Editor’s note: This story was written before drunk driving charges were filed against Mason Gillis on Wednesday. It was written in light of the updated rules regarding name, image and likeness in the NCAA. The Exponent does not condone drinking and driving, or any related reckless and illegal behavior.
It’s the bottom of the sixth and final inning.
The score is tied 5-5 with Warren County Southern. Two outs, three balls, two strikes. New Castle is down to its last chance to punch its ticket to the 2012 Little League World Series.
Then-New Castle first baseman Mason Gillis lines up for one final attempt to avoid extra innings. With the bases loaded, all he needs to do is find his way to first base. Gillis had two hits before this attempt — both times with runners on base. He batted in one run in the first inning — the first run of the game.
The pitcher stares him down, winds up and fires a missile toward home plate. Gillis can only hold his breath as he swings as hard as he could.
A thunderous crack is heard around the stadium as the ball flies between second and third base, giving Gillis just enough time to dart to first as the man on third sprints towards home. With one swing of the bat, Gillis and the rest of New Castle baseball found themselves heading to Pennsylvania to face Gresham National in one of the biggest games in Little League baseball.
Bill Gillis, father of Mason and a former center at Ball State University, excitedly recalled an assortment of memories in New Castle and beyond. From clutch hits, to slam dunks, to coming home from basketball games covered in scratches and bruises, Gillis couldn’t get enough of Mason’s proudest moments from his old home town.
However, the memorable moments didn’t leave themselves in New Castle. Building relationships with Purdue legends, fighting for opportunities and high-effort Big-Ten-level plays kept his passion for basketball alive, Mason said.
YMCA to Purdue
Gillis’s sports career began with a mixed bag of teams and sports to experiment with.
Known as the “sports family” in New Castle, all four members of the Gillis family found their niche in the sports world after years of trial and error. From baseball, to basketball, football, soccer, and more, Mason and his sister Lauryn had a variety of opportunities to create their own memories and find the right sport to shine in.
“We noticed along their journey that they were pretty talented,” Bill said. “Once they got older, they got to pick which one they were interested in and excelled in.”
Mason lends credit to his parent’s willingness to let them try out new sports as a reason for his talent today: Hand-eye coordination from baseball, foot-eye coordination from soccer and the physicality and work ethic needed to excel from football.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Gillis said. “Having the background from all of those sports can only improve your athleticism, team work, work ethic and your ability to mesh with different types of people inside and outside the sport world.”
Gillis’s basketball career diverted from the typical Big Ten athlete’s path. He didn’t start building his career in an AAU program, a travel team, or even his team in grade school.
It began in a YMCA open gym.
Bill Gillis said a group of New Castle dads and their kids banded together to create a youth team after spending several sessions causally shooting around together. The parents began to teach their kids the basics of basketball as a group.
The dads formed “stations’’ to help their kids continue to grow their skillset in the basics of basketball: Kids would move around to the different stations as Bill would teach rebounding, another parent would teach scoring, another free throw shooting, down to every fundamental they could think of. They soon moved to running plays, defensive formations, traps, press breaks and more.
What began as a rec-league team turned into a lifelong friendship: The group would go on to play through elementary in travel basketball, go undefeated in middle school for two consecutive years, and all transfer to the same high school just to play together.
“It’s a beautiful scenario for how their team was formed.” Bill said. “Just meeting each other at the gym. They hung out with each other, they stayed with each other, and they got better together. It’s really a blessing in disguise for them.”
The New Castle forward went 61-18 in the games he played, taking his team to as high as 27 wins out of a possible 30 in 2017. Head coach Daniel Cox, a long time mainstay of the New Castle coaching staff, had a system Mason said unleashed his true potential and creative abilities on the court with his teammates.
“We had a system that we played in,” Gillis said. “But at the same time, (Cox) allowed us to express ourselves as basketball players. We just had fun playing with each other and enjoyed each other’s success.”
Gillis first heard from head coach Matt Painter some time in his junior year. Bill said he saw Painter, who Gillis had known since he was a player at Ball State, exiting a gas station bathroom near Warren Central high school where Mason was playing in an AAU game.
Despite having a game of his own the next day, Painter took the two-hour drive from West Lafayette to New Castle to watch Gillis play. To this day, Mason says Painter’s dedication to watching his games is one of the reasons he committed to Purdue.
“To see him there to watch me play showed he cared for the person I was and who I was as a basketball player,” Gillis said.
Things looked up for Mason. The forward had six other Power Six offers exiting his junior year, all of which he passed up for a chance at being a Boilermaker.
That was all put at risk when he hurt his knee.
The summer before his senior year, Gillis was denied a proper sendoff at New Castle high school after he tore his meniscus. Mason said he underwent two surgeries, both of which went successfully. He rehabilitated well, even being released to play again during the year.
Still, something didn’t feel right.
His knee wasn’t progressing as quickly as he would have liked it to, Gillis said, and he eventually went to get a second opinion.
He faced two choices after his doctor’s diagnosis: Avoid surgery and risk a potentially harsher injury with a chance at playing in his final year, or undergo another surgery and miss the rest of his high school career.
Gillis said he weighed his options, and although he was upset with the fact he couldn’t play, he said he felt the team had enough returning talent to take his place.
“I wanted to be there for the guys, but I knew I had to make a decision that best suited my career,” Gillis said. “I didn’t want to jeopardize my Purdue career and any career I could potentially have by playing one year of high school basketball.”
