Craig Henderson sat in the bleachers, beaming. A beloved family man in the throes of pancreatic cancer, he cheered as the gymnasium at Park Center High School echoed around him in an unrelenting chant to get his son, Mykeal, out on the basketball court.
One of Henderson’s dying wishes was to see his son, then a ninth-grader playing JV ball, suit up for a varsity game. Coaches and administrators at the Brooklyn Park school made it happen.
Fans wearing purple ribbons and T-shirts to honor Henderson and raise awareness of pancreatic cancer let out a raucous cheer when Mykeal hit the court in the game’s final minutes. Though the hometown Pirates were losing mightily, the crowd roared as Mykeal scored on a layup and a short time later sank a jumper from the top of the key.
“He was very, very proud. I could see the gleam in his eye,” said Mitchell McDonald, a childhood friend of Henderson’s who wrote an account of last year’s game for the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder.
“But just like a typical dad,” McDonald said with a knowing chuckle, “he says to me after Mykeal hit that shot: ‘He needs to get his elbow in a little more.’ ”
Henderson died Feb. 3, about 18 months after his cancer was diagnosed. He was 50.
Henderson grew up in St. Paul and could play a mean game of hoops himself. He and McDonald met in the ninth grade at a basketball camp and forged a lasting friendship that carried on after they graduated from Central High School. McDonald, who was an usher in Henderson’s wedding, knew instantly after meeting his friend’s new love-interest, Lorrie, at a barbecue, that theirs was the real deal.
Lorrie needed a little more convincing.
“We dated a few times and he asked me to marry him,” she said. “I told him we had nothing in common. But a couple of months later we were engaged.”
He was 24, she was 22. They had a five-year engagement because Henderson insisted on finishing college so he could support his family.
With birthdays just five days apart, the couple found a Saturday that fell in between, and married on Aug. 12, 1995. He named their daughter Vanessa Viola, after his mother, who died of stomach cancer when he was a teenager. He went with a nontraditional spelling on his son’s name so no one would call him, “Mike.” (He also wanted to make Mykeal’s middle name Jordan, but Lorrie could only tolerate Henderson’s sporting passions so much, and nixed that notion.)
Henderson turned the garage in their Brooklyn Center home into a flashy Minnesota Vikings playhouse. The walls were a deep purple, accented with a gold stripe around the perimeter. He hung framed posters and memorabilia in neat rows, and set up a card table and chairs for his buddies to join him around the TV on game days.
During recent annual fishing competitions with his cousins, Henderson always claimed victory — “whether he got it or not,” Lorrie joked.
Henderson was a slender, 5-foot-9 man, whose deep, genial laugh could have belonged to someone much larger.
“He had infectious laughter,” said Susie Manirath, a co-worker at Twin Cities Orthopedic in Golden Valley, who threw an event that raised almost $4,000 to help cover Henderson’s medical expenses. “Everyone knew him and joked with him. But he was a family man. He didn’t spend a lot of time at work socializing. He prided himself on his work ethic.”
In December, he was feeling strong enough to go on a Bahamas cruise with Lorrie, something she said had been on their bucket list after nearly 21 years of marriage.
“What I appreciated at the end was that he was able to stop and smell the roses, not sweat the small stuff,” she said. “He spent more time with the kids. We laughed more. We held hands. We made time because we knew our time was short.”
Services have been held.