By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 4, 2005
PHILADELPHIA -- Sixteen pairs of sneakers lined the windowsill inside Room 303. A worn basketball lay on the king-size bed. And three items rested on the night table: "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," the Bible and a journal belonging to the downtown loft's temporary resident, John Gilchrist.
The scene represented a simple existence for a complicated young man who has confounded Maryland fans, coaches and teammates with his personality as much as he has dazzled them with his play. He was the face of one of Gary Williams's most rewarding teams, which won the 2004 ACC tournament, and one of his most disappointing, which failed to reach the NCAA tournament in 2005 for the first time in a dozen years.
Gilchrist, during his first extensive public comments since he entered himself in the NBA draft, said he had no regrets about his turbulent final college season, which he said he knew from the beginning would be his last. He said the game ceased to be "fun" last season, said his former teammates failed to match his intensity in practice and characterized his relationship with Williams as nonexistent.
Williams this week declined to comment publicly on Gilchrist, saying only that he wishes him the best of luck as a professional. But Gilchrist's claims were viewed as outlandish by various sources within Maryland's program, who paint him as a belligerent player distracted by the lure of the NBA, rebellious toward Williams's long-successful philosophy and unaccepted as a leader by teammates.
Gilchrist, 20, says he is happy now, but as he continues to train here for the upcoming NBA draft, he remains an enigma to many outsiders. NBA personnel view his final season as a significant red flag, which could make the point guard one of the last players selected on June 28, a possibility he accepts.
"No one controls my destiny but me," Gilchrist said. "As a college point guard, a lot of your destiny is controlled off your team."
Gilchrist's statistics -- 13.9 points and 5.5 assists per game -- did not completely reflect the erratic nature of his season, which concluded with an injury that forced him to miss the Terrapins' run to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
After being named the most valuable player of the 2004 ACC tournament, Gilchrist spent much of his junior season clashing with Williams about his role, a situation that worsened as the team continued to struggle. Gilchrist said he never sought a personal association with Williams -- "He was my coach; I looked at it like business." In fact, one of the only conversations of a personal nature Gilchrist recalled having with Williams occurred in spring 2004, when the player told his coach that his longtime girlfriend was pregnant.
The two have not met since a talk at the onset of the NIT run in mid-March that lasted a "good couple minutes," Gilchrist said. During the meeting, Gilchrist reaffirmed his NBA intentions and Williams told him, "If you ever need help talking to the NBA teams, you have my blessing."Beginning of the End
After starring in the 2004 ACC tournament, Gilchrist said he was a different player last season because he "sacrificed" individual performance to benefit his teammates.
Those within Maryland's program, however, said Gilchrist grew complacent following his ACC tournament performance and returned slower and out of shape. He was outplayed in both preseason exhibitions and several regular season games by point guards previously thought to be inferior.
The role that helped turn former Terp Steve Francis into a star was designed for Gilchrist, who rejected it, sources said, adding that Gilchrist received the appropriate amount of criticism for not tending to responsibilities that most often involved playing defense.
"On the court, I just wasn't having fun anymore," Gilchrist said. "Everything I did, I felt like everything was coming back on me. If anyone made a mistake, it was, 'John, why did you give him the ball?' I just felt there was too much on me. [Williams] felt I could take it, and I could take it because I kept my mouth closed and didn't say nothing. It got to the point where I thought, 'It is almost over.' I knew it was my last year. They knew it was my last year. No matter what, I wasn't coming back."
Gilchrist's college career officially ended when he withdrew from classes shortly after the 2004-05 season. Gilchrist acknowledged difficulties with teammates, who he said did not "take me seriously" and questioned whether his priorities were with the team or with his pro prospects.
There were other indications that teammates failed to accept Gilchrist as their leader. A player vote before the season determined co-captains, and Gilchrist lost by a decisive margin to Chris McCray and Mike Grinnon. His mood often appeared to swing dramatically during games. What's more, a source within the Maryland program said Gilchrist often remained out late socially, and he was suspended from starting one game because he missed a class, which reflected a poor example to teammates.
Gilchrist said he viewed academics as a requirement rather than a burden, but added that if one succeeds in both athletics and academics, "there is no time for anything else unless you're an Emeka Okafor," referring to the former U-Conn. all-American student and athlete.
Gilchrist did not take responsibility for shortcomings during the season, instead saying some teammates -- he did not specify whom -- did not match his intensity in every practice.
