Eric Heft had never been west of Ohio. But basketball would change that.
After a visit to Iowa State, he decided that’s where he’d take his college basketball career. So, Labor Day weekend of 1970, Heft put all that he had in a couple of suitcases and got on a plane to Iowa, not knowing anyone and not knowing what would come.
Heft had been playing basketball since first grade. His older brothers played sports — he said it was just what you did in the time before the Internet. His competitive nature elevated him to success in basketball and baseball.
In his sophomore year at Lewisville High School in Ohio, Heft realized playing basketball in college might be in the picture. But college basketball back then was different.
People at Lewisville didn’t play college ball. Basketball wasn’t in the limelight at a national level. Recruiting was about personal relationships you’d built with coaches. There weren’t any basketball camps to compete against other players outside of your area.
“You never really knew how good you were,” Heft said.
His senior year, he started to realize how good he was. His high school coach started talking to college coaches and soon enough he had offers from small colleges in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
He thought at least I can play at the small colleges, but he was hoping for more.
“The turning point for me was one of the colleges, Marietta College, the coach there had been recruiting me,” he said, speaking of Coach Don Kelley. “And he had played at Ohio State. I told him I was hoping to go to some place, I guess, a little more big time than a small college.
“He’d been there for a number of years and then he called me one day and said ‘I’m leaving Marietta College and I’m going to be an assistant coach at Iowa State. He said, ‘I agree with you, I think you can play at that level and would you want to take a visit?’”
He took Kelley up on his offer and decided to take the visit.
He liked Ames. He liked campus. But ultimately, what drew him to Iowa State was something that wasn’t there yet: Hilton Coliseum.
“Hilton Coliseum was under construction,” he said. “So I saw the place I was going to play. The fact that I had someone who would advocate for me, in Coach Kelley, since I was coming out here, I guess I trusted him.”
After all, why would Coach Kelley steer him wrong? he thought.
Filling the role
Many Cyclone fans know Heft’s playing time at Iowa State by his record that still stands today for most assists in one game.
But when asked about memories of his time playing at Iowa State, the game against Nebraska where he made those 16 assists was the second memory to come to mind. The game that came to his mind first was Oklahoma his junior year.
Though he hadn’t played a lot throughout the game, down 12 points with about 10 minutes to go, Heft knew he needed to do something to turn the game around. And he did — he came in and scored 17 points to lead the Cyclones to victory.
“That was pretty big,” he said.
But bigger than 16 assists and a record that still stands today?
“I’ll tell you what the difference is — we won the Oklahoma game and the game I set the assist record in we actually lost. I count wins better than losses,” he chuckled.
Making the assist
Heft’s assist records are poised to stick around for a while, but one record isn’t in the stats book. For the past 37 years, Heft has been a color analyst for Cyclone radio broadcasts, first alongside Pete Taylor, and now John Walters.
It was happenstance that he became a color analyst.
Pete Taylor started doing solo broadcasts for Cyclone radio when Heft started playing for Iowa State. The two developed a bond that turned into a friendship, continuing after Heft graduated in 1974.
In 1979, while playing racquetball together, he told Taylor that he was going to be helping broadcast Ames High School basketball. Taylor asked why Heft didn’t do analysis with him too. That’s how his Iowa State broadcast stint got started and it hasn’t stopped since.
Seeing Hilton Magic
Having seen nine coaches make their way through the men’s basketball program, Heft has a pretty good idea of what Hilton Magic is.
Though he spent his last three years playing in Hilton, the magic wasn’t there. It wouldn’t come, he said, until Johnny Orr arrived. When Hilton Magic did come, it came in full swing.
Heft credited Orr for putting Iowa State basketball on the map and broadcasting during that time are some of the fondest memories he has of his long career with Cyclone radio.
One of his favorite memories was Iowa State knocking off Orr’s previous team, the Michigan Wolverines, in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1986.
This was the era when Heft said Hilton Magic arrived. It was driven by how the team excited the fans and soon enough the atmosphere became comparable, if not better, to playing at Kansas. The atmosphere created is still around today and Heft said it’s sometimes impossible to hear himself talk — even with his soundproof headphones.
Has he seen the floor shake? Not being at the court’s level, it’s hard for him to tell, but when Fred Hoiberg was a player he said he felt the ground shake at the end of the game when Oklahoma State missed a free throw. He’ll take his word for it.
“When there’s a lot of people there, and they’re invested in your team, it’s exciting whether you’re broadcasting the game, a fan watching or a player playing,” he said. “It just jacks up the level of not only importance but excitement around an event like that. Our fans have been tremendous for a long time.”
Arriving two hours before each game, he gets all his equipment set up and plans his segments with John Walters. But most of his preparation comes from watching recordings of the other team’s games to analyze the opponent’s strengths, weaknesses and key matchups against the Cyclones.
Heft still can’t believe that something so fun could count as work.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world — are you kidding me?” Heft said. “It’s a dream come true.”