kenny Arnold died in May after a long illness.

I had expected to feel sad and relieved that he longer had to suffer. I had not expected to feel angry. 

Kenny’s impact as a basketball player was huge — he led our 1980 Final Four team in scoring and assists, with a broken thumb on his shooting hand, no less. Three years after graduating, while Kenny was still pursuing a pro basketball career, his life changed forever. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given a 10% chance of survival. Somehow Kenny hung on, living 37 more years while the after-effects of his condition relentlessly deteriorated his body. 

The thought that a brain tumor or anything else could sap his youth and vitality, his shot at the NBA, or any opportunity to have a career or family, was impossible to fathom. Watching him slowly lose control of his body and his ability to speak was heartbreaking. Contrasting this once happy and vivacious teammate with a man living out his days in a home for the severely disabled was difficult to stomach. He shared a room barren of anything but two beds and a small TV. All of his worldly possessions fit in a cabinet and two dresser drawers.

Members of the 1980 Iowa Final Four team joke around before having their picture taken at former Arizona coach Lute Olson's home in Tucson, Arizona, in 2005. Kenny Arnold is bottom left.

And yet, the grit and determination that drove Kenny on the court was evident throughout his life. As best friend and teammate Mike “Tree” Henry said, “Kenny never complained once about his situation. He had faith in God’s plan for him and that was good enough.”

Vince Brookins, another former teammate, gets emotional recounting a conversation they had when Kenny could still speak. Vince told Kenny that he could never endure Kenny’s suffering. Kenny carefully gathered his words and replied, “God gave this to me because I can handle it. I am going through this so that guys like you don’t have to.”  

Kenny became the moral beacon of our team and the fabric that wove us together. Our common language is basketball but Kenny’s four-decade struggle bonded us to one another and to an ever-caring Hawkeye support community. 

Iowa's Kenny Arnold guards Minnosota's Trent Tucker during a game in February 1982.

In December 2005, USA Today writer Greg Boeck followed us to Tucson when coach Lute Olson invited the 1980 Iowa Final Four team for a reunion while he was still coaching. Boeck wrote a piece about Kenny’s story and how coach Olson paid for Kenny and Tree to be flown to Tucson to see the same cancer specialists who treated coach’s late wife Bobbi. It was especially unique and perhaps unprecedented when coach Olson honored our University of Iowa team in front of a sold-out McHale Center at a University of Arizona Wildcat basketball game. 

The USA today story included a sidebar letter Mark Gannon wrote to coach Olson, thanking him for his guidance and influence. Mark closed by signing “Teammates for Life,” a phrase that would become our rallying cry for the rest of Kenny’s life and recently, the title of a new book written by Marty Gallagher, a lifelong Hawkeye fan who became a Kenny Arnold fan at the age of 10 watching games on the Hawkeye Sports Network.

Former Iowa basketball player Kenny Arnold is overcome with emotion as he is honored at halftime of a benefit basketball game in his behalf in 2006.

In “Teammates for Life,” Gallagher chronicles Kenny’s life framed in the context of the Lute Olson era at Iowa. Like so many others, Gallagher just wanted to find some way to help. Gallagher is the co-founder of Talk to Me Technologies, a Cedar Falls-based company that creates tools to enable compromised individuals to communicate. Four years ago, Marty offered to donate a touch-screen tablet they developed to Kenny. He personally trained Kenny, and the tablet dramatically improved Kenny’s ability to interact with the world. A friendship blossomed, which triggered Marty’s crusade to capture Kenny’s remarkable story in a book.   

It would take the funeral gathering and the finality of death to bring me clarity and evaporate my anger. I realized via the gift of our basketball bond that Kenny pushed me to consider a life very different from my own. Nothing else has taken me to the south side of Chicago. No one else has put me face to face with the daunting physical horrors Kenny faced. I am grateful for having witnessed how he managed his condition and by the remarkable examples of my teammates rallying to help. 

The funeral was packed with many familiar faces including Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, assistant coach Kirk Speraw and legendary Iowa trainer John Strief, who was a constant presence at Kenny’s side as he neared death. As speaker after speaker rose to share, most of the stories were about Kenny’s impact beyond the basketball court. His life inspired us early with his play; late by showing us what grace looks like.

Former Iowa Hawkeye basketball players Ronnie Lester, top, and Mike "Tree" Henry hold up T-shirts commemorating teammate Kenny Arnold, in this file photo.

The funeral reminded me of many “Teammates For Life” moments. How in the 1990s Gannon spearheaded players and fans to create a fund that would help with expenses, medical expertise and ultimately pay for Kenny’s funeral. How Mike "Tree" Henry changed jobs and rearranged his life to take care of his best friend. And how two years ago, Tree founded the Kenny Arnold Foundation with the ever-present help of his sister Nanette and Brookins endeavoring to sustain Kenny’s legacy by helping people suffering similar fates. 

We all strive to impact others, be it family, community or the world. Kenny Arnold was a man who had nearly everything taken from him — certainly all of the tools and resources society deems necessary to impact others. And yet, unable to talk, his body but a sack of bones, Kenny demonstrated the fundamentals of life every day through grace, humility and faith.

Asked to define team, Kenny answered, “Brother.” When his late mother Lena was asked the same question, Mrs. Arnold also had a one-word answer, “L-O-V-E” she said.

There may be many ways to measure the impact of a life, but Lena’s answer is the one I like the best.

Jon Darsee was a member of the University of Iowa 1980 Final Four team and a three-year basketball letterman. He now serves as chief innovation officer at the UI.

From left: Hawkeye basketball players Kevin Boyle, Kenny Arnold and Jon Darsee.