Hall of Fame Coach plays the cards he’s dealt
Henson has crossed this ‘bridge’ before
By SUSIE OUDERKIRK
Las Cruces Bulletin
New Mexico State University basketball coaching legend Lou Henson believes the card game of bridge is truly a game for life. The Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame coach, who, with his wife Mary, divides his year between Champaign, Illinois and Las Cruces, spends four to five days each week playing bridge.
About ten years ago, while recuperating from an illness, Henson discovered the Belton Bridge Center on Madrid Street.
“Some old friends were running the games and others were playing there regularly and encouraged me to join,” he said. “I have come to know so many wonderful people there.”
But what attracted one of the winningest basketball coaches in history to the sit-down game of bridge?
“Our earliest bridgeplaying days began as young parents,” Henson said. “First with a Las Cruces High history teacher and his wife and next with the Sun News sports editor, the late Abe Perilman and his wife, Belle. They taught us the rudiments of bridge and after that we joined a group of other broke parents taking turns at each other’s homes where we’d bring our kids, feed them tacos or spaghetti, let them play outside until bedtime, and then put them down on pallets so they’d eventually drift off to sleep.”
One couple in Henson’s group of Las Cruces friends, Keith and Evelyn Gwaltney Colson, “knew how to play bridge and continued to teach the game to us. Not only did we learn to love the game, but we had fun learning with the others and came to love them and their kids.”
Since retirement, Henson, who is the all-time winningest coach in basketball at both NMSU and the University of Illinois, spends anywhere from eight to 16 hours a week at a bridge table.
“Bridge is not only a great game for seniors to play, but for everyone who enjoys a challenge,” he said.
And the coach knows about challenges. One of the most memorable seasons in Henson’s coaching career came during the 1998-99 campaign, according to an NMSU press release. Henson joined an elite club that consists of just 12 other head coaches in NCAA Division I annals, as he tallied his 700th career victory on Feb. 25, 1999. Just six weeks earlier, on Jan. 9, Henson had earned his 200th victory as head coach of New Mexico State. That same season, NMSU posted a 23-10 regular season record, tying for first-place in the Big West eastern division. NMSU went on to win the Big West Conference Tournament and make the NCAA Tournament.
“When I was coaching full time,” Henson said, “I could rarely play bridge due to time constraints. My interest was renewed about ten years ago when I was recovering from viral encephalitis. My wife and I were in my rehab facility room playing a little game of gin when my nurse came in. She was so happy to see us playing cards and told us then that if a person didn’t exercise one’s brain like one does the body, the brain would fail before the body.”
Henson’s brain had been inflamed and swollen due to the effects of the virus, and he had to work harder than most to recover. After about six months, he had regained most mental and physical functions (except for partial paralysis of his right leg) and had ditched the wheelchair for a cane.
“It was not too long after that when I began playing bridge at the Belton Bridge Center.”
Basketball and bridge hold several common denominators, Henson said. “It takes only rudimentary knowledge to begin enjoying the game, but great dedication and practice to become adept. Both games will provide a high level of stimulation, competition, and enjoyment.”
Henson believes he is maintaining his mental sharpness as best he can in his older years.
“Studies have found that people who play bridge regularly are two-anda- half times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease,” he said. “To me, that’s a very good reason to be playing this great game. But one other terrific reason is to just have fun with friends.”
As evidenced by his and Mary’s personal experience, “bridge is truly a game for life. Emotionally, it will take you from the depths to the mountaintop and back. You will never be bored.”
As any good coach knows, regardless of the number of years one has played the game, “one can continue learning, improving and actively enjoying this pastime throughout an entire lifetime,” he said.
From left, Patsy Hackler, Linda Spengler, Lou Henson and Evelyn Colson take a moment to smile for the camera before digging into an afternoon of bridge at the Belton Bridge Center, 1214 Madrid Ave., on Oct. 7.
BULLETIN PHOTO BY SUSIE OUDERKIRK