Knox College men's basketball coach Tim Heimann loves talking about everyone — his former players, his friends, his family. Anyone but himself. Following his retirement after 24 years in charge, he was honored by people he'd coached and worked with over the years -- and for once, the spotlight was on him.
On a sun-soaked autumn day in suburban Evanston, former Knox College basketball player Dustin Milliken walked into Tim Heimann’s room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Since Milliken's graduation in 2003, the two talk on the phone once a month, babbling on about basketball, the Chicago White Sox, friends and life in general. Heimann will attend a mid-week game at U.S. Cellular Field about once a year and visit with Milliken, an account executive in large-group ticket sales.
“He’s a big White Sox fan,” Milliken said.
Many former players have a similar relationship with Heimann, who retired as the Prairie Fire men’s basketball head coach Saturday. In his 24 years at the helm, these athletes have gone from being players to close friends after their careers were finished.
“The thing for Tim, it’s not about him. It’s about his players,” said Todd Prusator, the superintendent for Rochelle Elementary School District who played and coached under Heimann in the early 1980s. “I don’t think he gets consumed about his record. He wants to win, but it’s not about the games he’s won. It’s about the lives he’s impacted.”
That Heimann was sick was no surprise to Milliken, who played for him from 1999 to 2003. Heimann’s stomach burned so painfully before a game in late 2001 that he missed the first contest of his coaching career. When the players heard Heimann had diverticulitis, an excruciating colon condition, they had all figured as much.
Usually severe pains would rumble in his gut around the holiday season the past 10 years, and Heimann would just gulp down antacids to ease the pain. But his health was worsening, and his colon ruptured in late July.
Milliken heard about Heimann’s struggles. On a trip home last summer, he visited his former coach at his house in Galesburg.
“Coach Heimann is coach Heimann. He’s always upbeat and always smiling,” Milliken said. “But you could tell it had taken a toll on him physically.”
He was thinner and looked worn down. Briefly, they talked about his upcoming surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital where several more feet of his colon would be removed.
“That sounds like a lot,” Heimann said. “But remember, there’s a lot of colon.”
Heimann is an upbeat man, but then again, maybe this would be different, Milliken wondered. He was seeing Heimann three days after stomach surgery. If there was ever a time to catch him beaten down by life, this was that day.
But when Milliken walked into the hospital room on Sept. 15, he saw a man sick in body but well in spirit.
“He was sitting in a chair ready to go home. He had his bags packed, and he was ready to go,” Milliken said. “If you weren’t in a hospital room, you wouldn’t have known a difference.”
For an hour, the two sat and talked.
Milliken asked how his coach was, how everything went in surgery, whether everything would be fine. Then, like Heimann so often does, he steered the conversation away from himself to where he’s comfortable: Talking about everyone else. But reality was crashing down on the man.
“My condition over those six or seven months started making me feel mortal,” Heimann said. “And when you spend your entire life with 20-year-old kids, you think you’re young and you can do anything. I knew that in the course of this year I was going to turn 60. And 60 seems like 90. It made me think maybe (retiring) was the right thing to do.”
As Heimann and Milliken chatted about life in the big city, he would have never guessed his former coach would announce his retirement less than a month later.
“I knew he was getting somewhat near the end, but I figured he had five or six more years in him,” Milliken said. “He might not miss the games and all the extra stuff, but he’ll miss seeing his players on an everyday basis from October to February. He’s going to miss the kids, teaching them the game of basketball, because he’s been teaching them for so long.”
* * *
This was a big one. Mighty Grinnell was visiting after Knox just reeled off two straight Midwest Conference wins, and a spot in the conference tournament was in sight.
And here, with 45 minutes before the game on Jan. 30, Heimann jabbered away with the opposing coach, David Arseneault.
Arseneault is the conference’s most famous — and to some most infamous — coach. With his team’s frenzied style, Arseneault has been called anything from a traitor to the game or one of its greatest innovators.
Mostly, Heimann calls him a pal.
“I love David Arseneault,” Heimann said afterward.
In 1990, the Grinnell coach phoned him with a heads-up. Grinnell was the sad sack of the conference, but Arseneault devised a style of play that would alter the way folks watch basketball, he told Heimann. The gist: shoot 3-pointers ‘til everyone’s arms waste to jelly.
“Oh, are ya?” Heimann, highly skeptical, replied.
“It’s going to make all the national media,” Arseneault proclaimed, as Heimann recalled the conversation. “Sports Illustrated. The New York Times.”
The teams played several days later, and Heimann was baffled. Holy mackerel, Arseneault wasn’t kidding.
Knox won that game. The score: 138-119. But the Grinnell program has flourished, and the tiny Division III program east of Des Moines has grabbed the attention of the sports media giants.
“Some of the most exciting games of my career,” Heimann said, “were played against Grinnell.”