"Certain people aren't going to approach the game as seriously as other people," said Gilchrist, who emphasized that he did not want to criticize anyone in the program specifically. "That's the thing that made me upset. I would come to practice and be in a zone, 'Okay, let's play.' Certain people are laughing and joking, and they are looking at me like, 'This guy is taking it too serious.' In my opinion, this is my livelihood. When you have guys disrespecting the game, I didn't really appreciate that. A lot of people wanted me to lighten up, but you can't relax, ever."
During the season, coaches and teammates did not criticize Gilchrist publicly, particularly after his comments following a Feb. 22 loss to Clemson in which Gilchrist cryptically referred to "behind-the-scenes" issues and "outside factors" that were causing the team's problems.
Williams, speaking this week to the general struggles of the team, said: "We all take the responsibility of not having the intensity level. This past year, we did not have the intensity level, but that goes on everybody -- players, coaches -- and no player is immune from that."'A Great Misperception'
A recent Friday began as most of Gilchrist's days do, with him plodding through traffic in his 2000 Isuzu Rodeo en route to Saint Joseph's University, where he regularly works out with more than a dozen local college or NBA players. Gilchrist turned to a passenger and recited a list of successful second-round draft picks, later scoffing at the notion that NBA personnel say he is no better than the seventh-best point guard in the draft. Much of the pre-draft prognostication, he said, stems from how a player and his team fared during the most recent season. In other words, Wake Forest's Chris Paul, projected as a top five pick, is a "safe" choice, Gilchrist said, because the Demon Deacons had a successful year.
"If they are picking for talent," Gilchrist added, "I don't think any of them can outplay me."
NBA personnel expect Gilchrist to be selected between the 45th and 50th picks, midway through the second round. They consider Paul, Illinois' Deron Williams, North Carolina's Raymond Felton, high school player Monta Ellis, Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack and Washington's Nate Robinson all superior point guards. In fact, Jack, a Fort Washington native, is "light years" ahead of Gilchrist, according to one person who had discussed this year's draft class with NBA personnel. Gilchrist was described as on par with Duke's Daniel Ewing and Arizona's Salim Stoudamire.
When told of his client's draft projection, Gilchrist's agent, Joel Bell, said he believes Gilchrist's status will improve once teams get to know him through interviews and private workouts.
"There is a great misperception about John," added Bell, who played for Williams at American University and represented 12 NBA players last season, including former Maryland guard Steve Blake.
Bell and a handful of NBA teams have spoken with Williams about Gilchrist, who has 14 workouts scheduled with teams. Gilchrist took 60-question personality tests during his first two visits with the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies. And he remains particularly concerned about being labeled "uncoachable."
Asked about forgoing his senior season, Gilchrist said he had concerns about his professional stock dropping further.
"I admire guys like Terence Morris and Byron Mouton, Tahj Holden, team guys who really helped the team win," Gilchrist said. "But, me, I have so much more at stake. I couldn't have another sub-par year and fall off the radar completely. Eventually I was going to have to let my talent show; I had to stop holding my talent back."
Gilchrist was never particularly fond of the college game, which he viewed as a steppingstone. He prefers life be defined by "basketball and more basketball," serving as a means to provide for his family, which includes 10-month-old daughter, Haven, and girlfriend Candice Duggan, a Howard University senior. He also plans to help his mother, LaRita, retire from what he called her "desk job."
Talk to Gilchrist about any subject, and he brings the conversation back to his pledge to support family. Gilchrist already has contracts with three trading card companies and has received nearly $10,000 in advance. He also has garnered interest from several sneaker companies. Should he not get drafted, Gilchrist is prepared to play professionally overseas, believing he will still be capable of comfortably supporting his family.
If nothing else, he is healthy now, appearing stronger and leaner than during the season. Between games at Saint Joseph's, players chatted or rested. Gilchrist continued to shoot baskets. Afterward, he shot another 50 jumpers and rode a stationary bike, prompting one organizer to caution, "Don't wear yourself out."
Gilchrist later spent an hour weight training at the Philadelphia 76ers' nearby training facility. He worked his lower body, emphasizing hip flexors and core muscles while focusing on improving balance. He did not exhaust himself because he was scheduled to leave in two days for more workouts.
After two workouts in Philadelphia, sandwiched around a
cheesesteak lunch, Gilchrist dribbled his basketball downtown, searching for a diner to grab a grilled chicken sandwich and a RadioShack to buy a cell phone charger and to inquire about laptop computers. He plans to do a lot of traveling this fall, even if his next destination remains uncertain.
"This is the life," he said before returning to the modest surroundings of his temporary apartment.
"This is my life. I'm living well, and it's only getting better."