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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  National sports

John Blanchette: Jud Heathcote cared enough to ‘coach up’ everyone he knew

Basketball coach Jud Heathcote’s career began at West Valley High School, and included stops at Washington State and Montana before he finally landed at Michigan State, where he coached 19 seasons and won an NCAA title. (File / SR)
Basketball coach Jud Heathcote’s career began at West Valley High School, and included stops at Washington State and Montana before he finally landed at Michigan State, where he coached 19 seasons and won an NCAA title. (File / SR)

The phone rang at, oh, 7 a.m., or roughly about two hours after the college party I was hoping to sleep off had staggered to its finish.

Even before I reached for the receiver – rotary phones in those days, people – dread had already pierced the fog.

It would be Jud Heathcote on the line, and he would be pissed and he would be loud and he would be caustic. Worst of all, he would be right.

He was coaching basketball at the University of Montana then, and coaching up the campus and the city of Missoula to embrace the game when played with passion and smarts, as he demanded. I was a long-haired college kid moonlighting part time at the daily newspaper, and before joining the party the night before I’d written a snarky headline with a hot-button reference that would spatter some mud on UM’s athletic department. Gratuitous doesn’t begin to describe it, since the story wasn’t about Montana at all.

“Has all that hair started growing inside your brain instead of out?” was Jud’s good-morning salvo through the phone.

After that, it got worse. Also better.

Hanging up, I would think of his players and muse, “So this is how it feels.”

♦  ♦  ♦

You have to be able to reach people, and maybe this was Jud Heathcote’s special gift. Yes, he knew basketball, but better still he could teach it. He was competitive, and if that couldn’t be taught, he could at least exemplify the concept. He knew a fan base – and the media – were captive audiences of a sort, but a funny line was the best way to keep them captivated until the winning could start.

“They say fans are the sixth man,” he would tell booster groups in a withering assessment of his roster, “but I’m hoping our fans will be the fourth or fifth man.”

Heathcote’s death Monday morning at the age of 90 has silenced those barbs, but not a legacy that was just as much about winning Spokane’s old City League at West Valley with a Roger Walser as it was winning the NCAA championship at Michigan State with the Magic Johnson. By today’s norms, his route to the sport’s pinnacle was uncommon. But so was the integrity, passion, understated generosity and, of course, the signature humor – often turned on himself – that revealed him to be a basketball original.

Heathcote will forever be linked to Magic and that fulcrum moment for college basketball, and to the many protégés – nearly 50 – in his coaching tree.

But the essence of Jud, from West Valley on, was the creative tension he created – and, no, he didn’t reach every player. But many reveled in the harsh critiques.

The definitive word on this matter belongs to poet and essayist Jim McKean, who arrived at Washington State just as Heathcote signed on to assist Marv Harshman. McKean’s story “Playing for Jud” published in his “Home Stand” collection is a remarkable look at those uneasy relationships, as when he wondered if the coach’s irascibility was “meant to drive his players away from him and completely into the moment.”

But the payoffs weren’t subtle. McKean remembers a backdoor cut that drew an appreciative “Nice move” from Heathcote during a game with Washington.

“Ten thousand voices, and one clear in its weight and authority,” McKean wrote. “The basket was worth two points, and praise I have never forgotten.”

Such praise wasn’t reserved for the best players, either.

“He ran an intramural program one night a week,” said Joe Pettit, one of his West Valley stars. “I’m sure he didn’t get home until 9 at night, but the next morning he’d have all the stats posted on the board, the MVP of the night, with these stick-drawing illustrations. It was the first place everyone went when they got to school that day.”

It didn’t help his varsity team win a game. But it might have been his way of making a marginal student feel a part of something, and induce him to pay attention in English class or algebra for just an hour.

♦  ♦  ♦

“Hey, come over to the office,” he said in another phone call. “We need to talk.”

About me, it turned out. Jud had learned there was to be a full-time opening at the paper, and that I was going to fill it. Hey, $175 a week looked pretty good to a 20-year-old who was half-assing it in class anyway.

“You’re making a mistake,” he said. “You need to finish school. If this is what you want to do after that, you can still do it. But you start working full time and school will go by the wayside and suddenly you’ll be 40 years old and your hair will have fallen out and you’ll have no degree and you’ll regret it.”

Now, I was never going to make a jump shot for Jud Heathcote’s basketball team. So why was I receiving this counsel?

Best guess? It was Jud doing what he did: coach ’em up. He was interested in other people – he cared – and if he could do them some good, he tried.

He was right, too. Incompletes soon overwhelmed my transcript. My hairline had surrendered by 40. I never got a degree and, yeah, I regretted it. Not because life turned out terrible. But you never want to disappoint your best teachers.

“He said to me once, ‘I don’t want you to be just a good player – I want you to be a great one,’ ” McKean said Tuesday. “It sounded like you were never going to get there, but really it was a heck of a compliment. That was Jud. The compliment was often implied.”

Or a punch line. Because that was Jud, too.

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