Photo courtesy of St. John’s University Athletics.
By David Cordova
When you get a chance to come home again after being away for so long, there’s a joy that one feels in their heart. In the case of Mustapha Heron, being close to home again is a blessing.
After playing at Auburn University for the last two seasons, the 6-foot-5 junior shooting guard decided to come back closer to his home in Waterbury, Connecticut, and play at St. John’s University in the Jamaica section of Queens, New York. In his younger days, Heron would play in the gyms in the Big Apple and hold his own. Now, he’ll be doing it on the regular in the friendly confines of Carnesecca Arena and Madison Square Garden.
When asked what motivates him to be successful on the court, he replied, “I do it, you know, [because] I want to one day feed my family, so that’s what motivates me, and just being as good as I can be.”
On being from the suburbs of Connecticut, he added: “It’s a small city, it’s different, it’s a lot of support there, just I think because we’re so small [of a town], it don’t happen all the time that you see somebody playing on a big stage, so a lot of people support me.”
In his younger days, particularly during middle school, Heron would venture out to New York City and would play for the New York Gauchos, a powerful AAU program based in the Bronx that has been a breeding ground for talent for the last four to five decades. By the eighth grade, he was already advanced for his age and playing in tournaments with older players, while being rated as one of the top players nationally in his class.
“Being in New York, coming here [to St. John’s] was perfect for me, because like you said, I played for a lot of New York teams, I played in New York for a while, so it’s funny how life comes full circle,” said Heron about playing in the Big Apple.
As a freshman, Heron attended Wilbraham & Monson Academy, a private boarding school in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, which is a part of the New England Prep Schools Athletic Conference (NEPSAC), which is one of the best leagues in the nation for premier high school talent.
“That’s a minute ago, that’s freshman year,” said Heron when asked about his time at Wilbraham & Monson. “I learned a lot playing in the NEPSAC, I think it’s the best high school conference in the country, and it’s a lot of pros that come out of there, a lot of college basketball players, so I think I learned a lot. Justin [Simon] is a NEPSAC guy. NEPSAC is worldwide.”
In his high school days, he played for the New York Rens AAU program on the Adidas Gauntlet & was a top-25 prospect nationally in his graduating class.
Heron transferred to Sacred Heart High School in his hometown as a sophomore, where he would also spend his remaining three years of high school. As a junior, he averaged 22 points and 5.3 rebounds per game and as a senior, he averaged 30.2 points and eight rebounds per game. During his time with the Hearts, he would lead them to an 80-5 record and three CIAC state championships. For his play, he was named Player of the Year by the New Haven Register as a junior & senior, becoming the first player to win the award multiple times since Kris Dunn, who later played at Providence College and is now in his third season in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls.
“Sacred Heart, I had a lot of fun there. Back-to-back-to-back, three-peat state champions, so a lot of points, a lot of good high school teammates, a lot of good memories,” said Heron about his alma mater.
In August 2015, Heron decided on his college choice and went with Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, which is a part of the Southeastern Conference, most commonly known as the SEC. In his freshman year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 15.2 points and added 6.1 rebounds per game and made the SEC All-Freshman Team. Then as a sophomore, he would average 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and would lead them to a second round appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
When asked about playing at Auburn and the SEC, he replied, “A lot of people say the SEC is like the Eastern Conference in the NBA, as far as the physicality, the size and athleticism in the conference. I definitely learned a lot there [at Auburn], playing in a fast-pace [system].”
Good times were happening at Auburn for Heron, but things changed when reality set in at home. “My mom got sick, she had a concussion last year, I just wanted to come home to be closer to her, and that’s pretty much it,” said Heron about why he decided to come back to the East Coast.
Enter St. John’s. When exploring transfer options, Heron decided that the Red Storm would be the perfect program to be a part of. St. John’s is an hour and a half away from his home, so it fit him perfectly. When asked why he chose to play for the Red Storm, he replied, “St. John’s was the closest school to home and there was a spot open, so I reached out.”
The best part about this whole experience is he gets the chance to be taught by Chris Mullin, the fourth-year head coach who is also an inductee of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, a 17-year NBA veteran and also a legend at St. John’s, as he had various accolades during his playing days there from 1981-85.
When asked about playing for Mullin, he replied, “He’s a lefty and similar in size as me, so I watch a lot of his film and pick out things. In practice, it’s non-stop teaching and showing me the ropes. I’ve learned a lot from him so far.”
Basketball is just one facet of Heron’s life, but it is not the only thing that people know him by. Back home in Waterbury, he formed the Mustapha Heron Skills Academy as a way to keep the youths off the streets and away from gun violence through basketball, a game that was also a safe haven for him.
“It’s just pretty much, my community is in dire need of somebody to step up and try to better the community. I focus on trying to end gun violence because it’s huge in my community and in a lot of inner cities around the country. We have to try and come together and end it because it’s ripping apart homes and families,” said Heron about the purpose behind the Mustapha Heron Skills Academy.
This year, he is joining forces with junior point guard Shamorie Ponds, redshirt junior shooting guard Justin Simon and redshirt senior forward a Marvin Clark II to make the Red Storm a dominant team. “We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with in the Big East, I will tell you that,” said Heron.
So far, the prophecy has been fulfilled as the Red Storm are currently 5-0 on the season. As for Heron, he has been doing spectacular, averaging 17.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
Although St. John’s will play the majority of their home games on campus at Carnesecca Arena, they will have five home games this season at Madison Square Garden, which has been a second home for the program for many years.
When asked about how he will feel about stepping on the Garden floor for the first time in a St. John’s uniform on December 9th when the Red Storm play Princeton in the MSG Holiday Festival, he replied, “Yeah, I’m ready for it. I played in the Garden one time my freshman year when I was at Auburn, so I’m ready for it. At the end of the day, when you’re walking into the arena, that’s when you’re in awe, that’s when you take it all in, but once you step on the court, it’s all basketball, so I’m not really worried about where we’re playing at. We could be playing outside, it’s basketball.”
Thus far, Heron is helping St. John’s in a major way as a contributor with his scoring and rebounding. With him in the lineup, the Red Storm is, ironically as he said before, a force to be reckoned with.
What can be expected of Mustapha Heron this season? “Just somebody who’s going to make winning plays, who’s going to try to be a leader, [and] try to do everything I can for my team to win,” he said.
What’s next in the future for him? “A lot of wins, hopefully chasing a national championship and chasing a Big East championship,” he said.
Highlights of Mustapha Heron:
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Courtesy of Hoop Dreams Magazine.
Courtesy of Buzzer Beater Basketball.