Alone in his third floor apartment, Kansas State forward Thomas Gipson peers out the window, parlaying the scene of Manhattan, Kansas.
The summer heat of the heartland is beginning to swelter. All Gipson is wearing is a pair of black Air Jordan basketball shorts and a white rubber wristband with red lettering so faded that you could hardly read it unless you knew what was once inscribed.
That's how Gipson likes it though. He likes to keep his personal life to himself. Because what he doesn't want you to know is that he's in pain.
Pain. Everybody deals with it differently. Some of us fold under the pressure. Others rise above it as better men and women. But it always hangs over us as a constant reminder of where we came from.
For Gipson, the pain has forged a rugged leader who is unabashed by any challenge the world delivers him.
The Physical Pain
The Big 12 is known as one of the most physical conferences in the country, especially in the trenches. Just ask presumed 2014 NBA lottery pick Joel Embiid, whose back issues hindered him through the latter half of last season.
Gipson was dealing with pain too. Down the stretch of league play and throughout the postseason, Gipson dealt with a torn labrum—the same injury that all but killed Dwight Howard's one-year stint in Los Angeles—in his shoulder.
He suffered the injury during a practice and it gradually got worse. Heading into the NCAA tournament, after taking a charge in practice, there were concerns as to whether Gipson, the primary post player on a team that lacked size, would be done for the rest of the year.
"By the end, it was popping out every four or five days when we practiced," said K-State associate head coach Chris Lowery.
But as he's always done in life, Gipson persevered. In K-State's loss to eventual runner-up Kentucky, he racked up 10 points and seven rebounds. Not bad for a guy battling Julius Randle in the paint that night.
Gipson maintains that the shoulder injury wasn't a big deal.
"I just had to be cautious of certain moves that I did, I just had to think smart in limiting my fouls and everything," Gipson said.
But he also says that it hurt whenever he extended his arms or felt contact on his shoulder. In basketball, that's practically every possession—offense and defense—for a big man.
Martavious Irving, a former guard for the Wildcats who spent last season as a graduate assistant, said that Gipson's teammates took notice of how one of their top players was battling.
“He’s tough," Irving said. "I played through injury, and it tests your mental toughness. For Gipson, it showed how tough he was, how much he wanted to compete and win.”
K-State took notice early in 2013-14 how valuable Gipson was by learning how debilitating it was to not have him in the lineup. At the start of the year, Gipson saw limited action after dealing with a concussion. The Wildcats were upset at home by Northern Colorado, then beaten a few weeks later by Charlotte and Georgetown in Puerto Rico.
When he came back full strength, the Wildcats stormed through the months of December and January, racking up 10 straight wins and earning wins over Texas and Kansas at the start of February.
Since then, Gipson has proven that he's the Wildcats' leader. He'll miss, at least partially, most of the team's workouts this summer. He underwent surgery to repair the torn labrum after the season, and is still limited to non-contact drills until August.
What Gipson has learned through dealing with injury though is that perseverance won't go unnoticed by his teammates or the coaching staff.
The Emotional Pain
Gipson isn't one to complain about the rules. But if there was one he'd probably like to change, it's the fact that the NCAA doesn't allow players to wear rubber wristbands—similar to the Livestrong bands—out on the court during games.
That white wristband with faded red lettering Gipson was wearing in his apartment? The only reason he's taken it off in the last four years was for games. Besides that, he never goes anywhere without it.
The wristband is from the memorial service of Deion Jackson-Houston, a point guard from Duncanville High School in Texas, less than 10 miles from where Gipson went to school in Cedar Hill. Inscribed on the band, although it's barely legible at this point, are the words "Keep praying and playing. DJ5 Memorial Foundation."
"I need to get a new one now," Gipson says, after looking at the faded letters.
According to the Dallas Morning News, Jackson-Houston died shortly after his 17th birthday on July 3, 2010, after his car was struck by a train. Gipson and Jackson-Houston were close friends growing up, with both being elite basketball recruits from the same area of Texas.
As for games, Gipson is never far away from his band. He'll give it to one of the graduate assistants—who sit directly behind head coach Bruce Weber on the bench—to hold on to.
In the locker room before games, you'll often find him praying and tapping his wrist where the band rests, reminding himself who he plays for.
Irving, whose locker was located next to Gipson's during his playing career, took special notice of Gipson's pregame routine.
"He warms up with is, he kisses it before the game then he has somebody hold it," Irving said. "He thinks about it before every game.”
