Ericka Downey was sitting on the closet floor of her home near Tulsa, Okla., in December, when she felt a tug.
The pull came from an interesting place: a 58-year old man she had never met. More specifically, his kidney.
Taking a break from cleaning her closet, Downey had seen on social media that former Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie was in desperate need of a kidney and she wanted to help. Instead of scrolling past, Downey felt compelled to act.
A voice in her mind told her, “You need to do something.”
So, she did.
Knowing that Gillispie needed a kidney soon — “ASAP” he told the Dallas Morning News in December — Downey thought and prayed on the subject for a day, then decided to tell her husband.
“I walked into the living room where my husband was watching TV and just stood there and said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna think I’m crazy, but I feel like I need to try to donate (my kidney) for Coach Gillispie,” Downey recalled. “He laughed and we laughed and he said, ‘You are crazy,’ and we said, ‘We already knew that.’”
Mark Downey, the head basketball coach of Division II Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, tangentially knew Gillispie over their years in coaching circles. Beyond that, the Downeys’ only other tie to Gillispie may have been that Gillispie coached at UK and Mark Downey played UK basketball great Tommy Kron in the 2006 film “Glory Road.”
Gillispie, who coached UK in 2007-08 and 2008-09 before being replaced by John Calipari, could not be reached immediately for comment for this story.
Ericka Downey filled out an online questionnaire through the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to see if she could be a match for Gillispie. Simultaneously, she began a Twitter campaign to #FindBCGadonor.
Downey tweeted seven times in December and January, each time encouraging her followers to fill out Mayo’s online questionnaire and select Billy Gillispie as the known recipient.
However, her movement, on behalf of a stranger, received little social media attention.
“It was a struggle then to find people to retweet the story and get the word out,” she said.
But unbeknownst to the public and to Gillispie, Downey had continued the match process, sending the Mayo Clinic a blood sample. Her type, O, is a universal donor, making her a more likely candidate than some to be a match.
This past Thursday, the Mayo Clinic informed Downey that she was a match. When she posted Monday evening that she was volunteering herself as a donor, the tweet received so much attention that her husband suggested turning her phone off from the constant notifications.
She isn’t sure what compelled her to be so selfless, but basketball certainly played a role. Downey, 33, grew up in Arkansas as a Razorbacks fan. She was raised by her grandparents and the first time they let her stay up past her bedtime of 8:30 was when Arkansas won the national championship in 1994.
“When I ask myself if I would I give to anyone, just Joe Blow off the street, I believe that is true,” she said. “But because of our connection with college athletics and college basketball itself, there’s that emotional piece to it, you can’t deny that, there is an emotional tie to college basketball.”
She also hopes her decision might shed some much-needed positive light on athletics.
“Louisville’s sanctions just came down (Tuesday) with the recruiting scandal and violations and I don’t think we’ve seen the end of that fallout,” she said. “This is something positive that can come out of what sports are really about. We’re a family. We pick each other up.”
Downey said that she isn’t naturally a giving person, so she makes efforts to be kind and charitable. Much of this decision, and her life, is influenced by her spirituality and morals that stem from her relationship with God.
“At the end of the day, I want to help someone and that happens to be Coach Gillispie,” she said.
Gillispie, who coached at UTEP, Texas A&M and Texas Tech in addition to his two years at UK, has seen his reputation marred throughout his coaching career with run-ins with the law, especially related to alcohol.
But Downey is quick to shoot down those who question whether Gillispie deserves her donated organ.
“I think we all have shortcomings. I don’t know him, personally,” she said, adding: “Does anyone know him that close now to know that he hasn’t changed his drinking habits? I don’t know. But it never crossed my mind that I should only give if he’s going to receive it in such a manner. It’s really the intent behind it, right? So, I’m giving because I feel like it’s the right thing to do.”
Gillispie, serving as the basketball coach and athletic director of Ranger College in Texas, abruptly retired in December 2016, citing health concerns, before returning this season. However, he took a leave of absence in December upon learning that he’d had a heart attack and was in desperate need of a kidney transplant.
After Downey started the kidney crusade without any contact from Gillispie, he finally heard about her efforts in January. Although the two have never met, they have now exchanged texts.
“He’s been incredibly thankful. He has been nothing but gracious and humble throughout the entire process,” Downey said. “And I’ve not talked to him a lot, but the few times that I have, he is just blown away by someone else’s kindness. And that’s really what it’s about for me. It’s so rewarding just to hear that, in itself.”
In December, Gillispie told The Dallas Morning News, “I don’t even know that I would take one (a kidney). I know that sounds stupid, but I wouldn’t take a donated kidney if it was going to have any kind of adverse on anyone.”
A rep for Abbott Medical Optics, Downey is familiar with the transplant process and said there is “really no downside” to the procedure, other than a possible diet change.
She’s been watching YouTube videos about donors and has learned that she should expect a lot of pain after the procedure. But, “that’s such a small price to pay to give someone else life,” she said.
Next up for Downey? Spending March 26 and 27 at the Mayo Clinic to discover if she is healthy enough for the procedure. Should the tests go well, the surgery would likely take place a month or two later. Downey indicated May might be the best time for it, but she has yet to discuss scheduling with Gillispie.
She’s had to pay out of her own pocket for the flight and hotel in Minnesota — laws strictly forbid compensation for organ donation — but is happy to do so.
Two months ago, Downey started what appeared to some a puzzling project: find Billy Gillispie a kidney. She seems to have discovered the solution in herself.
Since her decision to donate, Downey has been surprised by the media attention.
“He’s got a lot of people who have kept up with him,” she said.
However, true to her mission of finding him a kidney, Downey cautions that it’s not guaranteed hers will be the answer. She’s now campaigning for a backup plan.
“If something were to fall through during my health exam and I couldn’t move forward the real objective is to have a Plan B,” she said. “And at this point, no one has been identified as a Plan B.”