Now in Australia, Gilchrist Learning to Be a Leader
Former Maryland point guard John Gilchrist spent his Sunday afternoon at a grocery store on the southern coast of Australia, roughly 10,500 miles from his home town of Norfolk. The trip took longer than expected, but he didn't mind. Gilchrist likes it in Adelaide, his new home, one of several that he's inhabited since his last days in College Park more than four years ago.
Sure, people drive on the wrong side of the road in Australia, and for some reason the steering wheel is in front of the passenger seat, but you get used to such subtle differences. Besides, the food and the fashion are similar to those of the United States, luxuries Gilchrist didn't have in Israel or Latvia, two of his previous stops.
"With all that I've been through, I'm just happy to have an opportunity to play basketball and to work," said Gilchrist, the newest addition to the Adelaide 36ers, a storied franchise in Australia's National Basketball League. "I get to do what I love, and I get to make a living off of it. However the chips may fall, I'm just along for the ride."
Gilchrist's ride has taken him from the ACC to the Fertile Crescent to the NBA Development League to the Baltic Sea. Last year alone, he moved from Colorado (where he was cut by the NBDL's 14ers) to North Dakota (where his team folded under economic constraints), then back home to Norfolk. He lost a grandmother and close friend in the process.
And here's what he said he's learned along the way: That he's ready now to be the leader everyone wanted him to be during his time at Maryland; that he wasn't prepared back then for the responsibilities his talent laid upon him; that he made many gaffes during his final collegiate season; that he is sorry.
"When the ship is going down, when things ain't going right, people try to find answers," Gilchrist said in a telephone interview. "And I'm not pointing the finger at anyone. All I can do is point the finger at myself because of the fact that I made mistakes. I didn't really show that I trusted my teammates enough, and I know that, which made me look bad and selfish.
"But when you're a competitor and you're trying to do something and it's not working, you just try different things. And at that time, instead of taking a step back, I tried to force the issue. And that was something that I had to learn from."
You all remember Gilchrist, of course. He was named MVP of the 2004 ACC tournament as a sophomore while leading the Terrapins to their first conference tournament crown in two decades. In the final against Duke, Gilchrist spurred a comeback from a 12-point deficit with less than five minutes remaining, and Maryland won handily in overtime.
The following season brought high hopes but disastrous reality. Gilchrist was expected to lead the Terrapins back to the top of the ACC, and Maryland seemed a lock to return to the NCAA tournament. Instead, the Terrapins failed to reach the Big Dance for the first time in 12 years. Many fans and observers laid primary fault at the feet of Gilchrist, whose on- and off-court words and actions were perceived to be the root of the team's undoing.
He clashed with Coach Gary Williams, his relationship with many teammates was fractious at best and his demeanor suggested he had other, more important matters on his mind than setting an example his teammates could respect and follow.
"The things that were in my control were my leadership abilities that I didn't embrace," Gilchrist said. "That was one of the things that I wasn't ready to take on. I still was in college. I still was a kid. I still wanted to be a kid. I wasn't mature enough to take on the responsibilities that I should have done."
In retrospect, Gilchrist said, he'd have kept his mouth shut during post-loss media interviews, or at least he would have chosen his words more prudently. His tantrums portrayed a player frustrated with his role on the team and furious with his teammates' production (or lack thereof). And at the time, he said, those were his honest feelings. But Gilchrist said he's come to learn those feelings aren't always best expressed in public forums.
Gilchrist acknowledges never having a buddy-buddy relationship with Williams, even at their partnership's peak. But Gilchrist's sentiments at the time implied a lack of respect for his coach, and the player stated that never was the case. They just didn't talk that frequently, he said: "It wasn't nothing abnormal to me."
Gilchrist's enigmatic departure from College Park fell in line with his perplexing three-year career. The 2005 season ended, he withdrew from classes and he was gone, off to Philadelphia to train for an NBA draft that would not call his name.
"I was kind of like a ghost to a lot of people," Gilchrist said. "They were like, 'Where's John?' But I've always been the type of guy like that. I just always had my own mission, just to succeed."
Gilchrist acknowledges being distracted during his junior season at Maryland, though not by the source many people thought. He maintains it was his newborn daughter -- not a pursuit of NBA fame and fortune -- that diverted his attention.
