SPOKANE — Tom Izzo’s team piled onto the bus on Jan. 18 in frigid Champaign, Ill., and as it pulled away from State Farm Center after a 78-62 win over Illinois, he pulled out his phone.
Izzo wanted to talk to Jud Heathcote. Heathcote wanted to talk to Denzel Valentine.
So Izzo passed the phone to Valentine, allowing his mentor and Michigan State predecessor — a guy who played the game in the 1940s for Colorado College and Washington State — a chance to give his sophomore guard some pointers. That’s the gentle way to describe Heathcote’s teaching style.
“He gave me some advice about my game — and he gave me some crap,” said Valentine, a knowing smile crossing his face, countless Jud stories from his father’s playing days at MSU stored in his memory.
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“I just said, ‘It’s time to give up the Harry High School stuff and realize you’re in a college environment,’ ” Heathcote recalled Monday of their conversation, which came after a 15-point, 11-rebound, four-assist night for Valentine. “ ‘Once you do that, you’ll be a great player.’ ”
In fact, Heathcote told Valentine this MSU team would be his in the future if he kept progressing as a player and leader. Anyone inside the MSU program would say the same. But then, it’s still tightly connected to Heathcote in so many ways.
“His handprints, fingerprints and footprints are all over it,” said Carlton Valentine, Denzel’s father and an MSU forward under Heathcote in 1985-88.
The 86-year-old retired coach, who won MSU’s first national championship with Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser in 1979 and fought to make sure Izzo replaced him in 1995, will be in Spokane Arena on Thursday to watch East Region No. 4 seed MSU (26-8) take on No. 13 seed Delaware (25-9) to open the NCAA tournament.
He’ll have to get to his seat with the help of a cane and perhaps his wife, Beverly — “I’ve got a 10-cent body and a million-dollar mind,” he joked — but Heathcote said he’s thrilled to get the chance to watch MSU live, in the town he has called home since retiring. He used to jet to every NCAA site to support Izzo’s teams, but the plan this year is to travel only to Arlington, Texas, for the Final Four if the Spartans make it.
Heathcote likes those chances a lot more after watching MSU storm to the Big Ten tournament title with wins over Michigan and Wisconsin. Or at least he did until he realized ESPN’s Digger Phelps is one of countless analysts picking the Spartans to win it all.
“So there’s no chance,” Heathcote joked of a friend and former Notre Dame coach he beat en route to the 1979 title. “Digger doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
The Heathcote wit is as sharp as ever, the jokes as biting. What people may not realize is how much he still adds to MSU’s brand of basketball, and how much of it can be traced to his era.
“It’s the same fast break,” said MSU associate head coach Dwayne Stephens, who played for Heathcote at MSU in 1989-93. “Pretty much exactly how we ran it when I played for Jud.”