Smile Politely

A Timeless Moment, a Classic

Mary Henson and Lou Henson]

As I walked off the court, I thought, “What a waste of time. These guys drove all this way for nothing.”

And then I got it.

The Lou Henson investiture was not a made-for-teevee moment. It was not for my benefit.

All those old codgers, once nimble, who drove and flew collectively thousands of miles, did not travel for entertainment purposes. They stood silently by to dignify the lifetime of a single man whose 80 years earned their quiet respect.

Lou Henson looked old. The hitch in his gait suggested that he was being propelled by Mary, and not just stabilized by her. Still, for a guy his age who’s already survived cancer, that hitch serves as a reminder of Henson’s toughness. It’s the remnant of the viral encephalitis that paralyzed him … but literally could not keep him down.

That he moved slowly, that he moved with the aid of the gracious, beautiful woman whom he’s loved longer than any of you has lived ― these details compound the lump in the throat, the watery eyes.

Nothing brings me to tears more predictably than the credits sequence from Schindler’s List. The surviving Schindler Jews — ferried by the actors who portrayed them — and the offspring Schindler’s schemes allowed them to issue — pilgrimage to Oskar’s sarcophagus. The young aid the wizened in the laying of stones.

Lou’s moment, despite its 14,000 vocal observers, recalled that quiet solemnity.

Don’t scoff. Lou helped a lot of people over the years. Like Oskar, he made pretty good money doing it. At the end, like Oskar, he was run out of town gracefully retired.

Rod Cardinal swooped in at appropriate moments to direct Lou and Mary, who must have been overwhelmed by the swarming, jostling photographers — to say nothing of emotions. It’s unlikely that Mr. Cardinal will ever be honored so publicly, so dramatically, despite his decades of service to Illinois basketball, most recently the orchestration of this event.

So I’d like to say that I noticed. I got it.

I appreciated the choreography, the subtlety, the grace.


Fittingly, Lou’s night was punctuated by a career performance, and a signature win.

Brandon Paul’s 43 points merit substantial verbiage. I’ll leave it to others. He hit a lot of shots. He dazzled on defense.

I can’t analyze Brandon’s performance any better than myriad other observers. But because I have the special privilege of covering Illini basketball regularly, I can tell the side story.

I visit with the Paul family just about every game, and they’re nice enough to accommodate me. Tuesday night, I was in a position to observe them from afar, rather than in person.

I watched Lynda, Cliff, and Cliff on the monitor in the media room while changing batteries in my cameras. I watched Cliff Jr. go crazy when his little brother swatted a Buckeye shot-attempt into the third row. I watched Cliff Sr. double-take at the stats ticker, realizing his middle-son had already scored thirtysomething points. I watched Lynda, the most serious of the Pauls, but perhaps the most spiritual. Her hands balled to fists as her fervor nearly overcame her unceasingly professional countenance.

I told them a minute later, “You’re on teevee … a lot!” I intimated to Cliff Sr. that ESPN failed to capture his persona, entirely. He looked really stern on-screen. He’s actually very light-hearted.


When I think about this historic basketball game, years from now, I’ll probably remember that I was spitting-distance from That Shot. I will certainly remember the Paul family. I like it when good things happen to good people.



I enjoyed another brief moment of family time when I turned to find Illini cheerleader Emily Weber jumping into her dad’s arms as the Orange Krush stormed the court. Bruce poked fun at this celebratory scrum during his post-game press conference. (He judged it anemic.)

Bruce Weber can take heart from the night’s outcome. Whatever happens in the middle distance, he can rest assured that people will remember the good.

Lou Henson had some bad times, and eventually he was shown the door chose to retire of his own free will.

Weber’s tenure grew marginally stronger because Brandon Paul made impossible shots with Aaron Craft’s hand glued to his face. If he can get 43 points from a guy every night, he’ll be golden. If he can eek a 60% field goal from his teams, he can retire here at a date of his choosing.

The Ohio State game doesn’t change the narrative about Weber. His teams always win when they hit 60% of their shots. It happened a year and three days ago against Northwestern. More importantly, it happened a year and two weeks ago at Iowa. I’d forgotten what I wrote then, so I’m glad I looked it up. I wrote then what I’ll write now: this outcome does not affect the Weber analysis.

I’ve always been a critic of Dick Bennett’s Wisconsin teams. Yes, they got to the Final Four, but must I watch it? College basketball is entertainment. Old-school coaches might respect Weber’s rigid adherence to method, but if the masses stay away in droves …

Weber’s won/loss total has not maintained a level of respectability, post-Dee. But even the embarrassing losses are not as bad as the torture of watching Weber’s offense since 2006. Booing of Weber’s offense (please Meyers, don’t think it was aimed at the players) is unlikely when one guy hits impossible shots. In the long run, Weber’s tenure will depend on the frequency of those performances. In recent years, it’s been two per season.

He’s earned millions of dollars. His 2005 season will find him, someday, pulling a cord on a banner destined for the rafters. Don’t worry about Bruce Weber. He will always have a job, and a lot of admirers.


Whether this one game redeemed Bruce Weber in the eyes of disgruntled fans, uninterested observers, national media; it’s immaterial. Bruce Weber owes no apologies. He’s always been what he claims to be. (He was the only one hedging on this year’s expectations for tempo and bench play.)

Lou needed some redemption. His good name was sullied, and his career forever changed by a fast-talking Bostonian confidence trickster. Lou lived to see the day that his accuser was functionally banned from basketball. On Lou’s 80th birthday, Jimmy Collins, Deon Thomas and Aaron Craft were all one hand for the party.

Aaron Craft’s role in the proceedings will forever be remembered as foil to BP43. But Deon Thomas’s script remains unfinished.

On Tuesday, his gorgeous, stylish, acutely articulate wife Dafna and their beaming daughters Gabrielle and Liel burnished Deon’s formidable presence. But once again, it was Deon’s soft-spoken kindness, his unforced eloquence, which reminded that no matter what happens with Bruce Weber, we remember what happened with Lou Henson. We remember that it was good, and that it was right, and that we were wronged.

We remember that Deon Thomas was the tragic hero. Collectively, it’s our responsibility to elevate him to his due status: just plain hero.

It’s time.

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