One step at a time

Editor's note: This story was originally posted on Jan. 7, 2005.

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- The frail, 72-year-old man carefully shuffled his way across the tile floor of the rehabilitation center with no intention of stopping. Through one room, out its door. Down a hallway, past his target. Around a physical therapist, through another door.

He leaned heavily on a metal walker, but that didn't matter. He was moving.

"You all right, Coach? You doing all right?" his therapist asked.

Coach had his own coach. And each time she asked, he responded the same way. With a smile. With a deliberate nod of the head. With confirmation. "Just great, Amy. I really feel great today."

When the march finally came to an end, in a cushy red chair in the waiting room lobby, 130 steps separated start from finish. A simple walk across the cafeteria was a monumental accomplishment for future Hall of Fame basketball coach Lou Henson.

"That's the furthest he's ever walked," said Amy Amabile, the physical therapist at the Center for Outpatient Rehabilitation and Evaluation. "He's getting better and better each week."

And so this is how it began, what was planned to be the second-to-last day before Henson's triumphant return to the New Mexico State bench.

Three months earlier, stricken with viral encephalitis -- an acute inflammation of the brain -- Henson slipped into a coma and lost use of his extremities and his ability to speak. After six weeks of physical, occupational and speech therapy, he finally felt ready to return. His doctors supported him.

Now, less than 60 hours until he officially returned "home" to the basketball court, where he has roamed as a coach for 40 years, he was fine-tuning his motor skills. And excelling.

"The last four, five days have just been incredible," Henson said. "I'm absolutely feeling great."

But Thursday night, that all changed.

After a 12-hour day filled of rehab, doctor's appointments, media interviews and basketball meetings, Henson never reached the court for his team's evening practice.

An assistant drove him down an access tunnel to the court at New Mexico State's Pan-American Center, but as Henson prepared to leave the car and climb into his wheelchair, he tired. He reached for his chest. In a few short minutes, the wheelchair was put back in the trunk and Henson was headed home to rest as practice began without him.

When his condition didn't improve later Thursday night, he visited Memorial Medical Center, down the road from his home, where New Mexico State officials say doctors admitted hm after Henson was diagnosed with pneumonia.

Less than 15 hours after his impressive early-morning rehab session, 15 hours after he couldn't stop smiling when showing off how high he could lift his once-paralyzed right leg, Saturday's return to the bench was canceled.

A 63-word press release shared the somber news.

"New Mexico State Head Coach Lou Henson was hospitalized Thursday night with pneumonia and will not be on the bench with the team as previously planned for Saturday's game," it began.

It was another bout with poor health for a man who will celebrate his 73rd birthday on Monday, but has spent more time in the past 12 months lying in hospital beds fighting for his life than sitting on the bench fighting with officials.

"It's been a pretty bad couple of years," Henson said.

In July of 2003 he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. After six cycles of chemotherapy -- all while coaching the Aggies -- he fought that into remission.

This past June, while trying to avoid a sudden shower from a sprinker, he fell out of a golf cart and cracked a few ribs.

Then, in late September, disaster struck. After playing in a golf tournament, he returned home feeling nauseous and running a low-grade fever. He went to dinner with a recruit that night and afterward promised the recruit he'd meet him for breakfast the next morning.

"That's the last thing I remember for three weeks," Henson said.

The next three days he was too weak to get out of bed. The following day, he was hospitalized in Las Cruces with viral encephalitis, a debilitating disease that causes swelling around the brain.

Henson slipped in and out of comas, and hallucinated. His temperature soared to 104.

"We just kept packing him in ice," Henson's wife Mary said. "It was touch-and-go there for awhile."

He spent two weeks in a Las Cruces hospital before being transferred to a rehabilitation center in nearby El Paso, Texas. It was there that he began to make progress. He began by simply blinking "yes" or "no" in response to Mary's questions, then gradually regained the use of certain extremities.

After being released from the hospital in November, he started his outpatient rehabilitation program. All along the way, the light at the end of the tunnel was a return to basketball.

Thursday was no different. His rehab plan consisted of the 130-foot walk around the facility followed by several leg exercises, all aimed at triggering the neurological pathways between the brain and his right leg. Amabile, his therapist, instructed Henson on the exercises he needed to do when he'd be on the road with the team.

"I think he's ready," she said. "As ready as he's going to be."

About the only person who wasn't certain about Saturday's planned return? Mary.

"If I would have been paying attention, I could have seen this one coming," she said.

"If it was up to me, I'm not sure he'd set foot on the court again," she added Thursday morning. "I was the one who talked him into retiring the first time."

