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WNBA: The road to Chicago for Kiah Gillespie was rife with miles of both magnifence and doubt

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MERIDEN — Kiah Gillespie remembers Chicago being cold.

She remembers, too, “The Magnificent Mile,” that stretch of Michigan Avenue home to such fine stores, restaurants and hotels that it ranks behind only New York’s Fifth Avenue and Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive for highest rents in the U.S.

And then, of course, there was the popcorn.

“You take cheddar and caramel popcorn and you eat it together,” Gillespie explains. “It’s like the best combination on this planet.

“It is a Chicago thing. The popcorn is outstanding. I already fit in.”

Gillespie was only a temporary guest when she and her family drove from Meriden to Chicago in late March of 2015 for the McDonald’s All-American Basketball Game.

Five years later, as a 2020 draft pick of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, the collegiate All-American out of Florida State hopes to take up permanent residence on the shores of Lake Michigan and, as a 6-foot-2 power forward with nimble feet and an outside touch, add her own bit of cheddar-and-caramel magnificence to the City of Big Shoulders.

“Looking back, I can’t believe five years ago I was there, in Chicago, playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game, and now I have another opportunity to be a part of that (city) and that franchise,” Gillespie said. “It’s exciting.”

Gillespie spoke to the Record-Journal a few days after being selected by the Sky in the third round of Friday’s draft with the 32nd pick overall.

She is the first female athlete from Meriden to be drafted by a pro sports league and the first of either gender since the New Orleans Saints took Maloney grad John Jenkins out of Georgia in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Gillespie has yet to celebrate her selection with anyone from her hometown, at least not in person. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gillespie has remained at Florida State.

She was with Seminoles head coach Sue Semrau in Tallahassee, Fla. on Friday night when her name was called on ESPN.

“The day was just kind of perfect,” Gillespie said. “It was hard for (my family) not to be there, but to have my coach, who is like my family as well, was super important to me, just for her to see how far I’ve come and what she’s done for me.

“When I see my family and I have the opportunity to celebrate with them,” Gillespie added, “it will be even more sweet because we didn’t have that time to celebrate on the day.”

It’s been something of an odd whirlwind since draft night, a lot of motion while not going anywhere. Gillespie has been flooded with congratulations of the text, tweet and telephone variety, and yet has remained in place amid the pandemic.

There’s no hopping on a plane just yet. The start of the WNBA season, initially scheduled for May 15, has been indefinitely suspended.

Gillespie was in touch with Sky head coach James Wade and his staff as early as Friday night. Plenty of Zoom calls and team meetings lay ahead. Workout videos will be forthcoming along with detailed instructions on what the team feels she needs to work on.

“I’m excited for that,” Gillespie said. “I can’t wait to see the switch in how workouts are done from college to professional.”

The pandemic does throw a curve. Facilities are closed and Gillespie has been limited to working on ball handling and conditioning. 

“I’m hoping that because I’ve been drafted, you know, the school wants to open the gym back up for me,” Gillespie said with a chuckle. “I don’t know. I’ve just got to make due with what I have. If there’s a park outside, I’m willing to do it.”

And so Gillespie gears up for the next stage in the journey. It’s a road that rolls back through Tallahassee to College Park, Maryland to Capital Prep in Hartford, where Gillespie played her high school basketball.

Given Gillespie’s dominance at the prep level — three-time state champion as a sophomore, junior and senior; two-time Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior and a senior; All-American as a senior — it seemed inevitable she’d find her way to the pros.

However, Gillespie’s 2,208 career points, which rank seventh all-time in Connecticut high school girls basketball, did not add up to anything automatic in college. Gillespie first went to the University of Maryland, but was unhappy. After two seasons, she transferred to Florida State.

And while Gillespie would truly blossom as a Seminole, she could not play that first year in Tallahassee, per NCAA transfer rules, and it was a time of doubt.

“Going through high school, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ Then I get to Maryland and I struggle for two years. Then I get to Florida State and I sit out my red-shirt year and I’m in the process of thinking if I really love basketball, because it’s been a hard couple of years,” Gillespie recounted.

In retrospect, Gillespie sees how the bumps and detours of those first three college years, more than any other stretch in the road, paved the way to Chicago.

