Former Utah Runnin’ Ute, who received a heart transplant from a BYU football player, dies at 74

Kenny Gardner is top-10 all time in three statistical categories in Utah men’s basketball history.

(Salt Lake Tribune File Photo) U of U basketball player Ken Gardner

Kenneth Kay Gardner, one of Utah men’s basketball’s top all-time players, died last week. He was 74.

No cause of death was listed, but an obituary for the former Runnin’ Ute said he died at home, surrounded by family.

Gardner, an Odgen native who went by Kenny, played for the Runnin’ Utes from 1968-71 before getting drafted by the Phoenix Suns five years before the NBA-ABA merger. He ended up fifth all-time in rebound average (11.3) eighth in total rebounds (892) and 10th in scoring average (16.3 points).

“We mourn the passing of former Runnin’ Ute Kenny Gardner, and send our deepest condolences to the Gardner family and their loved ones,” the Utah basketball program posted on X.

An injury delayed his professional basketball career, but he eventually starred for the French team Berck Basket Club. He won French National Championships in 1973 and 1974, and was twice named the best foreign player in France.

After France, Gardner went to Nice, Italy, to play for the Nice Basket Club. He was there three seasons.

Gardner also briefly played for the ABA’s Utah Stars before the league folded in 1976.

Gardner played multiple sports at Clearfield High School, including baseball, basketball and football. He was an All-State athlete in baseball and football, and an All-American in basketball.

Colleges recruited Gardner for all three sports, but he chose to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Vern and play basketball at Utah.

Later in life, Gardner, battled several health issues. He had two hip replacements. He survived a heart attack and underwent a five-way bypass surgery. In 2013, he received a heart transplant from former BYU football player Nick Longshore, who died in an ATV accident.

“So I’m a Ute with a BYU heart,” Gardner said in 2020.

After the transplant, he became close with Longshore’s wife and daughter and started the Hearts 4 Hearts Scholarship Foundation.

Throughout his life, Gardner coached his children in sports. He also coached AAU basketball teams in Utah that won titles and spent a year at East High School coaching the freshman basketball team in the 1989-90 season.

Garnder, who was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is survived by his his sister Bonnie Budd; brothers Terry and Steven Gardner; Mary Peterson, mother of his four oldest children; Nancy Lile, mother of his two youngest children; and his children Nate, Josh, Liz Jaggi, Baily Sklavounos and Taylor Donaldson. He is also survived by 15 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.