There have been many times this season when South Albany coach Tim Matuszak had to remind Isaiah Gilliam that what he was doing was not easy.
Gilliam, South’s star point guard, led the RedHawks to the brink of a conference title in one of the toughest leagues in the state, despite being the only player on the roster to ever loaned out for a college game. He shredded Sprague’s diamond-and-one defense, tactfully finding ways to set up his teammates for easy buckets against a ploy designed to keep him from touching the ball. He was down 41 points against North Salem, rampaging to the basket for layup after layup when the Vikings opted out of doubling him.
None of this is meant to be easy, and yet Gilliam has been doing the show-stopping look routine every night this spring.
“What I like about Isaiah is that I might try to calm him down after a loss, like, ‘It’s okay to be frustrated. What you’re going through is tough,'” Matuszak said. didn’t matter to him. He’s such a competitor that he expected to win every game, regardless.
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His relentless efforts to lead the RedHawks to success is what made Gilliam such a prolific scorer during his prep career, and now it’s paved the way for the next chapter in his basketball career.
Last week, Gilliam signed a letter of intent to play for Clackamas Community College next season and will join a Cougars program that is a regular contender in the Northwest Athletic Conference playoffs.
“I’ve been waiting for this day since I started playing basketball,” Gilliam said. “It felt good to finally get there with my family there. All the support they gave me – it was just a great feeling all around.
Last month, Gilliam was named Mid-Willamette Conference Player of the Year. He averaged 22.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and four steals per game while leading the RedHawks to a 10-6 record and a 7-2 conference final.
For South, those contributions on the pitch were irreplaceable. Put in context, they are even more significant.
In Gilliam’s junior year, the team went 20-6 and was the No. 6 team in 5A before the pandemic abruptly ended their state tournament run. Most of that team’s top contributors graduated after the season, and Gilliam and Evan Benson were the only two college players set to return. But before the start of the 2021 season, Benson received a job offer that was too good to pass up and informed Matuszak that he would have to miss the season.
That meant it was suddenly Gilliam’s team.
Matuszak surrounded him with a team of ultra-talented players — albeit ones making the jump to college from junior college and, in some cases, college ball.
Gilliam gave the team consistent scoring threat and defensive intensity, but his contributions off the pitch were just as important.
Whether it’s organizing team group texts, helping to make sure the young players know the schedule each week, making sure everyone was there for the film study , or leading the team through daily warm-ups, Gilliam was essentially another assistant coach for the RedHawks this spring. .
“We had a lot of kids who just hadn’t been to college,” Matuszak said. “In seven weeks, he turned these guys into players who seemed like they had been on the program for four years already. They just looked comfortable and relaxed, and a lot of that is down to Isaiah and his day-to-day expectations. He made my job really easy.
Gilliam’s senior season at South will undoubtedly go down as one of the best in program history. But that almost didn’t happen. For much of the last 12 months, both Gilliam and Matuszak thought the final game of his junior season was his last in a RedHawks uniform.
Once the pandemic hit, it became apparent that athletic opportunities in Oregon high schools might be scarce. Gilliam was coming off a strong junior season, but he was still working for scholarship offers and couldn’t risk missing his senior season altogether.
He and his family began exploring the prep school route, hoping he could transfer and return to playing regularly. Gilliam got in touch with a few former teammates who were enrolled at Relentless Or Nothing (RON), a prep school in Inglewood, California. He was told that there was an opening there that would allow him to play all year round against high caliber opponents.
He transferred to RON last November and at the time thought his career at South was over.
“I had basically said goodbye to him and wished him well,” Matuszak said.
For the next three months, Gilliam lived more or less the life of a college basketball player. Early morning training, early afternoon training, then more training in the evening.
“It wasn’t like any normal high school day,” Gilliam said.
He loved the competitive environment and credits his time to RON for helping grow his game exponentially. But the move also had its drawbacks.
He had stayed in contact with Matuszak and spoke to him often after his matches. Gilliam informed his coach that he felt RON hadn’t lined him up to receive all the credits he needed to graduate in June, and Matuszak helped him get in touch with a counselor to help. to solve the problem.
Gilliam also told Matuszak that he was starting to feel homesick and a bit exhausted. He did not play games sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation, but instead played for a club team that included a group of his RON teammates. It was still a great opportunity, but she didn’t have the prestige to play for the best team in the academy. During one streak, Gilliam told Matuszak he played around 90 games in 60 days.
He chose to return home to complete his senior year of college, and soon after, OSAA laid out a plan for a 2021 basketball season. In that sense, things couldn’t have worked out better. for Giliam; he worked on his game through the winter months against quality opponents in California, and would still get his senior season in South.
But he was returning to a totally different team to the one he spoke with at the Gill Coliseum in March 2020 in South’s last game before the pandemic.
“There weren’t any players left from the team I first played with when I moved to Oregon in the seventh grade,” Gilliam said. “I was the only one in my class, all the guys I grew up playing with were gone.”
Rather than focusing on the struggles of being South’s only college comeback, Gilliam embraced the leadership aspect of his role and also relished the opportunity to play with and mentor his younger brother, DeShawn.
Isaiah and DeShawn had dreamed of having the opportunity to play together since they were little, and Isaiah made sure to make the most of every moment he and his brother spent together at the gym.
“I think he’s going to be a lot better than I’ve ever been,” said Isaiah Gilliam. “It’s exciting to see. That’s all I want for him. I gave him a hard time this season, and he was definitely mad at me at times. But he knows it was all about love and I just want him to be the best player he can be.
Jarrid Denney can be reached at 541-521-3214 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jarrid_denney