“If I could go back and change anything, I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said. “I think everything that happened, happened for a reason. I think having to sit out and not having everything handed to me really taught me the process and what it’s like to actually work and earn something.

“For the most part, my high school career, I was bigger and more talented than everybody else. I still had to work hard, but it was different. When I got to college, I didn’t understand the translation between being talented and working hard. When I got to Florida State and I had the opportunity to play, I figured out what that meant.”

Under Semrau’s guidance, everything came into alignment for Gillespie. She led Florida State in scoring and rebounding as a junior and did it again this season as the Seminoles reached the championship game of the ACC Tournament before the coronavirus KO’d March Madness.

Florida State won 24 games in each of Gillespie’s two seasons. She was named All-American after each campaign.

This winter, Gillespie averaged 15.6 points and 8.8 rebounds. Against Top-25 opponents, she was even better, averaging 21.0 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting 52.6 percent from the floor, including 41.9 percent from 3-point range.

Numbers like that got analysts talking and put Gillespie’s name on the board in mock drafts. Here was a power forward who could also step out and shoot.

“Good enough as a 3-point shooter to be an effective stretch-4, Gillespie also has a soft touch in the lane,” Charlie Creme remarked in his pre-draft comments for ESPN.com. “Lateral quickness and defending taller players are areas that need improvement.”

All the buzz brought it home for Gillespie: Playing pro basketball wasn’t just a dream anymore. It was within reach.

“I think I realized it more during the season,” she said. “Just seeing the things that people were saying about me, and a lot of people believing in me and being behind me. I think that’s when I kind of felt like this is something I can really do. It really didn’t happen until I was a senior here at Florida State, but I knew it was really a possibility.”

Gillespie was projected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick. ESPN.com analyst Graham Hays, in assessing why Gillespie fell to the third, remarked “concerns about her athleticism relative to WNBA standards clearly outweighed her range as a potential stretch four.”

Hays did add: “She is well worth the investment for the Sky at this point.”

For her part, Gillespie is not hung up on round or pick number.

“To me, it really doesn’t matter where or when. It was just that it happened,” she said. “A lot of people don’t get the opportunity. That’s what I’m excited about: to have the opportunity.”

Once the WNBA resumes, Gillespie will join a franchise that went 20-14 a year ago and reached the postseason. The Sky beat the Phoenix Mercury in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the Las Vegas Aces in the second round.

Gillespie will have to battle to make the Chicago roster. Due to salary-cap restrictions, the Sky can carry only 11 players in 2020, and only one roster spot is expected to be open heading into camp. The Sky drafted two other players, Oregon forward Ruthy Hebard (1st round, No. 8) and UCLA guard Japreece Dean (3rd, No. 30) ahead of Gillespie.

That doesn’t mean Gillespie won’t earn her keep.

Another avenue would be developing in the pro leagues of Europe. One current Chicago player, Allie Quigley, played overseas for five years before establishing herself as a three-time WNBA All-Star.

Come what may, Gillespie is ready for it.

“I’ve never been as focused as I am in this moment,” she said. “I think everything that I’ve been through has helped me on the road I’m on now and the success I’ve had.”

Meanwhile, for the next wave of Meriden girls basketball players coming up, the gold mine of role models grows richer. Consider what’s happened over the past decade:

■Platt grad Damika Martinez, who went on to become the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s top scorer of all-time at Iona College, played professionally in Europe and Puerto Rico. (She was not drafted by the WNBA.)■Sadie Edwards, who played much of her high school basketball out of state, is now a graduate assistant at Indiana University after a solid career at Southern California.■Kiah Gillespie gets drafted into the WNBA after an All-American career at Florida State.

Gillespie’s advice to the girls of her hometown?

“Believe in yourself, first and foremost. With the problems I had and when I struggled, it was because I didn’t have confidence in myself. I was trying to seek it from other people.

“The first thing you have to do in order to find success is to believe in yourself and build yourself up and build your confidence. If you’re built that way, then nobody can take that from you.

“Me, I’m definitely feel I”m a confident player. I built myself up from the bottom. I had to teach myself if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will.

“And just back up. If you know you’re good at something, do your thing. You’ve got to make sure you do it.”


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