As friendly as the game is, Heimann was wound tighter than a muscle cramp on Jan. 30. “Loves practices, hates games,” Heimann has said over and over down the backstretch of his career. Wracked with anxiety, Heimann drove home about four hours before the game, sat in a chair next to the fire and read “Lincoln’s Sword,” by Knox professor Doug Wilson. Later in the film room before tipoff, Heimann would have assistant Jake Ayers tune in Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” on the Internet radio to numb his nerves.
By the time he finally laid down the book, stepped into his office, grabbed his red-and-white mug, walked downstairs, and filled it with ice and Diet Coke, there were only five minutes remaining before halftime at the women’s game. Normally, Heimann’s routine has him down in the film room in the bowels of Memorial Gymnasium by the end of halftime. But not with Arseneault here.
As soon as he strolled in the gym, Heimann stepped up to where Arseneault sat in the bleachers and plopped down next to him. The two gabbed. The Grinnell coach asked Heimann about his health, Heimann asked about Arseneault’s family, and the old-timers wondered aloud about the future of Division III coaching.
They soaked every allowable second they could off the clock to converse, and it wasn’t until four minutes into the second half — 40 minutes before their teams would play — that the coaches pried themselves apart.
Grinnell eventually won the game 84-76, but a victory over Knox is one that Arseneault struggles to enjoy.
“I confessed to Tim ... that I didn’t like to coach against him. He has become too good a colleague and I take no pleasure in trying to beat him,” Arseneault said in an e-mail, recalling a conversation on Wednesday. “And, since I hate to lose, our games have pretty much been a no-win situation for me.”
* * *
“Nothing’s for sure.”
That’s all the high school star and his future coach mentioned about the wreck that caused Greg Siepel’s vertebrae to smash against the boy’s spinal cord, leaving his legs limp. The morning after Siepel’s 1994 Thunderbird missed a stop sign as he drove his parents, Steve and Sheila, back from a reception at Knox College on the star-speckled night of March 14, 2005 — the same night he committed to Knox, and Heimann and school President Roger Taylor pinged a glass to announce to everyone that one of the best prep players around was coming — doctors at St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria delivered a bleak message dripping with certainty.
“You have a close-to-zero percent chance of walking,” the surgeon told Siepel, a standout guard for Farmington High School. “Do you have any questions?”
Sure, given the gravity of it all, maybe Siepel’s mind blanked out more of the conversation, but that’s what he remembers. And what else was there to remember? That terse statement summed it up.
Many long faces entered Siepel’s hospital room. Few knew what to say. Others said sorry, and told the boy what a tragedy it was. Heimann visited the day after the crash — and he’d poke his head in about five more times — and he smiled and he joked and he talked to Siepel no differently than ever before. It was as if such a horrible thing never happened.
“He walked in the room and he saw me,” Siepel said. “And he was all smiles. That’s about all you want in a situation like that.”
And then Heimann said the words that stick in Siepel’s mind.
“Nothing’s for sure,” Heimann said to him.
Had these doctors watched him toss in 21 points in an upset over Rock Island Alleman in the 2005 sectional finals, they’d have known that, too. To this day, Heimann calls Siepel “the best player enrolled at Knox College,” though he’s never played there. Had the doctors known this family’s unbreakable belief in prayer, the gloomy diagnosis would’ve contained a caveat allowing for hope.
Siepel internalized what Heimann said. Soon, he learned the coach was right.
Two months later, he went for evaluation at Chicago Shriners’ Hospital, and doctors revealed that his injury was not complete, meaning Siepel could walk again. By no means was it a certainty, but many people have recovered from bruised spinal cords, stood and walked again. This was such great news that Siepel told friends and family that he even planned to play ball again.
That summer, Heimann unexpectedly stopped by the family’s house in Hanna City. He brought a Knox basketball practice jersey and shorts.
“These will be waiting for you,” Heimann told Siepel.
As Siepel spent his freshman year taking Internet courses at Illinois Central College, he worried about his financial aid at Knox. The money was locked in, but the family wondered if his injury would affect the financial aid package. His father Steve continued to talk with Heimann, and the coach told him his agreement paying for two-thirds of schooling was still good.
“It felt incredible. I didn’t expect it,” Siepel said. “It was the farthest thing from my mind at the time and for my dad to come in and say, ‘They are going to honor your (financial aid agreement),’ that in itself says a lot about Heimann and Knox.
“What else would you want in a coach?”
Three years in a wheelchair, and he still has a sweet demeanor. He’s thinner now, but muscles in his legs are waking and his toes can wiggle. He’s now a junior majoring in economics who dreams of becoming a lawyer.
Of course, he has what ifs. What if the seat belt didn’t malfunction, dropping Siepel back-first at the floorboard? That’s when he broke his back, not during the course of the wreck. What if he ended up just like his parents, who crawled from the wreckage with minor injuries?
What if he could have played?
