There have been times in my nearly eight years of marriage to my wife when she has asked me why Iowa fans have such a strong bond and identity with their favorite team and school. She is not from this state, so I can understand where she is coming from. I have met many a sports fan from other states around this country and have rarely seen the level of loyalty, devotion and love that Iowa fans show to their beloved Hawkeyes.
The easiest way I know how to describe the bond is to say that it’s almost like the Hawkeyes are a member of your own family; you love them all the time, they can irritate you some of the time, but at the end of the day, family is family and those bonds last forever.
Such an outpouring of loyalty, devotion and love was on display Sunday in Ottumwa as the Second ‘Because We Can for Kenny Arnold’ Legends Game took place on a near picture-perfect Iowa spring day.
This event is set up to raise funds for the Kenny Arnold Trust, an account that helps Arnold battle through the after effects of a brain tumor that reduced him from 200-pounds down to 125-pounds in recent years.
Arnold is not in great health even today, but the man’s spirit seemed unbreakable as he was laughing throughout the two-hour event. Read more about Arnold's plight and the efforts to help him HERE.
Arnold arrived at the Indian Hills Community College gymnasium shortly before tipoff, and he was eagerly sought after by most in attendance.
Though there were more ‘heralded’ Hawkeye greats from the past on hand, such as Bobby Hansen and Greg Stokes, this was Arnold’s day.
If you will permit a very relaxed format breakdown of the days events, I will try to point out many of the highlights from the day as I witnessed them.
I arrived in Ottumwa around 9:30am and was given a brief rundown on the order of the program, as I served as the emcee for the event. I spoke with Tom Grogan, who I knew as a former quarterback on some of Hayden Fry’s earliest teams. Some people do not realize that Grogan was a member of the 1980 Final Four team and the 1982 Rose Bowl squad. Grogan went with Bill Synder to Kansas State back in the late 1980’s and has remained in Manhattan, Kansas since then.
I then met Greg Stokes for the first time, and the little kid in me has to admit that it was a very neat thing. Stokes is one of my all time favorite Hawkeye basketball players, my ‘first’ favorite that I ever had. We shared a few stories and moved onto breakfast.
At breakfast I met Clay Hargrave, a Hawkeye from 1976-1978. Hargrave led the Big Ten in rebounding in 1978 and I asked him if he truly was the shortest player ever to lead the league in that category. He said that he is 6-4, so there was a pretty good chance. He then added, ‘You could win a few drinks at a bar if you would bet someone on that trivia question.” I told him that the topic had actually surfaced online in recent weeks as Greg Brunner’s winning the rebounding title sparked the question. He seemed somewhat amused that his name would be surfacing on Internet websites some 28 years after he accomplished that feat. More on Hargrave and his generosity later on…
After brushing up on some bio aspects for the game introductions, as well as showing some of the players a few of the early 1980’s media guides I brought along from my collection (they were making fun of one another’s pictures for some time), we moved over to the locker room. Greg Stokes and Michael Payne were featured on the 1985-1985 media guide and each of them flashed a big grin when they saw the cover of that guide. “It’s been a long, long time since I have seen this,” Payne told me. “I was all of 200-pounds back then.”
Waymond King has the unique distinction of being the only former Hawkeye in attendance to actually look younger now than he did when he played. King had the heavy ‘Cheech Marin’ moustache back in the day, but has long since shaved that off. He honestly does look younger now than he did in 1984, something I cracked over the microphone during the game that seemed to get a laugh out of the close to 1,000 fans in attendance.
Stories were flying in the locker room, and a few Lute Olsen impersonations were taking place. Kevin Boyle and I shared a few stories about Iowa’s early 1980’s exhibition contests against the Russian National team. Some of our younger readers would not know that those games were a big, big deal back then, as the Cold War was still raging on between America and the Soviet Union. The Russian teams were very good clubs and the intensity level of those ‘exhibition’ games was very high; it was a patriotic event, sort of an ‘us verses them’ game. I still have some newspaper clippings from one of those meetings, picturing Boyle.
The topic of the 1980 Final Four came up, and Mike ‘Tree’ Henry talked about how he wished he had those games on tape. When he was told that he could not only get a copy of those games, but get them on DVD, his eyes lit up like a seven-year old on Christmas getting his first real bicycle. Henry’s positive and jubilant personality spills over into every one of his stories and conversations.
Mark Gannon is clearly the joker of the group, cracking everyone up in his self deprecating fashion. Weighing a few more pounds today than he did when he played, he left the locker room with his jersey tucked into his shorts that were pulled up nearly to his shoulders.
The players warmed up before the game began and before the fans began filling the seats. It was great to watch Greg Stokes shooting his one-handed, left-hand turn around baseline jump shots; the clock seemed to be spinning backwards.
All of the older players were hoping that Kurt Spurgeon and Ryan Luehrsmann were going to be on their teams, as they were the youngest players in the bunch. But once the game began, it was Mike Morgan and Kenyon Murray that did most of the damage. Murray looks as if he could still suit up and be a contributor at the high-major level. Waymond King also scored a lot of points from the perimeter.
