CORALVILLE — Several members of the 1980 Iowa men’s basketball team gathered Friday at FryFest, the annual festival before the first football game, for a panel discussion and autograph session for fans.
The last Hawkeyes to make the Final Four and win the Big Ten regular season title had plenty to say and stories to share, but not before a moment that left all of them emotional and without anything to say for a beat.
Ronnie Lester, Steve Waite, Mike Henry, Kevin Boyle and Bobby Hansen stood and applauded with the couple hundred fans as emcee and former Iowa sports information director Phil Haddy introduced Kenny Arnold. Arnold, the second-leading scorer on that Final Four team, was back for the first time in years.
The standing ovation brought a bright smile across his face and gave his teammates chills.
“I was fighting back tears up there,” Henry said. “He really responds to that. Sometimes he’s blown away people still remember and care about him.”
The 1980 team has reunited several times in the last year, far more often than they had in the many years previous, and Arnold is the primary reason why.
Effects of a brain tumor Arnold survived in his 20s left him unable to speak, but everyone who spends time with Arnold is quick to tell you he’s well aware of everything going on around him. As recently as last year, though, things weren’t looking great for Arnold. Henry said Arnold being in Iowa City on Thursday and Coralville on Friday to spend time with his teammates and be greeted by fans is something not everyone thought would be possible.
As much as the quality care he’s received has helped, Lester and Henry both said the time old friends have spent — as well as trips like FryFest — have reinvigorated Arnold.
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“At this time last year, we were actually talking hospice care for him,” Henry said. “To see the recovery he’s made, the will to live and to see him smile with the fans and teammates is the best gift I could get as a friend.”
Lester and the rest of the group shared all kinds of stories — Waite once again recounted his game-sealing three-point play against Georgetown — and more than a few laughs.
All of them mentioned Arnold in their stories.
Arnold’s impact on the court was substantial, sure. His 13.5 points per game were second to Lester’s 14.8 and helped keep the team afloat amid Lester — and several others — missing significant time due to injury. Arnold’s impact on his teammates personally, though, has been lasting.
“I think he needed all of his teammates to rally around him at different points,” Lester said. “The support he gets from his teammates and the support and love he gets from fans have kept him going.”
Among those in the crowd on Friday at FryFest, sitting just behind Arnold and among other members of that 1980 team was current Hawkeyes assistant Kirk Speraw.
Speraw was a graduate assistant on that team and was teammates with Arnold, Lester, Waite, Boyle and Henry the season before. Speraw got the same chills and emotions during the standing ovation at the start of Friday’s panel, but also got to see Arnold’s bright smile the day before, too.
Arnold visited the current Hawkeyes for a practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and the current players got to shake his hand and get to know the guy whose number they wore on their backs for the white out game last season.
Speraw said there are a few players on the current team who know very well what the 1980 team means to the program’s history and to its fans and educating newcomers is pretty easy — especially when they visit.
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Arnold lighting up like he did the last two days makes all the effort from his teammates more than worth it, they said.
“It was awesome (to have him there) and we got to tell our guys what he was all about and the struggles and fight’s he’s been through,” Speraw said. “That really lifts him up and means a lot to our guys. They appreciate getting to know the old Hawkeyes and the Final Four guys.
“There’s a lot to be learned from this group of guys and certainly we try to teach those lessons.”
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