The basketball gods must need some humor to brighten things up these days. They called Jud Heathcote to hoop heaven.
The retired Michigan State basketball coach who guided the Spartans and Earvin “Magic” Johnson to the 1979 NCAA title had an endless supply of wit. No one was safe from his pointed barbs – least of all himself. He was never short on self-deprecating humor.
Only his last breaths — when he died Monday night at age 90 at his home in Spokane, Wash. — extinguished the humor.
No coach was funnier to be around that Heathcote. The late Jim Valvano was rightly remembered as a master of comedic humor that played to TV and large audiences, but if you enjoyed lively repartee fitting for friends watching a game together, you wanted Heathcote seated comfortably among the crowd.
Younger fans naturally don’t know much about Heathcote’s stature in the game, but throughout his 22 years of retirement he has influenced coaches of two active Final Four coaches — names that all fans know.
The first, of course, is Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Heathcote’s longtime assistant and successor. Izzo surpassed Heathcote in career wins and Final Four trips, but he has never stopped deflecting praise and credit to Heathcote.
When Heathcote retired to his native state to be close to his children and extended family, Izzo purchased a state-of-the-art satellite and video system so his old coach could keep up with the Spartans. They spoke frequently about the team.
Izzo has been long known as a media-friendly coach and a friend to fans who is not afraid to take a seat in the student section for football games. When asked why he remains so down-to-earth, he said he learned from Heathcote never to “big-time” people.
The times Izzo has had a complaint with the media, he never retaliated. Why? He liked to say Jud always told him they have a job to do.
The other active Final Four coach is Gonzaga’s Mark Few. He was a young head coach at the private school in Spokane when Heathcote settled into retirement. As a passionate basketball fan, Heathcote bought season tickets to follow the Zags.
Before long, Few and Heathcote met for lunch to talk basketball. They sat in a booth at Jack and Dan’s, one of those small institution bars in downtown Spokane that are a piece of Americana. A Gonzaga alumnus had bought the bar from Jack Stockton, the father of John Stockton, the Basketball Hall of Famer from Gonzaga.
The weekly lunches took place on Mondays. Few dubbed the learning sessions “Mondays with Jud” – a play off the best-selling book and TV movie, “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
The basketball gods certainly approved of Heathcote’s dual influences when Michigan State and Gonzaga both advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in the South Regional in 2001 in Atlanta.
I was fortunate to cover the regional for the San Diego Union-Tribune in the Georgia Dome. I wandered out to press row during warmups, long before tipoff. I saw Jud seated nearby, waved and stuck out my hand as I walked toward him.
Approaching Jud at the same time was Jay Bilas, who was scheduled to interview Heathcote for an ESPN pregame show. Bilas stepped in front of me as if to shield Heathcote. I’m not sure if Bilas thought I was an annoying fan or a print journalist beneath him – if you follow Bilas’s criticism of the NCAA you might consider him an elitist – but either way, he was quick to steer Heathcote toward the cameras.
Jud turned back and gave me a friendly wave with a point of the finger, indicating he’d meet me back there in a few minutes. Bilas might have big-timed me, but Jud didn’t forget a writer dating back to his days covering his teams at Michigan State’s college paper, The State News.
Three of my proudest moments as a sportswriter involve Heathcote:
1. When I was working for a San Diego suburban paper (that no longer exists) and hoping to someday make a metro paper, Michigan State played in a 1984 San Diego State holiday tournament. After a pre-tournament media session, I was among writers that included San Diego Evening Tribune sports editor Tom Cushman. Jud deftly worked in a comment, mentioning my name in a complimentary way about writers who have covered him. Not much later I was hired at the Tribune (which later merged with the morning Union into the Union-Tribune). You can’t beat that for a job reference.
2. When I covered a San Diego State-Idaho football game, I made sure to travel through Spokane so I could meet Heathcote at Jack and Dan’s. We talked about his relationship with Gonzaga and Few; I was planning ahead to when Gonzaga played in the West Coast Conference Tournament hosted by the University of San Diego. The story was one of those back-page features.
When I saw Jud at one of the WCC Tournament games, he said, “Geez, Tom, everyone in the hotel was mentioning the story, saying, ‘Hi, coach. Welcome to San Diego.’ ”
Coaches, like athletes, want to be remembered in retirement, and I was proud to give the old coach a moment to know he wasn’t forgotten.
3. When my book “Raye of Light” was published, I sent Jud a signed copy. I had made sure Heathcote was part of the book based on an anecdote he had told me about Tyrone Willingham, a Michigan State football alum who started his coaching career as a Spartan graduate assistant. A letter soon arrived with praise from Jud. He also included a personal check, writing he wanted to send copies to friends. His note finished with exclamation marks: “Don’t send me free copies! Cash this check!”
I cashed the check to my everlasting regret. I wish I had pulled a Ricky Henderson and framed the check (uncashed) to hang on my wall.
That would have made Jud laugh, with a shot at both myself and him.
Follow Tom Shanahan’s FanRag Sports stories on Twitter @shanny4055.