Fast breaks were few and far between, and zone defense was the calling card of the day; no surprise there when the majority of the players were in their 40’s. Mike Henry is no longer quite the ‘Tree’ that he once was, and Al Lorenzen’s Vanilla Gorilla days are behind him; but the quality of the entertainment was not measured in pure basketball skill; the players know their current limitations and they had a great time in putting on a good show, which they did.
Kenny Arnold, not a coach of either team, called a timeout for the Gold Squad, drawing some laughs from all in attendance. Arnold called the play and Kenyon Murray would put the ball in the basket.
At halftime, Arnold, seated in a wheelchair after injuring his foot the night before, was positioned at mid court. He received a standing ovation that lasted for a very long time, and he was overcome with emotion; Arnold was very grateful for the love shown to him by the Iowa fans and his former teammates. He was presented with an autographed and framed jersey from all of the Hawkeyes in attendance. There were very few dry eyes in the house at this point.
During halftime, Kevin Boyle and Mark Gannon came over to me at the scorers table to see if I couldn’t talk someone into having a continuous running clock in the second half.
With 10 minutes left in the game, play was stopped for some drawings and an auction. A jersey that was signed by all in attendance was the first item auctioned off. Clay Hargrave got into a good natured and quite comical bidding war with an Iowa fan. He made his way into the crowd to speak with her and they arrived at a deal, in which she would get the jersey. He just wanted to touch it. It went for $700, the proceeds going to Kenny’s fund.
Hargrave later came over and told me that he would match the $700 fetching price from the jersey, a kind and generous tribute to Arnold.
Kinfolk’s BBQ of Altoona donated a catered meal for 50 people, and that also fetched a handsome sum. Hargrave joked that it would feed Mark Gannon and one other person.
The game played itself out with Mike Morgan, Kenyon Murray and Kurt Spurgeon throwing down a few dunks, with Waymond King almost getting one to go down.
At the game’s conclusion, I was pleased to announce that a check for no less than $17,000 would be made out to Kenny Arnold’s Trust, and there came another great round of applause and a standing ovation.
Mike Henry took the mic and thanked everyone for coming out; Henry lives in Deerfield, Illinois and was Arnold's room mate at Iowa. Mark Gannon also thanked the fans and took on a serious tone as he did so; Gannon has been one of the spearheads behind helping Kenny Arnold through his tough times.
Arnold requested the microphone and he thanked the state of Iowa for its love, and he asked that God would bless us all. It was short, likely as much as Kenny could muster, which made it all the more significant.
Aside from raising the money for Kenny and seeing how happy he was on this day, the best thing I saw was so many children watching this game with their parents who undoubtedly had fond memories of these Hawkeye greats. The kids stormed the court afterwards and were still getting autographs and pictures nearly 45 minutes after the event. The longest line was for Kenny Arnold, and there were children and adults alike.
For me, it was one of those days where I am very, very cognizant of just how fortunate and blessed I am to be doing what I am doing and to have been raised where being a Hawkeye fan was second nature.
This was one of those times where I felt like a kid in a candy store. Having interviewed countless head coaches in football and basketball through the years, including the likes of Bobby Knight, Coach K, Bill Self, Roy Williams, Kirk Ferentz, Joe Paterno and doing ‘Soundoff’ with Iowa legend Jim Zabel, it’s harder and harder for me to become ‘star struck’.
Sunday was one of those days for me, because I was just shooting the breeze with the very players from Hawkeye past that were my first ever contact and conduit into Hawkeye fandom. As a child, these guys were larger than life. The memory of my youth was as clear to me as a sunny spring morning in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains; Iowa basketball was my first Hawkeye affair.
I couldn’t tell you when I last asked for an autograph or to have my picture taken with someone…well, I couldn’t have told you that on Saturday. But as I was leaving the gym and getting ready to head home, I saw a kid getting his picture taken between The Twin Towers of Michael Payne and Greg Stokes.
I asked myself a quick and simple question; when are you ever going to pass this way again?
So I dropped my bag and asked the two leviathans from my youth if I could get a picture with them serving as the bookends. They obliged without batting an eye.
The guy that had been introducing them and cracking wise on the microphone all day turned out to be just another fan, like all the rest of the great fans in attendance on Sunday.
Not just fans; we’re all family, and always will be.
Thanks to Don Thompson for inviting me to emcee the event, thanks to Gary Dolphin for recommending me and thanks to all of the former Iowa greats and the fans that made this day, at least for me, on par with Tate to Holloway.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Many of you have emailed me asking how to contribute to Kenny Arnold’s Trust. You can certainly do this, and it would be greatly appreciated. Send your check or money order to the following address:
Kenny Arnold Trust
c/o US Bank
270 West Seventh Street
Dubuque, IA 52001
I can say to you without question that Kenny Arnold certainly would appreciate it and he has been overwhelmed with the support he has received to date. Kenny’s former teammates and Hawkeye family would also greatly appreciate your support.