Jackson-Houston's passing wasn't the only tragedy to beset Gipson though. On Easter Sunday in 2012, shortly after his freshman season, death struck again.
This time, it was a woman that Gipson considered his sister.
Jade Middleton, who was attending North Texas, was killed after her van hydroplaned during an intense storm, causing her to crash into a bridge embankment. According to a report in the Waxahachie Daily Light, the Justice of the Peace in the precinct where Middleton was killed said that the accident was freak in nature.
“She was wearing her seatbelt and doing everything right,” Jackie Miller, the Justice of the Peace, said in the report. “Such a horrific thing, and to think it happened on Easter makes it even more tragic.”
Middleton was the daughter of a longtime girlfriend of Thomas Gipson Jr., Gipson's father. The two were born in January 1993 and became close during their adolescent years.
"We were born in the same month, so we just called each other twins," Gipson said. "I grew up with her."
Gipson says he doesn't like to weigh on either Middleton's or Jackson-Houston's passing much day-to-day. But on the court, it's a different story.
"I just try to make them live through me out there," said Gipson. "I know they want me to be successful and I want to be successful for them."
Death hasn't been the only pain that Gipson's experienced though. The pain of being overlooked—particularly by Texas, where his father played his college ball—resonates with him as well.
When Gipson was being recruited out of high school, he was seen as the type of player who could be great at the mid-major level, but only a serviceable role player at high major schools. Still, he received offers from the likes of Baylor and SMU.
But not the Longhorns.
According to Gipson, it was a Texas assistant who told him that the Longhorns didn't want him because he was just 6'7", too small to play for the premier school in the Lone Star State.
Gipson takes that to heart.
"I especially have something against Texas, because they didn't want me. They said I was too undersized and everything, so I always take that personally when I play against them," Gipson said.
When K-State visited Austin in 2013-14, the Wildcats found themselves trailing late. During a timeout, Gispon—who finished the game with 24 points and five boards—came to the bench yelling, "We ain't losing this game!"
With less than a minute to play, Texas big man Cameron Ridley fouled out of the game. A few seconds later, K-State forward Shane Southwell buried a shot to tie the game at 64. It seemed as though the Wildcats would go into overtime with all the momentum in their favor.
Then, Gipson felt the pain again.
"It hurt a lot when especially since it was on me. It hurt a lot," he said.
With 1.9 seconds left in regulation, Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor inbounded the ball to star forward Jonathan Holmes in the corner. Holmes squared up and got off a last-second three-pointer over Gipson's outstretched arms.
Gipson turned around and watched the ball fall through the net, sending the Longhorns to a 67-64 win and squashing Gipson's hopes of showing up the coaches who passed on him in their own building.
"I was just a second late, and that's all it takes is being a second late," Gipson said. "And we lost."
Gipson and the Wildcats got their retribution later in the year, throttling Texas in Bramlage Coliseum 74-57. Gipson had just three points but ate up the glass that afternoon, pulling down 11 rebounds.
The house has always seemed to have it in for Gipson. Between the deaths of two of his closest friends to being denied the chance to follow in his father's footsteps, he's had more than his fair share of hardship. But it's how he's played the cards he's been dealt that has defined Gipson.
Dealing With It All
The first time you lay eyes on Gipson, you'll notice his chiseled arms. You'll also notice that he seems to have a scowl on his face at all times.
But that's who he is. That's how he deals with pain, by muscling through it all with an arduous, one-step-at-a-time approach.
The trials that Gipson has gone through are often from where he draws his strength. He plays with a ferocious intensity on the court, refusing to let anybody punk him.
Just ask Portland Trail Blazers forward Thomas Robinson. At 6'10", Robinson was one of the biggest and baddest forces in college basketball when he played for the Kansas Jayhawks in 2011-12, Gipson's freshman season.
During a game between the Jayhawks and Wildcats in Manhattan that season, Gipson stepped in front of Robinson on defense and took a charge—something that Gipson has since turned into a specialty of his.
After taking the charge, Robinson got up and forcefully and purposefully stepped over Gipson—a la Allen Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue after that vicious crossover that landed Lue on the floor.
Gipson got up and the two shared words before being separated. He wasn't about to be shown up.
"I didn't know what was wrong with him," Gipson said. "I told him 'don't ever do that again.'"
When he's out on the floor, he's out there to prove to everybody that he's the toughest guy on the floor. That he's the best guy on the floor. And he doesn't care if his matchup is 6'11" and has 45 pounds on him.
