By Matt Kopsea
Basketball has consumed a large chunk of Ron Hecklinski’s life.
“Hoops is what I do,” said Hecklinski, who was formally introduced Tuesday as Mishawaka High’s new boys’ basketball coach. “Since I was knee high to a grasshopper, basketball has been my passion.
“Some people know right away what they want to do and mine was to coach hoops. That is why I can’t wait to get after it again and get my juices rolling again doing what I love.”
He replaces Ryan Watson, who stepped down after 17 seasons, nine as the head coach of the Cavemen, to become an assistant athletic director at the high school.
“This is an exciting day for the Mishawaka High community,” said new Mishawaka athletic director Dean Huppert. “We are getting a coach who wants to do things the Mishawaka way and embrace the tradition of our school. He believes in our mission and wants to do his best to bring new energy and help build and make our program stronger.”
Over his 25 years as the man in charge, which includes stops at Wapahani, Jasper, Edgewood, and Anderson, Hecklinski has a record of 368-203 and captured six sectional crowns.
A 1978 graduate of Manchester College (now University), he also worked as an assistant for four years at Ball State University.
“I consider myself to be lucky guy,” Hecklinski said. “For 18 years (1993-2011), I had the opportunity to go to work every day at Anderson in front of 9,000 fans at the Wigwam. Now, I get the chance to work in the state’s oldest gyms. I am really looking forward to embracing both the ambience and the smells that come with it.
Since leaving Anderson, where he compiled a mark of 274-138, he has dabbled both in broadcasting (including some Bethel basketball games for the Regional Radio Sports Network this past season) and as an assistant coach at Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis.
During his time on the bench, Hecklinski definitely endured his share of ups and downs.
However, nothing compares to the challenge he faced after undergoing a life-saving liver transplant in 1996 after being diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis.
It was the same illness which claimed the life of former Chicago Bears and Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton in 1999.
Since his surgery, he has been a strong advocate for organ donations and plans to continue this cause in the Mishawaka area.
“Walter Payton has always been one of my heroes,” Hecklinski said. “(Former DeMatha High basketball coach) Morgan Wooten and I were both fortunate enough to get help in time, but Walter wasn’t. That is why I always tell people to sign their organ donor card. That’s because organs are more help to people on earth than they are in heaven.”
The 1974 South Bend Saint Joseph product is also looking forward to getting a little closer to Michiana.
“It has been over 40 years since I have been back home, so it is time,” Hecklinski said. “My dad and my sister are both buried here and my 93-year old mom is still here. I have been away for too long, so I am looking forward to coming back home.”
Over the course of his career, he served as a head coach in the 2003 McDonald’s All-Star game, which included LeBron James, and the 2010 Indiana All-Star team.
“I am looking forward to working with student athletes again,” Hecklinski said. “My hat’s off to Ryan Watson and the job he did with these kids. He coached them up the right way. They always played with a lot of heart and desire. That is not going to change. I want to continue building off these great work ethics.
“One thing for sure is our kids are going to play their guts out. It might take a little time, but I am going to do my best to get them to play with some swagger. I want them
“Mishawaka has always been known for its excellence in football, wrestling, and volleyball. Eventually, I want to hear people say the same thing about our basketball guys.”
Just like he has done everywhere he has been, look for Ron Hecklinski to get the job done the right way.