- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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SPOKANE, Wash. -- The Spokane County Jail cell was a bit claustrophobic for Josh Heytvelt's 6-foot-11, 238-pound frame. The 21-year-old sat in the tiny cell with his teammate, the 6-9 Theo Davis, an arm's reach away from him. Heytvelt struggled to get comfortable, alternating between standing and sitting, trying to bide the time pregnant with anxiety and worry. And sometime, during that long, sleepless night, he came to the awful realization that his Gonzaga career was in shambles, and his freedom was in jeopardy because of one stupid decision.
It was probably one of the worst times I've ever had, just knowing that I let everyone down that I know in my life at that time. I didn't know what Coach Few was going to say and didn't know what the school would do. I was so scared of what [Few] was going to say.
"I was trying to relax and trying to forget until I had to wake up in the morning," Heytvelt said. "It was it was it sucked."
It was Feb. 9. Gonzaga was hosting WCC rival Saint Mary's the next day in the first of four straight home games, including a nonconference showdown with Memphis. Heytvelt had seen his averages skyrocket from 3.6 points and 2.1 rebounds as a backup as a redshirt freshman to 15.5 and 7.1 as a sophomore.
Everything was in line for Heytvelt to finish strong and help lead the Zags to a conference title and possibly another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
But the night before the Saint Mary's game, Heytvelt and Davis (who was sitting out last season) decided to go out in nearby Cheney, Wash. They were traveling in Heytvelt's Chevy Blazer. They stopped at a Safeway. Heytvelt didn't have his lights on and was confronted by the police at 11:42 p.m.
Heytvelt said he wasn't sure why the police officer asked him to step out of the car. But the police officer saw a plastic bag, which was visible from Heytvelt's gym bag, and questioned the hoops star about it. Heytvelt played dumb, but knew he was in trouble.
"I was dumbfounded," he said. "I didn't know what was going on and he said, 'What's this?' And I said, 'I couldn't tell you. I don't know.' Obviously, by looking at the bag, I could tell what the contents were."
Heytvelt and Davis were promptly escorted into the back of the officer's car.
The bag contained psilocybin, an active hallucinogenic mushroom. Heytvelt was charged with felony drug possession. He was later drug tested and was determined to be clean, according to his attorney, Dennis Thompson. Davis was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana with less than one-tenth of a gram in his pocket, said Thompson, who is Davis' attorney as well.
Heytvelt had no way of knowing that as a result of that seemingly benign traffic stop, his coach and teammates would want him out of the program.
"I had no idea what was going on when it all happened," Heytvelt said. "I don't think I completely realized everything, the whole picture of what has happening and all that until the next day, when it was all over the news and everywhere."
Gonzaga, a Jesuit school and the Cinderella darling of college basketball, had never seen a crisis of this degree.
"It really was the first black eye on the program," said San Diego coach Bill Grier, a Gonzaga assistant coach last season.
"I think this gave those people looking for chinks in our armor an opportunity," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
The first reactions
While Heytvelt sat in that jail cell, his family was getting ready to make the two-hour drive from Clarkston, Wash., to see him play. Heytvelt's parents, Rolin and Michelle, had to keep tabs on the travel arrangements for his two older sisters, Heather and Amy -- one from San Diego, the other from Seoul, South Korea.
Few and Heytvelt's teammates were preparing for their toughest rival in the league.
But the news started to spread with Heytvelt's call from jail to assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. Lloyd immediately called Few, who said his disappointment was, "off the charts. I mean I just couldn't measure it on the Richter scale. It was a gamut of emotions, much more anger at the initial response."
Teammates David Pendergraft and Derek Raivio heard the news shortly after they awoke Saturday morning and turned on ESPN.
"I thought for sure they got it wrong," Pendergraft said. "It was shocking. It was almost like, 'Man how are we going to go out and play today?' I mean, it almost took the game and made it oblivious. If the accusations were true and what the report was, I thought they were done for sure."
Heytvelt and Davis were still in the cell. It would be hours before they were released.
Heytvelt began his catharsis the moment he was released, going through an exhausting, frustrating and at times discouraging journey to clear his legal record while trying to regain the trust of his family, his coaching staff, his girlfriend (also the mother of his baby girl), his professors, and maybe toughest of all, his teammates.
Facing the family
The phone call to Rolin from jail was the hardest. Heytvelt said he spoke with his father four or five times that fateful night.
Heytvelt also had to phone Katie Peterson, his girlfriend and the mother of their 1½-year-old daughter, Hailey Rose.
"It affects you as a person, as a dad, as a parent," Heytvelt said. "You know that you messed up and eventually you have to tell your kid at some point in their life, 'Hey, this is what happened to me. I messed up.'"
Heytvelt had no idea how to break the news to his father. Yet he was naïve enough to think that he could still maybe play against the Gaels that night.
