The Mike behind the mic

Mike Gillespie (left) is honored by IU-Southeast athletic director Joe Glove for calling his 4,000th athletic event prior to the Grenadiers’ basketball game versus Oakland City on Dec. 12 in New Albany, Ind.

Georgetown native Mike Gillespie still works a passion — 4000 times and counting — he discovered at the Sweet 16

By John Herndon,

Thousands of people have gotten behind microphones to help sports fans get through the games they are watching. Literally thousands.

But then there’s also the standard by which all are measured.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center and Frreeedom Hallllll for the thrills and excitement of …”

Mike Gillespie lives in Indiana, but he’s Kentucky-born and Kentucky-bred. He grew up during that golden era of high school basketball from the 1950s to the early ‘70s, when mid-March meant following what was going on in Louisville. If someone was lucky, he would be right there in Freedom Hall.

“… high school basketball at its best, the Swwweeeet 16.”

Mike Gillespie was there. Every single Sweet 16 game from 1965 to 1970, he was taking in those thrills and excitement.

Studying for the ministry at Louisville Bible College, Gillespie had a friend from his home church who served as the manager of the driver testing station at the state fairgrounds, where Freedom Hall is located. He told Gillespie if there was a game he wanted to attend, “just come see me and I will get you in. It won’t cost you anything.”

Mike Gillespie makes a call during the IU-Southeast vs. Oakland City game on December 12. (All photos by John Herndon)

“Goal by Beard!”

“Steps called.”

“The foul is on Petty. That’s his first and the team third. At the line, Averitt and he will have two.”

“Goal by Casey.”

“I only missed one class in that time,” Gillespie smiles. “But I became enamored. When the games are lopsided, you get bored. So I started listening to the PA announcer. It was a gentleman by the name of John Tong.”

Make that a legend by the name of John Tong. He was the voice of the Louisville Cardinals, the Sweet 16, the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, the NCAA Tournament and much more before he retired in 1999.  He passed away soon after.

Tong made quite an impression on a young preacher. “I thought, ‘If I got a chance to do that, I would like to try it,’” Gillespie remembers. “But with all the other things going on in life — getting married, having children — it wasn’t until our oldest son, Jason, made the eighth-grade junior high basketball team in Jackson, Tennessee.”

It was 1986. Gillespie was serving as minister of Jackson’s First Christian Church and was looking for a way to be more involved in his community. 

getting started

“(Jason) was at Parkway Junior High in Jackson,” Gillispie remembers. “I went to the principal — his name was John Werthing — and I said, ‘If you allow me to be the PA announcer, I will give it a try.’ I said I have never done it but it was something I have always wanted to do. If you will let me, I will not embarrass you. I don’t want to embarrass myself.”

Gillespie broke into a laugh.

“I told him, ‘If you won’t let me, if I am sitting up in the stands and my kid gets hurt, I will embarrass everybody in the building.”

Jason played sparingly, but his dad was sitting at the official scorer’s table with a microphone in his hand.

Ironically, Jason never played much until his senior year in high school, but turned his love for the game into a solid coaching career, winning 280 games with stops at Cincinnati Christian University, Bluefield College and Reinhardt University, he’s in his first season as head coach at King University.

IU-Southeast’s Cameron Simmons (13) goes to the basket against Oakland City.

But announcing those Parkway games was the start of something special for Mike Gillispie. Since then, he’s moved five times, serving churches in three states. Yet somehow has found a way to continue his passion. Now living in Corydon, Indiana and serving as minister of Marengo Christian Church, he’s behind the microphone for Indiana University-Southeast along with North Harrison and Crawford County high schools.

And just before IU-Southeast ripped Oakland City on December 12, Gillespie was honored for working his 4,000th athletic event. 

That’s 18 colleges, eight high schools, professional minor leagues and numerous special events. In addition, he was the voice of the NAIA Women’s Division I National Championship for 23 years. 

When IU-Southeast took the floor, a handful of socially-distanced fans watched in a multi-purpose gym that also serves as a classroom. But Gillespie has also worked from the sidelines at such iconic venues as Chicago’s United Center, Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, the RCA Dome and Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and Lexington’s Memorial Coliseum.

And according to the National Association of Sports Public Address Announcers (NASPAA), Mike holds four public address announcing records, including calling 10 high school games in one day.

When Jason moved up to high school, he was not selected for the team at Jackson Central-Merry but Mike continued honing his new craft, working games at that school, Jackson Northside and Union University.

“I have always said this is an extension of my ministry. There were a few ladies in the church at Jackson who wondered what this preacher was doing, but I think most of the people understood and appreciated the fact that I was getting out in the community,” Gillespie says.

