November 12, 2012

Powering forward

More news about: Oswego State
Chris Gilkes and his son, Chris III.
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By Tom Loughrey 
Assistant SID, Oswego State

Oswego State men's basketball senior forward Chris Gilkes is younger than his peers at 20, but many of life's perpetual tests have come early. The result: Chris is ready to sacrifice anything for his team, his two siblings, and most importantly, his 3-year-old son Chris Gilkes III.

Outside of raising child throughout college, it would appear Chris lives a day-to-day life like any normal student-athlete at Oswego State. On some days that is the case.

But there have been many other stretches where Chris has had his world turn upside down.

Having grown up in Syracuse, Chris has seen what it's like to live in the inner city. Many days in his childhood led him to his one escape.

"Basketball was something that kept me off the streets, something I loved to do,” Chris said. “I'd rather be playing basketball than ... doing something reckless. Since I was young… that was the only way I could release my anger.”

A split between his parents that left him with a father who moved out of state and a mother that he had his ups and downs with was a main stressor. Chris took to the courts more often than not, and his time spent shooting around helped earn him a spot on the Grant Middle School basketball team.

Chris grew into the body befit of a basketball player. His habits in the weight room have built a solid 6-1, 230-pound frame quick enough to be a guard. He has developed a jump shot he can create for himself, and his go-to move: jab right, dribble left, and then pull up.

Once he entered the halls of Fowler High School, Chris met one of the strongest influences of his life; Laurie Grulich.

“The Syracuse City School District used to have this program called AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination,” Grulich said. “Basically, we recruited kids that had around a 70 average, no one in their family had ever been to college. I had Chris every other day for four years of high school. We worked on study skills and tutored for classes. It's basic stuff that these kids didn't have any experience with.”

AVID combined with a spot on a new basketball team wasn't enough to keep Chris in the Syracuse area with his mother.

“When he was a freshman, he was living with his mom in Syracuse but his mom didn't have custody of him, his grandmother did,” Grulich said. “He actually left Fowler in the late fall for a whole year. He ended up going to school in New York City, where his grandmother lived.“

When Chris returned to Fowler, he went right back to the basketball courts. Grulich and the AVID program also helped Chris make strides in the classroom.

“When he first started, I don't think he thought he was capable of doing as well as he ended up doing in high school,” Grulich said. “From the first time he walked into my class in 9th grade, there was not a question that he was going to college to either of us.”

During his junior year at Fowler, Chris earned a spot on the varsity basketball team. The squad was headed by Greg Sweeney, the next in a long list of saving graces for Chris and his future.

His next obstacle in life could have been the biggest of all, but Chris embraced the responsibility. It was a game-changer, his reason to pursue a better life.

“I found out at the beginning of my senior year I was having a child,” Chris said.

“I was shocked, lost and didn't know what to do. It was harder for me to tell my basketball coaches than it was to tell my mom and dad. I loved them both, but the school and basketball were my life. With my problems at home, the only people I looked up to were teachers, guidance counselors and basketball coaches. They were my family, along with my friends in high school. They had so many hopes and dreams for me. It was hurtful for me to tell them that it's not all about basketball, I have other priorities now.”

According to Sweeney, Chris's past weighed heavy on the way he handled the situation and the opportunity to raise a child.

“I think it was a responsibility he wasn't ready for, but he realized that he had to be,” Sweeney said. “I think his father not playing a large part in his life had something to do with that. He wasn't going to let his son not have that. He got himself ready for it and he took responsibility.”

Chris had lofty goals for his son and his role as a father and they all revolved around him going to college to set up a good foundation.

“I don't think anyone's actually ready for it (having a child),” Chris said. “As time went on, I got the little talks. 'You have to be all about your son. It's not about you anymore.' That's when I realized I had to go to school and I had to do well because I've seen people who haven't… and don't do well. I don't want my son growing up like that. I want a better childhood for him. I started taking school more seriously. Basketball was the real stepping stone for me.”

Chris Gilkes led the team in field goal percentage last season, averaging 9.5 points per game.
Oswego State athletics photo

Sweeney and Grulich helped Chris with his search for a college as much as they could, but at the end it was Chris's 'never give up' attitude that earned him a place at Oswego State and a spot on the 13-man basketball roster.

