The decision was made in the flash of a synapse inside Max Heidegger’s brain: Go for the basketball.
His previous season at UCSB had been stunted by two concussions, but instinct took over on Nov. 27 as a loose ball careened out of bounds in a game that was already well in hand.
“Why even go for it?” he asked himself on Tuesday, eight weeks after fatefully lunging over the end line, snatching the ball in mid-air, and flinging it to a teammate.
Heidegger answered himself before his next breath: “Because it’s in the action of the game, and you’re competitive, and you’re trying to do whatever you can for your team.”
He wound up stumbling backwards into the stands, striking the back of his head against a newly installed, metal handrail.
It was concussion No. 3.
“I blacked out for I don’t know how long … A couple of seconds?” Heidegger recalled. “As soon as I came to, I kind of knew what it was.”
His next big decision — when to return to the court, if at all — would not come in a flash. He sat out 10 games before finally rejoining the Gauchos for their Jan. 11 contest against Long Beach State.
Tonight’s game against Cal State Northridge will be only his ninth appearance of the season and third since his return.
“Since I’d been in this situation before, I had a better idea of what to do,” Heidegger said. “We were all kind of staying on the side of caution, especially since dealing with these things is a relatively new science.
“I sure didn’t want to be in the same position I was in last year.”
Heidegger, who had also been recovering from an offseason knee injury, never felt right after last year’s return. His scoring average of 11.9 points per game was down from the 19.1 of his sophomore season when he made a school-record 95 three-pointers.
He did show a few flashes of his old self, especially against CSUN. He scored a season-high 26 points against the Matadors in a Feb. 6 win at the Thunderdome. He followed that up at Northridge on March 7 with a game-winning three-pointer with 3.8 seconds remaining, capping a 22-point outburst.
What sticks in his mind the most about that ending was the loose ball that teammate JaQuori McLaughin had saved to keep the play alive.
“That was a huge dive onto the floor to set it all up,” Heidegger said. “It helped make it a big game for me, confidence-wise.
“That game showed that I could handle all that adversity, with the knee and the head.”
He did have his concern about the residual effects of that third blow to the head during the November game against Portland State.
“I obviously wanted to come back for my teammates, but I also wanted to do it in a good manner,” Heidegger said. “I didn’t want to put myself at risk for another hit to the brain, which obviously would be really bad in the long run.
“I think I did it in the right way for myself while keeping my coaches and teammates in mind.”
He began a rigorous training routine after the concussion symptoms had subsided.
“Max loves the weight room,” coach Joe Pasternack said. “He likes to lift and he really worked hard to get into shape.
“He missed 10 games, so he’s still getting back into the groove. But he’s honored the process and is continuing to get back into his rhythm.”
Heidegger, a 6-foot-3 guard, began taking a serious approach to weight training while sidelined last year.
“It was the perfect storm, I guess, with the injuries to my knee and to my head, so the weight room was the only piece of it that I could do a lot,” he said. “I’m definitely now at my heaviest weight since I’ve been at school.”
The danger of coming back did make him pause. The memory of being holed up in his apartment, unable to handle simple daylight, made Heidegger consider quitting the game altogether.
“It affected my life off the court for a solid amount of time,” he said. “The doctors and Jackson (Smidt, UCSB’s trainer) have reassured me that I’m not taking a horrible risk now, but of course there are risks with everything.
“It was all left up to me, and obviously I know there are some risks. I was told to just take it day-by-day, and I still do.”
He had a good Saturday night in Hawaii, scoring 15 of his 21 points in the second half. The Gauchos lost, nevertheless, 70-63.
“I feel like I’m still shaking off some rust, trying to get back to where I want to be, but my body feels all right,” he said. “I think I’m getting there.
“Part of it is my getting back into the fold with everyone else, finding where I fit in with everyone.”
The Gauchos do have the talent to win the Big West, Heidegger added.
“We have all the pieces,” he said. “We just all have to click together at the same time, come together a little more in sharing the ball at the right time, and tighten up on defense.
“But we definitely have the talent. We kind of started league the same way my sophomore year, losing several games before figuring it out. We just have to turn those things around.”
His time at UCSB does grow short. He will graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He has no idea if a professional basketball career will follow.
“Every kid grows up playing his dream,” Heidegger said. “It’d be cool if the opportunity presents itself, and I’m open to that.
“But I’ll just cross that bridge when I get to it.”
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org