“The greatest concern was when I started announcing basketball games for Union University, which is a Southern Baptist institution in Jackson, there were some who were concerned I was going to become a Baptist!”

Instead, he says, the community work, which included Mothers Against Drunk Driving meetings at First Christian, led to those in different denominations, such as Christian, Baptist, Methodist and Church of Christ, crossing deep lines of religious demarcation to better understand each other and work for good.

Going big-time

But while in Jackson, Gillespie landed the gig for which he became most well-known.

It started in the fall of 1989 when a Jackson sports writer learned the NAIA was seeking a new home for the association’s Division I Women’s National Tournament. With the 5,600-seat Oman Arena ready for action, the city made a successful push to land what started as a 16-team tournament, but soon expanded to 32 teams.

Gillespie shared the public address duties with a local teacher for three years but in 1993, the mic was all Mike’s. “Just before the tournament he called and said something had come up and he wouldn’t be able to work the tournament. I called all 31 games,” he says.

That was eight first-round games on Wednesday, eight on Thursday, eight second-round games on Friday, four quarter-finals on Saturday, two semi-finals on Monday and the championship game on Tuesday. The eight college games in one day is another NASPAA record.

Gillespie has done it 66 times.

He smiles when thinking about the grueling days. “I admit that even as much as I like basketball, there have been some times on Friday that I was not sure I was really awake.”

Tournament officials offered to get him some help but Gillespie figured it was a cool way to spend time around the game he loved. Even though he had left Jackson in 1992, Gillespie returned for the tournament as it’s PA guy through 2011. 

IU-Southeast coach Wiley Brown looks over the court during the Grenadiers win over Oakland City.

He’s had other ministries in Tennessee, Indiana and Georgia. At every stop, he’s found a way to become the home announcer at a local college or high school, often juggling several announcing jobs with his ministry. 

Often, it’s his ingenuity and persistence, along with a little luck, that kept Gillespie at the press table. Such was the case soon after he accepted the call to be minister at East Columbus Christian Church in Indiana. 

After driving to Indianapolis for a hospital call in the summer of 1995, Gillespie decided to make an unannounced stop at Franklin College on his way home. He learned the athletic director was also the men’s basketball coach. “They showed me his office and I introduced myself and asked if he needed a PA announcer. He said, ‘Yes, we need a PA announcer. We have a DJ with music but we need a PA.’

“So I told him, ‘This is where I have been, this is what I have done, can I be your PA announcer.’ By this time I already had 5-6 years of announcing the NAIA women’s championship tournament so I had that to lay on his desk. I did the Franklin basketball for 10 years and the football for five. For football they had an older guy who had been an institution around the school.”

enthusiastic professionalism

Through all the gigs calling baskets, first downs, batters up or volleyball servers, Gillespie has maintained an enthusiastic professionalism that was apparent as he called the IU-Southeast win over Oakland City Saturday. When the Grenadiers drilled three-point baskets, they might be described as “downtown!” or “home run!”

It is the same when calling a high school game. Gillespie says he recently called the Forest Park at Crawford County (Indiana) contest when Crawford County’s Trevor Harvey, who attends the Marengo Christian Church where Gillespie is minister, buried a 3-pointer. “I said, ‘You have been Trevored!’” he laughs.

But when tournament time comes around, things are different. He believes when everything is on the line on a neutral court, he should also be neutral. It was a policy that was tested in Jackson as Union University often advanced to the national tournament, winning five titles and finishing as runner-up three times in its hometown. 

“If I am calling a tournament game, I have to say for one what I say for the other,” Gillespie says. “One of my teams played in the tournament in Jackson. I reminded the coach this is a tournament. … I said that to him and he said, ‘If you did show favoritism to our team in the tournament, I would see you after the game. We had that understanding that when it is neutral, even though the crowd goes crazy, I can’t go crazy.”

Going crazy might describe Gillespie’s work from the press table. It’s been great for him, even therapeutic. Such was the case after experiencing a scare on the day after Christmas, 2006, while visiting his mother-in-law in Corydon. His daughter-in-law, a registered nurse, saw that Gillespie was trying to relieve some pressure in his chest and got him to Harrison County Hospital where he underwent tests and stayed for two days.

Gillespie, who, by this time, was serving a church in Cumming, Ga., was given the choice of a heavy dose of beta blockers to get home or go to Jewish Hospital in Louisville. He chose the latter.

After undergoing a heart catheterization on Dec. 28, his 60th birthday, Gillespie heard the doctor tell his family that things were bad and that he didn’t see how the family got him to the hospital alive. “Then he told me, you and I have a date (for surgery) at 6 o’clock tomorrow morning,” Gillespie remembers.

Determined to get back to Jackson for the women’s tournament, Gillespie came through the surgery, then after returning to Georgia, underwent a rigorous rehab. When mid-March came around, Gillespie made the 6.5-hour trip and called all 31 games.

