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NM governor’s letter to Hall of Fame: Time to honor Lou Henson

New Mexico State basketball coach Lou Henson goes over strategy with his players in the locker room before for their game against Denver on Feb. 5, 2004. (Albuquerque Journal file photo/Jim Thompson)

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham hit the campaign trail this week.

But in this case, for this cause, there isn’t likely to be much division or pushback in New Mexico, even from rivals of both sides of the state’s basketball rivalry.

On Thursday, the governor penned a letter to John Doleva, President and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., pushing for former NMSU Aggies coach Lou Henson, who passed away last month, to be considered for induction into the sport’s premier historical institution — not only for his wins on the court, but his groundbreaking push to desegregate the sport.

FULL LETTER: Read the full letter from Gov Michelle Lujan Grisham at bottom of article.

“I imagine it is rare for a governor to involve herself in the matter of who is and is not honored at your distinguished facility,” Lujan Grisham’s two-page letter opened. “But I feel strongly enough about Lou Henson, and his legacy of leadership on the sideline and in my proud home state, that I am compelled to write you and kindly ask that you forward my recommendation of his qualifications for induction to the appropriate screening committee for consideration.”

Henson, born in Okay, Okla., coached Las Cruces High to three state titles before becoming a college coach, leading the NMSU Aggies to the 1970 Final Four. He racked up 779 career college coaching victories with stints at Hardin-Simmons, twice with the Aggies and with Illinois, where he coached the Illini to the 1989 Final Four.

His presence along with Bob King at UNM and Don “The Bear” Haskins at UTEP helped establish the three schools in the Rio Grande corridor as basketball-first universities since the 1960s, each program establishing recognition for some time on a national level.

So impressed with Henson was King, the former UNM head coach once offered him an assistant coaching job on the Lobos’ bench. Henson took a head coaching job, instead, at Hardin-Simmons and later was quoted in a 1970 Associated Press article of King’s offer, “If I had known then how much basketball I could have learned from (King), I would have taken his offer.”

Henson’s job at Hardin-Simmons — one in which he accepted only on the condition the university would integrate the basketball team and he could hire a Hispanic assistant coach — is noted in the Lujan Grisham letter, as was Henson’s hiring as an assistant coach in 1969 of Hobbs native and former Aggie player Rob Evans, who went on the be a successful Division I head coach himself at multiple schools.

“He was about winning and equitable opportunity for all,” the letter states. “Those two things were not mutually exclusive for Coach Henson.”

The letter adds Henson “brought a streak of fairness and equity to the world of college basketball at a time when that was extremely controversial.”

Henson was inducted in 2015 into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and the court at both NMSU and Illinois, where he is the all-time wins leader of both programs, bears his name.

Lujan Grisham’s letter concludes with one last, emphatic pitch for Henson:

“His tremendous success as a coach, his push to desegregate the sport and his unwavering sportsmanship and kindness, in equal measure, qualify Lou Henson for consideration as one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, and I respectfully ask that his career and legacy be considered for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.”

Gov. Lujan Grisham letter on Lou Henson by Albuquerque Journal on Scribd

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