NCAA Tournament

Billy Gillispie and the coach’s wife who became his kidney donor

Billy Gillispie, the former head coach at Texas-El Paso, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Texas Tech, helped the USBWA honor the coach’s wife who became his kidney donor, a woman he didn’t know.
Billy Gillispie, the former head coach at Texas-El Paso, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Texas Tech, helped the USBWA honor the coach’s wife who became his kidney donor, a woman he didn’t know. AP

Texas Tech and coach Chris Beard’s remarkable run through the NCAA Tournament brought the Red Raiders to the national championship game on Monday night.

A former Tech coach felt fortunate to be alive to watch his old team.

Billy Gillipsie told the story of his kidney transplant last year Monday before introducing the donor, the wife of a MIAA coach whom he had never met.

Ericka Downey was the recipient of the Most Courageous Award presented by the United States Basketball Writers Association.

“I don’t know why somebody would have enough courage, enough love to give someone a body part when they don’t know that person,” Gillispie said. “She decided to do this.”

In December, 2017 Downey read a story in The Dallas Morning News about Gillispie, the former head coach at Texas-El Paso, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Tech. He was in renal failure.

Downey retweeted the story and vowed to help and raise awareness of Gillispie’s situation. As Downey learned there more than 100,000 people on a waiting list for a median wait time of 3.6 years, she considered becoming the donor.

“It was a very spiritual moment for me,” Downey said. “I felt called to do something. Even though I didn’t know him…I was well aware of who he was. The story really touched me.”

Downey didn’t know Gillispie, but her husband Mark did.

Mark Downey just completed his first year as the head coach at Northeastern State in Tahlequah, Okla. He’s been a Division I assistant and as the head coach at Independence, Kan., Community College some 20 years ago he got to know Gillispie, then an assistant on Bill Self’s Tulsa staff.

Gillispie has seen amazing highs and lows in his career, successful enough at UTEP and Texas A&M to land the Kentucky job. But he was fired at Kentucky in 2009 and at Tech after one season in 2012. His health problems started soon after that and he was treated for high blood pressure and kidney problems.

In January, 2018, Downey had gotten the cell phone number for Gillispie, now the head coach at Ranger Junior College in Texas. They exchanged text messages and a month later Downey learned through blood and urine tests that she was a match for Gillispie. They met for the first time at the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio, and in April they were at the Mayo Clinic for the transplant.

Gillispie was on the sideline this season, taking Ranger to the National Junior College Basketball Championship game. Ericka Downey attended the title game.

“I believe basketball is better because he’s still in it,” Downey said.

Gillispie is because a coach’s wife came to his aid, and he is thankful every day.

“It’s only by the grace of God that I was able to get back to full health,” Gillispie said. “I’m overwhelmed every single day of my life.”

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