Robbie Heath was in the backseat, his parents in front, driving home from a basketball game he had just played in. Or sat through, at least in the second half. This is going back to seventh grade, in a country on the other side of the world. In Heath’s memory, he had played a strong first half. For a reason not understood, he sat on the bench for the second half.
His parents didn’t get it, either. His father had grown up outside Philadelphia, had gone to Abington High School and ended up playing some professional basketball in Australia, where he met Robbie’s mom, settled there and started a family, Robbie and his two sisters, living just outside Melbourne.
What Robbie remembers his mom saying … “Bobby …
(“She calls my dad Bobby …”)
“... If you want Robbie to have a college career, and a professional career, you have to take him where you played.”
Sitting in that backseat, what was Robbie Heath thinking?
“It got me really emotional,’’ said Heath, his Aussie accent establishing his roots. “It makes me feel really good about my mum.”
Think about it. Split the family; mom and his sisters stayed in Australia. Bobby and Robbie headed for Philadelphia. Robbie ended up playing at Abington High, too. His path still didn’t follow a straight line, but now Heath is at West Chester, and is the leading Division II scorer in the country, 24 points per game, a 6-foot-3 guard who does not play much like a freshman. He’s the leading scorer in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, any class. (And his average would lead Division I.)
He’s surprised himself?
“No, not at all,’’ Heath said. “Not being cocky. I just feel like I’ve been overlooked my entire time in the USA.”
He’d set these goals for himself. Waking up at 5 a.m. to work out, get on a treadmill, often getting three workouts in a day, he thought about specific goals: PSAC player of the year. All-American. Freshman of the year.
“I think he plays with a chip on his shoulder,’’ said West Chester coach Damien Blair, who knows he got lucky in a sense getting Heath, except that’s what the top PSAC programs do: find players who are capable of handling Division I ball.
“If you’re not recruiting a low Division I player, you have no shot in our league,” said Blair, whose Rams had won their first 13 games this season, rising to eighth nationally in the NCAA Division II poll, before losing Wednesday to Shippensburg.
Talking about Heath’s game, Blair said he’s not a traditional point guard or shooting guard.
“He plays in a subtle way,’’ Blair said. “There are nights he had 28 or 30 and I thought he had 18. We don’t run a lot of plays for him, which is why … it’s hard to take him out [defensively] when you don’t know when or where he is looking to attack.”
On Friday, West Chester was in a close one against Shepherd, a West Virginia school. You wouldn’t have picked Heath out as a freshman. What stood out was his ability to work in close quarters, to maneuver in traffic. When West Chester needed a big shot, Heath delivered, hitting a contested three with a little more than two minutes left to break a tie.
Norm Eavenson, top local high school recruiting evaluator, was in the gym that night. How many current West Chester players had Eavenson evaluated as being worthy of playing Division I back when he’d rated them in high school? Eavenson left that game and went through his files, found one player as a mid-major D-I prospect (which makes sense, since that player, big man Marcus Littles from Neumann-Goretti High, has transferred to West Chester from George Washington), plus four more low D-I players, including Heath and senior guard Malik Jackson out of Penn Wood, West Chester’s other top scorer. Also, Eavenson had two players he had rated either low D-I or top D-II.
In other words, West Chester brings guys off its bench who might have been able to play D-I ball. Blair makes the point that West Chester “can beat a ton of low Division I teams.” However, the coach said, Division II offers endless battles.
“In our conversations, I tell our guys, there’s not really much difference between the 10th team in the country and the 200th,’’ Blair said of Division II. “In D-I, there’s a big difference between Kentucky and low D-I.”
The frustration for Heath was getting anyone to notice, even as he had success on a star-studded Abington team. He remembers emailing every D-I program he could think of, getting responses from some, but no concrete interest. Maybe going back to Australia for summers kept him under the radar. He tried a prep school in California after Abington, but quickly deemed it a bad situation. His father’s cousin runs Rocktop Academy, a purely hoops postgrad experience, so Heath worked out with that group last season.
All that time, there was one school genuinely interested, from Heath’s early days at Abington. He now plays for that school.
“West Chester was the only one that came to me and was truthful — they wanted me,’’ Heath said. “Everyone else, I had to contact, which I felt was not the way to go.”
“We were on Robbie from Day 1,’’ Blair said. “We thought we had an outside chance. A bunch of low D-Is were sniffing around. We just wanted to stay in the picture, just in case they fell off.”
Blair understands players get caught up in Division I — “a lot of times, all they care about is the number.” Blair believes there is a little more chance to develop players at his level, work on the holes — “sometimes you don’t get that flexibility in Division I.” Himself a two-time PSAC East player of the year at West Chester, Blair, in his 12th season as head coach, can point to all the D-II players who make it professionally overseas. Heath likes that line about how “even if you play on the moon, they’ll find you.”
Australia is a big country but a small basketball community, especially when you’re from the same area that produced Ben Simmons and Dante Exum. As a little guy, a year or two before moving here, Heath remembers working out with Simmons at a place called Eltham Leisure Centre: “He was so aggressive in every drill and dribble we did.”
At that time, Heath said, Exum was really on the rise, “getting global attention.” Heath has kept in touch with Exum, and when the Utah Jazz played the Sixers recently, Heath stayed afterward, touched base, got a little advice from him.
"Funny enough, my first picture on Instagram is of me and Dante,'' Heath noted.
That chip on Heath’s shoulder? Heath points to it himself, is proud of it.
“I’ve always been called on to make big plays,’’ Heath said. “End of the game, it might be a rebound, get a loose ball, get a basket. I want to be there. That’s how I’m wired.”