He wore dark-rimmed glasses that made him look like Clark Kent and he played defense like Superman.
Now, Kenny Heitz is gone, leaving UCLA basketball fans with fond memories and sorrow. He is a magical name from the 10-championship John Wooden era that will never be forgotten, or under-appreciated. In Heitz’s three seasons — freshmen couldn’t play on the varsity then — UCLA had a record of 88-2. At the end of each season — 1967, ’68 and ’69 — the Bruins took home an NCAA title trophy.
Five days before Heitz died of cancer July 9 at age 65, a 7-foot-2 legend came to visit at St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica.
“I had seen him before and we had a nice talk,” says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “but this time, he was unconscious. They had him heavily sedated.”
By then, Abdul-Jabbar and the entire Bruins family knew time was short. Abdul-Jabbar, a cancer survivor himself after a four-year battle with leukemia, says that, even as recently as Wooden’s memorial service at Pauley Pavilion on June 26, 2010, Heitz seemed fine and all were more concerned with the health of another teammate.
“We were more worried about John Vallely then,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “The thing about Kenny was that he never did anything wrong, never ate wrong things or gained too much weight. Nothing.”
Like Abdul-Jabbar, Vallely has survived cancer. He lost a daughter to the disease in 1991 and has continued the battle against it ever since. Vallely’s motivation now includes Heitz, whose memory will be honored at Vallely’s fifth annual Dribble for the Cure fundraiser Oct. 21.
Heitz was 6-3, an All-American out of Righetti High in Santa Maria, in an age when UCLA seemed to gather up all the prep All-Americans. Another one, of course, was Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor. On the night of Nov. 27, 1965, in a sparkling new arena called Pauley Pavilion, the building was officially opened with a game, UCLA’s varsity against UCLA’s freshmen.
The varsity was ranked No. 1 in the preseason. It had won the NCAA title the previous two seasons. But Bruins fans had seen only the tip of the John Wooden iceberg at this stage.
“We had scrimmaged with the varsity a lot by then,” Abdul-Jabbar says, “and they really hadn’t given us that much of a problem. Our freshman coach, Jay Carty, told us that if we just played the way we could, we’d have no trouble with the varsity. He said we’d win by 15. He called the shot.”
The freshmen, featuring Lucius Allen, Lynn Shackelford, Heitz and Abdul-Jabbar, beat the varsity, 75-60. The rest of college basketball, seeing the obvious future, immediately withered into a collective state of depression.
Heitz’s glasses set him off from the rest, gave him a studious look on a team that had only one other semi-geeky looking guy in glasses, Wooden. In a strange sort of twist, the glasses brought Heitz a big following.
“He was one of my heroes,” says Rich Perelman, a Bruin down to his toenails. Perelman ran the Olympic press operations for the Los Angeles Organizing Committee in 1984. He says of Heitz, “He had glasses like I did, like a lot of kids did. And he was not only a great player, but he was smart. Never made a mistake.”
Abdul-Jabbar remembers the final game they played together, the NCAA title game their senior year, March 22, 1969, in Louisville, Ky. It was against Purdue, the school where Wooden had been a three-time All-American. Purdue had the high-scoring Rick Mount; UCLA had, among others, Abdul-Jabbar, Vallely and Heitz.
Abdul-Jabbar scored 37 points, Vallely 15 and Heitz none. But many remember Heitz as a candidate for the game’s MVP. He hounded Mount, sent him on a 12-for-36 shooting night that included 14 straight misses. Mount ended up with 28 points, but they weren’t a factor.
“By the time Mount started scoring, it was too late,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “We had the game in hand. Kenny had shut him down.”
Abdul-Jabbar and Heitz shared much, including a dune buggy weekend.
“It was sometime between March and June of our freshman year, and I was invited for a weekend at Kenny’s house,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “His dad, George, sold dune buggy tires and so we went for a ride. Santa Maria is in the foothills and we rode all day. I’m from New York. I had never experienced anything like that. I had a great time.”
After the 1969 team of Heitz and Abdul-Jabbar had completed the sweep that all of college basketball had feared after that first game in Pauley, Heitz and Abdul-Jabbar both headed to an NBA rookie camp. Abdul-Jabbar, who was to become perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game, was the first draft choice of the Milwaukee Bucks, and No. 1 overall. Heitz, who was to become one of the premier lawyers in Southern California, was taken in the fifth round, 59th overall, by the Bucks.
“The rookie camp was about four or five days and we didn’t talk much about it until we came back,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “Then, he told me he had plans for his life, and he headed off for Harvard Law School.”
Vallely’s Oct 21 Dribble for the Cure, benefiting children’s cancer research, will begin quite a run of Bruins basketball nostalgia. On Oct. 26, there will be a statue of Wooden unveiled outside the renovated Pauley Pavilion. And on Oct. 28, at Royce Hall, there will be a public memorial service for Heitz.
At Heitz’s memorial service, it would be a nice touch if Rick Mount showed up and somebody in Bruin blue, wearing dark-rimmed glasses, stopped him at the door.