The Story Behind the Plaque

Mike Heck, Nebraska’s first 7-foot basketball player, once towered over the halls of PLHS. Now he has a plaque dedicated to him that hangs outside the North Gym.


Josey Ryan

This Mike Heck plaque hangs directly across the North Gym. Not many students know the story of Mike Heck, but it’s one that should be shared.

Josey Ryan, Sports Editor

Across from the north gym, next to the bench many students sit on daily, hangs a plaque with the words “Papillion-La Vista High School class of 1972 and Nebraska’s first 7’ High School Basketball Player.” Students walk past it daily; some notice it, but most do not. However, the story behind the plaque is one that needs to be told, a story that dates back to 1971, when Papillion-La Vista High School was still called Papillion High School.

The story revolves around the star of the plaque, a seven-foot tall center named Mike Heck.

PLHS had one state championship basketball team in 1993, but what many students do not know is how close the 1971 Papillion High School basketball team was to obtaining the first state championship. Two seconds and one stop would have sent their game to overtime. However, the “Miracle on Vine Street” was accomplished by their opponent, Lincoln East.

“It is one of the most memorable finishes in the state tournament ever,” Chuck Johnston said.

Johnston, a long time Athletic Director, coach and teacher at PLHS, never knew Mike Heck personally, but being a fan of basketball, he knew of Heck as  the first 7-foot basketball player in Nebraska. Johnston now works at the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, where the play that beat Papillion in 1971 is on display for all to see.

The game was tied 72-72 with two seconds left and Lincoln East had to go the length of the floor to score. Their best player, who went on to play at Nebraska, couldn’t get open so the inbounder threw it across half court. The ball was going out of bounds until a Lincoln East player came out of nowhere, saved the ball, and tossed it to his teammate in midair. The teammate caught it at the elbow and hit a floater. The buzzer sounded. Game over.

Monarch players are seen falling to the ground, except for Mike Heck, who walks his way through the Lincoln East fans who stormed the floor. Heck, the only junior on the team, had a year left to represent Papillion. The other 11 players on the team, all seniors, had lost their last game in a heartbreaking fashion. Heck’s best friend, a year younger and a player on the junior varsity team, Gary Shives, was at the game and recalls how wild of a play it was.

“It was kind of like an ‘are you kidding me’ moment,” Shives said. “It was crazy.”

The next year, Shives and Heck were on the court together for Heck’s senior year as a Papillion Monarch.

“I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as Mike and be as dedicated as he was,” Shives said.

This hard work led his team to the state tournament for the second year in a row. The Monarchs played the North Platte Bulldogs in the first round of the state tournament.

“It was a game we really should have won, [but] it just didn’t happen,” Shives said.

The Monarchs fell to the Bulldogs by five points. This was the end of Heck’s career as a Monarch. However, his basketball career wasn’t over. Heck would go on to play at Creighton University.

At the time, freshmen were not allowed to play on the “collegiate varsity” team, so Heck started out playing with Creighton’s freshman team.

During his sophomore season, Heck was a part of the first ever AP ranked team at Creighton. As the season went on, Heck earned more and more playing time. In part, due to the extra hours he spent with his best friend.

“We would go down to Creighton every night and workout,” Shives said. “Mike would ask me why I would do this for him and I told him that when [he] got to the NBA, I would live off of [him].”

All of this hard work paid off and during his junior year at Creighton, Heck was playing the best basketball of his life.

In the first game of the 1974-75 season, Mike’s junior year, Creighton played North Dakota. Mike earned the start and won the opening tip. By the end of the game, the junior had scored 24 points and had nine rebounds, nearly recording a double-double.

“It was the best game he had ever played,” Shives said.

Sadly, unbeknownst to him, his best game he had ever played was also the last game he would ever play.

“For a really long time it was the worst day of my life,” Shives said.

On the morning of Dec. 5, 1974, Mike was found dead in his dorm room bed. Two days after the best game of his life, Heck had passed away in his sleep due to natural causes.

“His best days were ahead of him, and there’s no doubt he would have been an NBA player,” Shives said.

His teammates and coaches at Creighton were all stunned, shocked, and in disbelief. Shives “his worst day of his life” was the same. However, the Creighton basketball team had their annual tournament the same weekend, the coach was unsure what to do until receiving a phone call from Mike’s dad, when he told the coach to “Tell the boys to play.”

And they did this in honor of Mike.

Shives said Mike should be remembered as a goofy hard-working kid. “One of the hardest workers I knew,” he said.

Mike Heck was not just the first 7-foot basketball player in the state of Nebraska, but he was one heck of a basketball player whose best days were ahead of him.