"Regardless of who's out there on the floor, he's out there to prove that he's the best big man," Irving said. "With him being undersized, he takes that personally. He wants his presence to be felt."
Ask Gipson though, he won't even tell you he's undersized. He'll just tell you that he's smarter than his opponents.
"I've learned to outsmart people," Gipson said. "You have to outthink people. Just stay with a low center of gravity where it would be hard for people to move me, just play smarter than everybody else."
Going into his junior season, the K-State coaches convinced Gipson that the best way to outwork people would be to get in shape, and that meant losing weight.
"When we first got here, we thought he was just a big bully," Lowery said. "We talked about how he had to develop his skill, get in the best shape he's ever been in and just try to learn the game of basketball."
So between his second and third year in college, Gipson shed down from over 280 pounds to 265, most if not all of it being body fat.
That weight loss made Gipson lighter on his feet, giving him an edge over some of the taller guys in the conference.
"I want to use their length as an advantage of mine playing under the basket because I can get them to pump fake when I use post-up moves," Gipson said.
Back to Gipson's specialty—taking charges. At the postseason awards banquet for K-State this year, he was awarded the team's Bob Boozer Courage Award for taking the most charges out of anybody on the team. He was on the receiving end of 13 in 2013-14.
That's one way Gipson makes up for his lack of size. Another way is tremendous footwork.
"People don't realize how good of feet he really has until you actually talk about it," Lowery said.
Time and time again, it seems that Gipson finds ways to put the ball in the basket or pull down a rebound over a taller defender. That's because he knows how to work angles and maneuver his body to exactly the right position.
That's tough to do at times in the Big 12, when guys like Ridley and Robinson and Joel Embiid are constantly being thrown at you. He's always taken on the challenges in stride.
"Whether it's injuries or being undersized, he'll always fight through it," Irving said.
Becoming a Leader
After that disappointing 2-3 start to the 2013-14 season, the Wildcats returned from Puerto Rico and held a short workout after a day's worth of travel back to Manhattan. After that practice, the team huddled up to address the team's growing issues.
It was Gipson whose voice was heard that night, telling his team that they needed to buy into the system and trust in one another.
"He helped us right the ship when we were struggling," Lowery said.
Entering his senior campaign, Gipson is the unquestioned leader of the Wildcats, who are poised to make another run at a Big 12 title after winning one in 2012-13.
His teammates and coaches realized last season that when rubber hits the road, Gipson would be the one to stand up and lead the team through hardship. That's probably because he's brought himself through hardship so often already.
Gipson isn't infallible in his leadership. His coarse, unequivocal tone sometimes rubs people the wrong way, especially when it's yelled in the heat of an intense practice or game. But Gipson is also self-aware enough to know that his words might have been misconstrued and never lets the problem fester.
"There's times where people might be offended by what he says, but off the court he'll apologize and tell you what he meant," Irving said.
While Gipson is certainly known for his intensity, he's compassionate too. After K-State's upset win over Kansas last season, he was interviewed by ESPN's Holly Rowe atop the scorer's table amidst a mob of students.
After the interview ended, Gipson told Rowe he had to go. Off-camera, his last words to her were, "Do you need help?"
The smile, accompanied by the helping hand that Gipson donned in that moment, is almost a rarity. The coaching staff wants to see more of it in his last season.
"He needs to smile more," Lowery said.
But that doesn't mean the staff wants Gipson to lose his edge either.
"We want him to play with a chip on his shoulder, we want him to play like people slight him," Lowery said. "We have to find ways to motivate him, and him being an undersized big, that's enough motivation."
Gipson's goal for his post-collegiate career is to make the NBA someday. He realizes that he likely won't be drafted and will have to take either the NBA D-League or overseas route. But that doesn't discourage him.
"I want to go to the NBA, I mean everybody wants to go to the NBA that plays college basketball," Gipson said. "It's a blessing if it would happen, but it's a blessing if it doesn't happen. Most people don't go to the NBA just out of college, most people go overseas or people go through the D-League. However long it takes me, I'll be fine with it."
That's the kind of determination Gipson has developed over the years. He knows, someday, he'll make it to the league.
If Gipson is anything, he's resilient. He was told he wouldn't be good enough to play in the Big 12. Twice, he lost two of his closest friends to tragic accidents. He persevered through a coaching staff change, plus the ups and downs that any basketball team can bring. The list goes on and on.
Yet somehow, someway, he's proven that he belongs. That's he's tough enough to not just carry on, but to lead others.
Now he just wants another crack at it.
"I can't wait until practice starts because I'm ready to play."
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted
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