As college basketball fans turn their attention to Minneapolis and U.S. Bank Stadium for this weekend's NCAA Men's Final Four tournament, one fan will be taking home a special piece of hardware no matter which team wins. And it will have nothing to do with what happens on the court, but rather a lifesaving off-the-court assist for a man she'd never met.
Just over a year ago, Ericka Downey donated a kidney to college basketball coach Billy Gillispie at Mayo Clinic. She had read a news story about the former Texas A&M and Kentucky coach, who had entered stage 4 renal failure. This weekend, she will be given the U.S. Basketball Writers Association's 2019 "Most Courageous Award" for all she's done to save Gillispie's life.
While she's "humbled" by the honor, Downey tells us it's not one she alone deserves. "When I started this journey in December of 2017, I had no idea the impact my decision would have on anyone outside of Coach Gillispie," she says. "I've had an incredible support system and generous strangers who have all helped make the transplant a success. It's really an award for the team around me." And, Downey says, for her care team at Mayo Clinic. "I had the most amazing experience (at Mayo)," she tells us. "I was able to return to work after just six days and have had zero complications."
As Downey tells TexAgs Radio host Gabe Bock, what's most important is that Gillispie is back to full health and even back on the bench as head men's basketball coach for Ranger College in Texas. "I think his labs are actually better than mine," Downey says. "Everything's just going so incredibly well for both of us."
And now, Downey tells Bock she wants nothing more than for Gillispie to get another shot at leading a Division 1 team to college basketball's Big Dance himself. "I firmly believe he's one of the best college basketball coaches ever," she says. "I'm confident he will get another coaching opportunity with a D1 program. ... He is great at creating a cohesive environment for his players."
And, it turns out, for Downey and her family, as well. "You can't convince me that he's not just the most genuine person there is," she tells Bock. "I got to spend Christmas with Coach Gillispie and his family, and they just welcomed me in as part of their family. He's actually given me just as much as I've given him through this process."
Including an appreciation for just how important and impactful living organ donation can be. "The majority of us have two kidneys and we only need one," Downey says. "My quality of life has not been affected — so why not give? I realize there are health issues that can prevent giving, and it can be a very personal decision especially if you don't know anyone in need, but I'd encourage others to consider donating," she tells us. "It's impacted my life for the better and I cannot be more grateful to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association members, Coach Gillispie's family, and Mayo Clinic for making all of this a reality. With their help we are making a difference."
You can listen to Downey's full interview here and read our initial story about her and Coach Gillispie here. Then put words to paper (or screen) by sharing your comments below. You'll find social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.