It came from somewhere, literally. Not just the depths of Collin Gillespie’s basketball soul. Places you can actually find around Philadelphia on Google Maps. There are bread crumbs trailing back from when Gillespie went to Providence last month with a badly sprained ankle, put up 33, including a game-clinching three, or when the Big East player of the year took over last weekend’s conference title game for Villanova in the final minutes.
It’s not just some school out on the Main Line that gets to claim Gillespie’s feats, or Archbishop Wood High School, or Huntingdon Valley, just over the city border, where Gillespie grew up after his parents moved from Mayfair.
Those feats go back to before Gillespie scored 14 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter at the Palestra to get Wood its first Philadelphia Catholic League title after being down 13 to Neumann-Goretti at the half … before that famous dunk against Abington High that made it easier for then-Villanova assistant coach Ashley Howard to sell Gillespie to Jay Wright.
It should be no surprise that Gillespie’s first actual scholarship offer was from Division II Holy Family on Frankford Avenue. His roots are all over Northeast Philadelphia. His parents both went to Archbishop Ryan. For Collin, there were Department of Recreation games at Northeast and George Washington High Schools. A CYO tournament at Father Judge. Rhawnhurst football. A youth basketball coach who used to rent out practice space at St. Martha’s, next to Archbishop Ryan, and also at the Northeast Racquet Center on Krewstown Road. More hoops practices at Baldi Middle School on Verree Road. Then there was the Bustleton playground, home base for all the years Collin and his brother James played for the Bustleton Bengals.
As Villanova prepares to face Delaware on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Gillespie’s father, Jim, 33 years with the Philadelphia Police Department, thinks about the influential figures in Collin’s basketball life, such as Chris Roantree, now the head coach at Father Judge. Roantree ran a quality program with the Northeast Sting, seeking out top competition, so travel-team powerhouse Team Final invited the whole enterprise to join them, which is how Gillespie himself went to Team Final.
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Roantree’s influence went beyond helping get Gillespie to Archbishop Wood, where Roantree was an assistant coach. Collin’s older brother, James, already was at Wood. Roantree convinced Wood coach John Mosco that this kid Collin coming over from football belonged up on varsity as a freshman.
Having an older brother who was a big-time athlete himself – James Gillespie made All-American teams as a Widener receiver, was the league offensive player of the year – it all charted Collin’s sports career.
“They were 12 months apart,” Jim Gillespie said. “My [older] daughter was a swimmer, she was all over the place. We couldn’t be in three spots at the same time.”
He meant he and his wife … James and Collin had to be together. They couldn’t play James down in age, had to be Collin playing up, “for travel purposes,” Jim Gillespie said.
So the little guys played football at age 5 at Fox Rok. Except Collin was only 4.
“I coached them both in baseball,” Craig Sharp said of his first Gillespie encounter. He coached a rec team mainly of 7-year-olds. James was 6, easily good enough. Then there was Collin.
“We’re looking at this kid, he’s a pretty good ballplayer,” Sharp said, remembering a conversation with his assistant coach, Vince Tarducci. “Vince looks at his age card. ‘I don’t know, maybe he got his age wrong.’ Vince calls Jim. “Did you get his age wrong? … No, he’s 5.”
They put him at second base, forgot about his age. Getting to all this stuff … Jim Gillespie explained that he worked a midnight to 8 a.m. shift for 17 years purposefully so he or his wife, Therese, were around 24-7. He’d get home, Therese would leave for work. Daughter Victoria’s swimming was the first early sports priority, then the boys joined the fun. If Jim had to be in court to testify in a case, he said, his mother or Therese’s mother would take over carpool duties.
“Me and my brother are the most competitive siblings in the entire world,” James said in 2019, sitting in Widener’s football office. “We used to, like, get off our school bus down the street and we’d race home. We’d drop our bags and whoever won got first ball on the pickup court, on the driveway.”
“We never let him win – me or my older son,” said Jim Gillespie, who said his own football and basketball careers at Archbishop Ryan were injury-filled. “If you’re going to be on the floor, you’re playing to win.”