In his freshman year, Chris was coached by Adam Stockwell, who was also in his first year at Oswego State. Stockwell had taken over as head coach, bringing in his structured style to the Lakers.

On the court, Chris was a pivotal player in Stockwell's system for the two years Stockwell ran the basketball team. Late in games, Chris's value was most evident.

“Chris was a clutch scorer for us,” Stockwell said. “He could score almost on anybody… especially at the end of games. He had a knack to make the big shot or big play. He had a couple games where he got a deflection, a steal or a rebound that really helped us secure the win.”

Off the court, Stockwell and Chris shared a common bond; they each had a child.

“What he (Stockwell) did for me really showed that he was a coach that cared,” Chris said. “It wasn't just about basketball to him. He has children of his own. Since I was the only one on the team with a child, he and I connected in a different way. We knew sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the betterment of your child. He really helped me a lot. I still talk to him to this day ... and appreciate what he did for me.”

As things looked like they were going great, obstacles formed in Chris's path, planting a seed of doubt in his mind to whether or not he could succeed. A trio of people close to Chris all died in a short period of time, and the circumstances of their deaths were the most troubling.

Two of his friends were shot in his hometown, one which he grew up with. His middle school basketball teammate and long-time friend, was gunned down in a drive-by on the highway. Another friend and high school teammate was mistakenly shot in an episode of gang violence.

According to Chris, his high school teammate was in “the wrong car at the wrong time.” He was in a coma for a short time before succumbing to death. Chris's uncle also passed away, leaving Chris searching for his next move.

“A lot of bad things were going on in Syracuse, so it was like 'wow',” Chris said. “Kiari was actually in school playing ball down South. He took a semester off and this is what happened to him. It hit me that life is too short to play games. I used their deaths, which really hurt me, as inspiration to do better and stay off the streets. That was my biggest obstacle because that semester was when my grades were really messed up. It was an awakening moment for me because next semester I did really well grade-wise. I started staying away from certain people and areas. It made me appreciate life more.”

Chris attended both funerals, but some things were just too much for him to handle.

“I couldn't see either of them open casket,” Chris said. “It would have affected me too much. I came to show respect, show my love for them and then try to get away from the situation. Some people just don't care about people's lives, so it woke me up.”

After briefly considering not returning to Oswego State for his sophomore season, Chris had his best statistical season to date. He finished third on the team averaging 10 points per game and tacked on 4.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals per contest despite only starting seven of the 26 games he played in. The Lakers took their 13-13 record from a year before and turned in a 24-5 campaign in 2010-11. Oswego State also reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history that season, advancing to the second round.

Changes were in the future for Chris, both on and off the court. He decided to change his major from Zoology to a joint major of Philosophy and Psychology.

“I took Principles of Human Behavior taught by Professor Vic Licatese,” Chris said. “The way he taught the class got me into Psychology. I'm a good analyst. I felt like getting into psychology would better my mind and help me become a criminalist.”

Regarding basketball, there was a change at the top with Stockwell leaving for Hamilton. Jason Leone came in from Keystone as the new head coach for the Lakers. His style was new to the players, but Chris welcomed it.

“We respect the coach when the coach says something,” Chris said. “Being with Stockwell taught us to be disciplined. Leone lets the team coach the team. It's different, but it's a balanced mix. Both helped (the men's basketball team) accomplish a lot in the last two years.”

With another successful season on the court, a SUNYAC championship (the program's first since 1965) and another trip to the NCAA Tournament under his belt, Chris is happy with the way things are headed. He's always considered the hardwood his ticket to a different life.

“Basketball means everything,” he said. “If it wasn't for basketball, I probably wouldn't be in college. I'm actually glad basketball got me into college because I have a son to provide for. In order to do well on the court, you have to be good in the classroom. Getting this degree will help my son out a lot.”

However, Leone thinks Chris is much more than just another basketball player.

“I don't think basketball defines who Chris Gilkes is,” Leone said. “He's a happy guy, that impresses me about him. Good or bad, whatever life brings him. When things are going well for Chris or maybe not so well, he genuinely is happy for his teammates when they do well. He cares about his teammates. That is probably the most impressive thing. Off the court, Chris is a good dad. He's a family guy. He's very involved in things around campus. He's a well-rounded guy.”

According to Chris, his goal as a senior is to become a leader to his teammates. Having been a father for over three years now, Chris should have no problem with guidance. His caring nature is something Leone has taken note of.

