She has never met Billy Gillispie. Until a few months ago, Ericka Downey didn’t know if he officially went by Billy or William. But as she scrolled through social media one day in mid-December, taking a break from cleaning her closet, she saw the story.
Gillispie needed a kidney.
Sitting on her closet floor, Downey, a stranger to the coach, started the process of becoming his donor.
“It just immediately hit me that I was supposed to do something,” Downey told SEC Country. “I call it a tug in my heart. I just felt it right away. I was hesitant to talk to my husband about it in the moment because I can be an impulsive person — spontaneous.”
Her husband, Mark Downey, is the men’s basketball coach at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla. The Division II program is the latest stop in a career that has taken the Downeys from Division I assistant jobs at Fort Wayne and Bowling Green to Division II head coaching gigs at West Alabama, Charleston (W. Va.) and Arkansas Tech.
“His initial response was, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Downey said of telling her husband. “Yes I am. He already knew that.”
Ericka Downey, 33, is in the medical sales field, so surgery doesn’t intimidate her.
She grew up a Razorbacks fan in Arkansas. She knew Kentucky and Arkansas played Tuesday night in Fayetteville, but Downey has no interest in Gillispie’s past or the places it took him. There are no hidden motivations. Gillispie, 58, needs a kidney transplant. Downey is a willing donor.
Gillispie’s career was a climb from UTEP to Texas A&M, then from Texas A&M to Kentucky. But his dismissal after a two-year stint (2007-09) in Lexington began the descent. There were well-chronicled philosophical differences at Kentucky. He was never the right fit. A gap, as Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said, that couldn’t “be solved by just winning games.”
Downey doesn’t care about any of that.
“If people only judged me off my past, I’d be screwed,” she said. “He has the right to life just like anybody else.”
And so the process began.
Gillispie, back coaching at Ranger College in Texas, told the Dallas Morning News in December that he needed a kidney transplant “ASAP.” Doctors told him he was experiencing kidney failure after years of high blood pressure. Gillispie was known for his long, grinding practices. He was a workaholic who struggled with alcoholism.
“I don’t even know that I would take [a kidney],” Gillispie told the Dallas Morning News. “I know that sounds stupid, but I wouldn’t take a donated kidney if it was going to have any kind of adverse [effect] on anyone. I just wouldn’t. I mean, I’ve had a great life. I would like to be around for whatever, but I’m not selfish in that regard. I’m selfish in some, but not that regard.”
Gillispie’s decision to go public raised awareness for one of the 116,000-plus people in the United States on the national transplant waiting list, according to organdonor.gov. Twenty people die every day waiting for a transplant.
Gillispie didn’t know it at the time, but after seeing his story, Downey submitted a health care questionnaire on the Mayo Clinic’s website. That was Step 1.
Step 2 was harder: waiting.
Downey didn’t have Gillispie’s phone number. The only information she knew was in the article and Gillispie wasn’t on the donor list.
“But I don’t give up easily,” she said.
On the health care questionnaire was a line: “Do you know your recipient?” Downey filled in the name of the man she’d never met. It asked for the recipient’s birthday. Downey found the date online.
She called the Mayo Clinic hotline, but no one could give her more information because of HIPAA — a privacy act that protects medical records.
“And so I just kept calling,” Downey said.
“Every week I would call Mayo Clinic and say, ‘Hey, just checking in.’ And at the same time I was active on social media trying to find a donor.”
Hey y’all. I’m a match for Coach Billy Gillispie as a kidney donor. I’m going to Mayo the week of the @FinalFour to make sure I’m healthy enough to give. We match with antigens and blood type. Please pray for us as we navigate the future. I will keep u posted.
— Ericka Downey (@D2Diva) February 20, 2018
That’s when Josh Mills saw the posts. Mills worked as an assistant under Gillispie for two seasons at Texas Tech. He shared the story of Downey’s persistence to either be or find a donor for Gillispie with Gillispie himself.
“He’s blown away by your kindness,” Mills told Downey. “Here’s his cell phone number. Would you mind reaching out to him?” Mills asked. “He wants to thank you in person.” That was in early January.
So at this year’s Final Four in San Antonio, Downey and Gillispie will meet for the first time. Her husband and Gillispie are both attending the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) conference that weekend in San Antonio.
But Downey won’t be driving from Oklahoma. She’ll be flying out of Minneapolis.
Downey has two days of exams, March 26-27, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She’ll meet with the transplant team and with the doctors who’ll do the operation. She’ll take an 18-hour kidney function test.
All the calling worked. Gillispie was finally put on the donor list and the Mayo Clinic sent Downey a blood kit. Downey received the results two weeks ago, and they are a match.
The biggest hurdles have been crossed, but there’s still a chance Downey won’t get the go ahead for surgery based on her upcoming meeting with the transplant team.
“If that were to happen, we would start over and need another donor to step forward,” Downey said. “And that was kind of my thought process [of sharing her story]. We could build some momentum to have someone else ready to go as a Plan B because right now there isn’t anyone else, to my knowledge.”
Downey doesn’t know Gillispie, but she said college basketball is a family. She gives off the vibe that she’d donate a kidney to anyone — regardless of profession or background — but she noted the “black eye” on college basketball after the FBI investigation last fall.
Her selfless act won’t change the sport, but it could save the life of a coach whose career might always be seen as a medley of black eyes. But that won’t matter anymore. Now he’s just Billy, a man in need of a new kidney.
“He’s incredibly thankful, incredibly humble — just blown away” Downey said. “I really don’t feel on my end that it’s a sacrifice. I really don’t.”