It’s been years since Noel Gillespie played on the basketball court at St. Catherine Parish, Milwaukee, but the same drive and determination his dad, Rory, saw more than 25 years ago, still pushes him today.
“It was the closing minute of one of our first basketball games,” Rory recalled of the fifth-grade basketball game. “There is a loose ball and Noel crashes to the floor going through most of the other team and comes up with it.”
You’d think the game was on the line with the effort he put forth, but as Rory explained, Noel’s Cougars were losing 33-3!
“He is a determined young man,” his father told the Catholic Herald, of his son who at age 37 already has 13 years of experience as an NBA coach.
A 1996 graduate of Dominican High School, where he played on the basketball team, Noel went to the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater where he studied electronic media communications and upon graduation landed an internship with the Indiana Pacers, assisting with video, scouting and coaching staffs.
His next stop was Florida State University where he earned his graduate degree and worked as a graduate assistant for the basketball team in 2002. He was hired by the Phoenix Suns in 2003, initially working as the Suns advance scout, before becoming an assistant coach for his final three seasons with Phoenix.
After a coaching transition in Phoenix following the 2012-2013 season, Noel was hired as an assistant coach by the Denver Nuggets and recently completed his second season in that role.
Passion turns into pro sports career
Noel’s rapid rise through the professional coaching ranks has amazed his family, especially his mom, Judie, chair of the theology department at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, Milwaukee, who never thought that his passion for recording athletic contests could turn into a career in professional sports.
“He always loved sports from the time he was young,” Judie told the Catholic Herald in a telephone interview. “We’re a sports family – Rory and the four boys – and he always loved to watch basketball on TV.”
Judie recalled early years when the family did not own a VCR, but rented one on the weekends and Noel would spend hours taping basketball games. Somewhere along the way, she said, he learned to splice film and she remembers her basement filled with wires and film as her oldest son pursued his passion.
“I’m amazed – of course, I’m really proud of him but I did not ever think it would lead him to professional sports, but it makes perfect sense,” she said of his combining his love for basketball with his technical knowledge.
“I’m kind of a basketball nerd,” admitted Noel, in an interview with the Catholic Herald prior to the Nuggets matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Feb. 20. “I grew up a huge sports fan and played youth sports growing up at St. Catherine and varsity basketball at Dominican.”
He explained that what started out as a hobby turned into a profession when he majored in electronic media communications and received an athletic coaching education minor at Whitewater.
More to life than basketball
Yet professional basketball is only one aspect of Noel’s life. As proud as his parents are of his coaching career, they are perhaps more proud of the husband and father he has become and the way his Catholic faith is woven through his life.
According to Judie, she can’t recall a time when his Catholic faith was not important to Noel. As he traveled to different cities, taking jobs with various teams, Judie said, “faith became the rock he stood on; that’s what grounded him and remained very permanent, even if his career would be transient.”
She said she sent her son a text after the Nuggets 2014-2015 disappointing 30-52 campaign ended in a loss to the Golden State Warriors, April 15.
“I knew this has been a difficult season for him and when it ended, after the last game, the text I sent him was, ‘Maybe this is a season of your faith being tested’ – because that’s the language we use with him. It’s God’s universe and welcome to it. He lives in the everyday world just like we all do and, to a degree, he lives in the NBA, but he’s very certain there is always a plan and he is certain God is in charge and he is certain his success and his failure or hardship or difficulty – he carries the assurance … that God is paying to attention to him and God is caring for his family. God does in his life what God needs to do in his time,” she said.
Not only did the Nuggets have a losing record, but two weeks after the game in Milwaukee, second year head coach Brian Shaw was fired. His staff, including Noel, was retained and worked under Melvin Hunt, the assistant coach who was named interim coach. However, the Nuggets have not said whether they plan to bring Hunt back next season.
Faith is his rock
Facing that kind of uncertainty, Noel leans on his faith, just as he did during other challenges in his life, according to wife, Sherry.
“When he left Phoenix, it was tough because he was there for so long. Most people, their brains would not know what to do, but the first thing he did, he looked up the Mass schedule for our parish and every single day, he went to daily Mass, and he read through the readings and studied them and meditated on them and he would think about what it is telling him to do,” said Sherry in a telephone interview with the Catholic Herald, adding Noel is “one of the most inspiring Catholics I’ve ever met because he has this unfaltering, unshakeable faith, really beautiful faith and it inspires me to do better in my life and inspires me to have a stronger faith as well. ”
She said that it’s not only in challenging times that Noel turns to faith.
“He always turns to his faith, but it’s not just in times of transition. I feel like some people go into battle, they wear their faith as an armor, but with Noel, he always has it on. It’s always a part of him,” she said, adding if you ask Noel his qualities that he’s most proud of, he’d say his red hair and being Catholic.
When the couple first met at Florida State in 2001, Sherry was not Catholic. With a Lutheran mother and Methodist father, she had been baptized Lutheran, but after meeting Noel and seeing how important his faith was to him, she entered the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program and entered the Catholic Church two years before the couple married in 2006.
