In 1993, Ron Hecklinski replaced Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer Norm Held as head coach of the Anderson Indians. Held had won over 300 games, including five semi-states and ten sectional championships in his time at Anderson. By the time Coach Heck retired in 2011, he had won 273 games, five more sectionals and a regional championship.
Hecklinski coached the Indians during the final season of Indiana single-class basketball in 1996-1997 while recovering from a liver transplant. His journey was documented as part of William Gildea’s excellent book about that time, “Where the Game Matters Most: A Last Championship Season in Indiana High School Basketball”.
I meet with Coach Heck on a blistering day in August, when basketball season seems especially far away. Since his retirement he’s done a lot of things to keep busy; coaching consultant, volunteer assistant coach, and broadcasting. He’s happy with his life, but misses the heat of competition.
“I do miss being a head basketball coach,” he says. “In a game situation, when you’re in that huddle and you have ten sets of eyes staring at you, wanting you to tell them what to do….that’s a powerful feeling.
”I’ve looked at a couple of jobs – Park Tudor, Cathedral. I’m sixty years old, but I still have the juice to do it. So maybe if the right opportunity comes up, I’ll be able to do it again.
“I miss the leadership, and having an influence in kids’ lives.”
I ask him about the differences in coaching now, compared to when he started.
“In Indiana, when I first started coaching, we did whatever Bob Knight did. Anything Coach Knight said was what we did. Whatever he said was golden, and he said that motion offense was it. Motion offense and screen away from the ball.”
And, of course, man-to-man defense.
“Zone defenses are a lot more prevalent now. I actually like sequencing defenses, where you play one defense on a made basket, and something else on a miss. But if you’d asked me in mid-career, I never would have played a zone. I mean, what if Coach Knight comes to watch and sees me in a 2-3 zone?”
Hecklinski may have been safe risking the occasional zone at Anderson, but before he got that job he served as head coach at Edgewood High School, just a few miles west of Bloomington.
“When I was coaching at Edgewood, Coach Knight used to come to see some of our games, because his son Pat played at Bloomington North. He always told me, ‘Man, your defense is really good.’ So why would I ever play a zone?”
Like any Indiana kid, Hecklinski was flattered by the attention from “The Mentor”. But it could be unnerving, too. Asked to coach an AAU team Knight put together, Heck had to practice and play the team under the watchful – if not intrusive – eye of Knight.
“Try running a practice with Coach Knight there. He’s just yell stuff out. “Ronnie! What are you doing? Get that guy wide down low!”
Hecklinski also shared a reputation with Knight for being hard on officials.
“People say I got on the officials, but it was never really my fault,” he says. It was Gene Cato’s fault.”
Cato, Indiana High School Athletic Association Commissioner, was also a former basketball coach.
“My first year of coaching I got a call from Gene because I got four technicals in my first four games. He calls me and says, ‘Coach, I just wanted to call and tell you that you’re now second in the state in technical fouls.
“I said, ‘Mr. Cato, who’s in first?’ He said, ‘Bill Harrell at Muncie Central.’
“I said, ‘Give me a week and I’ll catch him.’
“But when I was younger, I did get a little carried away,” he says. “As I got older, I always knew when to stop.”
Which begs the question: do coaches get technical fouls because they’re really angry, or is it a way to drive player and/or referee behavior? Nature or nurture?
Heck thinks for a while as he sips an ice water. “It’s probably fifty-fifty. I never said (to a referee) ‘Give me a T’, but maybe your team is a little sluggish, and maybe you’re getting hosed a little (on calls), and you want to get your guys fired up. And, 90% of the time? It works.”
As Hecklinski walks out of the restaurant, the late afternoon sun is shining through the front door. It might be the late afternoon of his career, too; but after thousands of games and practices, he probably doesn’t worry about Coach Knight’s opinion much.