Cliff Gillespie is as enthusiastic about the prospect of beginning his fifth decade with the Towsontowne Recreation Council girls basketball program as he was in his first year with the organization in 1975.
Having been honored by his friends, colleagues and former and current players and their parents Feb. 19 in a surprise celebration after the last game of the season, Gillespie, 76, is thrilled to be able to continue to be doing what inspires him the most — teaching basketball fundamentals to girls at the youth level.
"I love the game," said Gillespie, who received a laudatory citation from the office of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz during the ceremony. "And it keeps me active. I enjoy about 99.9 percent of what I do, and (being around the girls) has made me a better person."
All of that said, the Lutherville residentis more than a caring coach and able administrator.
He is, in the words of fellow TTRC basketball coach and Gillespie's good friend, Brian Sheahan, "the heart and soul of Towsontowne rec girls basketball," and a legendary figure to the "thousands of girls whose lives he has touched. He's one of a kind — a Baltimore County icon."
Slightly stooped with a thick thatch of silver hair and an ever-present smile, Gillespie's admirers crowded around him following the ceremony held at St. Timothy's School in Stevenson as his smile broadened into a full-fledged grin.
Havingbeen inducted into theTowsontowne Recreation CouncilVolunteer Hall of Fame in 2003, Gillespie was described then as "a sterling model of the values that a recreation volunteer should embody, and an inspiration to all of us."
A dozen years later, his sterling reputation continues to grow.
That's why so many folks associated with the program chipped in forwhat Sheahan called a "trip-of-a-lifetime travel voucher," to the destination of his choice,at the ceremony held on a bitterly cold night.
"In addition to scheduling and overseeing all aspects of TTRC's in-house and travel basketball leagues and teams for kids between the ages of 5 and 15, Cliff has coached at least one team, and often times he has coached multiple teams, during each of those 40 years," said fellow Lutherville resident Sheahan, who himself has been with TTRC for 25 of his 40 years coaching the sport. "He also has run clinics and summer leagues for the kids for years."
Love for basketball and kids
Typically, a volunteer youth coach can spend as much as 10 hours a week running a team.
In Gillespie's case, coaching a team as well as running the program is a much more demanding time commitment. It's akin to having a full-time job, considering that there were 36 in-house and eight travel teams this season for 230 girls.
"He does everything," said Kathy Gillespie, his wife of 34 years. "He schedules games, gets the equipment, coaches. It takes a lot of time, but when you love what you do, it becomes a passion."
Commissioner Gillespie's interest in the girls he coaches goes beyond a brief nod or eye contact. Instead, he has chosen to get to know his players and their parents on a personal basis.
"It is an accomplishment in and of itself that, although he has been there for 40 years, he makes it a priority to know every girl's name, past and present," said Grace Falvey, a former player and current Notre Dame Preparatory School junior whohelps Gillespie coach a middle-school travel team along with her sisters, Lindsay and Sam.
"I know that as a player this made me feel more comfortable in the program, which made me a more confident player. Another one of the many things that Coach Cliff does so diligently, is that he shows up at every game during the weekend. The girls and parents love seeing him at each game. He critiques, encourages and improves (the skills of) every girl, regardless of their specific team," Falvey said.
St. Timothy's varsity basketball coach Mike Buchanan, praised Gillespie for his dedication.
"He's done this for 40 years and never took a dime," Buchanan, a Towson High School grad, said. "And he does it because he loves basketball and he loves kids."
It all started innocently enough for Gillespie, said another friend and colleague, Craig Pfeifer.
"Cliff was living across the street from Loch Raven High School ball fields and, at a neighborhood party at our house, another neighbor asked if he would help out as a girls softball coach," said Pfeifer, who was 8 at the time. "This was a neighborhood that had a ton of kids and many his friends were coaching their own kids. Having a flexible schedule and no kids of his own did allow him time to coach."
If coaching softball was a pleasant diversion, coaching basketball was Gillespie's true love.
Although as the league commissioner he will not tolerate coaches who display boorish behavior, he has been known to raise his voice in order to stress fundamentals from the sideline during a game or practice.
"His repetitive yelling (for players) to use the backboard on layups will never be forgotten by any of my kids," Pfeifer said. "Although he would shout from the sidelines, none of the kids ever took this in a mean-spirited way. In fact, as loud as Cliff may have yelled, the kids would be more inclined to hold back a smile, as opposed to thinking he was ever mad at them."
'Why not give back?'
Gillespie's love of sports was first nurtured in his native Philadelphia well before he attended La Salle College High School, where he played sparingly for the varsity basketball team but was a member of the tennis team.
"Sports have always been in my blood," he said. "When I was 9, I organized a baseball team in my neighborhood."
At La Salle University, he played tennis and soccer for the Explorers before graduating with a B.A. in science. He eventually earned a Master of Business Administration degree at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, was an artillery officer in the Army and landed a job in computer sales that brought him to Baltimore.
The rest, as they say, is history.
When he took over at TTRC there were only 29 girls in the basketball program.
The numbers have swelled to 230 during his leadership, although "there's no room for more," he said.
Coaching girls, he said, is fun because "they take the game seriously, but not so seriously that they think the world will end if they lose."
That's one of the reasons why Gillespie said that giving his time and energy to the Towsontowne rec girls basketball program has been a labor of love.
"I feel like I've had a good run, so why not give something back?"
To that end, he concluded the ceremony at St. Timothy's with a simple statement.
"Thanks for coming," he said. "See you next year."