“You watch players when they interact with their teammates,” Leone said. “Chris is one of those guys that really take the time to get to know all of his teammates. Sometimes when you're on a basketball team with 14 or 15 guys, it's natural that a senior might not really get to know an 18-year old freshman. That was the first thing I noticed last year about him.”
It's not all about basketball anymore, though, as Chris takes time to focus on classes, his fraternity and his future plans. Chris Gilkes III lives with his mother in Syracuse, but that doesn't keep Chris (his father) from seeing him as much as possible.

“He comes to almost every home basketball game,” Chris said. “I go home and visit him when I can. We talk on the phone, we ooVoo each other. He loves technology for some reason. He wants an iPad and I'm like 'you're three, what do you want an iPad for?' He's very inspirational to me. He's one of the reasons I go hard every day.”

As for Chris's relationships with his parents, he's closer with his dad now. His dad lives in Virginia, making it hard to see each other, but they talk quite a bit. According to Grulich, she saw him mature in front of her eyes.

“I was proud of him when he stepped up to the plate, Grulich said. “He could have been like a whole lot of kids and pretended like his child didn't exist, but he didn't do that. It's a responsibility.”

Chris knows what it's like to feel like you don't have a father as a kid, but things could have been worse.

“I had my father, even though he wasn't there, I knew he was alive,” Chris said. “Having a father is really important and sometimes you have to do things for the betterment of another before you do it for yourself.”

Things with his mom will never be quite the same, but there's still a relationship there.

“With my mom, we're very up and down,” he said. “We've been through a lot. We don't have the best relationship because I went through a lot in my childhood with her. I still love her, it's my mother. She hangs out with my son and takes care of him. I go visit her and my little brother. As long as she gets on the right path with what she needs to do, there are no problems between her and me. We're just not as close as we used to be.”

Perspective is something Stockwell has noticed Chris has always had a good grip on. When asked to give some long-term goals during his freshman year, Chris had a unique answer: “to provide a better life for my son.”

“To have a freshman, who's younger than the rest of his classmates, with that perspective was great,” Stockwell said. “He'll be a great representative for Oswego after graduation. He's in a position where he cares about the important things of life, which is his family. You don't see many students thinking about that when you give them an open-ended question.”

All of the influential members in Chris's life still play a role, as they come to his games whenever they can make it. Grulich notices something with each visit.

“Every time we go to a game, we walk in and he comes over and gets so excited,” she said. “I think he's proud of what he has become and it definitely makes me proud. He is the happiest, nicest kid I've ever met. He was always smiling and always happy.”

Sweeney makes it to games when he can too, but it's tough because their seasons run at the same time.

“I love to see him play,” Sweeney said. “I got to see him play in the playoff games last year. It's always great to see Chris. He's just that kind of person, I don't know how he does it. He just had that personality that he could tell you information about himself, but he wasn't bragging.”

When the curtain closes on his basketball career at Oswego State, what will be left for Chris?

Chris will have an extra semester of classes next fall because of a late major change. After he has earned his degree, he plans to go overseas and give professional basketball a shot.

“I know a friend that plays out in Germany and some other people overseas playing ball,” he said. “They have connections over there where I could get out there to try out and play. Even if I don't make it, why not try. I'm not getting any younger. You never know what can happen.”

Grulich says his main focus will be his son.

“He wants a better life for himself and CG3, as he calls him,” Grulich said. “I think he wants to do better than his family did for him. He's one of those kids, in spite of his home life, he will definitely succeed.”

However, Chris still has one more year playing at Max Ziel Gymnasium, which he started off by scoring nine points in a 67-51 exhibition win over Queen's University (Canada). His signature moment in the game came in the second half with the Gaels clawing back into the game. Chris took a pass from a seated Hayden Ward, who had just dove to the floor to recover a loose ball.

Instead of pulling up, Chris went hard to the hoop, making the contested layup and drawing a foul as he fell to the floor. As he stood up, Chris let out a yell of confidence. Don't be fooled by his demeanor on the court, though, he has a sense of humor too.

“My doctor told me I'd be 6-6,” Chris said. “I started watching Kobe Bryant. Hey, if I was going to be 6-6, I can do these things. I'm not 6-6.”

With any luck, CG3 will reach that ... but he's only 3.

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