IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s basketball past and its future lined the walls inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena seven years ago when Fran McCaffery was introduced as the Hawkeyes’ men’s basketball coach.
Standing in a packed room as McCaffery spoke were former Iowa basketball stars Kenyon Murray, Jess Settles and Wade Lookingbill. They were invited, embraced and celebrated that day, something that rarely took place in the previous decade.
In his opening statement at his inaugural news conference, McCaffery spoke of bringing a Lehigh squad to Carver-Hawkeye in the mid-1980s and facing one of the great teams in Iowa history. McCaffery recalled with ease the names of Roy Marble, B.J. Armstrong, Ed Horton and Brad Lohaus. The new coach immediately wanted to build ties to Iowa’s past, which is revered by basketball fans throughout the state.
“It’s something that would be one of the first orders of business for me,” McCaffery said that day. “I want them involved. I will reach out to them. I want them coming back. I want them at games. I want them calling me on the phone, ‘Hey, I heard about a player you might be interested in.’ It’s that kind of relationship to me that makes a program special, and that’s what we’re going to build here.”
Fast forward to today. McCaffery has kept his word. It’s an uncommon bond for a coach who grew up 1,000 miles away in Philadelphia. Players from every era appear at his games and practices.
Armstrong, a former Chicago Bull and now a player agent, sat behind McCaffery at Michigan State two years ago. The 1986-87 squad, which won 30 games and nearly advanced to the Final Four, returned to Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 2012 to rousing applause and a full house. Coach Tom Davis, who was discarded the same year (1999) he led the Hawkeyes to the Sweet 16, accepted the loudest ovation and a ceremonial basketball.
But the most important reunion — one McCaffery helped facilitate — takes place Saturday during the game against Illinois, the program’s greatest historical rival. Members of Iowa’s 1980 Final Four squad will return to Iowa City to support one of their own, Kenny Arnold. That season, the hard-nosed sophomore guard took over for an injured Ronnie Lester and led the team in scoring and assists, all with a broken thumb. In every postseason game that year, Arnold scored in double figures.
As much as Arnold battled in 1980, he has faced more powerful opponents in his post-Iowa life. And he’s kept fighting. At age 25, he suffered a brain tumor. He’s had strokes. He’s in a wheelchair. He struggles to communicate and lives in a nursing home. But his teammates have not forgotten about him, and neither has the Iowa basketball program.
Arnold lives in Chicago and former teammate Mike “Tree” Henry visits frequently. Most of Arnold’s former Iowa teammates stay in touch. The 1980 team has a bond few — if any — can match. That’s not just at Iowa; that’s anywhere.
“It’s hard to even put into words, you get choked up sometimes,” Henry said. “I think that was a big part of our success. We were always known as a team back when we were playing. We’ve all stayed in touch over the years and a big part of that is Kenny’s condition. Everybody’s pitched in to help out there and put this all together. We really appreciate that. We’re teammates for life, brothers. We know we really live it. It keeps him going so we really appreciate that.”
Iowa fan Marty Gallagher of “Talk To Me Technologies” donated a tablet to help Arnold communicate. Gallagher’s son, Ben, designed a white throwback Iowa T-shirt with “TFL (Teammates for Life)” inside the outline of the state and “Arnold” on the back with the number 30. The Hawkeyes wore those shirts in warmups at Northwestern last month. They will wear them Saturday against the Illini.
After a picture of the shirt debuted on Facebook, Henry said, “In about an hour about 100 people wanted the shirts.”
The support grew, as did the demand. Henry, Lester, former coach Lute Olson and others met with McCaffery at his home in December the night before before the Iowa-Iowa State game and discussed ways to help Arnold. Along with a groundswell of fan support, they opted for a “Whiteout” this weekend against Illinois with those shirts sold at blackandgoldshop.com. Proceeds will help support Arnold.
“It means a great deal because the guys we played with at Iowa, all of Kenny’s teammates have over the years, including Coach Olson, stepped up to help Kenny,” Lester said. “He’s doing as well as possible.”
McCaffery was proud to help facilitate Saturday’s event and support Iowa’s former players. That’s something he’s done throughout his career.
“Those guys sort of loving (Arnold) the way that they have and sort of continuing his legacy and making sure that people remember him and wish he could be here has helped,” McCaffery said. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to enable to him to do that, but he was here a couple years ago. He got a standing ovation. That was terrific. He was in the locker room with the guys.”
It’s not an act with McCaffery. It’s genuine. He played college basketball at Penn in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was at the Spectrum when the 1980 Hawkeyes beat Syracuse in the Sweet 16 and topped Georgetown 81-80 to advance to the Final Four.
“It’s important that your players not only know and understand, but like you said, appreciate those who came before, and we’re going to have a packed house on Saturday,” McCaffery said. “But the reason those people come is they’ve been coming for generations to watch this team play. And that’s what it’s all about.”
McCaffery embraces Iowa history, something neither of his immediate predecessors (Todd Lickliter and Steve Alford) did. Assistant coach Kirk Speraw was a graduate assistant on the 1980 team. Iowa freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon’s father, Gordy, was the quarterback on the Hawkeyes’ 1981 Rose Bowl squad. The players talk about the past as if it’s alive, not filed away in a cabinet.
“(My dad) used to say all the time how good Ronnie Lester was, how good Kenny Arnold was,” Jordan Bohannon said. “Coach Speraw was talking to us the other day about Kenny Arnold and his story. It just hits home with us with how good of a team they were and a lot of people stepped up in that road to the Final Four. It means a lot for us to honor him in this game.
“Once you get here, you realize what it means to play your heart out every single game. To have people like that (Arnold), who played through all the injuries, all the distractions that did what they needed to do on a day-to-day basis. It just puts it in a bigger picture for us and makes us realize how important each day is for us and not take each day for granted.”
“Just understanding we are the present of Iowa basketball, but that there’s a very rich history of Iowa basketball with past tournaments, coach Davis and past teams like that,” Iowa sophomore forward Nicholas Baer.” We’re trying to make a path for that in the future.”
That’s what makes this weekend special for former players like Henry. The way the current group celebrates Hawkeye history is special. The love Iowa fans show former players like himself is rare. The donations for Arnold and the adulation over a bygone era show the unique bond between the past and present.
“We really appreciative that,” Henry said. “It feels good to be a part of the program again, and we like to see them have a lot of success like we did. We feel like we’re a part of it.
“Fran has really gone out of his way to welcome all of us back. He’s mentioned it that coach Olson was his coaching idol. He really admired the way coach Olson ran the program here and the family atmosphere our group has, so I think he’s trying to emulate that with the current team and hopefully he can achieve the same success. We’ve always said our closeness off the court and on the court was a part of that, and coach McCaffery saw that.”