Thomas Gipson wouldn’t be the basketball player he is today without eating at Chili’s.
Sounds strange, considering the 6-foot-7 forward credits a hard-core diet for his successful junior season at Kansas State. He used to weigh nearly 300 pounds and struggled to jump. Today, he is closing in on 255 pounds and can dunk with ease.
But it’s true. A restaurant known for margaritas and bottomless servings of chips and salsa was a vital stop along the way.
Allow him to explain.
“We had just lost to Georgetown in Puerto Rico, and Coach (Bruce) Weber was so mad he didn’t get us food,” Gipson said. “We lost real badly (90-63) and our season was a mess. On the bus ride back to the hotel, I could tell some of the guys were hurting, so I sent a text to the entire team. I told everyone we were going to eat at Chili’s.”
When the Wildcats returned from their calorie-packed meal, K-State coaches realized their gaffe, and that Gipson resolved it. So they called him in for a private chat.
“They said, ‘We need somebody to step up or else our season is going to crumble,’ ” Gipson said. “They told me I had to be a leader. I didn’t want my season to crumble and I didn’t want to let the seniors down, so I said, ‘OK, I will be a leader.’ ”
He has lived up to that promise. Gipson become the team’s most vocal player and has improved in many ways.
His scoring (12.2 points) has nearly doubled, his rebounds (6.3) have increased, his field-goal percentage is up (59.1), he is making more free throws (68.1 percent) and his playing time (25.5 minutes) has spiked.
Most importantly, he has helped K-State win 13 of 17 games since a 2-3 start.
“When he is locked in like he has been this season, we are really tough to deal with,” K-State associate head coach Chris Lowery said. “He makes you defend him at a high level with double-teams and that makes everyone around him better. When you look at the run we got on after Puerto Rico, you can tell Thomas set the foundation. He got us going.”
Someone had to. K-State is a young team, and leaning on freshmen wasn’t working.
“From the start of the season to now, Thomas has become a lot more vocal,” freshman forward Wesley Iwundu said. “We hear him after every play. He always has something to say. We appreciate that. He has been a good leader.”
Indeed, Gipson has set quite an example for his teammates to follow.
Outside of a preseason concussion, which forced Gipson to stay home for 10 days and miss two games, little has fazed him. Not even facing taller and deeper frontcourts on a regular basis.
While other teams have 7-footers and multiple post options, the Wildcats prefer to spread the floor with guards and let Gipson patrol the paint on his own — without a trusted backup. If he plays poorly or encounters foul trouble, K-State often struggles. In many ways, he is the team’s most important player.
Understanding that, Gipson limits aggressive plays and relies on precision. He has an above-the-rim game, but he mainly scores with pump fakes, spin moves and hook shots. He wants to stay on the court for 30-plus minutes, which he has done nine times this season. He did so twice as an underclassman.
“It’s real hard,” Gipson said. “But at the end of the day it has been good for me. I’m staying patient, I’m not taking 15 shots and I am letting the game come to me instead of chasing shots. I try to do other things to help my team win.”
Things he wasn’t able to do in the past.
“He is so much lighter on his feet, and more athletic,” Lowery said. “That has really helped with his post moves. He is able to fake out defenders instead of just being a bully on the block. That is why he is having success against taller players. He has done a great job transforming his body.”
When Gipson arrived at K-State, he had the look of an offensive lineman. Now he resembles a tight end.
It wasn’t an easy transformation. Weber illustrates that point with a story about a dinner at Carmine’s in New York before a game against Tulane.
“It was the most unbelievable dinner and then they brought out cheese cake and cannolis,” Weber said. “Thomas held up his plate and said nothing on this one. We do late-night snacks, and he turns down ice cream. He has been really disciplined.”
With the help of strength and conditioning coach Jimmy Price, Gipson has also added muscle.
“He went through something difficult and achieved major results,” Price said. “A good leader leads by example, and you can tell how hard he works by taking one look at him.”
Gipson has accomplished a great deal this season, but his most daunting challenge may lie ahead.
K-State won 12 of 13 after Gipson took on a leadership role. But it has lost three of its last four. Gipson has sputtered during that stretch, looking like the best player on the floor one night and struggling mightily the next.
Could the pressure of leading be catching up to him?
“Lately, he has been worrying about the freshmen too much and he hasn’t been playing well,” junior forward Nino Williams said. “I think he is trying to lead too much. He has been too focused on helping everyone else instead of focusing on playing. I think that has taken a toll on him. We need to start helping him the way he has helped us.”
Gipson blames other factors for his recent inconsistencies, but he will certainly welcome help. With home games against Texas and Kansas up next, the time is now for the Wildcats to make a push for a quality seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The opportunity for a quick turnaround exists the same way it did five games into the season.
Only this time, the Wildcats don’t need to eat at Chili’s to find a leader.
“We just need to stay together and be a family,” Gipson said. “Through tough times, people can spread out and pick on other people as far as, ‘Oh, he didn’t do this or it was his fault.’ We can’t be like that. If that’s the case, we should have done that when we were winning 10 games in a row. We can’t separate. We still got to be a family.”