HOUSTON — Two stories I came across this week covering the Final Four reveal the duality and the depth of Oklahoma basketball coach Lon Kruger.
The first came from soon-to-be former Sooner assistant Steve Henson and shows just how misunderstood Kruger’s competitive nature is.
Henson recalled a visit to Kruger’s Florida home when Kruger was coaching the Gators. Henson had just finished playing professionally and was “in pretty good shape” while Kruger had hung up the high tops decades earlier.
Kruger had a mini gymnasium, about a half-court, Henson said, and Kruger invited him to “go shoot a little bit.” It began innocently enough, with Henson talking to his old coach about life and basketball, and soon it became a game of “Follow the Leader,” wherein Kruger takes a shot and Henson takes the same shot.
“He’d win 10 to 9, I’d win 10 to 8, and we’d finish the game and go again, go again, go again,” Henson said. “We stopped twice. We stopped once because he had to put a new pair of shoes on. He was bleeding through his sock. So Mrs. Kruger brought him a new pair of socks and a Band-Aid. And then we stopped one other time for a drink of water. We ended up shooting for 3 hours and 15 minutes.”
Kruger is widely regarded as one of the sporting world’s nicest guys, but you don’t get to be a two-time Big Eight champion and two-time Big Eight player of the year if you’re not cut-throat competitive.
“Most competitive guy I’ve ever been around,” Henson said. “And people don’t understand that. They won’t accept that because he doesn’t throw a fit and rant and rave.”
And yet, the other side of Kruger is that of a tender, compassionate citizen of the world, a 63-year-old doting grandpa and loving husband who still tries to spoil Barb, his wife of more than 40 years.
Former OU and Major League pitcher Mark Redman’s in-laws are alive and well, but their Claremore home was leveled by Wednesday’s tornadoes.
Deeply devoted Sooner fans, Richard and Sandra Swan don’t have a living room in which they can watch today’s Final Four showdown between the Sooners and Villanova Wildcats, but on Friday, they did receive a phone call from their favorite basketball coach wishing them well.
Kruger’s phone call made Sandra’s day in a time of intense horror, fear and uncertainty.
“That just shows what kind of man Lon Kruger is,” said former Sooners coach Sunny Golloway, who helped the family clean up after the storm. “He called her on his way to practice, when they were going to shootaround.
“Yeah, he’s ultra-competitive, but he doesn’t let it come out of his mouth.”
Said Henson, “Bad plays bother him. They pain him. Selfishness, more than anything, hurts his soul. He hates seeing selfishness. His objective every day is try to help our guys play great basketball and win ballgames. He’s extremely competitive. He just doesn’t let it show the way some people do.”
So who won that “Follow the Leader” game back in Gainesville? Nobody seems to recall for certain, but it sounds like Kruger ended up on top, or at least drew even at the end when both men hit 10 out of 10.
“I don’t know,” Henson said. “No, he probably did. Shoot, it was his game, his house. And we stopped when he was ready to stop, I know that. So that’s probably why we were still playing. He wasn’t gonna let me out of there if I won the last game, yeah, I’m sure.”
“Probably took that long because I was probably behind most of the way,” Kruger said, “and we had to keep going to get a chance to catch up.”