“He thrashes me now,” Dad said. “Payback is a bitch.”
The brothers so close in age. Can’t discount that as a factor in Gillespie’s whole career.
“There were days they would come in bloody,” Jim Gillespie said, so when the arguments turned physical, Dad came up with his own solution. He bought little boxing gloves. The patio in back was about the size of a ring, they couldn’t go off it. The big rule: No head shots.
“He never backed down,” Gillespie said of Collin. “My older son would say, ‘He punched me in the head, he’s not supposed to …’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, he’s younger, he’s going to cheat.’ He would start throwing haymakers.”
That all didn’t last too long, as they got older and bigger. The competition branched way out. Sharp, the Bustleton Bengals coach, remembers one suburban league they joined, traveling all over to games in Norristown and Paoli — “he was actually playing 2½ years up. He was so short. He was the point guard, but they would press us, send two guys at him. I took him off the ball. Knowing Collin, he wasn’t happy about it. Don’t you know, by the end of the year, he was back on the point. His handle was even better, he learned how to shift and move.”
“He had them from 6 years old up to 10 or 12,” Jim Gillespie said of Sharp, calling Sharp “one of the big guys” in terms of influence on Collin’s basketball development, up there with Roantree. “He purposefully made them dribble to half court with their left hand. He put them in a summer league down at Germantown Avenue.”
“We had left-handed practices, like on a Wednesday night,” Sharp said. “You can only use your left hand.”
That summer Jim Gillespie mentioned, the Bustleton Bengals were in the Mount Airy League, outdoors at Germantown and Sedgwick. It’s funny that Gillespie is the old guy now at Villanova. He was always the young guy. (Including when he played important minutes for Villanova in the 2018 NCAA title game against Michigan.)
“Collin was playing up two years,” Sharp said of playing in Mount Airy. “We just got hammered. But he held his own, did a terrific job.”
The Jay Wright clinics
As the years went on, Gillespie tended to get noticed. Brian Cartin never coached Gillespie but remembers being in the gym at Judge for a CYO tournament, Region I and Region 11 squared off, all sorts of talent. Cartin is sure that future Ryan player Izaiah Brockington, now in the NCAA tournament for Iowa State, was in the game. Gillespie was representing Region 11, playing for St. Albert’s … St. Albert the Great in Huntingdon Valley.
“I forget who they were playing but they were down like 14 with maybe 16 minutes left,” Cartin said. “Collin starts going off. One, two, three … nothing but net from three. Everyone in the gym was watching this kid dominate and, man, he could do that.”
If Villanova isn’t considered part of Philadelphia basketball, Sharp didn’t get the memo while he coached the Bustleton Bengals. Sharp said he went to every Jay Wright clinic he could, not waiting for Villanova’s national titles to sign on to what Wright was selling.
“Every timeout huddle, we’d say, ‘One, two, three … Attitude,’” Sharp said. “Collin was doing that from day one. We had a quote Jay Wright would say on attitude. We would read it to the kids before the season and again before the playoffs. It was a whole page long.”
Sharp still has his copy, actually a quote from Charles Swindoll, a pastor. How he’d become convinced “attitude is more important the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think, say, or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company, a church, a home.”
It wasn’t just the inspirational stuff that Sharp took from Wright’s clinics.
“We used his full-court press, his three-quarter-court press, which he called 75,” Sharp said. “His half-court press, he called 50. In fact, we had a play called Nova.”
“It was for Collin, run off a pick, he would take it, 7, 8 years old,” Sharp said. “He knew what to do. He’d get to the foul line, either drive, stop and pop, or dish. We left it up to him.”
Now, seeing Gillespie run similar stuff for ‘Nova … “I get goose bumps,” Sharp said.
The Villanova interview mantras about attitude can seem cliché, even after late-game Gillespie toughness everyone following NCAA basketball has seen by now. But the coach who first saw him on a baseball field, age 5, believes the player was always on the path of strong competitive fire. Sharp said, “It was in his blood, from day one.”