Four distinct generations of players from each of his coaching stops, coaching protégés from near and far and a slew of his Spokane friends did their best to capture the life of Jud Heathcote on Saturday afternoon – their stories as funny, generous and true as the man himself.
Only one thing missing: rebuttal from the honoree.
George Melvin “Jud” Heathcote nearly always had the last word, whether with his teams, parrying with the press, emceeing a banquet or just holding court. On Saturday afternoon, his friends and family had to pinch hit, and at times the laughter bowed the roof at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, where a full house gathered to remember his life and times after his death last month at age 90 – and his lessons, too.
“He often reminded me the game is bigger than one person,” noted Tom Izzo, his successor at Michigan State.
It just didn’t feel that way Saturday.
And it wasn’t just about the big moments – like the NCAA championship he won in 1979 in the famed Magic Johnson-vs.-Larry Bird game that changed the profile of college basketball.
It was about smaller ones – like coaching his granddaughters’ Hoopfest team one summer.
“He got so into it,” said his daughter, Carla Kerner. “He got them all T-shirts and green and white basketballs, and he’s there talking strategy to third graders. And then he got a technical foul in the game.”
Hyper-competitive? That was Jud Heathcote. Even after the final horn.
Gregory Kelser was the leading scorer on that MSU title team more closely associated with Magic, but he was drafted into the NBA by Detroit without completing his degree – something Heathcote never failed to mention in any phone conversation. Two playoff-less springs with the Pistons gave him time to finish.
“Gregory, that’s great – that’s got to be like a monkey off your back,” Heathcote said.
“No, coach,” Kelser replied. “It’s you off my back.”
It was Kelser who spoke for Heathcote’s many players who attended – from West Valley grads like Joe Pettit to Washington State Cougars like Jim McKean and Jim Meredith to Montana’s Robin Selvig and Eric Hays to several other Spartans, including Steve Smith. All could relate when Kelser laughed while trying to contextualize his coach’s demanding style by recalling parents chastising and challenging “because they love you.
“I’d tell that to my teammates,” he said. “We’d have those conversations in the locker room – ‘Man, coach really loved us today, didn’t he?’ “
Kelser was among the 30 or so Spartans who traveled to Spokane last year for a get-together with Heathcote and his wife, Beverly. At the evening’s end, Kelser took one last opportunity to express his gratitude, and Beverly confided that he was their daughter Barbara’s favorite player: “She thought you were the best.”
“Yes, she did,” cracked Heathcote, “and she had every right to be wrong just like everybody else.”
But the ultimate keeper of the lore is Izzo, an assistant for 12 years before his succession was put in motion by his boss. His phone started ringing as soon as Heathcote’s death was announced – Bobby Knight and Gene Keady among the first to call – and at a National Association of Basketball Coaches board meeting the next day “everyone started telling stories and had a Jud joke.
“As the day went on, I realized how lucky I was,” Izzo said. “They each had one, and I had thousands.”
One favorite: after a big win at Northwestern, the Spartans gathered to catch a flight home – waiting while a crew de-iced the plane.
“Jud, of course, being a man of great patience says, ‘The hell with this — we’re going,’ “ Izzo said, “and he grabs Bev and starts heading up the steps of the plane. And we’re all watching just as the de-icing machine comes over the top and just covers Bev and Jud. Jud handled it like a pro — he just sat there on the plane fuming. Thank God that Bev was with us because she’s the only one who could sit with him.”
Impatient, demanding and volatile? Yes. But that’s only part of the list.
“Integrity,” said his best friend, Don Monson. “Extremely loyal. Compassionate. Generous. Such a great sense of humor. He put a positive stamp on every program he came in contact with – and it wasn’t just basketball. It was the whole community.”
At Michigan State, they’ll honor that by wearing “Jud” patches on their uniforms this season, and with a tribute game Feb. 10 against Purdue.
“He taught me the job, he got me the job and more important to me, he helped me survive the job,” said Izzo, who won his own NCAA title in 2000. “I worked for Jud for 12 years. He was my mentor and advisor for 22 years. Now God’s got him for eternity.”
At that point, Izzo cast his eyes to the ceiling.
“Good luck,” he said.
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