"It was probably one of the worst times I've ever had, just knowing that I let everyone down that I know in my life at that time," Heytvelt said. "I didn't know what to think. Everything was moving so quickly and back and forth. I didn't know what Coach Few was going to say and didn't know what the school would do. I was so scared of what [Few] was going to say."
Few was furious that Heytvelt had been out the night before a big game. Heytvelt rationalized the decision by saying that he and Davis would have been back at their apartment by midnight had they not been stopped by police. Instead, they returned home Saturday morning, when they were released on their own recognizance.
Few had made up his mind. He wanted Heytvelt gone.
"I didn't have a whole lot of things I wanted to say to him," Few said. "We had a game in four or five more hours. We had shoot-around coming up. One of the things I was watching was to see how his teammates would accept him. Initially, some of them didn't want him around."
The Gonzaga players shied away from Heytvelt. No one had his back. No one came to his defense. It didn't matter how talented he was, or what he could mean for this team in the stat box or in the NCAA selection process.
"I, for one, was extremely disappointed," sophomore guard Matt Bouldin said. "He let me down. We were really upset with him. We know how much we needed him.
"I personally didn't want to spend a lot of time with him."
The school decided to give Heytvelt a second chance.
"I was still very much for out of sight, out of mind," Few said. "I didn't want him around. I don't know if I had softened my stance, but it did open my eyes."
Without Heytvelt on the court, the Zags had to change the way they played. They went with more of a small-ball mentality. Gonzaga beat Saint Mary's, but lost the next two games before ripping off five in a row and winning the WCC tournament. Gonzaga, though, lost to Indiana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Regaining the trust
Heytvelt didn't have a blueprint for how he should repair the relationships he'd severed.
He started to try to make amends first with Karen Rickel, one of the professors he trusted most. He e-mailed her the following Monday night, apologizing for the embarrassment to the university.
Prior to Rickel's Tuesday morning class, Heytvelt said he nearly had an anxiety attack.
"It was like, 'Oh my God. People are going to laugh at me when I walk into the classroom,'" he said. "I thought the kid sitting next to me would whisper and all that."
It didn't happen. Rickel said nobody said anything to Heytvelt and she was careful to not bring it up in class.
Soon after, the issue of drugs came up in the class curriculum. That's when Heytvelt broke the ice and began to open up about his arrest.
Within a week of his arrest, Heytvelt wrote each teammate a letter, apologizing for his actions, Bouldin said.
But the healing process took nearly the entire spring. There were still times when the players would debate whether they should allow him to participate in team pickup games, Few said. The decision was up to the players, and it was only much later in the spring when they finally allowed him to rejoin them on the court, Lloyd said.
The road ahead
Heytvelt is prepared to be ridiculed and jeered on the road, especially at WCC stops like Pepperdine and Saint Mary's.
He isn't running away from what will likely be a volatile situation.
"I deserve what I get I guess, but I think I'm going to be mentally ready enough to deal with whatever they throw at me," Heytvelt said. "It's going to be fun if nothing else to listen to the comments to what everyone has to say and look at the scoreboard afterwards and say it doesn't matter what you say."
No one will be laughing on the Gonzaga side.
"He does deserve to get anything handed to him, and he deserves to get every bit of, you know, hostile things that happen out there to him," Few said. "Now, are we going to be there for him and step up to protect him? Yes. He deserves everything since he's the one that brought it on himself."
But Few and the Gonzaga players said they have seen a dramatic change in Heytvelt, who agreed to be placed in a diversion program that will clear his record if he completed 240 hours of community service and stays clean until March 11, 2008. He is more extroverted now. Heytvelt wants to hang out more with his teammates. He is vocalizing his emotions more and wants to be a better teammate.
Heytvelt makes the Zags a potential deep NCAA team. He can score in the post, giving the squad something it sorely lacked late in the season. He is versatile enough to score facing the basket. With Heytvelt joining Bouldin, Pendergraft, Jeremy Pargo and Micah Downs, the Zags have a formidable starting five.
Heytvelt has been slowed by a stress reaction in his right ankle, but he should make his much-anticipated return to the court next week.
He is thankful Gonzaga allowed him to stay after he agreed to complete nearly 300 hours of community service work and meet with a drug counselor on campus. The easy thing would have been to bolt and enter the NBA draft.
Ultimately, though, he needed Gonzaga basketball to keep him on the right path.
"I have a lot more respect for the coaching staff and all that just because of the people they are and [because they] gave me a second chance," Heytvelt said. "That was the big thing I needed from them. I don't know what I would have done if I didn't play basketball. I don't know what I would have done if that had happened. I don't know."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Josh Heytvelt's great sophomore campaign ended with an embarrassing arrest in February. It hasn't been an easy road back, but he's on the verge of suiting up for Gonzaga once again, writes Andy Katz.