Cavin Heckman runs around the house in his ridiculously oversized No. 23 jersey, the same way Dalton Shaner did as a toddler.
Except about a dozen years ago, Shaner was paying tribute to Michael Jordan. Later, his appreciation for the iconic number shifted to LeBron James.
Three-year-old Cavin? He wants to be like Dalton.
“My little one just got a jersey that’s got number 23, and he’ll go around the house saying, ‘I’m Dalton Shaner,’ ” Shaner’s half-sister, Chelsea Heckman, said. “They look up to him so much and want to be just like Uncle Dalton.”
This past October, Shaner moved in with the Heckmans: Chelsea, her husband and Eastland High School sweetheart, Craig, and their two sons, Cavin and Carson, who is 8. Shaner lived with them during the previous hoops season, too.
Whether under their roof or on the hardwood, Shaner hit a proverbial growth spurt.
“I’ve really seen his confidence just grow in the last year,” Chelsea said. “From sophomore to a junior, just so much growth – confidence-wise and being a team player.”
Thankful for the assist
Shaner’s parents are divorced, his father living in Rockford and his mother, Jane Moll, living in Lake Carroll with her husband, Jesse.
Chelsea says her mom often works more than 40 hours a week as a respiratory therapist in Freeport. Jane also helps her sister, Lori, with physical therapy 3 days a week after a car accident last October, and helps care for her parents, who live with her and Jesse.
“I see the example my mom set, that you do anything for your family and sacrifice for them. I only hope to follow in her shoes in that way,” Chelsea said. “She’s proud that we can help Dalton out. In return, she gets to watch her grandchildren on date nights.”
Dalton’s older brother, Ryan, attends Highland. Dalton says Ryan is home a lot and has his girlfriend over “all the time.”
As his uncle, Jeff Shaner, pointed out, Dalton needed a safe haven, free of distractions.
“He didn’t get to bed at night. Didn’t go to school,” Jeff said. “He moved in with Chelsea and Craig, and everything changed.”
In addition to His Airness and King James, Shaner admired Eastland stars like Tony Dunlap Jr. and former baseball standout … Craig Heckman.
“I looked up to Craig,” Shaner said. “He’s my best friend.”
Thin line between friends and parents
Ever since then-8-year-old Dalton started challenging Craig in hoops, the trash talking has been rampant.
That was about the time Craig and Chelsea started dating and the place where the fist-pumping and floor-stomping that ignite the Cougars and their fans was born.
“He would mouth off, and he always wanted more,” Craig remembers. “He is just so excited about basketball, and he loves it so much.”
“I think his confidence is contagious, and it filters into everybody,” Chelsea said. “And Craig is his No. 1 fan.”
But Craig has a knack for keeping Dalton humble. He recalls Shaner was the only true ball-handler during middle school. But he also remembers the long hair that set the young hoopster apart.
“He used to use his sister’s hair straightener,” Craig joked.
That ability to keep tongue firmly in cheek has served the Heckman household well. Craig says if he or Chelsea take a parental approach, Dalton tends to “shut down.”
When they approach him like a close friend, the results are markedly better.
“Even though we’re all related, we’re just best friends,” Dalton said.
That being said, it used to be harder for Craig to shift between a father of two and a close friend of one who happens to live under his roof.
“It is weird,” Craig said. “His sophomore year, I told him I had to treat him the same way I did Carson. You almost had to make him do that stuff so he could play basketball.”
Craig films every Eastland game, and he and Dalton break down the action together. Craig also writes letters to coaches and helps with the recruiting process, as Dalton has gotten some very preliminary looks from such Division-I programs as the University of Utah and the University of Illinois-Chicago.
The bottom line?
“All those coaches are telling him he’s gotta get his GPA up to a 3.3,” Craig said.
Dutch door action
After the Cougars beat Erie in the sectional semifinal, Shaner humbly confessed.
“He had a 10-page Powerpoint presentation due the next day, in a class he had a C-minus,” Craig said. “If he didn’t turn it in, he might’ve been ineligible.”
So the Heckman’s toed that thin line and helped him get it done. They’ve developed a knack for that.
In turn, Dalton is the perfect big brother. And his Cougars fill out the proverbial family nicely.
“Some of them never leave, I swear,” Craig said.
The Heckmans make dinners for the gang. Before they dig in, one of two things happen: Either the Nerf guns come out, or the big guys and the Heckmans two little guys head to the back storage room to play some hoops. They’re only about 7 feet in height, but there’s a 3-point line and a free-throw line. And tunes.
“There’s an iPod, and we spend most of our time back there,” Craig said.
Some things never change
Chelsea remembers every bounce and every swish.
That’s why she sits on the edge of her seat during every game.
“This is everything to him,” she said of the Cougars’ postseason run. “I’ve watched him his entire life, since he was a little guy.
“I still picture him as my little brother, even though I look up to him, height-wise. There’s tears, goosebumps, everything that comes with being a big sister.”
Even Craig catches himself holding his breath sometimes. See: the Eastland Sectional Championship against friendly rival Aquin.
“The Aquin game definitely gave us the most anxiety,” Heckman said. “He never gets into foul trouble, and that third quarter was the longest quarter ever.
“But he thrives in the big games, and we have all the confidence that he can take a game over.”
He got there by playing basketball every chance he got with close friends Valdet Seferi and Tyler Mueller before their freshman year.
These days, he gets there with a little culinary tradition. Chelsea blends a fruit smoothie with a potent secret ingredient: Spark energy drink mix.
“She cooks me whatever I want and does anything to get my body ready for a game,” Shaner said. “And, no matter what time of the day, she’ll make french toast for me.
“So that’s a big plus.”