With the October rain falling in torrents at Vanderbilt Stadium and the Georgia Bulldogs chewing up the Commodores down on the field, Vandy fans had every excuse to cut out on another miserable performance by their hapless football team. But if they wanted a glimpse of athletic success, it meant sticking around until halftime. That's when Heidi Gillingham would be crowned homecoming queen.
Gillingham's credentials for the honor were not the conventional ones: She's a 6'10" All-America senior center whose 14.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.2 blocked shots a game led the Commodores' women's basketball team to the Final Four last season. But since that's the closest Vanderbilt has ever come to a national championship in any sport, wasn't it perfectly fitting that this woman be given a crown?
In the homecoming universe of the SEC, in which students often cast their votes for queen on the basis of pictures plastered around campus by sororities, the athletic Gillingham sticks out like a redwood tree in a rose garden. The tallest woman playing college basketball, she is also the tallest woman at Vanderbilt, so everyone on campus already knows who she is. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes nominated her for queen, but it was the student body that elected her—and came to Vanderbilt Stadium in the rain to honor her on Oct. 16.
Regal, serene and fond of wearing elegant clothes sewn by her mother, Janet, Gillingham is in many ways better cast in the role of royal than that of basketball star. In fact, as a psychology major the 22-year-old Gillingham could make a study of her own struggles with basketball, a sport in which exceptionally tall athletes must cope with assumptions of inherent excellence. She might also analyze her own pacifism, perfectionism and harsh self-criticism, all of which she had to deal with simply to be able to like basketball.
She first played the game at the age of 10 with her family in her driveway in Floresville, Texas, about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio. Her 6'6" father, Kent, upon returning home from his job as an aerospace medical researcher at Brooks Air Force Base, would organize his extraordinarily tall family into teams: He and 5'8" Janet would team up with little Gwendolyn; Heidi, her brother, Greg, and older sister, Heather, would take them on in a ragged free-for-all. Kent, who was always pulling his kids' shoulders back and saying, "Take advantage of your height!" knew that playing basketball would be a good way for them to do just that.
Heather would eventually top out at 6 feet and become a New York high-fashion runway model. Greg, 6'6", played defensive end at Rice before graduating in 1992. But Gwendolyn, now a 6'7" junior center at North Carolina, and Heidi stuck with basketball. For Heidi, who had always been a head taller than everyone else in her class—in third grade she was taller than the teacher—the choice was made in part because there weren't many after-school options in south Texas. "It was that or show livestock," she says.
As soon as she made her first real team, in seventh grade, Heidi found that people expected her squad to win simply because that tall girl was on it. "I never liked the game throughout high school," she says. "I felt like people expected me to be this basketball goddess. I felt like I had to be perfect, but I could never measure up."
Perfection mattered a lot to Gillingham. As a teenager she was known to tear up a 4-H sewing project 10 times before being satisfied with it. An A student, she regularly reworked her class papers for days until they were due. Even a phone call to make a hair appointment would require meticulous preparation to ensure all would go perfectly: Before dialing, Heidi wrote out what she planned to say on the phone, followed by all the possible responses from the hairdresser.
But on the basketball court, no matter how much she practiced, there would be the inevitable missed shot or failed block. Such mistakes couldn't be undone, and that frustrated her. Yet while she could be relentlessly competitive with herself, she had little taste for challenging others. "I just don't like to be aggressive," she says. "When I see a ball rolling, it's my nature to let someone else pick it up and wait my turn."
Even so, she played well enough for Poth High that she was fiercely recruited by more than 75 schools. After she accepted Vanderbilt's scholarship, Gillingham found herself playing behind the Commodores' 6'4" All-America center Wendy Scholtens. "I compared myself to her constantly," says Gillingham, who, even as a substitute, played in every game and was the team's leading rebounder seven times during her freshman year. "Wendy seemed to make every single shot and get every rebound, and I couldn't see any improvement in myself," Gillingham says. "It got to the point where I hated the game. I realized I had always played because I was tall and society expected tall people to play basketball. I had a really bad attitude."
Instead of quitting, she listened to Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster, who finally convinced her that perfection was not expected or even possible. "He made me realize that my perfectionism was actually hurting my game," says Gillingham.
