A conversation with Larry Henson brings you back to the glory days of basketball at Waterloo High School.
“Back then, basketball games were a social event,” the 82-year-old legendary former WHS hoops coach recalled. “The whole community came to see the team. That gym was packed! Then we’d have a party somewhere after every home game, win or lose.”
Henson, who along with former WHS hoops great Bill “Rocky” Huff-Moore was inducted this year into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, won a school record 168 games as coach of the Bulldogs from 1968 to 1980, including a regional title in 1974-75.
Henson is an inaugural member of the WHS Athletic Hall of Fame.
As a 6-foot-5 forward, a young Henson was an all-stater at Flora High School who averaged 25 points per game. That led to him playing college hoops and earning a teaching degree at Murray State University.
Henson went on to play for the high-flying Waterloo Hi-Fi’s independent men’s hoops team from 1960-63, then with the Orland Park Merchants of the Chicago area from 1964-68 and with the East St. Louis Sinovics, which won the national YMCA title in 1969.
His coaching career began at Mascoutah High School in 1960, where he was an assistant basketball and baseball coach and eventually coached tennis.
In 1963, he became head hoops coach at Murray High School in Kentucky.
He was an assistant hoops coach and tennis coach at Carl Sandburg High School near Chicago when he heard the head basketball coaching position was open at WHS in 1968. He remembered Waterloo’s love of basketball from playing with the Hi-Fi’s and coaching at Mascoutah.
It was a highly sought after job, Henson said, with reports of up to 100 applicants.
“It was a basketball-minded town,” Henson said of Waterloo. “I really wanted the job. I got it, and the rest is history.”
In addition to Henson’s storied WHS hoops coaching legacy, he coached cross country, track, tennis and girls hoops at the school and eventually served as athletic director until 1993.
Some of the top players that came to mind for Henson while he was coach included 1973 grad Huff-Moore – who he said was his top overall player – and 1969 grad Mike Cheney.
“Mike was a hell of a shooter and hell of a ball handler,” Henson said. “He could shoot, brother.”
As for his top teams, Henson first talked about his 1970-71 squad that went 16-8 despite being picked to win only six or seven games. The Bulldogs won their own round robin tournament that season.
“The unexpected success of that team, with the size we had and what we did, I thought was an accomplishment,” he said. “We played smart. No turnovers.”
Allen Hirsch, at 6-foot-tall, was the tallest player on the 1970-71 team. Other players included Lee Eggemeyer, Allan Mueller, Randy Osterhage, Steve Nicholson, Kevin Kohlmeier, Billy Pottoff, Buddy Kettler and Gary Hirstein.
“We worked hard. We did not take bad shots. We did pick-and-rolls. We had special plays on offense,” Henson said. “On defense, we checked off because we had to. There was a way to play defensively and we practiced it. We pressed probably three-fourths of every game. They bought into it.”
One key game Henson specifically remembers from that season is a low-scoring December win over a tough Mascoutah squad that had players listed at 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-6.
In February, Henson’s Bulldogs lost in the final seconds to an East St. Louis Assumption squad led by 6-foot-10 Rick Suttle, who went on to star at the University of Kansas and play professionally.
Henson’s shining moment came in 1974-75, when the Bulldogs went 18-6 and won the regional title at home over cross-town rival Gibault. Waterloo has not won a regional crown since.
The offensive and defensive schemes were similar to the 1970-71 squad, Henson said.
“We did not press like in 1970-71,” Henson recalled. “It was a good half court defensive team.”
Henson’s teams ran a “shuffle” offense, meaning – as the coach put it – “certain guys got the ball at certain times.”
The 1974-75 squad was led by 6-foot-5 center Steve Frank, who Henson said was a good 15-foot shooter. Other team members were Rick Shilliday, Mike Nobbe, Darryll Beard, Mike Caywood, Bret Ries, Mark Yeager, Joe Keeling, Dave Maag and Russ Wolf.
Shilliday ran the point, Henson said, and Ries “sure could take a charge.”
The team placed second in the conference to Lebanon and won the Sparta Mid-Winter Classic consolation championship.
Henson remembers his players shooting free throws before school in the morning and showing a dedication to winning.
“We practiced hard, with a lot of emphasis on conditioning,” Henson said. “I know they didn’t like it, but they respected it.”
While his 1972-73 squad doesn’t rank up there with the other teams mentioned, Henson said that squad led by Huff-Moore and Denny Davis topped Lovejoy – led by future Kansas State standout Darryl Winston – in the semifinals of the Freeburg Christmas Tournament before falling to eventual state champ Venice in the tourney final.
“It was a real feather in our cap to get into the finals of that tournament,” Henson said.
Overall, Henson said he tried to build upon a tradition of basketball success at WHS.
“We made sure the gym was a special place for home games and that the kids had nice uniforms,” he said. “We’d use a red carpet and had the chairs painted orange and black. We just tried to make it special for the guys.”
Henson said he doesn’t remember any of his WHS teams ever losing by 20-25 points.
“We’d slow the game down or press to offset their abilities,” he said.
Looking back on his legacy, Henson said it’s an honor to be included in the company of greats as a member of the WHS and IBCA halls of fame.
“I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to do it,” Henson said. “There’s just so many great memories.”