How does a basketball player go from being a high school benchwarmer to Division III backup to Division I walk-on to earning a scholarship and starting role for a national title contender?
Freddie Gillespie asks himself that question every day.
The former East Ridge and Carleton forward feels blessed to be a redshirt senior leader for Baylor, which is ranked No. 2 in the nation.
“If you told me that at 16 years old, I would never have thought I would be in this position,” Gillespie told the Star Tribune this week. “I’m having a blast, especially knowing I love my teammates, I love their support and I love their character.”
Gillespie says in his “wildest dreams” growing up, he envisioned playing college ball at the highest level one day. Doesn’t every kid? But it was in a different sport.
Raised in Woodbury, Gillespie remembers football being his first love. One of his childhood teammates was Seth Green, who played receiver/wildcat quarterback on the Gophers’ 11-win team this season.
The 6-9, 245-pound Gillespie was only 5-11 entering high school. He almost quit hoops after breaking his ankle on the first day of freshman team tryouts in 2011.
The following year, Gillespie sprouted to 6-4 but still wasn’t good enough to make East Ridge’s junior varsity A squad. He was raw, but coaches encouraged him to take the game seriously. Then came another setback — he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament as a junior.
That knee injury was his biggest physical and mental hurdle. Gillespie, who grew to 6-7 as a senior to make the Raptors varsity, would miss out on the critical summer AAU hoops recruiting scene.
No college coaches could evaluate him. Not even Division II programs showed much interest. Certainly no D-I looks came, including from the Gophers.
“My senior year, I was cleared to play, but I really didn’t have my full athleticism back,” Gillespie said. “I didn’t have full confidence yet in my knee that year until the very end of the season.”
Carleton College in Northfield ended up giving Gillespie a chance. They were intrigued not by his stats but physical attributes, which included a 7-4 wingspan.
His initial plan was to be a non-scholarship D-III player and graduate with a political science degree from a well-respected academic school. But Gillespie’s confidence grew after going from a rarely used freshman to an all-conference sophomore. He thought he could play D-I.
His mother, Alberder, is on the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission board with former Gophers guard Al Nuness. Eventually Nuness, a family friend, called his son, Jared, a former Hopkins star and the Baylor director of player development.
“I knew I wanted to go to a place that developed bigs,” Gillespie said. “[Baylor coach Scott Drew] was in the area looking at Tre Jones on a recruiting trip one day, and he stopped by and talked to me.”
Drew invited Gillespie to visit Baylor’s campus, then offered him a spot as a walk-on to the 2017-18 team. After watching him progress during a redshirt year, the Bears put him on scholarship and eventually made him a frontcourt starter last season. His averages jumped from 5.3 to 9.3 points and 4.4 to 9.3 rebounds from his junior to senior season.
“The fact that this came to fruition is amazing,” said Gillespie, who had 13 points in the 67-55 upset at then-No. 3 Kansas last week, and 14 points and 11 rebounds in the Bears’ 68-55 victory over Iowa State on Wednesday.
Baylor’s rise from perennial Big 12 contender to among college basketball’s best teams is impressive. So is Gillespie’s amazing journey from Minnesota to making an impact on a Final Four-caliber team in Waco, Texas.
“We definitely saw all this happening,” Drew joked. “Normally, there’s always best case, there’s worst case and usually realistic case. Freddie deserves all the credit, because he’s believed in himself and put in all the work to make himself the player he is today.”