If ever a youngster was predestined to become a basketball star it was Michael Heary, the Naval Academy plebe who is averaging 16 points over the past four games as a key reserve for the Midshipmen.
Growing up in the small western New York town of Fredonia, Heary lived in a house that had basketball hoops hanging everywhere, even in the family kitchen.
"Yes, that's absolutely true," said his mother, Rita Heary. "We have three daughters, all much older than Michael. So, of course, my husband, Tom, who had played basketball at Canisius, paid special attention to his only son.
"Michael started playing in the basement when he was about 6 or 7, and worked his way upstairs. We had a regulation-size hoop hanging on the kitchen door. The sink served as the free-throw line, and I had to forget the dishes if Michael had a foul to shoot. He'd create a whole game in his head and give you the play-by-play.
"Well, one day one of his shots bounced off the rim and right into the chili I was preparing for dinner. I guess I was so accustomed to it, I just picked the ball out of the pot, wiped it off, and said, 'Keep playing!' And when I served dinner that night, no one complained."
Heary went on to score 2,235 points in high school. He had a 62-point game as a senior at Fredonia High, where his father, Tom, had served as principal for 25 years. Tom Heary died in 1993 after a six-year battle with leukemia.
Fredonia retired Michael Heary's uniform number last year.
"The only sad thing about it was my father wasn't there to see it," he said.
"He wasn't one of these fathers who forced me to play basketball. He just introduced me to the game at an early age and I took a great liking to it. Even when he was dying, he was always big on making things seem as normal as possible around the house, so I wouldn't feel any added pressure."
Tom Heary went to all of his son's scrimmages and games, as long as he was physically able.
"He missed Christmas Mass my junior year, but he still made it to our Booster Tournament during the holiday," Michael said. "He would try to summon his strength just to be able to watch me play."
Tom Heary died in a Rochester hospital, Nov. 9, 1993. In the final days, his son visited whenever possible.
"I was there while he was dying," Michael said. "I still remember watching the computer screen showing his heart rate. Three times, it went from 0 to 24. It was like an omen. That was my uniform number."
Heary, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound guard who still wears 24 in honor of his father, played in a conference game the day after the funeral and scored 36 points.
"Some people questioned my decision, but I knew that would be my father's wish," he said. "He'd want me to go on like there was no problem. Playing hard was the best way I could pay tribute to him."
Despite averaging more than 26 points his junior season and being selected to play among area all-stars in both the Empire Games and State Fair Games, Heary was ignored by major college scouts.
"I also played in the Five-Star Camp in Pennsylvania and thought I held my own," he said. "But my only bona fide scholarship offers came from Davidson, Canisius and the Naval Academy.
"I was interested in academics as well as playing basketball. I didn't have any false illusions about making it to the NBA. And I wanted to declare early so I could concentrate on trying to make it to the state finals my senior year."
Asked how he was able to land Heary, Navy coach Don DeVoe said, "I think it had a lot to do with Michael's brother-in-law [Mike McDonald] being an assistant coach at Canisius. Family ties usually weigh heavily in a young man's college decision.
"But Michael is a unique youngster. He wanted to establish himself in a different area than upstate New York. We made a personal visit to his home and Michael, his mother, and his high school coach, Dave Polechetti, asked hundreds of questions about life at the academy. Life. It wasa real mature decision."
Heary has displayed that same maturity in his role with an experienced Navy team that is coming off a surprising trip to the NCAA tournament last season.
Although he was shooting only 39 percent from the field through the first 10 games, he had more than compensated by aggressively driving to the basket and drawing fouls. He has shot 97.4 percent (33-for-34) from the line, including a number in pressure situations.
"Ordinarily, I've always believed the older players have to lead your team," said DeVoe, in his 22nd year as a Division I head coach. "But when you have an exceptional freshman like Michael, you have to give them the opportunity to establish themselves.
"Michael has a shooter's mentality, like all great scorers. He knows his role here is to give our offense a boost, and we don't worry too much if he misses his first few shots. We know he'll start hitting them or going to the line."
His Navy teammates constantly kid Heary about his 62-point performance in high school.
"They all say I must have done it against some junior varsity team," he said. "Actually, it was against Buffalo Traditional, a tough vocational school, and we lost in double overtime."
Heary may never come closing to scoring 62 again, but DeVoe is certain he will put up impressive numbers before he graduates in 1998. And Heary's mother, who has moved to Annapolis, will be leading the cheers.
"I plan on seeing all his home games and as many road games as possible," she said. "I lost my husband and both my parents in 1993, so I wanted to live close to Michael and my daughter, Michelle [a former Maryland swimmer now working in Washington].
"But I'm not planning on cooking any chili," said said, laughing.