Richard (Dick) Gillespie was a forward for the UConn Huskies from 1970 - 1972. He was a member of the team that won the legendary “slow down” game against Rhode Island University to win the Yankee Conference Title in 1969-70. In February 2014, I met Dick and he shared his experiences on and off the court.
Dick started playing basketball when he was ten, playing for a local Christian Youth Organization team. His interest became very strong when one of the local kids played at Madison Square Garden (MSG). “As a twelve year old, I was taken to the game and I thought that was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, and I said I’ve got to do this, so I did (play at MSG) during college.” Dick went to Stamford Catholic High School where his team made it to the semi-finals in the State Championship game. “I played against a 6’8”, 240 pound guy (in that game), and I was 6’8” 152 pounds (much smaller). During college I played against him, and he couldn’t keep up with me. By then I was strong, agile and quick.”
Dick was a good student in high school and had received some academic scholarships for college but opted to go to The Berkshire (Preparatory) School in Sheffield, Massachusetts to build some muscle and earn a basketball scholarship to go to college the following year. During his year at prep school he also played for the United States team that played against the Olympic team. “I wasn’t on the Olympic team, but I was in the top 150 players in the country.” Dick was able to face the basket and move as opposed to only set picks, a quality that was new that not many players had. While at Berkshire School, Dick received offers to play basketball at Fairfield University, Providence College and Manhattan University but chose another school, College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was captain of the freshman team scoring 26 points and 19 rebounds per game. The south (Vriginia) wasn’t what Dick was used to so he transferred after one year. In order to get a basketball scholarship at another school Dick had to continue improving his game. He became a counselor at the Five Star Basketball Camp in Pennsylvania during the day. At night he played basketball on teams with some of the best college players, and they’d play against teams with professional basketball players. While at the camp he caught the interest of UConn Coach Dee Rowe. Coach Rowe and Coach Fred Barakat came to Dick’s family home to meet them. “My mother and father loved Dee Rowe, who doesn’t. Coach Rowe is a big family man and admired my parents who had more kids (11) then Dee (7) and how well all of my brothers and sisters were doing.” Before long Dick went for a visit to UConn for a few days. He had a private work out against Dick Squires, an assistant coach. “The UConn coaches wanted to see how I would do against Dick, and I did well. Coach Rowe offered me a scholarship.”
Soon Dick was a UConn Husky. He had to wait a year to play in a game due to transfer rules but was able to practic with the team. “I was the other team’s guy for each position in practice; shooting guard, center, and defense disrupting the offense.” The following year when Dick was eligible to play he remembered his first game. “I started the game, and there was a bomb scare. The governor of CT was there. The building was evacuated. We later finished the game but it was to an empty stadium.” Dick struggled with his role on the team. “I thought I should be, and I wanted to be in the starting lineup. Instead, Coach Rowe was pushing me to be a starter but played me as the 6th man (first man off the bench).” Once Dick understood how and when coach was going to play him, he embraced his role. Dick remembered one of the bus rides back to Storrs from a game in Syracuse. His teammate, Doug Melody was dribbling the ball on the bus. Assistant Coach Valvano bet Doug $20.00 or something like that, that he couldn’t dribble the ball all the way back (5 hour ride). Doug was able to. Then Coach Valvano challenged Doug to dribble off the bus, over the ice into the Field House to the foul line, wait for everyone from the bus to get there, and hit a jump shot from the foul line for $50.00 or something like that, and no sprints for the team for the week. Doug did it. As Coach Valvano was reaching into his pocket Coach Rowe came flying over out of nowhere basically tackling Coach Valvano and said, “you can’t give a player money! (against NCAA rules).”
Another very memorable game was a day when Dick was called to the coach’s office to get the scouting report for their next game. Normally the scouting report is in detail saying, when this guy (from the other team) does this, you’re going to do this, or when you do this, this is going to happen, so do this. This time the scouting report read, this is the greatest player you’ll ever face. Good Luck. It was Julius Erving. “At the time my teammate and I didn’t know who Julius was.” Dick called his brother to tell him he was selected for the number one assignment on defense, and asked if he knew who Julius Erving was. “My brother starts laughing and said, he’s second in the nation in rebounding behind Jabaar (Kareem Abdul-Jabaar).” Dick and his teammate Bobby Parsons were prepared when they met on the court with Julius Erving. “Parsons was in position, I’m in position. I’m ready, let’s go. Next thing I knew Julius had jumped over Bobby’s head on his way to me and I’m ready, I’m going to take a charge. Next thing I know he has swiveled his hip over my shoulder on his way to putting the ball in the rim for two points. He was really good and I got to see the bottom of his feet more than anybody. However, UConn prevailed, kept Julius under 20 points and beat UMass, winning the conference. This meant we would go to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) but something happened.”
During UConn’s next team meeting, four state troopers came in. Four team players names were announced, they were under arrest, and going to the police station. The next night was the Conference Title game against Rhode Island. “This was the famous game. What we didn’t know two weeks earlier with Doug dribbling the ball from Syracuse was that it was going to come into play. In practicing for the Conference Title game we practiced having Doug dribble the ball, and had him dribble for 38 minutes during the game because he was in shape from dribbling the ball from Syracuse. “Dick will never forget the practice to prepare for this game without the four guys. Coach Rowe said, “Whatever you do, do not shoot the ball, no matter what, even if you have an uncontested layup, do not take that layup shot. Doug will hold the ball (back then there was no shot clock) for almost 38 minutes.” UConn won 32 to 21. “A great victory in terms of team work and basically the end of our season.” Without the full team UConn did not get invited to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). Back then the NIT was better than being invited to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). It was like the national title game and played at Madison Square Garden also referred to as the “mecca” of basketball. UMass, with Julius Erving was invited even though UConn had beaten them twice. “I now go out to dinner with clients and tell them the story that Julius Erving is wearing my NIT watch, (a gift the players received for being invited to the NIT). The team members that had been arrested eventually were vindicated and Coach Rowe stuck with them every inch of the way.”
