David Adam

Sunday Conversation with Bill Heisler

Bill Heisler poses for a family portrait with his wife, Jennifer, and their sons William, 6, and Landon, 4. | Photo Courtesy of the Heisler family
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jan. 19, 2019 10:10 pm Updated: Jan. 21, 2019 12:34 am

Bill Heisler hit one of the greatest shots in the history of the Illinois High School Association's state basketball tournament nearly 22 years ago. His 3-pointer at the end of regulation tied the 1997 Class A championship game, and he finished with 36 points as Warsaw defeated Spring Valley Hall 92-85 for the championship. He was named one of the "100 Legends of the IHSA Boys Basketball Tournament" in 2007.

Now at Leyden High School in the village of Franklin Park in Cook County, Heisler is in his 12th year as the boys basketball coach, a physical education teacher and a drivers education teacher. When students and faculty learned last fall that Heisler was to be inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, they learned their coach was a pretty fair player himself by watching a YouTube video of the title game. Heisler, 39, lives in Tinley Park with his wife, Jennifer, and their sons William, 6, and Landon, 4.

What's a guy from a small town like Warsaw doing in Chicago?

I love it here. It's a great place. We have two campuses. Our west campus is 90 percent Hispanic, and on our east campus, we have people from all over the world. I think we have kids who speak 37 different languages. We have 3,600 kids, pretty much split evenly between the two campuses, and we combine them all for athletics. It's literally a half-mile from O'Hare Airport. It's close enough that O'Hare put in sound-proof windows for us. When the dream of playing ended -- and I figured I'd play basketball until it was my choice for it to end, which was wrong -- I coached at Elmhurst College, then went to Northern Illinois and got teacher certified. I coached at Hiawatha High School in Kirkland for one year, then Tinley Park for two years. The job at Leyden came open, and a couple of guys who played football at Western Illinois were here. They told me how good it was here and about the opportunities here, so I left Tinley Park and came here. I've been here ever since.

Do you live near the school?

That's the killer. I have a terrible commute. My wife works in Joliet. I bought the house when we were in Tinley Park. I have a 45-minute drive every day. She's close by with the kids if they need something. After practice, that hour can be good to clear my mind.

Are your kids interested in basketball yet?

My 6-year-old won't get out of the gym. They both love being in the gym, but that 6-year-old has the itch. They're Leyden's biggest fans. Being a father instantly changes your priorities. There's no job I enjoy more than spending time with my boys. I have been very blessed to have a caring wife and such great children.

How often do you make it back to Warsaw?

We spend a week there every July 4 with Mom. We usually meet at the water park in Burlington (Iowa) and then come down. Depending on how busy everything is, we try to make it back one more time. Now that my mom is retired, she's up here a lot more. My brother is coaching at Schaumburg, and they have a baby and one on the way, so Grandma can stay plenty busy when she comes up here.

When you're in Warsaw, do you ever connect with any of your teammates?

We get together on the Fourth of July. We started a few years ago. I keep trying to get them to come visit me. It's tough to get everybody's schedules lined up. Craig Wear usually hosts a little something. Last year, Jonny Dahl (son of former Warsaw coach Jeff Dahl) got married at that time, and a lot of guys were back.

Do people at Leyden know about your basketball career?

What's funny is when the IBCA thing came out, the superintendent sent out a congratulatory message in an e-mail blast to everybody, and he included a link to the championship game. I think everybody took a peek, and they all made fun of my socks. I never talk about it here. It brings up such good times and a chance to talk about it and how fast the past 20 years have gone. It's been fun to talk about it. The guys in the office roast you about it, but it's definitely nice to walk down memory lane. One thing about memory lane. It's funny now being in coaching community and knowing a lot of guys in the IBCA and then connecting the two worlds. It's amazing how many guys never put together that I also played at Warsaw. You have no idea how many stories I've heard when someone says to me, "I was in Sully's (an Irish pub in Peoria) watching that game." That's been pretty cool.

Do you still play?

We have a Friday morning basketball league that starts at 6 a.m., but I've fallen off since my second son was born. In the beginning, I think I won my athletic director over. I think it was like, ‘This guy knows what he's doing out there.' They knew I could play a little bit.

I'm going to assume the state championship game is the one you remember most, but are there other games that immediately come to mind when you think of your days in Warsaw?

