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Heckmann: World of talent

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011

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There was more to the world than Germany, and Patrick Heckmann knew it.

He was 10 years old when he first started traveling. His mother, Ulli, was a flight attendant, so seeing the world was her job.

Once or twice a year they’d make a tour stop. Beijing, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Cape Town, New York. He took in the cultures two or three days at a time.

“I love to be at home, but I also like being somewhere else around the world,’’ he said.

About three years ago, they were on vacation in Colorado. His mother warned him it might be boring, so he decided to sign up for a basketball camp. Ulli dropped him off in the morning and was supposed to pick him up that afternoon. But being in a foreign city made it easy to get lost.

“She had no idea where anything was,’’ Patrick remembered.

While he was waiting, his mother was wandering. She found a high school, Cheyenne Mountain, located on the foothills of the Rockies. She liked the look of it and told Patrick about it.

He had kept the idea of spending a year in the States in the back of his mind. But now it was a real possibility. They knocked on the door, went to the admissions office, and asked how to get Patrick enrolled. A couple of phone calls later, he was squared away.

Heckmann got a host family, the Muellers. Cheyenne Mountain got a 6-foot-6-inch wing who had a knack for slashing to the basket like Manu Ginobili.

“For the coach, that was like a dream come true,’’ said Susan Mueller, Heckmann’s host mother. “They actually made it to the Sweet 16 that year, so it was really fun watching him play. The school really embraced him. That was fun watching him play at the high school. The students would get excited when he dunked it.’’

At that point, the idea of returning to the United States to play college ball seemed real. When Heckmann committed to Boston College this past spring - choosing an education and Division 1 college basketball over the chance to play for club teams in his homeland - it was an easy decision.

“I knew if I can have the chance of playing in the ACC and study at a really good school, that’d be awesome,’’ he said.

Heckmann still remembers the text he got from his mother in January.

It read, “BC called. They’re trying to recruit you. Are you interested?’’

He remembers what he thought to himself: “Hell, yeah.’’

He had no idea how BC knew about him. A few schools had already shown interest, Michigan, the University of San Diego, and Colorado State among them.

BC coach Steve Donahue had seen Heckmann on film during the fall, but the Eagles waited to make a run at him. Donahue, in his second year at BC, had international recruiting connections from his time at Cornell and Penn, but coaching in the Ivy League, where teams can’t offer scholarships, his resources were limited.

“We got to know a lot of people that are over there,’’ Donahue said. “Whether it’s owners, agents, people that run the FIBA in those countries. So you get to know the younger kids. We’ve always done that, but we never had scholarships in the Ivy. So it was hard with no foreign aid.’’

But BC opened that door.

“When we had this opportunity, we contacted a couple guys and two or three guys recommended Patrick,’’ Donahue said.

Heckmann had a résumé. He averaged 11.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists in 28 games for TV Langen, in Germany’s Third League. This past summer, he represented his country in the European championships.

But the process of recruiting Heckmann was laborious. The five-hour time difference, the language barrier, trying to find transcripts, coming up with proof he was never paid to play.

“There’s a ton of that kind of stuff that goes through the NCAA clearinghouse,’’ Donahue said. “It takes a long time - besides trying to scout a kid.’’

Assistant coach Nat Graham was the first to make the trip overseas, flying to Germany in March. Donahue made a three-day trip in April. He talked to Heckmann and his family for four hours over lunch.

“I was kind of nervous because that was the second head coach that came over to visit me,’’ Heckmann said. “We just sat down and talked about everything.’’

Donahue wanted to know how Heckmann would feel about being away from home. He asked about the year spent in Colorado, how basketball was going on his club team.

Heckmann assured Donahue that everything was, and would be, fine. He visited The Heights in May and was instantly sold, committing almost on the spot.

The decision to pass on playing in Germany didn’t come without criticism.

Heckmann said, “A lot of people were asking me, ‘Why’d you go? Why didn’t you stay here?’ ’’

Some club teams had promised him playing time, which is rarely offered to young players. He explained that he wanted an education, and that it would have been difficult to get that while trying to meet the demands of a club team.

“Some people expected me to stay,’’ he said.

But BC appealed to him in ways that playing for a club team couldn’t.

“When I spent my high school year in Colorado, I was following college basketball a lot,’’ Heckmann said. “Of course, the ACC was big-time. I knew a friend that was going to BC. He told me how good it was. You watch games. BC was a good school.’’

For Donahue, it was worth the effort. When he and his staff discussed international recruiting, they knew they had to go all in.

He sent assistant Woody Kampmann to Australia for a week and Graham scouted the European championships over the summer. They rummaged the Internet for video of players. But the idea is to find the players that other schools ignore, rather than chase the ones that every school is after.

“That’s always our decision: Are we wasting our time in any time we’re recruiting?’’ Donahue said. “I try to do the best we can to avoid competition for really good players, because I don’t want to waste my time. I don’t think we can afford to. If we feel a sense that we’re not going to be in the mix for the long run, then we’ve got to get out.

“It is a lot more difficult. If Patrick was in America in the mainstream prep schools, it would have been very difficult to get him. Now, because of all the headaches, no one really wants to do it.’’

Heckmann has adjusted with almost no issues. He arrived on campus in August - missing summer school but getting there in time for international orientation - and essentially hit the ground running.

“He was way more ready for this,’’ Donahue said. “I’ve been watching him. He has acclimated so easily. He’s done so much travel with his international basketball, he’s way more mature than the typical 18- or 19-year-old American who would be going to another country thinking, ‘Whoa, what am I doing?’ ’’

The Eagles are bracing for inevitable blows this season. They have nine freshmen, including Heckmann.

“We don’t have a luxury of looking up and seeing juniors and seniors who’ve done it before with this group,’’ Donahue said. “So I think Patrick, the amount of experience that he has, has helped him already.

“I think he’s one of our guys that we’re leaning on, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on a young kid with all the other things that are on his plate. I just want him to try his best and if he does all those things like he can, I think he’ll be fine and the leadership will come.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.