Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends": Hawaii's Tom Henderson

July 14th, 2012

CHN writer Jon Teitel was able to spend some time with Hawai'i great Tom Henderson, who also played in three NBA Finals and won a title with the Bullets in 1978. Henderson was also a member of the 1972 U.S. National Team that was famously robbed of the gold medal in the 1972 Summer Olympics. 

Jon Teitel: You grew up in the Bronx and played for high school power DeWitt Clinton (alma mater of such NBA legends as Dolph Schayes and Nate Archibald). How big a deal was basketball at your high school?

Tom Henderson: It was a big deal. Ricky Sobers was also good but he did not go to school.

JT: You lost the 1968 PSAL title game to Boys High on a Dale Davis shot in the final seconds and the 1970 PSAL title game to Wingate by one. How frustrating was it to get so close and keep coming up short?

TH: Boys High was the largest school in the city and we were the second-largest. They had a great team but we were up by seven with under four minutes to play. Their baseball team showed up to our game with bats. The refs made a call and someone jumped out of the stands with a knife! We were up by 20 at halftime to Wingate...and then the bottom fell out in the second half. My high school coach was the best coach I ever had. He taught me all the fundamentals and made me appreciate defense.

JT: You started your college career at San Jacinto JC (where you averaged almost 30 points/game and were a two-time All-American) before transferring to Hawai'i. How were you able to be so dominant on the JC level, and why did you decide to go to Hawai'i?

TH: San Jacinto had some great players and I did not want to go to prep school for a year. I gained 25 pounds after three months of three good meals a day! We had great teams but could not get out of the regional in Texas. I looked at Long Beach State but Jerry Tarkanian was too open with the things he did. Hawai'i was great.

JT: In the 1972 Olympics you were the leading scorer for Team USA before the controversial one-point loss to the Soviet Union in the gold medal game. How devastating was that loss, and is that something that haunts you even today?

TH: When you are young you do not understand how politics are involved in basketball. As you get older you realize how these things come into play. I am at peace with it but we did not accept the silver medal because we felt that we were cheated. We had a 50-page protest after they took the ball out three times against us. It was devastating at the time but now I just roll with it. Our average age was 20 but our coach was 70, so we did not even understand a lot of his jokes. We had a hell of a team that mostly ended up being first round picks. We should have ran their asses back to Russia instead of passing the ball back and forth.

JT: In the 1974 NIT you scored a career-high 33 points in a loss to eventual champion Purdue. How were you able to play your best when it mattered the most?

TH: We beat them earlier that season in the Rainbow Classic, but they were a big team. I just took it upon myself to generate some offense but we could not stop them on defense.

JT: In the summer of 1974 you were drafted seventh overall by Atlanta (seven spots ahead of Maurice Lucas). Did you see that as a validation of your college career, or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA, or other?

TH: It was a dream come true. You never know how far you can go. I was the first guard picked in the draft.

JT: In 1977 you lead the league with 87 games played (second-most ever by an NBA player) and finished with 598 assista (fourth-most in the NBA, ahead of great guards like Kevin Porter and John Lucas). How exhausted were you by the end of that season, and what is the secret to being a great point guard?

TH: It took me two and a half years to get adjusted to the pace of the NBA after playing only 30 games a year in college, but after that I was very durable and consistent. I was fortunate to not have any serious injuries or operations. The key to playing point guard is to just make the players around you better. I would work with Mitch Kupchak before games and once he got into the game he was ready. I tried to be like a coach on the court, move the ball around to whoever was hot, and keep everyone happy. When you watch an NBA game keep an eye on who wants the ball in the final minute. I wish more coaches would just let their players run.

1978 NBA Finals (with the Washington Bullets)

JT: In Game 3 you stole an inbounds pass from Dennis Johnson with 10 seconds left and scored to cut the Sonics' lead to one before Bob Dandridge missed a shot at the buzzer. How were you able to steal the ball from a Hall of Famer, and did you think Dandridge's shot was going in?

TH: I thought the shot was going in. We knew we were in a dogfight, so we were just hoping it would go seven games.

JT: DJ went 0-for-14 from the field in Game 7 as you won the title with the Bullets. What did it mean to you to win the title, and what was the reaction like when you got back to D.C.?

TH: The Kingdome had a record crowd of about 39,000...but since it holds 80,000 it was not as loud as you would think. We did not have a single bottle of champagne waiting in the locker room because nobody had faith that we would win the game. DJ was talking a lot of noise in the newspaper the day before. We scored in the final five seconds of each quarter and I knew that we were ready. It was great in D.C. because they had never won a title before. I had finally reached the top of my field and gotten over the hump, and to be the starting point guard was very important to me. We went to Sonics guard Freddie Brown's house at 2 AM and made him celebrate because we were friends and had made a pact.

1979 NBA Playoffs (with the Washington Bullets)

JT: In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals Dandridge made the game-winning 16-foot jumper with eight seconds left and then Elvin Hayes got his seventh block of the night on a James Silas shot to clinch the series. Where does that rank among the most exciting finishes to a series that you have ever seen?

TH: We were down 3-1 in the series and came all the way back to win the final three games. George Gervin was tough but Silas was a monster. We would just keep hitting Gervin as he ran through picks: by the third quarter he stayed outside and took jump shots. I was a physical player but not a dirty player.

JT: In a rematch of the 1978 Finals the Sonics beat you in five games as DJ redeemed himself by being named Finals MVP. How hard is it to win back-to-back titles, and how frustrating was it to be injured during this series?

TH: I twisted my knee earlier that year so I was just dragging my leg by the time we got to the Finals. The Sonics changed things up when they got Lonnie Shelton, and it was just their turn.

1981 NBA Playoffs (with the Houston Rockets)

JT: Calvin Murphy (the shortest player in the league) scored 42 points in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals to upset the Spurs. How big a deal was it to beat your in-state rival, and was it just one of those scenarios where every shot Murphy put up seemed to go in because he was "in the zone"?

TH: Calvin was in the zone and they could not figure out how to stop him. He was one of the greatest scorers I have ever seen along with Pete Maravich and Rick Mount.

JT: In the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Finals Larry Bird made his famous follow-up shot of his missed jumper by catching the ball in mid-air with his right hand, switching the ball to his left hand and flipping it into the basket. Was that the most unbelievable individual move you have ever seen?

TH: He made a good shot but in the NBA you see people make good shots every year. We should have left Boston up 2-0 instead of tied 1-1. They were worn down from playing Philly in the previous series and I think we might have been able to beat them, but they had a good team with a lot of talent.

JT: This was your third NBA Finals in a four-year span. What is the secret to winning games in the playoffs?

TH: The key is to get a game plan and then stick with it. There might be ten good point guards in the NBA right now. They are a dying breed. Deron Williams is a good point guard but he was a shooting guard in college. You have to control the tempo and dictate the pace of the game.

Henderson is also on Jon's list of the best pro players in WAC history. (editor's note: Hawai'i is now a member of the Big West, and Fresno State and Nevada are now in the Mountain West.)

Fresno State: Ron Anderson (1985)
Hawai'i: Tom Henderson (1975)
Idaho: Gus Johnson (1964)
Louisiana Tech: Karl Malone (1986)
Nevada: Ramon Sessions (2008)
New Mexico State: Sam Lacey (1971)
San Jose State: Darnell Hillman (1972)
Utah State: Nate Williams (1972)