Jud Heathcote: He was one of a kind

Jud Heathcote died in his sleep Monday morning, and it might be the only time in his life he went quietly. Wherever he’s headed now, they better have a reply at the ready, because Jud is coming at them with a rapier wit that could slice Kevlar.

He was 90 years old, and he packed a lot into 90 years. He was schooled on the Olympic peninsula, coached high school hoops in Spokane, sat next to Marv Harshman on a distinguished bench at Washington State, brought respect to Montana and won a national championship at Michigan State.

In his golden years, he was a godfather of sorts around the Gonzaga program, a season-ticket holder and an occasional lunch companion/critic with Zags coach Mark Few at Jack and Dan’s. “Tuesdays with Jud,” Few called it with a verbal eye-roll, but I’ll bet Few would tell you he gleaned something valuable through Heathcote’s barrage of digs.

My first glimpse of Heathcote came as an undergrad at Washington State in the late 1960s, when he and Harshman were working up 18- and 19-win teams that finished second in the Pac-8 to John Wooden’s dynasty at UCLA.

This was my recollection of Heathcote: At a wayward official’s call, or a misstep by a Cougar, he would go airborne off the bench, landing with both feet simultaneously in a thump that resounded throughout Bohler Gym. He was often far more demonstrative than Harshman.

His persona was as blunt as his humor was nuanced. I was at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1989 when the Final Four came to Seattle. The day after the title game, a little bleary-eyed after a hard month, I needed to write a follow-up story on how the city had done in the host role.

I happened by the Sheraton Hotel, headquarters for the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches meetings. I ran into Heathcote, an NABC president, and given his ties to the Northwest, figured him for some deferential quotes on Seattle’s performance.

Jud didn’t do deferential. To my surprise, he lobbed some grenades at the organizing committee for things like buses that didn’t run on time. And he wasn’t kidding.

Frequently, he was. At the old Kennel at Gonzaga one night, I bumped into him at halftime and we chatted. Then John Blanchette, the longtime columnist for the Spokane Spokesman-Review, walked by.

“No, no, sorry, no interviews tonight,” Heathcote admonished Blanchette, who wasn’t looking for one. “I’m talking to a big-time sportswriter.”

That was Jud, capable of zinging two sportswriters with one stone.

Of course, his surpassing achievement was winning the 1979 national championship with Magic Johnson at Michigan State. That title game, against Larry Bird’s Indiana State, remains the most-watched NCAA basketball game in history and is often cited as the ignition point to the game’s most passionate era.

Some years after his retirement in 1995, a push began to get Heathcote inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, led by Jerry Krause, then the Zags’ basketball operations guy who is also a prolific author and a noted overseer of the game.

Heathcote had the national title, and if not an innovator, he was at least the most prominent practitioner of the matchup zone defense, which, with people like Magic and Greg Kelser, was nigh-impenetrable.

Selectors were no doubt chilled by some of Michigan State’s fallow years. Indeed, in the 10 seasons after the ’79 run to the championship, Heathcote’s teams went 76-104 in the Big Ten. He knew some extremes.

On the other hand, the man couldn’t catch a break. There was the 1986 Sweet 16 game against No. 1-seeded Kansas at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, when a late clock stoppage of about 15 seconds -- while play was ongoing -- enabled the Jayhawks to take a game into overtime that Michigan State was leading. And in the 1990 Southeast Regional final, officials allowed Kenny Anderson’s late jumper to stand, even as replays showed it failed to beat the buzzer in regulation and Georgia Tech, not the Spartans, advanced in another overtime heartbreaker.

Give Heathcote another Final Four, and maybe he’s in the Naismith Hall of Fame. As it is, he was named to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

This piece comes a little later than I had planned; Tuesday, a scant few paragraphs from the finish, I managed to spill coffee across the keyboard, rendering the touchpad useless and necessitating a trip to the Microsoft store for a replacement.

I can almost hear Jud cackling about it.