In his darkest hour, Max Heidegger sought … the darkness.
Nighttime walks through the streets of Goleta helped UCSB’s star basketball player cope with two concussions that turned last season on its head.
“It was my favorite thing to do back then,” Heidegger said. “It was the only activity I could do that wouldn’t give me any types of headaches.”
The 6-foot-3 guard was coming off an All-Big West Conference sophomore season when he suffered his first concussion during a summer workout.
“I got my bell rung, but I didn’t think it was too bad,” he said.
But then he took another blow to the head just four days later. Headaches and a sensitivity to light soon overwhelmed Heidegger, making it difficult for him to even leave his apartment during the daytime.
The devastating Woolsey Fire added to his stress, threatening his family’s home in Malibu. It destroyed 1,643 structures, killed three people, and prompted the evacuation of more than 295,000 people.
His father, former World Cup skier Klaus Heidegger, wasn’t one of them.
“We lost some stuff, a cabin-type building that housed some tools, and we lost some agriculture, too,” Max said. “It was concerning because I knew my dad was out there, trying to save the property and the house.
“Somehow, the fire just stopped before it could burn the whole house down. But this was all happening when I first got hurt, so it was a little bit rough dealing with all of that at the same time.”
His concussion symptoms persisted into the start of last season.
“I was dealing with a knee injury at the same time and wasn’t even practicing at this point last year,” Heidegger said.
He sat out the first seven games of last season and then relapsed after his return, missing two more contests.
And yet, he still set out during most evenings to walk for two-and-a-half hours.
“I wanted to try and stay in shape as much as I could,” Heidegger said. “I’d walk from where I live on Abrego Road all the way past the movie theaters and to the freeway before heading back home.”
He often walked alone, meditating during his treks. His mother, Jami, sometimes drove up from Malibu to join him.
“It was the most joy I had in the day,” Heidegger said. “For somebody who likes to be active, it was a release. Of course, I wanted to be with my teammates and practice.
“The walks would help me sleep, and help me just kind of decompress from the day.”
Heidegger had scored an average of 19.1 points per game as a sophomore while making a school-record 95 three-point baskets. His average dropped to 11.9 points last year, although he recovered enough to score at a 15.3-point clip over UCSB’s last 12 games.
“I don’t think there was any point last year when I felt 100 percent,” he said. “I was just trying to fight through it for my teammates. I thought we had an opportunity, if we all clicked at the same time, to potentially win a title.
“I wanted to play for my brothers — play for my teammates and my coaches — but certain things would happen. I kept straining my knee, and a couple other issues happened that kept pushing me a little bit further back.”
Time has healed his wounds. Practice has mended his shot. The chance for a championship season with perhaps UCSB’s best team in his four years has buoyed his spirits.
“My knee is great, my head is great,” Heidegger said. “I’m doing great mentally and physically and I think I’m in the best place I’ve been in since I’ve been here.”
He also knows that he doesn’t have to score 19.1 points per game again to get the Gauchos to the NCAA Promised Land.
“We’ve got 10 guys, maybe more, who can play any given day without a let-up in talent,” he said. “It just depends on who’s hot, who’s playing well.”
UCSB’s backcourt returns two other double-figure scorers in juniors JaQuori McLaughlin and Devearl Ramsey. All-Big West Conference forward Amadou Sow is also back after breaking the school’s freshman scoring record.
In all, seven of last year’s top nine Gauchos return from a 22-10 team. Three impact transfers — Matt Freeman from Oklahoma, Brandon Cyrus from DePaul, and Roberto Gittens from the College of Southern Idaho — have added to the team’s depth.
“I remember my sophomore year, we were pretty much only six players deep,” Heidegger said.
He finds comfort in the talent that surrounds him. He feels “weirdly,” however, that his last walk with the Gauchos will start with Wednesday’s home opener against Jackson State.
“It came too quick,” Heidegger said. “It seems like a long time … until you get there.”
But he knows there are still some big miles to cover before midnight strikes.
Mark Pattons column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.