(USA TODAY) TUCSON, Ariz. -- To this day, Mark Gannon is convinced the 1980 Iowa basketball team would have beaten NCAA champion Louisville in the national semifinals that year if star guard Ronnie Lester had not reinjured his knee eight minutes into the game. But that haunting loss no longer consumes him or any of his Hawkeye teammates. Kenny Arnold does.
A quarter-century after its magical run to the Final Four under coach Lute Olson, that overachieving team of youthful dreamers is beating the odds again -- this time as middle-aged men reaching out to a stricken teammate who had fallen through the bureaucratic cracks of government and medical assistance.
In college, Arnold was a 6-2, 200-pound guard, part of that Hawkeyes team that staged a late-game rally without Lester, only to fall short, in an 80-72 loss. In 1985, however, Arnold underwent surgery for a malignant brain tumor and had chemotherapy and radiation treatment at the University of Iowa. Arnold recovered, but his physical condition began to deteriorate again several years ago.
When Arnold reluctantly attended the team's 25-year anniversary reunion in Iowa City last January, former teammates barely recognized him: He looked frighteningly frail at 120 pounds. His condition triggered another rally.
"We're playing a different game now," says Gannon, 44, a 6-6 freshman forward on that team. "And it's much more important to us."
In the past year, the Hawkeyes, all in their mid- to late-40s, have raised almost $40,000 to defray medical costs and ease the financial burden on Arnold's 76-year-old mother, who cares for her son in the same South Side Chicago home where Olson recruited him out of high school. Former teammates hired an attorney, who won disability benefits that Arnold was refused in the early 1990s.
The team members lined up doctors from Arizona to Illinois to evaluate Arnold's condition and set up their friend in a Chicago rehabilitation center, where he received physical and speech therapy.
Mike "Tree" Henry, Arnold's roommate in college and the 6-9 forward who literally had to carry his buddy last March into the office where Olson now coaches at the University of Arizona, says it's the "biggest game" his Hawkeyes have faced. "And we're winning this one," he says.
Physically, Arnold is still fragile. Although he weighs 160, no longer suffers seizures and says he "feels good," he limps with a cane, speaks haltingly and gets confused at times. However, at a holiday reunion at Olson's home in Tucson in late December, Arnold flashed that infectious smile that first galvanized this team 25 years ago.
"We were close then," says Arnold, "but we're closer now. I've been blessed. I can't put into words what they've done for me."
His mother, Lena, can. "It's amazing. It's fantastic. It's wonderful," she says. "To make it short, it's L-O-V-E. Love, that's what it is. They're all so involved."
When team members gathered at last January's Iowa home game against Wisconsin to reminisce the 25-year anniversary of their Final Four run, their mood swung in another direction after Arnold arrived. Arnold, who originally had said he wouldn't attend, dragged his right leg and was forced to sign autographs with his left hand.
"When we saw him, we hardly recognized him," says Gannon. "He looked like he was going to die."
They had kept in touch with Arnold and each other through the years and had occasionally seen one another. But not in recent years. None was aware of Arnold's deteriorating health.
"I'd call and ask how he was doing, and he always said, 'I'm OK, I'm OK,' " says Henry, who lives in Deerfield, Ill., about 40 miles from Arnold's home. "I took him at his word."
However, Lester sensed something awry when Arnold begged out of the reunion. Lester, an assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Lakers, flew to Chicago and drove Arnold to the reunion, where his condition shocked teammates.
"We looked at each other like, 'How could this happen?' " says Henry. "We kicked ourselves for not following up closer. Kenny said he didn't want to burden us. We told him, 'We're family,' and everybody jumped on board."
In the ensuing months, Gannon, the only team member living in Iowa City, organized the fundraising effort for the Kenny Arnold Trust through the US Bank in Dubuque, Iowa. A memorabilia auction held at an Iowa City bar in May generated almost $13,000. "We're making it," says Arnold's mother.
Until the team stepped forward, she made ends meet with her Social Security check and help from her other six sons and daughters.
Henry and former team manager Bob Gardner spearheaded the medical care. In March, Olson flew Henry and Arnold into Tucson. There, David Alberts, head of the Arizona Cancer Center and the specialist who treated Olson's first wife, Bobbi, who died in 2001, allayed the Hawkeyes' worst fears: Arnold was not suffering from a recurrence of cancer. Tests revealed that outdated medication caused his seizures, weight loss and muscle deterioration.
After Arnold returned to Chicago, a Northwestern doctor prescribed a rehabilitation program, which is overseen by Henry and Gardner. They also hired an attorney, who won Arnold's disability benefits. The team effort, the old Hawkeyes say, is nothing new. That's how they played.
"Everybody is digging in, doing whatever it takes to get it done," says Henry, 46, who works for Xerox. "That's what got us to the Final Four. We weren't the most talented team, but we were close-knit."
Olson, who coached nine years at Iowa before moving to Arizona in 1983, says his first Final Four team was special from the start. They bonded quickly, their relationship cemented by a series of hurdles that tested their resolve.
In the eighth game of the season, Lester, their best player and point guard, injured his knee against Dayton. He wouldn't return until the final game of the regular season. Arnold, a quiet sophomore, moved from shooting guard to the point but played most of the season with a broken right thumb.
That same season, assistant coach Tony McAndrews was in a near-fatal plane crash returning from a recruiting trip.
"They had a lot of adversity," says Olson, "but they were a tough-minded group that lived through it."
They finished the regular season 19-8 but made the 48-team NCAA field. "We were lucky," says Olson.
Underdogs from the start, the Hawkeyes traveled east and beat Virginia Commonwealth and North Carolina State. In the East Regional, they stunned Syracuse and Georgetown. That sent them to the Final Four in Indianapolis, where they lost to Louisville in the semis and Purdue in the consolation game.
That ended that season but not the team. "We've always been there for each other," says Henry.
Even now, Gannon, in the mortgage business, says Arnold is there for them, as well. "Kenny makes the mistake of thinking we've done a lot for him, but he's done more for us. He's the teacher. We're the students. He just doesn't realize that."
Vince Brookins, a 6-5 forward who is in the distribution business in Cleveland, says Arnold is an inspiration. At the reunion, Brookins, 47, says he shared with Arnold some personal difficulties he was having; his old teammate grabbed his hand and led him in prayer.
"Here he is, in the worst situation he's ever been in, and we start to pray and he's praying for everybody else," Brookins says.
He pauses as tears well in his eyes. "That is what a team is all about -- thinking more than just about yourself."