By Steve Stone, Assistant Sports Information Director
If you want to be first, you need to know how it feels to be last. Or in this case, how it feels to be picked last.
Kiah Gillespie was an aspiring young baller who grew up in Meriden, Conn., a smaller city not far away from Hartford and located in a state that simply loves its basketball. Naturally, Gillespie caught the wave and began shooting hoops outside not too long after she first picked up a ball.
And all it took was a basketball hoop, some pavement and her older brother, Levy Jr., to give her some of the biggest life lessons that she holds dearly to this day. It was often Kiah who was the only girl playing pick-up, often feeling intimidated and outcast, and trying to hold her own against her brother and a bunch of other guys on the court.
As any good big brother would do, he always stood by her. No matter the circumstances, Levy Jr. took ownership in making his sister better and making sure she fit right in.
“I always knew he had my back,” Gillespie said of her 24-year old brother. “He would do anything for me on the court and keep me involved. Playing with him, I was respected. When I was younger, people didn’t want me on their team because no one wanted the girl on their team, but with him he made me a more confident and better player.
“Sometimes I didn’t understand the way he was acting or the way he played,” Gillespie added of her brother and the brashness he carried on the court. “I used to play with the boys, and the one thing he would never let them do is single me out or not give me the ball. My brother would always try to find me and get me involved. And if I wasn’t confident enough to shoot it, he would get on me and say, ‘You need to shoot the ball, I’m giving it to you for a reason.’”
“He pushed me to where we almost fought each other. His passion would make me so angry."Kiah Gillespie on the early tough love with her brother
All Gillespie needed was a chance to prove herself. And her brother gave it to her. The confidence he instilled in her over the years helped her develop into one of the nation’s most sought-after prospects in girls basketball. She became a McDonald’s All-American in 2015 – among the most prestigious honors for high school basketball players – and was twice named the Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year.
Some of that tough love over the years only fueled Kiah. So many ballers understand the importance of earning your spot in pick-up games, being challenged and overcoming those challenges. Essentially, creating a name for yourself.
Levy Jr. helped get Kiah to that point. But like everything she experienced on the court growing up, it didn’t come easy. Especially in all those 1-on-1 games in the driveway that she lost against him.
“He pushed me to where we almost fought each other,” Gillespie said with a laugh. “His passion would make me so angry. He talked trash and would steal the ball from me. But it was everything I needed to become a good player. I didn’t start to challenge him real well until high school. It wasn’t about my size at that point, it was about my skill.”
Kiah has always been able to lean on her family. Her parents, Levy Sr., and Martina, coached her growing up and always provided sound advice. She also has another brother, Syre. As she started to emerge as a top-notch prospect, they always ensured she remained humble and didn’t get too full of herself.
"It was a hard road a couple years ago when I was still trying to find myself in college. He has supported me through everything and kept telling me to keep working, because it will be worth it some day."Kiah Gillespie
She opted to sign with Maryland out of high school, playing for a loaded Terrapins squad that had a national-championship pedigree and was ready to feast on its newer conference in the Big Ten. In her collegiate debut, Gillespie showcased her natural offensive abilities, scoring 15 points and adding eight boards in 21 minutes against UMass-Lowell to start the 2015-16 season.
Then in her second game, she dropped 19 points in 22 minutes vs. High Point. It appeared her career was ready to take off.
But hard lessons were learned in Gillespie’s two years at Maryland. She was stuck further down the bench and had to battle for minutes. A McDonald’s All-American wasn’t used to such a situation, and, by the end of her sophomore year, her minutes actually dropped from 10.9 per game as a freshman to 9.0.
However, the tailspin that she seemed headed toward didn’t quite crash. Because her family had her back in those tough situations, especially Levy Jr.
“It was a hard road a couple years ago when I was still trying to find myself in college,” Gillespie said. “He has supported me through everything and kept telling me to keep working, because it will be worth it some day. He believed in me. ‘Keep working and keep working,’ (he would say). He was really instrumental at that point in my life. But even growing up, I think it says more about his character when I was going through a rough patch. He stayed with me and pushed me through that.”
Self-doubt crept in, and Gillespie needed someone to pull her back. She thought that perhaps she was one of those high school players who dominated her city but couldn’t hold her own when national competition came sweeping in at the DI level.
But after doing a little soul-searching, everything changed when she transferred to Florida State.
Like many transfers, the first year wasn’t exactly easy. Gillespie’s first non-playing season with FSU was in 2017-18, where she participated on the scout team and wore the black jerseys every practice. Her main role, aside from developing herself more, was to better prepare the Seminoles for each opponent.
So she endured the pains of not getting all the calls in practice, and the only opponent she could truly get ready for was her own team. The adjustment didn’t come easy, but it was what she signed up for.
She even got kicked out of practice one time, being dubbed as the first scout-team player to get booted from practice since head coach Sue Semrau started with the Seminoles in 1997.
“My first year I had so much passion because I wasn’t playing. So the games (within the practice) were my everything,” Gillespie said. “The practices were my games and I was so passionate about it. I wanted to be out there all day. From having hard practices to going into the tough games. Coach Sue taught me how to be a better player and person. Her talk to me was about how many other players look up to me, and what I do affects them too. I realize even now if I were to complain about a call, other players would say ‘Man, that’s a bad call.’ Basically whatever they see they’re going to copy.
“I definitely grew as a person and player, and being able to be out there with that team and that coaching staff, it lit a fire in me that I knew I couldn’t let go of. I had to be less passionate about the things I can’t control.”
Gillespie’s two playing seasons at Florida State speak for themselves. She excelled in all facets, leading FSU in overall scoring each season and earning multiple All-America honors. In just two years, she amassed 25 double-doubles and will go down as one of the best players in program history.
And she has a game that translates very well to the next level. The WNBA appears to be on the horizon, with the league holding its draft in what will likely be some virtual form on April 17 due to COVID-19. It’s an opportunity that she likely would have never had if it wasn’t for the love, care and guidance by her big bro.
“He’s more excited about anything I win at these days than I am,” Gillespie said of Levy Jr. “Don’t get me wrong, I love (all this). From where I’ve come and the ups and downs in my college career… But I know he’s super excited because he feels like I deserve it. I’ve worked really hard for it and I hope someone on the WNBA side can say that I deserve it and have earned it as well.”
No matter what the future holds, Gillespie has an appreciation for how she got to this point. The saying “Family is Everything” has never been more true than in her own basketball life. She had to make her own name and absorb all the mental and physical challenges along the way.
And what was once a sibling rival has become more of a sibling savior. It’s true: Family really is everything.