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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Making Some Headway

Fun-Loving Heinle Grows Into Pivotal Role for Northridge

November 21, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Watch it, Brian Heinle. The last thing you need is a swollen head.

So, you are the marquee player for the Big Sky Conference preseason favorite. And you're cover boy of the Cal State Northridge men's basketball media guide.

The Matadors' court jester. A 6-foot-9 center of attention. A bona fide Big Man on Campus--even if it is only little ol' Northridge.

"Remember," Heinle said. "There are 28,000 students who don't come to our games."

Just stay focused, stay healthy and work on that inside game, Brian. And beware of overhead objects.

Moments after perhaps the biggest victory in Northridge history last season, a 79-77 squeaker at Oregon, Heinle was having his scalp stitched after whacking his head against a heating duct in the cramped locker room of ancient MacArthur Court.

Had the mishap not resulted in a pool of blood and genuine concern among coaches, it might have made for laughs. After all, here was Heinle, the guy who usually keeps everybody else in stitches, under the needle while the team celebrated.

Northridge took care of the Ducks, but it was Heinle who forgot to . . . heh, heh, heh.

"I bang my head, probably, twice a day," Heinle said. "Doorways. It happens to me a lot."

Fortunately, the wound wasn't serious. And Heinle didn't miss a game en route to averaging a team-high 14.6 points and earning all-conference honors.

"I'd thought we lost him," assistant Mike Johnson said. "I was standing right next to him when it happened. I didn't see it but I turned around and he was holding his head. His comment was, 'Carnage!' "

Here's hoping that doesn't happen this season. But don't expect Heinle's ego to expand, either.

Northridge (1-0) will be center stage tonight against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in a game televised by Fox Sports West 2. For the Matadors and Heinle, a senior from Eugene, Ore., in his fourth season, the game will provide a formidable challenge and chance for Heinle to hone his inside moves and leadership skills.

Despite unprecedented preseason plaudits bestowed on the Matadors, including a unanimous choice to finish first in the Big Sky, they strive to stick to business when it comes to basketball. That is especially true of Heinle, who continues to strengthen his physique.

Versatile and athletic, Heinle poses problems for defenders because of his agility inside and ability to connect from three-point range.

Heinle has made 37 three-point baskets in each of the last two seasons and his career percentage from behind the arc is 35.4. But he could stand to increase his career rebounding average of 5.7.

"He's come a long way since he's been here," Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell said. "He was 6-9, about 185 [pounds] then. Now, he can be a strong force inside when he puts his mind to it."

Heinle added 10 pounds during the off-season and weighs about 240. He will need to flex his muscles for the Matadors, who lost forwards Hewitt Rolle and Andre Larry to graduation.

"We could use some more big guys. Who couldn't?" Heinle said. "I'm going to have to be more of an inside guy because I don't know if we have enough of those guys."

Off the court, Heinle will keep up the comic relief.

"He's the comedian on the team," Braswell said. "He doesn't always have the best timing with it, but it's just Brian. We're used to it now. Whether we're on the bus or on the plane, traveling, he does a solid job of keeping everybody loose and the guys love him to death."

Heinle's attempts to boost morale feature everything from wisecracks to impersonations of sportscasters Bill Walton and Keith Jackson. It is welcomed among teammates and a breath of fresh air during postgame interviews.

"Brian likes to have fun a lot," guard Markus Carr said. "Off the court, he likes to crack jokes and bring a lot of morale to the team. He does a good job of it."

Heinle's demeanor on the floor is quite the opposite. Same goes for when you get him one-on-one.

Admittedly shy, Heinle saves his funny stuff for when only the guys are around. Growing up in Oregon, he stood out at an early age and tried--usually with little success--to keep his head low.

"I've always been the tallest guy in school," Heinle said. "That's probably why I'm so shy.

"I never expected any of this. There were times in high school when I didn't even think I could play basketball in college. A lot of times, I would doubt myself. Not any more. You can't play [in] Division I and doubt yourself."

Especially under the watchful eye of Braswell, who took notice of Heinle as a gangly eighth-grader. Braswell then was an assistant at Oregon. Heinle, already a 6-footer, and Northridge guard Carl Holmes, Braswell's nephew, competed together in youth leagues.

"I saw him out there, doing some things, being a little goofy and just being a kid," Braswell recalled. "I did see something in him. I said, 'You have a chance to play at the next level. You need to start working on things.' "

Heinle played three seasons for Sheldon High in Eugene, leading the team to a 25-3 record and state final appearance his senior year. By then, Heinle and Holmes understandably were prime Braswell recruits.

Heinle gave other options little consideration.

"I just wanted to make sure I went to a place where the coach cared about me and somewhere that wasn't established so that when I was done, I could say that I helped turn things around," he said. "That's the thing Coach Braswell sold me on."

Heinle pointed to his first meeting with Braswell as the moment his self-esteem began to rise like his height.

"I remember exactly where it was, sitting in the bleachers," Heinle said. "Him telling me what I needed to do. That's when I started to think I could play.

"That was a big deal. You know how big Oregon is in my hometown. But I just kept it to myself. I didn't go around and tell everyone. I didn't want to get too big a head."

Anything but that.

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