He heard all the criticism during and after his final collegiate season, that he was self-serving jerk, a money-seeking miscreant. But he made sure to point out that had the team been successful that season, the labels affixed to his name might not be so pejorative.
"When things aren't going well, people try to find answers, and I understand that, the older I get," Gilchrist said. "It's nothing personal. It's just that at the time I thought people were trying to attack my character and they didn't even know me, but how could they? That's the reason I don't take it personally anymore. It was just a misunderstanding and it happened and I learned from it.
"If I'm ever in a situation like that again, I'll know how to conduct myself."
Gilchrist has kept in touch with several of his teammates from that '05 squad. If there are any lingering hard feelings, they don't make themselves readily apparent. He exchanges e-mails with James Gist. He chats with Chris McCray and Nik Caner-Medley on instant messenger. A few years back, during one of his three stints in the Israeli professional league, Gilchrist hung out with Ekene Ibekwe when Ibekwe came to visit the area.
More than their basketball pursuits, Gilchrist said he keeps tabs on how his former teammates are doing on a personal level. He's trying to reach them on a deeper level now, an effort he knows he should have made years ago when he was their point guard, their supposed floor general at Maryland.
"I still have fond memories of that place," Gilchrist said of College Park. "It's just that I had to become a man overnight when I had my daughter. It rushed me as far as my maturity, as far as where I was and what I had to do. It was a rushed decision. I wanted to stay four years, but it happened and I just had to deal with it."
There was something else Gilchrist had to deal with, one more connection he felt he had to try to make. In 2006, during his second season in Israel, Gilchrist typed out an e-mail to Williams, the coach with whom he'd had sporadic communication during his time at Maryland.
"I was like, you know, I'm sorry for everything," Gilchrist recalled of his message to his former coach. "I took things personal, but I understand from a coaching standpoint you have a lot of pressure on you. And your point guard is like the quarterback -- they get more responsibility. And instead of being the general and being able to rally everyone, I couldn't get through to everyone. And that was a testament to my leadership inability at the time.
"At that point in my life, I felt that I wasn't respected. The guys thought I was a good basketball player, but I wasn't respected as a leader. And that's been all that I've really focused on since I came overseas -- to learn how to become a better leader. Because the basketball, skill-wise, you can become a better shooter, you can train and lift and run and do all the skill work. But you've got to know how to conduct yourself when you're in those situations and when people are looking at you like, 'Ok, what do we do now?'"
The path that eventually led Gilchrist to Adelaide began on Aug. 13, 2008, the day Vernice Gilchrist had triple-bypass surgery. Vernice had been the one who raised him during the summers of his childhood, a best friend as well as a blood relative.
In order to stay closer to Vernice, who remained in critical condition following the surgery and passed away shortly thereafter, Gilchrist passed up another contract to play in Israel. Instead, he entered his name into the draft of the NBA developmental league and was drafted by Colorado 14ers. When he arrived in Colorado, he survived a tryout and made the team. But soon after, the New Jersey Nets cut point guard Eddie Gill, who previously had played for the Colorado NBDL team. In favor of a more familiar face, the 14ers cut Gilchrist.
"Obviously, I was kicking myself because I'd passed up on the opportunity that I had on the table [to play in Israel], but I was just like whatever," Gilchrist said. "I had chose to stay home, and that's what it is. Then I had to play the waiting game."
Gilchrist got a call from another NBDL team in North Dakota, but he said the team folded soon after his arrival. For a while, Gilchrist took up a volunteer assistant coaching job at Booker T. Washington High in Norfolk. Then he joined a local travel team called the True Hope Trail Blazers, which Gilchrist described as "an aspiring D-League team" that played exhibition games against Division II colleges.
Finally, the summer of 2009 arrived and Gilchrist's new agent, Austin Walton, got Gilchrist a two-week tryout with the 36ers in Australia. The team liked what it saw and offered the point guard a one-year contract.
Gilchrist said he's matured as a player and as a person, that he's more calm and wiser both on the court and off. He said his journey away from Maryland has taught him lessons that could have been put to good use back then. He regrets his decision to leave college with one year of eligibility remaining, but he's at peace with the consequences of his actions.
"I kind of had to go and I tested the waters," Gilchrist said. "Obviously, if I had to do it over again, I would have stayed all four years because I would have been in a better situation and I could have made more money. But things happened and I moved on from it."
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