JUST being tall has not meant instant success on or off the basketball court for 6 ft., 10 in. Heidi Gillingham, an All-American center on Vanderbilt University's No.-5-ranked women's team. At one point, the superstar hated the game.
``I played basketball because society wants tall girls to play,'' she says of her early motivation. ``It seemed like the logical thing to do, and I thought of it as work.''
Gillingham, who came to Vanderbilt from Floresville, Texas, says she initially saw basketball as just a means to an education. She chose Vanderbilt for its educational reputation, as well as its strong basketball program.
Senior guard Julie Powell, Gillingham's roommate for the last four years, says her teammate didn't even like basketball her first two years playing for the Commodores. But ``now she is finding other motivations to play, and she enjoys the game.''
Tall travails growing up
Gillingham, who was also Vanderbilt's homecoming queen this past fall, says she grew up very self-conscious about her height, especially in junior high school when she didn't know when she would stop growing. She attributes her new attitude and increased confidence to her strong religious faith.
``I don't search for my identity on the court,'' she says. ``I already know that I'm worthwhile.... I don't have to be a basketball `goddess,' because I know I'm important just by being.''
Her height may be an advantage, but high expectations - often self-imposed - brought frustration early in her college career.
``She used to get frustrated because she's a perfectionist,'' Powell says, ``but now she vents that in a more positive way.''
``I realized that I'm just one part and not the star of the team,'' Gillingham says of her change in attitude.
Despite having such a humble opinion of herself, it's obvious that she has been a major factor in Vanderbilt's recent success. Last season's 30-3 record was the squad's best finish ever. It advanced to the Final Four before falling to Texas Tech, the eventual national champion, in the semifinals. Vanderbilt's goal this season is the national championship, and despite two early-season losses to Texas Tech and Ohio State, the Commodores remain among the nation's Top 10 college women's teams.
Gillingham leads the Commodores this year in scoring (16.9 points per game), rebounds (7.3 per game), blocked shots (44 for the year), and field-goal percentage (62.1).
Head Coach Jim Foster says that what makes Gillingham special is not just her basketball skills, but her presence. ``Whether it's on the offensive or defensive end,'' he says, ``you have to adjust what ... you are going to do,'' because of her presence on the court.
Gillingham is only the seventh-highest scorer in her conference, though her team is ranked No. 5 among major colleges in the latest Associated Press poll - a fact that attests to the high caliber of the Vanderbilt team. Five team members average 10 points or more per game.
Strong player, strong team
Harvard University coach Kathy Delaney Smith confirmed that the Commodores don't rely on only one player after Vanderbilt breezed by the Crimson recently, 107-68 - with Gillingham out most of the second half.
Although Harvard held Gillingham to 16 points by aggressively double-teaming her, that opened up gaping lanes to the basket and uncontested three-point shots for the Commodore guards.
``How do you stop a team with a 6-10 center and guards who shoot almost 50 percent from the three-point line?'' Ms. Smith asked.
Gillingham's influence on Vanderbilt's campus does not stop once she leaves the gym. When the suggestion arose last fall that she run for homecoming queen, she chuckled.
``Athletes usually are not thought of as nominees for homecoming, and [especially not] people who are tall,'' Gillingham says. ``I really like that people can see past the outside.... If your goal is to serve [God] and others, then there's a beauty in that that people can see. That's what I try to do.''
Aside from serving as captain of the basketball team, Gillingham also is vice-president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on campus and frequently gives speeches to the local community on her success and her religious convictions. (Raised a Lutheran, she now describes herself simply as a Christian and attends a nondenominational church.)
Gillingham's height and success have attracted a flood of media attention this season. Then, too, the school's sports publicists have facilitated a lot of attention by letting reporters outside Nashville know what a special person Vanderbilt's center is.
Rod Williamson, the director of marketing and promotion for Vanderbilt, says one striking aspect of Gillingham's prominent role on campus and in the world of basketball is her comfort with stardom.
``When she was 15 and 16 years old, she couldn't talk to her friends on the phone'' because she was so introverted, Mr. Williamson says, ``and now she talks to reporters and is famous.''
Gillingham says she would like to be a bigger influence than she is now, and not just in basketball.
``I would like to be remembered, not as the greatest basketball player to ever play at Vanderbilt,'' she says. ``I would like people to remember the influence that God had in my life in allowing me to accept myself, and to love everyone else unconditionally, just like I've tried to do.''