Jud Heathcote, right, shown in 2009 with Magic Johnson, center, and other members of Michigan State's 1979 NCAA championship team. (Al Goldis/Associated Press)
Columnist

Bob Knight didn’t often speak to coaches he regularly competed against — especially those who had the temerity to beat him with any regularity.

Jud Heathcote was an exception. Whenever Michigan State and Indiana played, Knight would talk to Heathcote at length before the game. He often would call him on the phone to swap stories and to complain about how poorly his team was playing.

“I don’t know how you ever win a game,” Heathcote said to Knight during one of those conversations, one that took place in January 1986. “You must be one hell of a coach.”

Knight laughed and said, “You know, Jud, you’re the only coach in the Big Ten who likes me.”

Heathcote didn’t take long to respond: “I wouldn’t be too sure about that, Bob.”

He was not, as he later pointed out, implying that there were other coaches in the conference who liked Knight.

Heathcote died Monday at age 90, leaving behind a legacy of coaching success but more than that, a raft of “Jud stories” told by his many coaching friends, Knight included. The two he was closest to were Tom Izzo, who succeeded him at Michigan State when he retired in 1995, and Gonzaga’s Mark Few, whom he spent a good deal of time with when he retired to Spokane, not far from where he had grown up in the state of Washington.

“Jud took basketball very seriously,” Izzo said several years ago, talking about his 10 years as an assistant coach under Heathcote. “But he never took himself seriously. That was what made him so great to work for.”

Heathcote’s coaching legacy will always focus on the two years he coached Magic Johnson. He had spent five years at Montana, twice winning Big Sky titles and reaching the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1975 before losing to John Wooden’s final championship team at UCLA.

A year later he was hired at Michigan State, which hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1959 and was a consistent also-ran in the Big Ten. Heathcote continued that tradition during his first season, going 12-15 and finishing sixth in the conference.

But the most important thing he did that year took place away from the court: He convinced a local prodigy named Earvin Johnson to stay at home and become a Spartan. Johnson didn’t receive nearly the attention nationally in the spring of 1977 that Brooklyn’s Albert King (Maryland) or Philadelphia’s Gene Banks (Duke) did, but there were those in basketball who saw magic in a 6-foot-9 kid with point-guard skills.

A year later, led by freshman Magic, Michigan State won the Big Ten title and reached the Elite Eight before losing to Kentucky, the eventual national champion. The following season, the Spartans won the national title, beating Larry Bird and Indiana State in the final in what is still the highest-rated college basketball game ever played.

The next few years were a struggle, but Heathcote and Michigan State bounced back to make the NCAA tournament in seven of Heathcote’s final eight seasons before he turned over the reins over to Izzo.

Heathcote was always funny, but equally intense. In 1986, preparing for a Sweet 16 game against Kansas (in Kansas City), Heathcote noticed two Kansas assistants watching his team practice the day before the game.

“What the hell are they doing here?” he roared at an NCAA official.

“It’s an open practice, Coach,” he was told. “Anyone can watch.”

Heathcote responded by putting his players into layup lines for the rest of the time his team was required to be on the court and stalked off with steam still coming out of his ears.

The second-best player Heathcote ever coached was Scott Skiles, a hardscrabble kid from Plymouth, Ind. Because Skiles got into trouble off the court in high school, Knight wouldn’t recruit him. Heathcote did and Skiles had a superb college career, consistently burning Indiana.

Knight had a tradition of singling out seniors on opposing teams to shake their hand and wish them luck before they faced Indiana for the last time. He refused to do that with Skiles. That disappointed Heathcote and he told Knight so.

“If nothing else someone like Bob should have appreciated the kind of competitor Scott was,” Heathcote said later. “I told him that.”

What made Heathcote a rarity was that he could — and would — tell Knight and anyone else in the game exactly what he thought. If they didn’t like it, that was fine with him.

“Heck, I’ve never been a believer in trying to get anyone to like me,” he said once. “Even in recruiting. If I’m not myself in a kid’s home and he comes to play for me and doesn’t like the real me, what was the point of recruiting him?”

Like a lot of the greats, Heathcote was a defense-first coach, but he always gave players plenty of freedom on offense. Some coaches were critical of how much freedom he gave Johnson. Dean Smith liked to point out that when North Carolina beat Michigan State in Chapel Hill in December 1978, Johnson had eight turnovers.

“Phil Ford would never turn it over that often,” he said when comparing the college game’s two great point guards of the 1970s.

True. But Ford never won a national championship. Heathcote’s genius was in letting Magic — even a teenage Magic — be magic. He did the same with Skiles, who also played with wild abandon.

Michigan State played Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA tournament during Skiles’s senior season. During one stretch, Skiles made seven straight shots over the Hoyas’ Michael Jackson, a renowned defender — all from beyond today’s three-point line. Back-pedalling after bomb No. 7, Skiles looked at Thompson and said, “Hey, Coach, you better get someone else on me because I’m killing this guy.”

Thompson, the ultimate disciplinarian, looked in Heathcote’s direction. For a second, Heathcote thought there was going to be a fight — “one I would most definitely lose,” he said later. Then Thompson broke up laughing.

Michigan State won the game.

It was Heathcote who demanded that Michigan State give Izzo his job when he retired even though he had no head coaching experience. “My first two years, I cursed Jud a lot for doing that for me or should I say to me,” Izzo likes to say, laughing.

Laughter was one of the two sounds that dominated Jud Heathcote’s life. That and the bouncing of basketballs. He loved both sounds. And those around him loved him for it.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.