New Mexico State men's basketball coach Lou Henson watches the team practice Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2005, at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, N.M. Henson, who was stricken with viral encephalitis three months ago, will return to the bench to coach this Saturday's game against North Texas. The encephalitis caused paralysis in his right leg. He's still unable to walk on his own because he has only slight movement in that leg.
AP Photo/Las Cruces Sun-News, No
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. Lou Henson has watched enough film, been to plenty of practices. It's time for one of college basketball's most successful and durable coaches to get back to the bench.
Even if he can't walk there on his own.
Henson, stricken in September with a disease that partially paralyzed him, will coach for the first time this season when his New Mexico State team plays North Texas in Las Cruces on Saturday night.
He'll coach the Aggies from a wheelchair.
''I've been going to some practice sessions. I've looked at all the film, and I'm physically ready to go back and coach,'' said Henson, 21 victories short of becoming only the fifth coach in Division I history with 800.
Henson, who turns 73 on Monday, said his doctor cleared him to resume coaching.
''Everything will work out,'' Henson said in a telephone interview from his home. ''I've done it many times.''
Not this way.
Henson can still only move his right leg slightly, but he's come a long way since being released from the hospital in November. He had viral encephalitis, an acute inflammatory disease of the brain.
He's been going through a vigorous rehab program that includes riding a stationary bike and using a walker, which helps Henson move about 100 feet at a time.
''The right leg is the only limb that has been affected for this length of time,'' Henson's wife, Mary, said. ''He's got movement and it's a matter of strengthening it. It's a neurological problem, so it takes a lot longer to recover. He may have a limp, but so what?''
Initially, a return to coaching was, at best, a long shot.
''The first two weeks that I was hospitalized, the family had their concerns,'' Henson said. ''I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know for a while whether I would coach again.''
His wife wasn't even thinking about basketball.
''There was a time when we had no idea that he would even come out of the hospital,'' she said.
Henson was admitted to the hospital after experiencing flulike symptoms, including fever, vomiting and headaches. Then his temperature reached 103, and Henson lapsed into a mild coma.
For a time, he was unable to speak above a whisper and lost nearly 40 pounds.
Henson doesn't remember anything about his time in the hospital and still weighs about 35 pounds less than before he got sick. He credits that to working out four times a week.
''I'm eating well, but I'm working really hard,'' he said.
Henson is in his 42nd year of coaching, with a career record of 779-408. He was at New Mexico State from 1966-75, then spent 21 years at Illinois. He reached the Final Four with the Aggies in 1970 and the Illini in 1989
Henson retired at Illinois in 1996, but he returned to coaching a year later when alma mater New Mexico State fired Neil McCarthy. In the seven seasons since, the Aggies have had four 20-win seasons.
''Having him on the bench will be a great thing,'' sophomore guard Mike Mitchell said. ''His experience will help us a lot.''
This season, the Aggies (4-8) have struggled under interim coach Tony Stubblefield.
''It's going to be good to have our Hall of Fame coach back on the bench. It's been tough trying to play Coach Henson's style of play without him here,'' senior forward Jeff Jones said.
A win last week over Division II Eastern New Mexico snapped a five-game losing streak. This week, the Aggies blew a seven-point lead late in regulation and lost in overtime to Texas-San Antonio.
''We have nine new players and it's tough getting them going,'' Henson said. ''We're not doing the little things you need to do to win.''
Mary Henson is certain her husband's passion for the game helped him overcome the tough odds he faced back in September.
''He could do nothing for himself. Now he is totally independent,'' she said. ''Now that he wants to return to coaching, who am I to keep him from doing something he treasures? It's amazing how far he's come.''
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