Henson weighed 182 pounds before contracting the virus. He weighs 145 now. When he first started rehab, he could only walk 10 feet. And it took two therapists and the walker to support him. His weak right knee frequently gave out.

But Thursday, he walked more than 10 times farther with only Amabile there to support him.

"The past two weeks have been a steady improvement," Amabile said. "Something has happened. Something has triggered this in him."

Some would say it was basketball. Henson first returned to practice a month ago, gradually building his stamina to stay longer and longer, to do more and more. In the beginning, he only served as a spectator. In recent days, he had gone as far as to wheel his chair on the floor to show players proper positioning.

"You can just tell how much he enjoys it," sophomore guard Antwan Alexander said. "Basketball is all Coach knows."

This is a man who proposed to Mary under a basketball hoop. A man who, 30 minutes after exchanging their wedding vows in a New Mexico courthouse, left his bride for practice. In a way, it's only fitting that he battles the end of life not far from a court as well.

Henson's sights are still set on a major coaching milestone: 800 victories. Only four coaches in Division-I history -- Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Bobby Knight and Jim Phelan -- are members of that exclusive fraternity.

When doctors told him they weren't sure if he could coach again, the man who once walked 45 minutes every morning before he fell ill, told them he'd be ready to return to the coaching sidelines after the first of the year.

Early this week, after doctors cleared him, Henson called newly appointed athletics director Boston McKinley and told him he was ready to return. Even though Henson struggles to make it around the house, the office and in and out of the car, McKinley didn't think twice about it.

"I simply trust his judgement," McKinley said Thursday morning. "I'm not about to second-guess him. And obviously Lou's an extremely proud person and very accomplished. I don't think he'd do it if he wasn't ready."

Henson currently sits at 779 wins, 21 shy of 800. He should be only three wins away, but the NCAA stripped his 1997-98 team of 18 victories after a player on that team was implicated in NCAA violations that occurred under Neil McCarthy, Henson's predecessor at New Mexico State. Henson lost an appeal of the NCAA's decision.

He says the 800 wins are more important for the school than himself. Henson played for the Aggies in the '50s, coached there from 1967-75, then returned in 1998 after retiring from Illinois in 1996. He even coached at nearby Las Cruces High.

"I doubt they're ever going to have a coach win 800 games here again," Henson said. "So if I can stay healthy -- and I think I can do that -- it could really be a big boost to this place."

Talk of Henson's return already had created a buzz in southern New Mexico. Everywhere he went on Thursday, someone was there to wish him good luck. And they all had a personal story.

There was the lady in rehab: "My husband was your equipment manager."

The lady in the Pan American Center: "I was a sophomore when you came to Las Cruces High to coach."

And a visitor to his office: "I met you in a tiny restaurant in Illinois when I was in junior high."

Throughout his morning rehab session, Henson smiled. And every passerby got at least a handshake. Some got a hug.

"You would never know he is who he is," Amabile said. "In fact, we had to tell him in the beginning that it was OK for him to admit that he was in pain. He was always accommodating."

There's a reason the floor of the Pan-American Center is called "Lou Henson Court." To the right of Henson's desk sits one of his most cherished awards. It's from the Las Cruces Sun-News, declaring Henson the "Best Local Sports Hero" in its 2003 reader awards.

"This town worships him. They absolutely worship him," senior forward Brian Funston said. "It's hard not to get caught up in that excitement. Everybody is eager to get him back."

But now their hero has fallen again. Perhaps he should be on a golf course somewhere. Or a beach. Or at a lawn bowling tournament. Instead, Lou Henson again finds himself in a hospital, battling for one more chance to do what he loves.

What will happen next is anyone's guess. Henson was released from the hospital Saturday and will finish his
recovery from pneumonia at home, a university spokesman said. School officials said the coach is expected to make a full recovery.

"I feel much better and I'm looking forward to going home and
resting," Henson said in a news release Saturday. He also thanked his doctors for "catching the pneumonia so quickly and getting it under control."

No matter what happens, unless doctors insist it is dangerous to coach or Mary convinces her husband it's time to finally retire -- again -- Henson is likely to make his way back to the sidelines as soon as he is physically able. Thursday night could be looked back upon as just another roadblock that tried to slow the head coach.

"With something like this, you'll have a good day one day and a terrible one the next," Amabile said early Thursday. "It's one of those things that just isn't progressively consistent. But you have to find a way to keep your head up."

Wayne Drehs is a writer for ESPN.com.