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Jul 9, 2008

Heaps takes his hoops lessons to heart

Many of the most important lessons New England Revolution defender Jay Heaps learned during his collegiate athletic career came during his time on the bench. That's right, the 1998 Missouri Athletic Club Player of the Year (now known as the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy winner) spent more than his fair share of time riding the pine. In fact, the former Duke standout spent most games there. Of course, they were basketball games.

While Heaps had his share of impressive blink-and-you-might-miss-it moments as an all-conference, All-American, all-pretty-much-everything-else forward/midfielder for the Blue Devils (his 45 goals are fourth all-time) on the pitch, he had his share of blink-and-you-might-miss-him moments on the court. However, that was likely because he averaged just 2.3 minutes per hoop game in his 3½ seasons.

Unlike in soccer, Heaps' contributions to his other team are far from reflected in the record books -- he totaled eight career points as a Duke basketball backup, 127 as a soccer starter. But ask anyone who played with Jay Heaps, and they'll tell you he was just as crucial a part of their team as anyone else.

"Jay had the ultimate respect of everybody on our team because we understood that he was the best player in his sport," said Duke associate coach Steve Wojciechowski, a former basketball teammate of Heaps. "When he came from the soccer field over to the basketball court, he brought the same intangible qualities that allowed him to be the best player in the country in soccer. ... He didn't have the key role in basketball that he did in soccer, but he enhanced our team everyday he was with us because he pushed us."

It was also on the basketball team that Heaps truly came to understand the meaning of team, that the 12th guy (or 18th guy) can be almost as vital to the team as any starter.

"On the soccer field at Duke, I was the guy that played every minute of every game and was a player looked at to lead the team from a playing standpoint," Heaps said. "Then I went to basketball, where I was probably the smallest guy on the team, one of the last guys off the bench, and I saw how you can still impact the greater good of the team no matter what your role might be.

"I never shied away from the fact that, 'Oh, I'm not going to start against UNC in this weekend's basketball game.' ... However, I looked at it like, 'I'm going to work my butt off this week and learn the other team's play and try to motivate the guys and have an impact leading up to that first whistle.' It was a humbling experience, but it made me a better leader because it gave me a perspective."

The former MLS Rookie of the Year often reflects on just how close he came to never having that opportunity. Heaps originally considered attending Harvard, one of the few well-recognized Division I schools recruiting him for both soccer and basketball, but settled on pursing his soccer aspirations at Duke, in part because it offered athletic scholarships, which the Ivies don't.

Heading to one of the nation's biggest basketball powerhouses, Heaps all but gave up the idea of playing college basketball. He still played for fun -- and jumped into a pickup game against the women's basketball team his freshman year. It was a spur of the moment decision that would have a greater impact than Heaps could ever have imagined.

During that practice, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and then-assistant coach Quin Snyder walked through the gym. The 5-foot-9 guard's energy and enthusiasm caught their eye, and unbelievably, they asked him if he'd have an interest in joining the Blue Devils basketball team.

"Jay had an amazing spirit, and that was evident every minute he was on our team," Krzyzewski said. "His energy level and passion to become better were contagious."

It was a no-brainer for Heaps, but it took a little convincing for soccer coach John Rennie to share his star athlete.

"I just kept saying I'm a soccer player first," Heaps recalled. "I had to convince him that basketball is something that I love to do and that I would never miss a soccer practice."

That promise inspired Heaps to push himself even more as a soccer player so he could prove to his soccer coach and teammates that his dedication to the sport was unquestionable.

"I didn't want [Rennie] or anyone to think I was leaning toward basketball or caught up in the limelight of the Duke basketball program," Heaps said.

Although both programs happen to be located in Durham, N.C., they can seem worlds apart.

As Heaps summed it up, "College basketball is like a professional team, where you travel on charter jets and everyone recognizes you. For a college soccer road trip, you get 20 guys and a van and pack it up."

It was important to Heaps that he stay true to his soccer roots.

Heaps played soccer through the fall and then joined up with the basketball team once the season ended. During the spring, he would attend soccer practices in the morning and basketball in the afternoon.

It was hectic, but Heaps said the idea of being burned out never even crossed his mind. Needless to say, his soccer didn't suffer. In fact, it excelled as he studied under one of basketball's coaching greats.

"Being around Coach K, everyday I was learning something new from him," Heaps said. "He's just an amazing leader, an amazing motivator. Every day he has the ability to give you goose bumps."

It's an admiration that has only grown stronger over time. Several times over the last few years, Heaps has returned to Duke during the MLS offseason to spend a week with Krzyzewski and his staff. Instead of a player observing a coach, he's now viewing his former coach in a new light.

"I've kind of been able to see both sides of it," Heaps said. "As a player, I've been able to take from his approach to the game and take it onto the soccer field ... just the pure competitiveness, that it's OK to want to compete every second of every minute.

"Now, from behind the scenes, I see just how much energy he has. He puts in what he demands from his players. I don't know if he even sleeps. He has a basketball mind better than most, but he has the drive to take what he knows in basketball and give that to his players. He communicates so well, and he reads his players so well, which is the most important aspect of a leader. ... He does every little thing to help. That makes him unstoppable."

Heaps hopes to emulate those qualities, be it down the road (he's always wanted to be a soccer coach) or in the more immediate future as he works to steer the Revs toward another MLS Cup berth. And this time, a championship.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.

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