- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 25, 2009

SPOKANE, WASH. (AP) - The crowd roared as Gonzaga’s Josh Heytvelt was feted on Senior Day, and the 6-foot-11 center choked up as he tried to address the fans.

It had been a long and difficult college journey for Heytvelt, and some wondered if he would survive injuries and a drug bust to reach his senior year.

But Heytvelt had grown into the player that many predicted when he was a heavily recruited high school kid in the small Eastern Washington farm town of Clarkston, and he will be counted on to battle Tyler Hansbrough in Friday’s NCAA regional semifinal against North Carolina.

Gonzaga students and fans expressed their admiration with a long ovation on March 3. Heytvelt, 22, offered his thanks, but not much more of the speech he had prepared.

“I didn’t think it would be as hard as it was,” Heytvelt recalled this week. “For everything I went through, it was just fine that it choked me up a little bit.”

That “everything” started with his recruitment out of Clarkston High School, which turned into a fierce battle between Gonzaga and Washington for one of the state’s top prospects.

Washington contacted Heytvelt during a period when schools were not allowed to speak with recruits. Gonzaga, Eastern Washington and Washington State all called the NCAA to complain, and the Huskies were penalized. They dropped their recruitment of Heytvelt and, subsequently, their annual series with the Zags.

Heytvelt redshirted his first year. He saw some action in the Maui Invitational in 2005, but broke his left ankle in the title game against Connecticut and missed the next 2 1/2 months of his freshman season. He ended up playing in 14 games.

Then Heytvelt blossomed as a sophomore, averaging 15.5 points and 7.7 rebounds over the first 25 games, including a memorable 19-point effort against North Carolina.

The season unraveled when Heytvelt and a teammate were arrested on Feb. 9, 2007, for possession of drugs. Heytvelt was suspended immediately, missing the final nine games and the postseason. His future was in doubt.

“I had no idea what was going to happen,” Heytvelt said.

He talked with Coach Mark Few after getting out of jail, remembering it as “kind of one of those surreal, not really knowing how to act, how to respond. …”

Heytvelt had been counting for years on a career playing professional basketball. Suddenly it was unclear if he would be allowed to return to school, or to the Zags. Team members took a vote and decided they would be willing to accept Heytvelt back, with conditions.

“I would have respected whatever decision they would have made,” Heytvelt said. “I was the one who put them in the position to make that decision. Thankfully, they chose to keep me around.”

Heytvelt was sentenced to 240 hours of community service, and weekly drug tests in compliance with a court-supervised diversion program that led to the dismissal of the charges. He ended up performing more than 300 hours of service, and met all other legal and school requirements.

He worked at the Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing for families with sick children, at other community events and at AAU basketball games.

“But the thing that made me grow as a person out of all of that stuff was working at the Ronald McDonald House and seeing the things that those families go through,” Heytvelt said.

He was reinstated to the team in October 2007.

But his problems were not over. A stress fracture in his right foot hobbled Heytvelt in practice, and he decided to have surgery in November to insert pins to speed the healing process.

He did not see action his junior year until Dec. 20. But his foot never fully healed and Heytvelt’s numbers fell to 10.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. He lost his starting job and opposing fans made fun of his drug arrest on the road.

That set the stage for this season.

Heytvelt was determined to have a breakout year, for the team and to bolster his NBA stock.

He has averaged 14.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, shooting 54 percent from the floor. Unusual for a big man, he’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts (23-of-56). With Robert Sacre sidelined with injury, Heytvelt is Gonzaga’s major inside force, even though he is not a natural post-up center.

His acrobatic dunks and swooping blocks often bring Gonzaga fans to their feet.

He scored a career high 28 points against Pepperdine, and topped that the next game with 29 against Santa Clara. He had 22 points and eight rebounds in the first round NCAA win over Akron, and 10 points and six boards in a tight win over Western Kentucky.

His performance against Hansbrough on Friday may go a long way in determining whether Gonzaga returns to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1999.

“Josh has had a great year, academically, socially, with the team,” Few said. “He had fun this year, for the first time in a while.”

“Everybody is hoping he caps it with a couple really dominating performances,” Few added.

Heytvelt believes the period since his arrest has been life-changing.

“I had a lot of people helping me through everything,” he said. “Because of that, it has made me such a better person and teammate. I think that’s why I’ve been cherishing the last year and a half a lot more than the first couple years.”

Heytvelt has several tattoos, including one that says “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

He has already graduated with a degree in sports management. He knows from talking with former teammates like Ronny Turiaf and Adam Morrison that the NBA is a quantum leap from college basketball. He also knows to cherish this moment.

“No matter if you are in the NBA, if you are overseas, or no matter what you are doing, there’s nothing like that group of guys that you have in college,” he said.

“It’s been a fun ride.”

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