Within months after leaving Maryland as a junior in the spring of 2005, John Gilchrist realized he had made a mistake.
Sitting in his apartment in Rishon LeZion, a coastal town in Israel where he had begun what would become a nomadic professional basketball career, Gilchrist wrote an email apologizing to his former coach, Gary Williams, and to former Terps assistant Dave Dickerson, by then the head coach at Tulane.
"I just basically poured my guts out to them," Gilchrist recalled on a trip back to College Park last month.
Ten years ago, as a sophomore, Gilchrist led Maryland to the 2004 ACC tournament championship, a three-game sweep over the top three seeds that ended with an overtime victory against archrival Duke. Gilchrist was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player after averaging 24 points per game.
The next year, Gilchrist battled injuries, fought constantly with Williams about his role and his attitude and eventually stopped playing at halftime of Maryland's ACC tournament quarterfinal loss to Clemson in Washington.
Gilchrist told Williams that he had a sprained wrist. He would sit out the remainder of the season as the Terps advanced to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament. Williams didn't dissuade Gilchrist from putting his name in the NBA draft.
"It's been an uphill battle ever since," Gilchrist said.
After going undrafted and then failing to be picked up as a summer league free agent, Gilchrist found his way to Israel, where he played four of the next five seasons. It took only a few months for Gilchrist to understand what Williams and his coaching staff were trying to do.
The email was sent.
"I told them that 'I appreciated the tough love y'all gave me,'" Gilchrist recalled writing. "At the time being in the immature mindset that I was in, I felt like I was being blamed for things unfairly. I came to understand that it's not just about what you do as a player, it's how you affect the whole team. ... At the time it was me, me, me."
'Just a kid playing ball'
As Maryland gets ready to play in its final ACC tournament this week in Greensboro, N.C. — in the same building where Gilchrist led the Terps to their last ACC tournament title, the third in school history — the 28-year-old guard's pro career might be over.
A torn ACL sustained while playing in Australia in 2010 nearly ended Gilchrist's career at age 25, but he came back to play in Kosovo and Hungary, where his career was derailed again in 2013 by a wrist injury he said he first sustained as a junior at Maryland. He participated in a tryout camp for foreign teams last month in Florida, looking for another place to latch on.
"Playing basketball [overseas] you get to see the ins and outs of the sports business. It's as rough as it gets," Gilchrist said. "You can't expect anything from anybody. Your main objective is to fit in and do what's necessary to help the team win. It's nothing about you, it's about you fitting your role."
That was something Gilchrist had a difficult time grasping throughout his three years at Maryland. As a freshman, a year after the Terps won the NCAA championship, Gilchrist chafed at playing behind senior Steve Blake, thinking he had more talent than a blue-collar player who is now in his 11th season in the NBA.
"Unpredictable," Gilchrist said in describing his personality back then.
Gilchrist blossomed as a sophomore, averaging 15.4 points and five assists, and he was voted third-team All-ACC. But the Terps never quite jelled during the regular season. Considered an NCAA tournament bubble team going into Greensboro with a 16-11 record overall and a 7-9 mark in the ACC, Maryland ran the table as Gilchrist put on one of the most electrifying performances in ACC tournament history.
He hit all four of his 3-point shots and the clinching free throw in a one-point win over third-seeded Wake Forest in the quarterfinals, then scored 23 of his 30 points in the second half to lead the Terps back from a 19-point deficit against No. 2 seed North Carolina State in the semifinals. Then came the win over top-seed Duke, when Gilchrist scored 26 and hit a huge shot toward the end of regulation.
"In recent years, think it's pretty safe to say, I don't think anyone was any more dominating that John was [in an ACC tournament]," Williams said.
While there was much speculation at the time about what he would do, Gilchrist said that he never considered going pro after his sophomore year.
"At that point, I was just a kid playing ball," he said."I viewed the world totally different than I do now, how I carry myself, things of that nature. The maturity of handling fame and money, I think it would have been a concern for me. ... Even my mom didn't think I could have handled it."
Asked what kept him in College Park, Gilchrist said. "Honestly at the time, it was definitely the love of the university, the love of being a college student. It's hard to use the word immature when you're talking about a 19-year-old kid, but at the same time, me now at 28 years old, I really believe that was the deal."
'He had his own ideas'
Williams saw things beginning to change with Gilchrist even before his junior year began, during a summer trip the team took to Italy. Williams relaxed his rules about players wearing warmups before games because the temperatures in the gyms were over 100 degrees, but Gilchrist had his jacket zipped to the top.
"He just didn't want to do anything that anybody else did," Williams said. "He wanted to be [treated] different. That was a part of his personality. John needed the attention all the time. He had his own ideas about how the game was to be played."
Gilchrist had undergone a major life event that summer — the birth of his daughter, who will be 10 this summer.
"I put more pressure on myself when I had a daughter between my sophomore and junior year," he said. "That's when I started thinking about different things. It was one of those deals where that was the first thing that happened to me that had me thinking about [going pro]. I can play basketball, I can make a job out of this."
Williams believes Gilchrist would have been drafted had he left after his sophomore season — a year when five point guards went in the first round and 12 were drafted overall — but NBA general managers became aware of what a handful he had become during his junior year.
"When you get that reputation, whether it's fair or not, I think you have to be really good for people to pick you in the draft," Williams said. "You're a 6-3 guard. There are a lot of those guys around. If you're close to another player in ability and that guy has great recommendations from everybody, they're going to take that [other] guy. You don't want to deal at the professional level with those things."
Gilchrist now understands that.
"If I ran a business and if someone can come in and disrupt the chemistry of what I'm trying to accomplish, I would probably pass on that person too," he said.
Gilchrist has shared his experience with those he has coached and tutored at a local community college in the Tidewater area of Virginia where he grew up and still lives.
"I tell those kids that there's a lot of people with talent, but there's a lot of people who don't get it. Understand how to market yourself to become a commodity that people can invest in," he said. "At the time, it was just playing ball, wearing your heart on your sleeve and rah-rah. Some people understood, some people said, 'He's crazy.' It was just the way I was taught to play the game."
Neither Williams nor Dickerson, now the associate head coach at Ohio State, said they were surprised to get the reflective email from Gilchrist.
"John had heart, was a great kid, was a very loyal kid and came from a great, loving family with both parents in the house," Dickerson said. "He had all the qualities of being a great person. Every student-athlete who leaves a program, whether it's a year or two years, [they] have a period of reflection, and some go through that reflection while they're playing, but a lot do it after their careers are done."
Said Williams: "We all grow up at different times, and I think John saw some things that he really appreciated and he wasn't a part of them. I wish there was a button I could have pushed [while Gilchrist was at Maryland] that could make him realize the same things he realized when he got to Israel."
Ten years after Gilchrist's greatest achievement on the court, both Williams and Dickerson still count him among the most talented players they ever coached.
"He had a toughness that was unmatched," Dickerson said. "His total strength was supreme in that there was nothing on the floor he couldn't do. He was a great rebounder, he could shoot the basketball, he could drive the basketball, he was a great on-the-ball defender. He was as complete a player as I ever recruited. ...
"He never had the luxury or the insight to take advantage of the opportunity he had while he was at the University of Maryland. He was playing in a program that had just come off winning a national championship. He was the face of that recruiting class that came in, and we had just moved into the Comcast Center. He had a lot of things going for him."
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