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February 8, 2013

`Spike Lee' of Cane fans keeps volume turned up














Sebastian has some competition.

His name? Neal Heller.

The father of junior walk-on guard Justin Heller, Neal waves his arms frantically up and down to pump up fans, barks at referees and constantly paces around his courtside seats opposite the Hurricane bench.

Center Reggie Johnson calls him the "Spike Lee" of Cane fans.

"He stays on the referee nonstop," Johnson said. "He says things to the ref and I say `Man, I'm glad he's not a player because he'd be put out right now.'"

The fans ... and students ... love it.

A snapshot of his growing following: More than half his Twitter followers are Cane students, and an hour before the Florida State game the student section began chanting "Mr. Heller."

When he looked over they were waving a Fathead with his oversized face. It was held up throughout the game.

"It was a pretty big one," Neal says. "I had texts from around the country of people watching the game (on TV), saying `Is that you?'"

Justin provided the students with dad's photo.

"He set me up," Neal says with a laugh.

Larranaga jokes the Fathead is proof Neal is "big-time."

The team could easily splice together a Neal Heller highlight tape after the season - he's constantly showing up on game video.

"We laugh about it when we watch film, see Justin's dad jumping up and down when a play happens," center Julian Gamble said.

Larranaga adds "Every once in a while we'll say something - like Justin got into a game and passed the ball and I said `Your dad wouldn't have passed that, he would have shot that.'"

Heller is a UM alumnus, and players say he's like part of the team.

"He comes and high fives us going through warm-ups," Gamble said. "He's unconditionally there for us."

Soft-spoken off the court, Heller says there's a secret to how he transforms from regular citizen to maniacal ultra-fan.

"When I have to battle traffic from Boca or traffic from Broward where I work, that gets me going," he said. "By the time I get down there I'm stressed out already."

The refs sometimes bear the brunt. He says he's never been kicked out of a game but may have come close once or twice.

"I know the refs not to talk to," Heller said. "The referees know me by now. I don't curse or anything, just ask them about calls."

At the Michigan State game, Heller was talking with Cane players nearby to get them pumped up, and one of the refs approached him.

"He says, `Oh, I see you're a coach too,'" Heller said. "I said `Yeah, and I do some reffing as well.' He went down the court and came back and I questioned the call and he said `You're a much better coach than referee.' It's all in good fun."

Justin says he loves how his father roots for the team.

"It's fun - my teammates love it," Justin said. "In high school he was a little loud, I told him I didn't really like it, he stopped it. Now in the college environment I'm not going to tell him to stop."

"Justin has gotten comfortable seeing my craziness from time to time," Neal adds.

Justin has his own role to play for the team. While he's played only a few minutes in seven blowouts, he and the other walk-ons and bench players prepare the starters in practice every day. They push them so much that there are times the "green" team, as they are called, have beaten the starting "white" team.

"Coach L gets mad (when the green team wins), always wants the starting group to show up," Heller said.

Justin's most memorable moment this season wasn't seeing his father's Fathead.

It was when he scored his first career points against Charlotte with 20 seconds remaining in a 77-46 home victory.

"That was the best moment since I've been here - I got fouled, missed my two free throws, and then I was so mad about that the next time I got the ball I just dribbled up the court and scored.

"The place went crazy, my teammates were jumping up and down, jumped on me after the game. I felt like I was the star that night. It was the best moment."

Neal says when Justin scored "It was one of the great moments of my life. As crazy as that sounds, I know it was a great night for him and what made it great was the reaction of his teammates - they mobbed him.

"And you know who I got a call from at 10:30 the following day? Coach Larranaga called to congratulate me and told me no one deserves that more than Justin because of how hard he works. It was very touching."

Heller played AAU ball in high school but was mostly a backup on a talented high school team. He walked on at Miami after competing with players in pickup games his freshman summer.

"I've always been a Miami fan, and that summer I participated in the open gym, fit in and stuck with the team," Heller said.

Now during games Heller sometimes takes his eyes off the court to watch his father.

"My teammates will be like `Look at your dad, look at your dad' - then I'll see what he's doing," Heller said.

So which of them is the bigger Miami fan?

"Well I guess he's more loud, verbal - he's a pretty big fan," Justin says.

Entering the halfway point of the ACC season, Justin and dad are looking forward to big things the rest of the way.

"It's become an amazing experience for him," Neal said. "This season could be a very special season. And right now it's turning into a once-in-a-lifetime experience for him and me."


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