"I still have to remind Heidi that players in the Hall of Fame only made half their shots," says Foster. "But I think I could now get her to admit she likes the game."
"I decided," Gillingham now says, "that I was going to play basketball because that's what I wanted, not what society wanted."
She still doesn't take a missed shot lightly, but, then, she doesn't miss many. Last season she made 62.5% of her shots from the floor—a good portion of them from inside the paint, where her classic back-to-the-basket, low-post game thrives. In two games last season she was perfect, shooting 12 for 12 against Arkansas and 8 for 8 against Texas.
She has also made long strides in her campaign to be more aggressive. Just ask the Western Kentucky player who last season had a potentially game-winning, buzzer-beating breakaway layup slapped away by Gillingham, who ran her opponent down from behind and spiked the ball to kingdom come. "It was the most vicious swat I have ever seen," says teammate Julie Powell admiringly. "And Heidi came out of nowhere to make it."
Gillingham showed that tenacity again in the Commodores' semifinal game against eventual national champion Texas Tech at the Final Four in Atlanta last April. The Lady Raiders shut down the rest of the Commodore offense but could not stop Gillingham, who scored 24 of Vanderbilt's 46 points while being double-teamed.
But her aggressiveness only goes so far—and does not extend to that most flamboyant of gestures: dunking the basketball. "I just have no personal desire to do it," she says, though her brother says she is more than able.
Because of her size Gillingham would strike terror into opponents' hearts even if she did nothing more than stand under the basket filing her nails. "Her presence is instant intimidation," says Vanderbilt point guard Rhonda Blades. "It changes the way teams play. With Heidi on the court, there's always an option: I can throw the ball where only she can get it."
Strategies to deal with the Heidi Factor vary. Those teams that can come close to matching her size in the post find that Gillingham is remarkably agile and more than willing to put the ball on the floor, which usually puts her opponent on the bench in foul trouble. There's also double-teaming, which Texas Tech tried to little avail. Last season during the NCAA tournament, Gillingham was even bitten. Through it all, she was unruffled. In the paint, just as in any public place full of gawking strangers, she maintains a poise that is almost otherworldly. "She's kind of out there," says former Commodore forward Sarah Mannes. "She's always thinking. There's a real curiosity about her."
Indeed, Gillingham says, "I'm often content to just sit and think. I'll do it anytime, anywhere. Sometimes I even space out at the dinner table. My teammates call it Heidiland."
Heidiland may account for the advent of Heidi Standard Time or, in the Commodore vernacular, HST. "HST is telling Heidi to be somewhere 15 minutes before she needs to be there," says Powell, Gillingham's roommate. "She takes forever to get ready for anything."
It may be that she is busy in Heidiland, composing a random thought. As vice-president of Vanderbilt's Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Gillingham closes each meeting with one of her Random Thoughts by Heidi Gillingham—inspirational vignettes about her faith. So now the girl who once had to rehearse telephone conversations is giving several speeches a month, usually on a religious topic and usually at churches and schools. She says she still doesn't enjoy public speaking, but it is one measure of her faith that she is willing to go through the stress to share her religious devotion.
That devotion is something Gillingham relied on heavily when faced with tragedy this fall. On Sept. 27, the day Gillingham learned that she was a finalist for homecoming queen, she called home to tell her family the good news. There was no answer. Late that night she got a phone call from Texas: Her father, who would have escorted her into Vanderbilt Stadium for her coronation, had been killed when the small plane he was piloting crashed seconds after takeoff in San Antonio.
"Certainly I will miss my dad, but I'm not sad, and a lot of people find that amazing," she says. "I am left with a feeling of gratitude that I had so many years with him."
On the day of the homecoming game, Gillingham wasn't thinking about the weather or about the thrashing Vanderbilt was taking out on the field. She was thinking about her father. As she walked onto the wet turf to the thunderous applause of 28,554 fans, she could picture him next to her. "I could just see him puffing out his chest and grinning," she says. "In my heart I knew how proud he'd be. So I was nothing but thrilled."
Standing there, oblivious to the gray skies, she bent down to receive her crown and get a peck on the cheek from the chancellor. Then Heidi Gillingham pulled back her shoulders, like her father always told her, gave a little royal wave and blew a kiss to the crowd.