HAMPDEN, Maine — Perhaps no basketball game during the last three winters epitomizes the fullness of Zach Gilpin’s personality more than this year’s Eastern Maine Class A final.
Yet the career-high 38 points he scored while leading Hampden Academy past Oxford Hills of South Paris were but a modest part of the story.
When an Oxford Hills fan tripped and struck his head on the floor just behind the Hampden bench, Gilpin and several teammates immediately went to offer help.
And in the aftermath of that victory, the 6-foot-5-inch All-Maine senior forward handed out remnants of the championship net to some Hampden youth basketball players in attendance at the Augusta Civic Center.
“I know if I was a little kid and a high school player offered me a piece of an Eastern Maine championship net I would be really appreciative,” said Gilpin, who on Friday was honored as the 2014 Gatorade Maine Boys Basketball Player of the Year. “I knew last year they didn’t really do anything with the net afterward so this time I took pieces and gave them to basically every little kid I could see.”
For those who know Gilpin best, such unselfishness comes as no surprise.
“He really gets the big picture with the responsibility of being a role model to the younger kids in our community.” said Hampden coach Russ Bartlett. “Zach has great people skills and he’s very appreciative. It’s easy to warm up to him.”
But for Gilpin — one of the leading scorers and rebounders in school history — the journey to young adulthood and basketball prominence has included significant personal tragedy.
On Nov. 29, 2011, just before a 16-year-old Gilpin was to begin his sophomore season with the Broncos, his father Peter lost his battle with depression and took his own life at age 45.
Basketball was among their primary common bonds, with Peter Gilpin a former player at Houlton High School and Eastern Maine Community College who for several years coached Zach’s travel team.
“I remember before every game we’d talk about what I needed to do to do well and after every game we’d discuss what went well and what didn’t go well,” said Gilpin, who recently was honored with the Maine McDonald’s Spirit of the Game Award for his perseverance. “No matter what, he’d always be really positive about it.
“It’s been two, going on three years now and still there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him, but I think I’ve learned to live with it a little more.”
News of his father’s death was devastating to Gilpin, but his first instinct after learning what had happened was to protect younger brother Nick and sister Marissa.
“I remember when I initially found out my siblings didn’t know, so my first reaction was to worry about them,” he said, “and then after that when I got to thinking about it, it was tough because it was like losing my best friend.”
Gilpin’s basketball family — friendships forged from years as teammates on the scholastic and AAU levels — immediately arrived to offer comfort, and that effort was galvanized the next day when Bartlett organized a team meeting.
“When Zach walked in it was pretty quiet, but everyone just wanted to give him a hug and tell him they were there for him,” said Bartlett.
Gilpin was grateful for both the condolences and comfort when he needed it most.
“Coach Bartlett announced it to the team and I remember him talking about how we were going to get through this together,” he said. “We all just sat there and cried together, and that was a big moment for me. Thinking back to that moment I’m getting goosebumps right now.”
The start of the new basketball season provided Gilpin a needed outlet for his energy.
“Basketball was definitely what helped me,” he said, “because that was something my father and I shared together, the love for basketball.”
Basketball has remained a source of great friendship and support for the entire Gilpin family in the intervening years.
“The bigger picture of basketball is it’s really a family for all of us,” said Carol (Bubar) Gilpin, Zach’s mother and herself a former high school and college basketball player. “It’s being around people who share a love of something and the time management and cooperation involved. I know when I played that it developed me into the person I am today, and Pete and I both wanted that for the kids, whether it be from basketball or some other hobby.
“Zach’s a role model for a lot of kids now, and he knows what you do affects how a lot of kids see you and how the community sees you and I definitely feel like basketball has lived up to my expectation with him.”
Gilpin, now 18, also had to balance individual goals with family obligations in his enhanced role of big brother — Nick is now a Hampden Academy sophomore while Marissa attends middle school.
“He had to step into an adult role real quick,” said Carol Gilpin, a Bangor schoolteacher. “We’re a pretty busy family and everyone’s coming and going and lots of times Zach’s the person who, if I can’t pick someone up, he’ll be there. He takes Nick to school every day, and a couple of days ago Marissa wasn’t feeling well and she wanted to go late to school so he said, ‘Mom, I’ll take her in with me rather than you having to do it.’ He fills a big role for me, and I’m just so proud they have all used basketball to help the healing process.”
Taking such additional responsibilities in stride are just one way Zach Gilpin has grown through his family’s tragedy.
“I’ve learned that there are really important things in life like school and family and what you believe in, and even though basketball may be what you love right now, 20 years from now you can’t play basketball so that’s why I try to focus on the big things in life,” he said. “I know when I was younger I’d get all tensed up and stressed out about stuff I couldn’t control, so I’d tell kids now that life’s too short to worry about the things you can’t control.
“Another thing this has taught me is that even when someone’s not looking you should still always do the right thing because there could still be somebody paying attention.”
The right thing for Gilpin usually involves the best interests of those around him.
Take the final home game of Gilpin’s Hampden career, when he needed 26 points to reach 1,000.
Gilpin was one of seven seniors on the Hampden roster, and only five could start, so he lobbied Bartlett to let him come off the bench in that game so one of the senior reserves could start in front of the big Senior Night crowd.
Bartlett relented, and Gilpin went on to score 29 points and reach his milestone anyway.
“Once he went in the guys kept feeding Zach because they knew he was close,” said Bartlett. “I had to call a timeout to tell the other guys they had to shoot, too.”
Another highlight of Gilpin’s playing career was one of the more memorable plays in Hampden history — passing to his brother Nick Gilpin for a 30-foot shot as time expired that gave the Broncos a stunning 40-39 win over Lawrence of Fairfield in the 2013 Eastern Maine final.
“Zach’s life is a tragedy and a fairy tale,” said Bartlett. “He’s had an awful thing happen in his life from a family perspective but some unbelievable things happen on the basketball court, from winning a state championship to making the pass to his brother for the winning shot in an Eastern Maine final.
“And how many kids score their 1,000th point on Senior Night?”
Gilpin finished his Hampden career with 1,146 points and 476 rebounds and helped the Broncos go 63-3 with three Eastern Maine championships and the 2013 Class A state title during the last three seasons.
His only regret is not being able to share those successes with his dad.
“It’s still definitely tough to deal with at times,” said Gilpin, who plans to play basketball in college and is considering NCAA Division II programs Stonehill College and Franklin Pierce University as well as Division III Bates College of Lewiston.
“I know some people saw me crying after Eastern Maine games and state championship games, even last year when we won, and that’s more because my dad wasn’t here to see it.
“Obviously basketball’s what I love, but I’ve learned there’s more to life than basketball. That’s why I get more visually emotional. He’s always on my mind.”