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Coaches, former players remember Jud Heathcote as lifelong motivator

Jud Heathcote never stopped coaching his former players and assistant coaches.

And he never stopped haranguing them, laughing with them, listening to them, phoning them, taking their calls and giving them sage advice in their everyday lives.

Heathcote died Monday at age 90 and the basketball world Tuesday said thanks to the legendary coach who put an indelible stamp on the game and those fortunate to cross paths with him along the way.

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Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who led Heathcote-coached Michigan State to the 1979 national title over Larry Bird and Indiana State in a game that vaulted college basketball into unprecedented popularity, tweeted that Heathcote made him a “better person, player and champion. He turned a young kid into a man.

Johnson added that Heathcote “truly cared about me on and off the court.”

Hundreds, maybe thousands, could say the same thing.

“The most influential male figure in my life,” said Larry Winn, a standout for Heathcote at West Valley High in the early 1960s who went on to play at Rice. “Players either loved him or didn’t like him at all. The only thing I could say for people that didn’t like him is they couldn’t handle the truth.”

Heathcote drove players to become better than what they believed was possible. Some observers focused on his sideline eruptions but Don Monson, a Heathcote assistant at Michigan State, said the coach “knew when to be screaming mad and when to put his arm around you. He was very intelligent. He could analyze situations on the court and off.”

“He probably expected more out of us than we knew we had,” said Joe Pettit, who played at West Valley from 1958-60. “And he kept at us until he got it.”

Heathcote’s generosity was as big as his passion for winning. Winn recalled one West Valley student not involved in the basketball program repeatedly coming to gym class with shoes that were falling apart.

“He bought the kid a new pair of shoes,” Winn said. “That made a lasting impression on me.”

Monson believed in Heathcote so much, he packed his wife, three kids and dog into an Oldsmobile station wagon and drove from Pasco to East Lansing to join Heathcote’s MSU staff.

“I was reluctant at the time,” Monson said, “but it was the best move I ever made.”

A few years later, Monson landed the head coaching job at Idaho, and in the ensuing season Heathcote guided the Spartans to the national championship. Heathcote made sure Monson was in the first row behind MSU’s bench in Salt Lake City for the championship game.

Shortly after the family moved to Michigan, Monson’s ninth-grade son Dan was getting a rare chance to play in pick-up games monitored by Heathcote. Dan’s team held the court with three straight wins when Heathcote sent in a sub.

“This guy has a silk flowered shirt from the ’70s, polyester pants and white shoes. He’s skinny and I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” Dan said. “So I’m over on the sideline and I’m pissed and Jud comes over and as only Jud could do, he says, ‘You see that kid I put in for you? He’s the No. 1 high school kid in America and some day you’re going to say he went into a game for you so quit your damn pouting.’

“The classic thing about it is Jud just had a keen eye for talent and he knew Magic was going to be that special. He had so much wisdom and wit.”

The day before Johnson announced his commitment to Michigan State, Heathcote informed the Monson family of the exciting news, but they couldn’t tell anyone.

“I felt pretty special,” Dan said. “That was a hard secret to keep, but there was no way I’d ever betray Jud. I was in class the next day and they had Magic’s press conference live over the loudspeaker.”

Heathcote entered the collegiate level as an assistant at Washington State before turning around programs at Montana and Michigan State. His coaching tree was impressive, including MSU successor Tom Izzo, and Heathcote constantly watched games involving former aides and then placed calls to discuss what he’d seen.

When he retired in Spokane, he attended Gonzaga games and did the same with then-coach Dan Monson in the late 1990s and current coach Mark Few, occasionally huddling at Jack and Dan’s Tavern, co-owned by John Stockton’s father, Jack.

“Jud was first and foremost a good and loyal friend to me,” Few said. “He was also a great mentor to me and a large number of coaches who leaned on him in good times and tough times. He taught me that you could win at the highest level and still abide by all the rules and keep your core values intact. He was a fierce guardian of our game and stood for what was right. He also had an incredible sense of humor and delivery that could capture a room, and it is all those laughs together that I will remember the most.”

“We call him the Godfather of Montana basketball,” said former Montana, Colorado State and Utah State head coach Stew Morrill, who wasn’t a Heathcote assistant but got to know him on Converse-sponsored coaching trips. “Every time I talked to him, I’d hang up and tell my wife his mind was as sharp as ever.”

Don Monson said Heathcote was often a step ahead of opposing coaches. He called Heathcote the greatest guards coach in the history of college basketball.

“I don’t think you could put in writing how much you learn from somebody like that,” Monson said. “I’m sad, sad as can be, choked up a lot, but really proud that I was not only his assistant but one of his best friends.”