E.A. Sports Today

Groundbreaking guard

Sacred Heart guard Heath’s sphere of influence goes beyond the basketball court

Sacred Heart's D.J. Heath (5) was named MVP of the Calhoun County Boys Tournament. He's being challenged here by Alexandria's Tyrelle Gay during Saturday's championship game. (Photo by Chad Barnett)

Sacred Heart’s D.J. Heath (5) was named MVP of the Calhoun County Boys Tournament. He’s being challenged here by Alexandria’s Tyrelle Gay during Saturday’s championship game. (Photo by Chad Barnett)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE – There is no question D.J. Heath is one of the best high school basketball players in the county, an opinion validated Saturday night when he was named most valuable player of the Calhoun County Tournament after leading tiny Sacred Heart to an historic championship.

The scary part for future opponents is he’s only a sophomore with two more years to get better and dominate the game.

As the MVP, he is now officially recognized as a game-changer, but he’s also a culture changer.

With the point guard bringing his ample scoring and ball-handling skills from West Anniston to Sacred Heart, Cardinals coach Ralph Graves said he “made it cool” for athletes, particularly those from Heath’s neighborhood, to go to private school.

“Most valuable player to the tournament? That kid is one of the most valuable players to our team and to our school,” Graves said while the players milled around celebrating their 59-46 victory over top-seeded Alexandria to become the smallest school ever win the County Tournament. “That kid right there changed everything that happened at Sacred Heart. He’s the one who made it cool to go to a private school.

“Never has that ever happened … where a kid of that caliber athlete, that caliber talent, ever says I’ll take my talent to a small school and I still will excel. He did that. He deserves everything he gets.”

Heath may have changed the culture at Sacred Heart, but he said the school changed him, too.

“It was a process,” he said. “When I first got to Sacred Heart, I wasn’t this person. Sacred Heart made me what I am today. I’m so glad I could help the school make history.”

The Cardinals came close to winning the County Tournament last year when Heath was a freshman. They lost by two to an Anniston team Graves once played for and many of their current players would be playing for if they hadn’t found Sacred Heart to remain close to their coach.

Heath would have been one of them, but said he wasn’t going there because of the environment. The vibe he was getting from the fans after Saturday night’s game told him he made the right choice.

“Look around,” he said, motioning toward the crowd. “There’s nothing but love and family, that’s what I like. That’s what I love.”

For those who criticize the Cardinals for recruiting players away from the public schools, Graves has a two-word answer: Diante Wood.

The outstanding freshman post was already at the school two years before Graves became its basketball coach. Graves does have a keen eye for players. He watches them in the recreation centers, they develop a relationship with him and they decide if Sacred Heart is for them.

“That’s what development does,” Graves said, “so all you people who want to talk about the recruiting tell me how one of the best players in the state — one of the best players in the country — was at Sacred Heart before I got there. That’s what we can talk about.”

The Cardinals don’t keep them all. Quen Williams played for them last year, but took his sweet outside stroke to Saks and is helping the Wildcats.

Heath scored 24 points in the championship game. But besides the points, he was making steals, making sure the ball got in the hands of the right people and generally managing the game. He was particularly strong in the second half, scoring 12 in the third quarter and 19 in the half.

There was no question the ball was going to be in hands late in the game when the Valley Cubs tried fouling to get the ball back. He stepped to the line and knocked down most of the shots.

“D.J. is one of our leaders; the stuff he was doing, it really doesn’t surprise me,” Graves said. “That kid blessed with a lot of talent, he has a lot of heart, he’s a team-first guy. That guy wakes up in the morning and puts in the work, 5 a.m. before school.

“That kid is going to be a highly recruited player. Diante is, too, Kevion (Nolan). We have a few kids on our team who are highly recruited. That kid right now is a three-star recruit and he’ll probably end up being a four-star recruit. He just did it front of 4,500 people. They saw it, and seeing is believing.”

This might only be the beginning. As a tenth grader with more developing to do, Heath has the potential to win two more MVP awards before he’s done with the Cardinals. But as a team-first guy, he has another prize in mind.

“I’d rather take two more county championships,” he said.

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