The process left him with an inability to walk for several months, Gillis said, but the forward added he kept in the best shape he could for his Purdue career.
Name, Image and Likeness
On July 1, the NCAA ruled in favor of allowing players to profit off of their name, image and likeness.
Just over 480,000 athletes were able to take sponsorship deals, appear in advertisements and run their own clinics and camps with one single ruling, according to the NCAA.
“I believe the profit is a very small portion of it,” Bill said. “It helps to create gym space, get help when you’re running a gym while being able to profit off of your name and likeness.”
Last week’s ruling, Gillis said, gives players the ability to be recognized for all they give to their universities.
“We work hard for this school,” Gillis said. “I feel like there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to promote our brand.”
For many high-ranking basketball student athletes, attending high-level or big-name universities was their best way of building up their brand and gaining exposure before joining professional leagues. Five-star recruits would join some of the NCAA’s most highly respected and recognized programs for a chance at a national brand and to potentially have a chance at playing in the highest league in basketball: The NBA.
With their newly-acquired ability to build off their own brand, Gillis said students have more freedom when choosing a university or post-high school professional team since their performance won’t be as tied to their team’s brands.
Since the beginning of July, players all across the country have been working to find ways to use their name, image, and likeness in as many opportunities as they possibly can. Four Purdue players have already signed with Barstool Sports, one of the largest sports social media profiles to span multiple platforms.
Players like Gillis have set up their own independent, virtual basketball camps for younger players to attend. They charge a certain fee to learn ball-handling, shooting and tournament play among other subjects.
The sound of muffled dribbling and encouraging statements quickly overpowered Gillis’s zoom call last Thursday as soon as Gillis let go of the ball. The five clinic participants followed Gillis’s carefully ordered instructions the best they could.
“We want mistakes,” Gillis said if members fell out of rhythm. “They only make us better here.”
The clinic ended with a 10 minute questionnaire, where younger Purdue fans had the chance to ask Gillis their most pressing inquiries. Questions ranging from his potential role in Purdue’s lineup to how he was able to balance his schoolwork with the rigors of NCAA schedules flew his way from younger fans, but the forward was able to answer them with ease.
Years of attending clinics as a younger player and working with former Purdue stars had given Gillis the knowledge, patience and work ethic to work on his craft and become the player he is today, Gillis said. He said players like a recently-hired graduate assistant in Thompson and parents were his mentors growing up.
On July 14, charges were filed against Gillis for an OWI, endangering a person and disregarding an official traffic control device and consuming alcohol as a minor. A probable cause affidavit reported a car “recklessly driving” on Sagamore Parkway and Nighthawk Drive.
According to responsibility.org, 1.1 out of every 100,000 Americans under the age of 21 were killed in drunk driving fatalities in 2018. The overall drink driving fatality rate was 3.2 per 100,000 people nationally.
Drunk driving fatalities have decreased by 52% since 1982, while fatalities for people under 21 have decreased 83%, according to the same website.
Students still need to take important measures to avoid drunk driving and ensure the safety of themselves and those on the road. A State Farm press release recommends not drinking alcohol if you’re going out alone, choosing a non-designated driver or calling a taxi or Uber if you have or will be drinking, and protecting others by taking their keys if they attempt to drive while consuming alcohol.
The Exponent reached out to Gillis about his charges the day the affidavit was released. Gillis did not respond.
Purdue and Beyond
A three-star forward coming out of New Castle, Gillis redshirted his freshman year along with guard Brandon Newman, meaning he couldn’t play throughout his first year.
That didn’t mean the work ended for Mason. Newman and him were immediately mentored by P.J. Thompson and Grady Eifert, two former Purdue players, and practiced in a variety of ways on their own time and with the team.
They sat down and watched film, worked out twice a day, played two-on-two pickup games with each other and worked through the team’s offensive and defensive schemes at any moment they possibly could.
“We constantly kept working,” Gillis said. “I don’t think I would have been able to help out the team if it weren’t for P.J. and Grady.”
Gillis’s hard work paid off with a spot in the starting rotation the very next season. He averaged 5.2 points and 4.1 rebounds in his very first season, taking the starting spot from forward Aaron Wheeler.
Gillis said he felt he had a memorable rookie season, one that was highlighted by a key defensive play against Michigan State.
In a game where Gillis said they needed a win, he dived on the floor in the game’s final seconds to corral a loose ball and cause a jump ball. Trevion would hit a clutch floater on the very next possession, putting Purdue up by just one point. After locking down the interior on the other side, a missed shot allowed Purdue to seal a comeback victory over the Spartans.
The fan experience, positively or negatively, can affect a player’s experience on and off the court. While Gillis said he has had more positive experiences with the fans, he said college athletes can be criticized by people they don’t know.
“I do read comments about myself, but I use that as motivation,” Gillis said. “I don’t necessarily go out there every day and try to prove them wrong, but I just continue to work on things people say I can’t or shouldn’t do.
“I work so whenever I get out there and I do what they say I can’t, all they can do is bite their tongue.”
The Purdue community, Gillis said, has been nothing but positive to him. Hearing fans in airports or bus stops give him support has had a positive effect on how he plays.
Bill said he gets the same support in an IU town in New Castle, and that the support he and the New Castle community have for Mason and Lauryn is immeasurable.
“I’m very proud of my kids.” Bill said. “I’m very blessed to have my family.”