This can't be fun. For openers, he's limping. His arthritic left knee might have to be replaced someday, and his "damn doctors"—that's what he calls them—can't seem to do anything about the heel bruises that are killing his handball game. His long arms hang limply at his sides. His head is down, and his broad shoulders are hunched, as befits a man with the weight of the basketball world upon them. His face is a jigsaw puzzle of discontent, pieces all over the place, mouth going one way, nose another, eyes rolling toward the heavens. His acid indigestion index must be off the scale. George Melvin (Jud) Heathcote, the last man to win an NCAA championship while dressed in green plaid pants, is coaching his basketball team, and it just doesn't look like fun.
"Hell, no, it's not fun," says Heathcote. "I'm 67 years old, and it's as hard as it ever was." Heathcote has just met with a half-dozen staffers from The State News, the Michigan State student newspaper, which is devoting a special section to Heathcote's last home game (on Saturday against Wisconsin) in this, his swan-song season. "I have the headline written for them," says the coach: HEATHCOTE ERA OVER! THANK GOD!
For the better part of five decades Heathcote has taken arms against all varieties of windmills—administrators, referees, reporters, even other coaches—but his biggest battle has always been against imperfection in the game. What matters most to Heathcote is to have basketball played the right way, and to his veteran eyes that was not what was happening during a practice session early last week at State's Breslin Center.
"Eric," he says to his point guard, Eric Snow, who has just been victimized on an alley-oop play, "why don't you see that?"
"I do," says Snow.
"You see it?" says Heathcote in what can only be described as a loud squeak. "Well, get up and jump then. You're our best jumper, and you look like a midget." Away from Heathcote's line of vision, Snow, a senior who has been called much worse than a midget over the last four years, Hashes a small smile.
"Ray, Ray, Ray!" Heathcote shouts to backup guard Ray Weathers, who has passed up an open jumper. "If no one's on you, don't fake the student body. They're not playing. Shoot!"
No one is immune. When player of the year candidate Shawn Respert blows a layup, Heathcote wonders aloud, "Are we going to convert on the fast break at all? Shawn? Today?"
And then forward Quinton Brooks messes up a set play. "Q, you've got to run low to make the play work," squeaks Heathcote. "Jesus, run our play, not yours!"
In demeanor, philosophy, treatment of his players and even fashion sense, Heathcote has been compared to Indiana coach Bob Knight, and that's fine as far as it goes. But Heathcote, unlike Knight, has a warmth about him, an awkward, gruff-uncle charm. He is most comfortable when turning his needle inward, and, unlike Knight, he is incapable of taking himself seriously.