SHaring the gospel

It’s all become part of taking an unusual opportunity to minister and share the gospel.   

Mike Gillespie calls a play at IU-Southeast.

In Jackson, Gillespie was often asked to give an invocation and deliver a short sermonette for the tournament banquet. “I still do that for the Appalachian Athletic Conference,” Gillespie says of another of his gigs.

He’s also been granted numerous opportunities to reach out to people going through difficult times in their lives. He’s connected with young people from around the nation and stays in contact through Facebook. 

“One night, the grandmother of one of the players had a heart attack in the stands. I went to see her in the hospital after the last game of the evening,” Gillespie says. “At another game, one of the officials tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Could you talk with me after this game?’ So after the game was over, she was sitting in an empty section. I went over and talked with her about some problems she was having in her life.

“There have been coaches at times who needed somebody to talk to so I was kind of there as a chaplain. Who would have thought of this at a basketball tournament?”

Church work always take precedence over calling games for Gillespie but one of the most rewarding opportunities to share God’s love came in Mike Gillespie’s current role as announcer for the IU-Southeast Grenadiers. 

“The season before last, the University of the Cumberlands came to IUS. Just before the game, I had announced their starting lineup,” Gillespie remembers. “We have the spotlight thing for the teams and as I was announcing the IUS team, I heard a crash and a scream and some yelling. I went ahead and finished the lineup, but when I looked back over (to the Cumberlands bench) I saw one of their kids out on the floor convulsing. It seemed like no one knew what to do. The trainers were on their way over and when I got over there, his heart was in arrest. He was dying.

“There were six or seven people there and they started rotations with compressions to his chest. They got the defibrillator and hit him four times before they got a rhythm back in his heart. … The coaches had both teams — they were distraught — they got them off to one side.

“I went over and gathered all of them as a group and said, ‘One of yours as a group is in distress. We need to pray for him. And so we did. They canceled the game and they took him to the New Albany hospital. I went in and called on him every day…His coach stayed with him for two days until his family could get there. I called on him every day.

“I am going to have his wedding the day before Easter.”

It might be the most fitting testimony Mike Gillespie can give. The young man who was studying to be a minister when he became interested in announcing basketball games was giving real ministry while calling a game 50 years later.

Goal by Gillespie!

Mike Gillespie looks for the call from an official as Oakland City’s Tewon Kelly checks in.

MIKE GILLESPIE’S RECORDS (According to National Association of Sports Public Address Announcers)

    *Most universities and colleges served as “home announcer” — 18

    *Most college national championship Final Fours (NAIA women) — 23

    *Most college basketball games announced in a single day — 8 on 66 different occasions.

    *Most high school basketball games announced in a single day — 10 (2001 Adolph Rupp Classic, Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Ky.)

– Information provided by Mike Gillespie

The Best Seat In the House

Mike Gillespie has a full resume of sports public address announcing. Since getting an opportunity to pursue his passion he has worked the following.

International competition: 2002 FIBA Men’s World Basketball Championship in Indianapolis.

Professional basketball: Jackson (Tenn.) Jammers, Rookie League, 1991; Gainesville (Ga.) Knights, Rookie League, 2007; The Basketball Tournament, Chicago, 2016.

College sports: Tennessee — East Tennessee State, Milligan College, Union University, King College; Georgia — North Georgia University, Reinhardt University, Brenau University; Virginia — Bluefield College; Ohio — Cincinnati Christian University; Kentucky — Georgetown College; Indiana — Valparaiso University, Franklin College, Purdue Northwest University, Indiana University-Southeast; Illinois — St. Xavier University, Robert Morris University, Prairie State College, Olivet Nazarene University.

Special college events: Inaugural Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame/State Farm Tipoff Classic in Jackson, Tenn., 1992. Event included Tennessee coach Pat Summitt’s 500th win; NAIA National Women’s Baskeetball Tournament, 1990-2011, for 18 years Mike called all 31 games; Appalachian Athletic Conference men’s and women’s championship tournaments, 2012-2017.

High School Sports: Tennessee — Jackson Central-Merry, Jackson Northside, Johnson City Science Hill, Johnson City University High; Indiana — Columbus East, Columbus Christian, Hammond Gavit, North Harrison, Crawford County; Georgia — North Forsyth.

Special High School Events: Adolph Rupp Classic, Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Ky., 2002; King of the Bluegrass Tournament, 2005; All-A Classic, 2012; Tennessee district, regional and tri-state tournaments; Hammond (Ind.) Sectional; Indiana Christian School State Tournament.

Sports called: Basketball (men’s and women’s), football, baseball, softball and volleyball.

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