Next came what Dick refers to as “The Perfect Storm”. The new season was upon them and the tone of the coaches made it not a happy place to be. Sometimes at the beginning of the season, they break you down to try to toughen you up. Doug Melody was named captain and Dick thought he also deserved to be captain. “A goal I had that didn’t happen. Part I of the perfect storm.” Part 2, Dick’s father was very ill, having had a heart attack. Dick was unsure of his future. He might need to drop out of school because of lack of money in his family. Part 3, campus life had changed dramatically. A once happy place, now drugs and riots that had been happening at other universities, were going on at UConn. “Boys had beards and wore flannel shirts. I’d go to a party and be frisked as an undercover narc because I had short hair. I felt like I was missing out on the college experience as I spent all my time playing basketball, even though I loved basketball, and it was an honor to play.”
Coach Rowe called a meeting with Dick. There was a perception that maybe Dick didn’t really want to play basketball because he loved it. Maybe he was playing basketball because his father loved it. Coach Rowe told Dick that his father calls the office everyday (probably bugging them). The coaches asked Dick to decide who he was playing for because it’s not going to work if he continued this way. Dick was confused. “I said what way? They said their perception was that I was not dedicated to playing; they thought I was upset with my father. Coach and I sat down to talk and I was tearful. I wrote down some thoughts; I don’t want to kiss my career goodbye. I like it here. I gave all the reasons why I thought I should continue playing, and almost as many reasons why I shouldn’t. I told coach I wanted to take a break because I was confused. I decided to leave the team. I was the number three guy and I was ready to go another season and a half to finish my eligibility and I had this meeting with the coaches, and they were telling me how much I didn’t want to play, and I was like I don’t get you guys, but left the team and that’s the Perfect Storm.”
Two weeks later Dick went to the gym to watch practice. “I was watching. I knew all the drills. Coach saw me and asked me if I missed basketball, and I said oh every day I think about it. He said well if you want to come back you can, I’d love to have you, and I’m sorry you’re not here right now, but if you want to come back it means I’ve got to kick somebody else off the team. (Each school has a certain number of scholarships.) I decided not to return but I missed it greatly. I loved UConn basketball but I also felt that I made the right call.”
Dick was academically almost ready to graduate (he had sat out one year of basketball due to his transfer and had two years of basketball eligibility left but earned academic credits and could graduate the following May). After his decision to leave the basketball team, Dick was anxious to graduate and get on with his career. “I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications, went to New York, got into the advertising business and forty years later, I’m still in it.”
Dick started out as an assistant spot television buyer at Young and Rubicam in New York. He was buying television commercials for clients in different markets around the country learning the advertising business. He met representatives coming in to sell their programming followed by meeting magazine representatives. He took his experience and moved on to work for Golf Digest Magazine in charge of running the New England Territory for several years. Next he was a manager for CBS magazine, followed by Newsweek Magazine which was the number one publication in the world. “Due to my efforts I was made head of corporate sales for Gannett Company where I ran 156 media products for all their newspapers, television, radio stations and outdoor billboards.” Currently Dick is president of Gillespie Media. “A whole lot of stuff that Dee Rowe taught me I applied it literally into my business life and made it work. I was able to consistently go to the head of the class in sales because of what I was taught in how to play basketball. What Dee Rowe used to say to us is get the most of your ability, earn the respect and admiration of your peers, and do something for mankind.”
When asked about his thoughts on how basketball has changed over the years Dick said, “The kids are bigger, stronger and faster. The defense at UConn is as good as it ever was. The difference is that what I played there were some really good players but UConn wasn’t able to get them. Now UConn is getting the best of the best players. Kids need to realize when they work as a team it’s great, when it’s clicking on all cylinders. There is no other feeling like it, perfect example; this year’s NCAA UConn Championship win.”
Dick likes UConn’s new head coach Kevin Ollie, “I’m glad they brought him in as a coach. I remember when Kevin Ollie was a player. UConn was playing Syracuse, the scouting report said this guy does not make mistakes, he’s consistent and smart. For Jim Boeheim (Syracuse University head coach) to say that tells me a lot about Coach Ollie.”
When Dick and his wife Dianne met, their first conversation was regarding basketball. Dianne from North Carolina, a Tar heels fan, and Dick a UConn fan, he had to educate Dianne that the Tar heels are overrated. 22 years later they still enjoy watching college basketball. Dick continues to wear his UConn shirt and Dianne her North Carolina shirt during games.
Dick and Dianne currently live in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Dick has three daughters; Kerry, age 38, is married and has two daughters Grace and Caroline. Kerry uses the Dee Rowe formula and is currently the sales person of the year at Conde’ Nast. Jaimee, age 38, works for Nokia in charge of music licensing currently reintroducing the equivalent of iTunes, and Lauren, age 32, was a buyer at Pottery Barn then decided to leave her corporate job and opened a doggy day care in New York where she has 70 dogs within a three mile radius. She has also started her own line of doggy apparel at barkbabybark.com and is due to have her first child in June.
Dick ended our conversation with some kind words about his former Coach Dee Rowe. “I feel very strongly that he is probably the best thing that ever happened to UConn because he not only knighted the ship when they had dysfunctional teams but he also put the program back together and helped to get Jim Calhoun hired. After coaching he did a wonderful job as the Athletic Director. I’m very respectful of him. By the time Dee Rowe was finished coaching me, I could play basketball at any university in the United States and I’d be on the starting five at any of them. It’s all about what you can give, not what you can get.”