Prayer helps cope with uncertainty
Looking back to the uncertainty after he left Phoenix, but had not yet been hired by the Nuggets, Noel remembers through his individual prayers and prayers with Sherry that “the word faith kept coming back. It was a constant theme, having faith in the Lord.” He described the time as stressful, as he was unemployed and the couple were expecting their second child. “It was a time of uncertainty but we looked for the next position through faith and prayer,” said Noel.
Sherry and Noel are parents to Jack, 6, and Rowen, who turned 1 in February. After Jack was born, Sherry said the couple prayed for a second child, but it was about four years before she became pregnant.
With their prayers answered, Sherry felt she wanted to give back to her faith and was determined that her next job would be church-related. When they moved to Denver, she began work with Catholic Charities and now is the development director for the Catholic Foundation Alliance.
“It’s been a wonderful, faithful journey and incredible blessings have happened to us,” said Sherry of the faith life she and Noel share. “The older I get, the more I see things not as coincidence but I start understanding them as blessings from God.”
The couple, who married at St. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Glendale, Arizona, in 2006 are members of St. Thomas More Parish in Denver where Jack attends kindergarten.
In addition to regularly attending Mass at the parish, Sherry volunteers at the school and is helping to build the endowment for the school to preserve its future.
Practicing his faith can be a challenge with the NBA schedule, admitted Noel.
“It’s challenging when we have Sunday games and Ash Wednesday was tough, but we find a way to make time even if it’s not church on Sunday,” he said, adding he’ll check online to locate a Catholic parish nearby when he’s on the road. He said he’s thankful for his fellow coaches who also value faith and share Bible passages through texting sometimes to keep faith a part of their daily lives.
Makes time for family
The NBA schedule is demanding and can cut into family time, admitted Sherry, but they’ve been fortunate that, for the most part, Noel has not missed big family events.
“We’ve been very fortunate that he’s been here for every Thanksgiving, for every Christmas, and I think only one year, he missed Halloween. With his family, if there is something family related, he is there,” she said, adding, she thinks God has a sense of humor, as Jack was born over the summer when Noel had more free time, and Rowen was born during the All Star break, another time when he is generally off for a few days. “I really think there was some divine intervention there as he never misses anything,” she said.
Describing Noel as a great dad, Sherry said she feels fortunate he’s in her life.
“It’s funny when you meet when you are so young – I was 21 when we met and in college – and you don’t think. It’s kind of like rolling the dice – is he going to be a good businessman, a good father, a good husband? I feel really lucky; I got all three. He’s hard working, a great husband and great father and he’s faith filled,” she said.
Proud dad moment
Rory, director of communications/vocations assistant for the Order of St. Camillus, also takes pride in the husband and father Noel has become.
Last summer, when the family came to Milwaukee for a visit, Rory returned home from work, only to learn that Noel was taking Jack and Rowen for a walk.
“I rushed to catch up with them and heard them laughing,” he described of the scene that met him. Noel was pushing Rowen in the stroller with a jump rope tied around his waist as he gave Jack a ride on a cart used to work underneath a car.
“A walk had turned into the ride of a lifetime,” said Rory. “Having the chance to see your son as a caring and fun father is a very proud moment.”
As for Noel, he attributes much of the person he has become to his parents who he called “great role models. They modeled respect, stayed on me to go to school, practice with teams, stay committed. I was a real creative child,” he said, adding that his parents encouraged his interests in audio-visual technology. In addition to the strong support he felt at home, Noel said he is thankful for St. Catherine Parish which he said had a great influence on him.
The parish was comprised of several committed families who became close, he said.
“We did everything through church. Through kindergarten I did not know any other way,” he said, citing activities such as sports, pancake breakfasts. “Faith and religion were always involved and the families – my parents are still friends with many of the families,” he said, adding that some of them even came to Phoenix for his wedding several years ago.
When Noel is back home with family or friends, you wouldn’t know that he is an NBA coach, according to his mom.
“It’s not what defines him,” said Judie. “When he’s with family, he just wants to talk about family or what’s going on in the world or what’s going on with his brothers. Early on, I was hoping he’d give me some good, juicy NBA news, but it is a job to him and doesn’t define who he is.”
Sherry, too, said NBA life hasn’t changed the person she met back in grad school.
“He’s the same best friend I’ve had for the past 13 years and we’ve grown together in that way,” she said. “He’s not flashy. I’m so happy I still have the same 2003 Honda and we don’t live in a big house. We’re very modest,” she said, adding that at that moment, Noel was off to pick his son up from kindergarten.
Explaining that he’s feels blessed to be doing something he enjoys so much, Noel said he enjoys his role as an assistant coach responsible primarily for preparing for the team’s upcoming opponent.
“I would love to be a head coach one day, but I love what I am doing now and I would like to continue to be the best assistant I can be and I think if I keep working hard, that may happen.”