Magic Johnson tells one of his favorite Jud Heathcote stories Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — It was some point in the second half on Saturday and the Breslin Center crowd quieted as a Spartan was getting set to shoot a free throw.
The relative quiet was pierced only by a loud, cackling laugh somewhere in the first row of seats.
There was Earvin “Magic” Johnson, trying to catch his breath in a full belly laugh as he sat between Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent. The 1979 national champions were back to celebrate their 40-year anniversary of beating Larry Bird and Indiana State for the title and they were having a blast.
“We told 80 percent of the truth and 20 percent lies, but it was fun,” Johnson said. “We laughed for three hours this morning at breakfast. It’s been so much fun.”
The whole team was there.
Johnson and Kelser were the stars, the All-Americans. Of course, Magic became a larger-than-life star while Kelser had his own NBA career that has led to a career in broadcasting.
But the rest of the group was there too, from Jay Vincent to Terry Donnelly to Ron Charles to Mike Brkovich. They all crowded around the championship trophy at midcourt during halftime, dozens of other Michigan State basketball alums behind them.
There was one person missing.
“This will be somewhat bittersweet because we don’t have our coach, Jud Heathcote there,” Kelser said. “We miss him dearly.”
Heathcote died in 2017 but left a lasting impact on his players.
“The one thing we do regret is that the best college basketball coach at that time is not here with us, our leader, Jud Heathcote,” Johnson said. “But I know he’s shining down from heaven looking at us and proud of, I think, the men we have become.”
It’s not a surprise that many of the stories told this weekend centered around Heathcote. He was never one to coddle his players and was always demonstrative on the bench.
Charles recalled Heathcote banging his forehead and yelling at him, “Be a guard, not garbage!”
For Johnson, it was a story about how he’d just won the NBA championship as a rookie with the Lakers and he was back at Jenison Fieldhouse three days later working out. Heathcote came down and wasn’t about to shower his former star with praise.
“He comes down, and typical Jud, he says, ‘Well, you didn’t do this well last season, you didn’t do this,’” Johnson said, imitating his former coach’s voice. “Now, I just won the NBA championship. I was just named MVP. Oh no. He didn’t congratulate me, none of that. ‘We got to get back to work on your hook shot. Let’s go, let’s go. Let’s get to work.’ So, we got to work.
“He said, ‘If I’m not here Tom will come down and he’ll throw the ball back to you, but I’ll have some notes on things I want you to work on.’ OK, coach. That was typical coach. He drove me to be what I am. I just love him. I love what he stood for, what he was about. That’s why the program is where it is today. Jud started it (and) then handed the baton to Coach Izzo.
“Forty years later, I’m the happiest guy on the face of the earth because I get two days of going down memory lane with my guys.”
Kelser, too, was reminiscing. He talked about the last time he saw Heathcote when the team had a reunion in Spokane, Wash., back in 2016. Heathcote was using a walker by then and as he and his wife, Beverly, left the dinner the team had, Kelser felt an urge to say one more goodbye to his coach.
“I ran and caught up with him and thanked him for taking the time to be with us,” Kelser said. “And Mrs. Heathcote says, ‘Gregory, my daughter Barb said you were always her favorite Spartan. She loved you the most. She thought you were best of them all.’
“Coach turned to me and goes, ‘Gregory, she was wrong.’ That was him all the way to the very end.”
After the game, the ’79 team met with the current Spartans and told them to not worry about the recent struggles. After all, in 1979, Michigan State started the season 4-4 and lost Vincent to an injury during the NCAA Tournament.
“It means everything, that's why you come to places like Michigan State,” senior Matt McQuaid said. “You don't get this anywhere else; this place is special. We are so grateful for all of them to come back and watch us play. It's something I will remember for the rest of my life.”