A couple of games stick out, but honestly, I remember me, Wear, Dan Buelt, Bobby Thomas, all those guys, going to the Bott Community Center and just playing. An elderly man named Carl Congdon opened the gym for us, and we'd play for about four hours every night. In the summer, we lived playing ball on the tennis courts. I think of those things as much as I do any game we played. I think the community center opened when I was in fifth or sixth grade. It was a second home to us. I tell my kids (at Leyden) when we're done with team practice at 5:30, "Now go eat and have your practice." That's what it was for me. We'd all go home, get some food and play until 8 or 9 o'clock. Now I do have some vivid memories of the games against Nauvoo-Colusa (which won the 1998 Class A state title) and the super-sectional game against Pleasant Plains. The Nauvoo-Warsaw rivalry was so incredible. The area had incredible basketball at that time. You had Craig Lewis at Keokuk, Merve (Joseph at Central), Lennox (McCoy at Quincy Notre Dame). The amount of Division I and college players was amazing, and they were just our friends. It was an unprecedented time in our area. I'll never forget just being a part of that.

When did you think Warsaw was capable of winning a championship?

What's so funny was that I always thought we were good enough. Where ever we went, we won. I remember it was huge for me to play at Quincy High School and win there, and we had a great showing there in the summer. I also remember we went to the Memphis Steamboat (a summer tournament), and we went 0-7. It was the first time I thought we weren't as good as we think we are. There was a vacation part of it. We were at the water parks and theme parks, but I was just devastated. For Dan, Craig and me, that was a big talking point. Are we really any good? Turns out we were playing some Class 4A Memphis schools, but it was a good awakening moment. It made our leadership care about our performance.

Tell me about the shot that forced overtime against Spring Valley Hall.

I knew I wanted to shoot it. I never really thought about missing. It never crossed my mind. We had just been through so many close games. We were down 15 points against Nauvoo in the Hancock County Tournament, we battled QND in the sectional, and super-sectional against Pleasant Plains (an overtime victory), we had no business winning that game. So (the championship game) was never like a nerve-wracking moment. My mom was crying in the stands because she knew I was going to shoot it and she thought I might miss it. Honestly, I remember even in that timeout feeling there's no possible way we're losing.

How did you end up at Western Illinois?

The super-sectional game was huge. A couple of people in my corner helped. (Former Quincy High School coach) Loren Wallace called them on my behalf, and I had no idea he'd done that. Brad Froman, who was a walk-on for (WIU) at the time, and he called them on my behalf. He was one of our assistant coaches (at Warsaw). Tennessee-Martin and SIU-Edwardsville, those were the only schools who pursued me. I was thinking junior college. It wasn't like I was on an AAU team to get exposure. It was just Warsaw, and getting to the super-sectional, I had a really good game. That helped solidify my chances.

Happy with your WIU career?

One hundred percent. I'm thankful for the opportunity that was afforded me and the relationships I made. I knew I played for the best coaches in the country. Jim Kerwin was a legend, and you just loved Brad Underwood (an assistant who now is the head coach at the University of Illinois). I don't know anyone who played for him who didn't like him. He had the unique ability to get on you, but you knew he cared for you. I got to travel and see the country. I got to meet all sorts of people. I met my wife. I got my degree. It was an amazing experience. I got to play for free. I'm more appreciative of it as I age. I'm trying to help the kids I coach get to their highest level, too. I had a great experience. I didn't have a great senior year. All my friends were gone, and I hurt my knee. But all in all, what an incredible experience. And it's pretty cool that my family got to see a lot of it.

Was going into coaching a natural move for you?

I honestly thought I wanted to coach college basketball. It just wasn't for me. The recruiting part, it wasn't how I wanted to spend my time. The fact I get to work with young kids and have a family atmosphere, and we're competing and trying to win, I feel very supported, and I think we're giving kids great experiences. You have a bad year in college, you might be looking for a new job. I couldn't be happier with the situation I'm in. I don't feel like I have a job. I really enjoy what I get to do.

Describe what kind of coach you're like.

I've chilled a lot, I'm trying to tell my guys that when they think I'm tough on them, but the fresh-out-of-Division I Bill was pretty crazy. Our league here (the West Suburban Gold), we have Downers Grove South, Proviso East, Hinsdale South. It's just brutal. We're competing at a high level, and there's times that Proviso East will have three pros on the floor. Sometimes I worry, "How are we going to get the ball inbounds tonight?" When I was at Elmhurst, someone told me you should never take a job when you're not going to finish in the top half of the league. I don't know when I see it changing here. We're in a bloodbath of a league.

You ever shoot around with your players?

I choose my battles very wisely. Let's say I put myself in positions to win. When it comes to the shooting stuff, I would be a lot happier if my guys would start beating be more often in shooting competitions.

Any big plans to get together with your teammates when you get inducted into the IBCA Hall of Fame in May?

A bunch of them have reached out to me. I told my mom and my wife when it's going to be, but they're the only ones I've given any information to. We'll figure out who's going, and I'm hoping to get together with some friends and reminisce. I still think so fondly of being back home with my friends.