Phil Heath’s first love was basketball. Before he was a 7-time Mr. Olympia, Heath was a high school b-ball starter on a state title-winning team and a full-scholarship shooting guard on a division 1 college team. We look back at Phil Heath’s basketball years and how they fueled his legendary bodybuilding career.


Rainier Beach High School in southeastern Seattle, Washington, has been a basketball powerhouse for more than three decades. Their teams won the 3A state championship nine times from 1988 to 2016, and produced NBA stars Doug Christie, Nate Robinson, and Jamal Crawford. When 6’5” co-captain Crawford led the Rainier Beach Vikings over the Olympia Bears for the Washington state title in March 1998 in the Kingdome (where the NBA’s Supersonics played), the other starting guard was, as the announcer said: “a 5’10” senior, number 22, Philip Heath.” He weighed 155 muscular pounds.

Yes, the guy who helped defeat Olympia in the most important game of his life would later win the Olympia seven times in the most important contests of his life. In grainy, low-res footage from that game, Crawford is seen playing point guard on offense with Heath at shooting guard (the positions reversed on defense). When Heath drains a three from well beyond the arc, the announcer says: “Heath for three. Philip Heath showing range that we have not seen much of in this tournament.”

phil heath basketball
Guard Philip Heath in the Washington state championship game in 1998. / Instagram

In sharing the above photo on Instagram with one from his second Mr. Olympia victory in 2012, Heath wrote: “The first pic shows a kid, full of ambition, desire and passion! He was the kid who could hit the open 3, but loved defense so much that he took a charge leading to 5 stitches over his right eye during the last minutes of the game. He did come back after swapping jerseys due to the blood spewing out, hitting a free throw and grabbed a key rebound to help win. Final score, Rainier Beach 44 and OLYMPIA high school 40!”

In November 2013, Phil Heath, who played for Rainer Beach from 1995-98, was back at his alma mater when his number 22 was retired. It wasn’t Heath’s basketball prowess that earned him that honor. Instead, it was his success as the world’s best bodybuilder. Fifteen years after graduating, Heath had, two months earlier, won his third of seven Mr. Olympia titles.

phil heath basketball
Mr. Olympia Phil Heath returned to his high school to be honored in 2013. / Instagram


Philip Heath (yes, he was still going by his full first name, and he was again wearing #22) was not nearly as successful on the hardwood in college as he had been in high school. He received a full scholarship to the University of Denver, whose basketball team in Heath’s freshman year moved up from Division II to Division I. The team never had a winning record during Heath’s four years there, from 1998 to 2002, racking up a collective 32 wins and 77 losses. It was a lot of losing for a guy who later went on a three-year win streak as an amateur bodybuilder and a seven-year win streak as a pro.

phil heath basketball college
Heath in a college game in 2002. / William R. Sallaz

Heath’s individual stats were not good. But then he rarely saw the court. He played in 66 games (24 of them as a freshman), and, as a shooting guard, scored a total of 86 points during his college years. That’s an average of 1.3 per game. He shot 33.7%, 29.7% in 3’s, 52.9% in free throws. Those were all small sample sizes, however. He only shot 17 free throws over four seasons, for example. His career highs came in a game in his senior year on December 28, 2002: seven points, four rebounds.

Phil Heath was mostly a defensive specialist, but at 5’9” there were limits to who he could defend. (He was listed at 5’11” and 180 pounds. With no official measurement, reported basketball player heights often grow, for obvious reasons, while bodybuilder heights sometimes shrink to make the body weight more impressive. Heath is really 5’9”.) He did have some remarkable hops, dunking the ball with ease, despite his average stature. Mostly, Philip Heath, who had grown up dreaming of an NBA career, rode the bench on a forgettable team that racked up loss after loss.

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Phil Heath dunking during warmups

Here’s the key to Phil Heath’s college basketball years: He was an average-sized guy dwarfed by genetic freaks. The average NCAA college basketball player is 6’5”. All his training—workout after workout, drill after drill, year after year—could only carry him so high. His 6’5″ high school teammate, Jamal Crawford, played 20 seasons in the NBA. But Heath’s basketball dreams died in his adopted home of Denver. He’d have to dream a new dream. He needed to find a pursuit that matched his genetic gift.


Not long after Phil Heath’s graduation in 2002, he discovered bodybuilding. He had always been more muscular than the average basketball player, and his body responded rapidly when he began training and eating for size. Before the year was over, he’d committed to compete the next year. At 192 pounds, Phil (no longer Philip) Heath won the 2003 NPC Northern Colorado novice and overall titles and met the guest poser, future friend and foe, Jay Cutler. It was the beginning of one of the greatest bodybuilding careers of all time. The Gift (as he nicknamed himself) had discovered his true gift. His gift was making muscle, and his 5’9” height, such a liability in basketball, was ideal for bodybuilding success. In a reversal of his college basketball years, he was a genetic freak who would go on to dwarf average-sized guys.

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23-year-old Phil Heath winning his first contest in 2003. / Isaac Hinds

In 2005, the year he won the USA Championships, earning the right to transition to professional bodybuilding, 25-year-old phenom Phil Heath dunked a basketball for a FLEX magazine photo shoot. When he posted the pic on Instagram in 2020, the 7-time Mr. Olympia wrote: “With the NBA All-Star weekend Slam Dunk Contest upon us, it was only right I post an old pic from 2005 of myself actually dunking while being a bodybuilding weighing 235 lbs.”

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Bodybuilder Phil Heath dunking. / Flex magazine

In my frequent interviews and casual talks with Phil Heath from the night he won the 2005 USA Championships to after he won his final Mr. Olympia title in 2017, he often referenced his basketball years—coaches who drove him, lessons he learned from winning and losing and always striving, the unquenchable thirst to improve, the need to reach ever higher. On a basketball court, there were limits to how high Philip Heath, all 5’9” of him, could reach. On a bodybuilding stage, where The Gift discovered his true gift, there were no limits for Phil Heath. 

phil heath 2013 mr olympia
The Gift: Phil Heath wearing #22 again and winning his third of seven straight Mr. Olympias in 2013.

In 2020, Phil Heath wrote on Instagram:

I must say that basketball has always been my first love….Although I never made it past college D1 hoops, I was fortunate to have found bodybuilding, which enabled me to have great success. The lessons learned from basketball have and continue to help me push through just about every bit of adversity life has challenged me with. Even though bodybuilding has created some incredible moments, it was the love of the game of basketball that truly got me there. I’m actually thankful I didn’t make it because being tied with @schwarzenegger is pretty awesome to say the least. [Both Heath and Arnold Schwarzenegger have seven Mr. Olympia wins. Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman share the record with eight.] Shoutout to my teammates and coaches from both Rainier Beach High school and the University of Denver Pioneers. You collectively pushed me both physically and mentally [more] than many people realize. To everyone, I hope you’re all safe and healthy. Always remember that it’s great to know where you come from but even better to make good with your past, push forward and create new waves, because when one door closes, a new one opens. Seize the day! Love to All!

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