“There’s a lot of ifs like that,” Siepel said. “But I’m just happy my parents weren’t hurt.”
Siepel still talks to Heimann, and they exchange e-mails. Two weeks ago, Heimann wrote Siepel to bring over the game tape of that Alleman game he dominated. This semester, Siepel took “Coaching of Basketball,” one of Heimann’s courses.
“He’s really good to talk to, almost like a parent ... but you can talk to him about stuff you can’t talk to them about,” Siepel said. “When you talk to him, you benefit from it. He makes you feel better.
“Our relationship hasn’t changed since the first time I met him.”
In Siepel’s house back home, the practice jersey and shorts still hang. He’ll play again, he says. Maybe not collegiately, but he’ll play again.
And who knows?
From the man who’ll never coach him, Siepel has learned his life’s most important lesson.
Nothing’s for sure.
* * *
Boy, Heimann hates Walkmans.
Thirty minutes before his final game with the school’s most loathed rival, Monmouth, with the postseason tournament an outside shot with a victory, and Heimann has gone sentimental.
Sure, reminiscing on one’s career was to be expected with the emotions swirling around this Feb. 13 game, but Heimann’s path down memory lane was wayward. To say the least.
On the bus rides to games early in his coaching career, coaches and players would talk the entire way about politics and religion, all of them philosophizing as if they were in a mobile classroom. But when the compact portable tape players became popular in the early 1980s, hardly a peep could be heard on those rides.
“The worst change in the last 25 years, what depressed me the most, was Walkmans,” Heimann said.
As the game nears, he shifted conversation to struggles of getting women’s athletics off the ground, how clothes have changed but how his pregame ritual of filling his mug with ice and diet soda has not and the advances in technology, which leads him back to those gosh darn Walkmans.
“Walkmans, I should have outlawed them,” Heimann said about 15 minutes before the game in which Knox’s postseason hopes were crushed with a 58-52 loss. “God, I hated them.”
James Taylor’s voice poured through computer speakers on the Internet radio, which allows a person to talk and soak in the music. In the final moments before the players shuffled through the film room for the pregame talk, Heimann sat silently and listened to the harmonic hum of the music.
“People say 25 years seems like forever,” Heimann said. “Not tonight. It feels like it just started.”
* * *
Heimann was a studious kid out of Proviso West High School outside Chicago who attended Knox College, like most, primarily for its academics. Then-coach Harley Knosher never scouted Heimann in high school, but back then coaches didn’t recruit like they do now.
Once he finally watched this feisty guard ... boy, was this a match made in basketball heaven.
Knosher still chuckles at this story, even though it’s 40 years old.
In a game against Ripon in the 1967-68 season, his sophomore year, Heimann edged up to Knosher on the bench. Ripon had an 6-foot-3, 230-pound muscle-bound forward named David Miner, a star linebacker on the football team, who was eating Knox’s lunch. Late in the first half, Miner was whistled for his second foul and Heimann told his coach to sub him in.
“He said, ‘I can get his third foul. Trust me.’ ” Knosher recalled. “And I did trust him.”
Heimann had watched how Miner ran back on offense, his head looking back for the ball. Sure enough, Heimann set himself right in Miner’s path on the next Ripon fastbreak.
“Tim Heimann set himself on the midline ... and accepted a charge on that 230-pound kid that about rattled the teeth out of his head to get that third foul,” Knosher said. “That was a gutty play.”
Miner later fouled out, and Knox won.
After he graduated in 1970, Heimann went into the military briefly and then returned to Galesburg to coach at Costa Junior High. When Knox approved a paid assistant for Knosher in 1973, he hired Heimann. Heimann was a loyal assistant, and the two worked together well. With them coaching, Knox won the Midwest Conference championship in 1975 and three southern division championships up to 1980.
In 1984, when Knosher, also the athletic director, retired after 24 years as head coach, he picked Heimann as his replacement.
Heimann has a record of 257-282 entering today’s game at Memorial Gymnasium, and Knosher said his protege has a knack for the game of basketball. He sees plays develop and he skillfully game plans, but that’s not what stands out the most, Knosher said.
His loyalty, to friends, to colleagues, to his players both past and present, to the school, is what does.
“In the 42 years that Tim and I have been associated, it’s never been brought to my attention that Tim went behind my back in a negative way, as a player, as a coach,” Knosher said.
* * *
Heimann closed his final practice Friday evening doing what he does best. He told stories.
With the Knox team huddled around him, the coach took the players to spots on the court where some of the greatest plays in the college’s history occurred. The players stood around him, hushed.
Then Heimann walked to the Knox “K” at the halfcourt circle in Memorial Gymnasium and started clapping, and the team followed his lead one last time.
“It was real emotional, especially toward the end,” senior Josh Moten said. “Even though it’s my last game and Senior Night, I just want to win that game for him more than anything.”
Moten got his wish. Knox sent Heimann out with a 61-56 win.