COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The 2020-21 basketball season began with enough irregularity and uncertainty that area high schools were left to wonder if a season could even take place.
The pandemic did no favors to the Upper Arlington Golden Bears, one of the region's winningest programs over the last decade. During key conditioning and early developmental stages of the season, the Bears were forced to shut down twice for an extended period of time.
Yet for Nick Heath, an expected leader and top player for the Bears, he couldn't get into the physical shape he knew was necessary as the season approached.
"At the start of the year, I thought I was just in poor conditioning," the six-foot-four rising senior wing said. "I would run up the court and get tired instantly. My muscles were super tight. It was hard to breathe, like the equivalent of a heavy smoker."
His coaches also noticed the lack of motor and started to wonder if something was wrong.
"I kept thinking to myself, 'this is not the kid I know,'" head coach Tim Casey said. "It wasn't in his character to [not do the little things]. He's super invested, he's a hard worker and the fact he wasn't doing the little things, was amazing to me."
Naturally, the thought of being infected with COVID-19 came to mind, especially as the heart condition myocarditis was becoming more prevalent amongst athletes. Yet after countless negative tests, Heath figured he was ok and simply wasn't pushing himself hard enough.
As the season progressed, Heath continued to play and played mostly well, averaging over 11 points per game and often times was one of his team's top performers.
"When he's right, he's probably one of the best pure shooters I've ever coached," said Casey, who is entering his 21st season as Upper Arlington's head coach, having coached countless Division I and II players during his tenure.
Heath would also credit his strong shooting skills as to how he was able to even contribute at all.
"If I couldn't shoot the three, I probably wouldn't have been too productive," Heath said. "My defense was really hurt and I wasn't as aggressive driving the ball."
Nick's mother, Leslie, couldn't help but notice her son did not look himself on the court.
"I will never be mad if your shot is not going in, but if you're not giving it 100%, that's on you," Leslie said. "But Nick always goes 100%. I knew that wasn't him out there, something was up."
That realization became undoubtedly clear when UA played Walnut Ridge in the first round of the district tournament.
"During warm-ups, my heart felt like it was going to explode," Heath said. "I tried to play for two minutes, but I just couldn't do it."
Heath took himself out of the game. His coaches knew something was wrong and it was time to see a doctor. Heath would get his blood tested which revealed his hemoglobin and iron levels were alarmingly low.
After additional tests and a cat scan, doctors caught a 3-inch mass on Heath's spleen, depleting him of his red blood cells and was the driving cause of his abnormally-low energy levels. Heath had played the entire season with anemia.
It was only a matter of time before Heath could no longer produce any energy at all. In addition, he risked major injury had his spleen been severely contacted during play.
"The doctors were surprised Nick wasn't already in a hospital, let alone on a basketball court all season," Leslie said.
Once the mass was discovered and told that it could be safely removed, the revelation brought a sense of relief to the Heath family and the UA coaching staff. Relief that Nick would be ok, but also an explanation for a season that never felt right.
"[As the season progressed], it started to wear on me mentally," Heath said. "I wasn't the player I thought I could be."
"It started to take a psychological effect on him," Leslie said.
Despite being anemic, Heath's efforts never waned. "To his credit, not one time did he ever offer an excuse to himself," Casey said. "When we found out [he was anemic], we said 'ok, this makes more sense' as to why he was struggling at times."
Eager to get back on the court, Heath asked his doctor how he could play the AAU season considering he will need his spleen removed. Doctors are able to delay the surgery until end of August, meanwhile Heath gets IV treatment every four weeks to increase the iron in his blood.
"I feel ten times better now since the treatment," Heath said. "I'm in better shape, I'm a better player."
"Nick has had a great summer," Casey said. "I expect him to be an all-conference, all-district type player this season."
Heath also has high expectations for his senior season and beyond as he's visited and been in contact with regional colleges such as Denison, Hillsdale, Heidelberg and Case Western.
"I've been working my whole life to play after high school," Heath said.
If an anemic season couldn't stop him, it's safe to say Heath's hard work will turn his dream into a reality.