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Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame: Sports allowed Speedy Gilstrap to fit in anywhere

It was Speedy Gilstrap's first day in the 10th grade, and he was at a brand new school.

After attending middle school in Dothan, Ala., his family moved to Columbus, where he would attend Columbus High, and he was petrified.

"I don't know if a 15-year-old can be panicked, but I knew nobody," he said. "I was scared to death."

In his first class, he introduced himself as "Speedy," and was instantly shot down by the teacher.

" 'You're in high school now, we don't use nicknames. What's your name, son?' " Gilstrap, whose given name is Sidney Joseph, remembers the teacher saying to him. "I was getting ready to run out the door all the way back to Dothan."

Luckily, he had already met one of the coaches at the school through his dad, O.L. Gilstrap, who had taken a coaching job at Kendrick. Joe Sparks walked into the classroom just in time. The teacher asked Sparks if he knew Gilstrap.

"He said, 'Yeah, that's Speedy Gilstrap. Everyone's going to know him soon.'"

Sparks was right.

Gilstrap, who said he was baptized as Speedy and has never been called any other name, was a two-sport standout for the Blue Devils, making the Ledger-Enquirer All-Bi-City first-team in basketball as a senior and becoming in All-American in tennis at Columbus State before transferring to Alabama, where he won SEC championships in singles and doubles during his senior season.

He was a successful athlete, a successful coach, and will be inducted into the Chattahoochee Hall of Fame on Feb. 20. He will be joined by Cecil Cheves, Tim Walton, Pam Carter and Jimmy Blanchard.

Gilstrap said he is honored by the recognition, but to him, sports was just an avenue by which to make his way in the world.

Speedy Gilstrap is one of five athletes being inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame this year. In this video, Gilstrap talks about the importance of always playing hard and hustling.

Way to connect

Gilstrap's family moved seven times -- due to his father's coaching career -- from the time he

was 6 years old until he was 16. Every time he moved, he relied on sports to help bridge the gap with unfamiliar people.

"That was how I was accepted," he said. "Playing sports. The next place was always just as good or better, because I had sports to meet people."

In Dothan, it was the rec center. From 7:30 a.m. until someone forced him to leave at night during the summers, that was where Gilstrap could be found. He started out playing Ping Pong at the center, and he still has a trophy from an Alabama state championship in the trophy case.

"You just gathered where the games were," Gilstrap said. "That was summertime. Everything was right there, and all my buddies were there."

When he moved to Columbus, he relied on sports again to help him fit in.

He joined the football team, which was coached by Pig Davis, but was most known for his skill on the basketball court. As part of a tandem with Dan Kirkland, he became one of the top five scorers in the history of the William H. Shaw Christmas tournament.

One of his greatest memories, though, was of the first integrated basketball game in Columbus between his Blue Devils and Carver. After spending all his life in a small pond, suddenly he was thrust under the bright lights.

"We're at the city auditorium for the first integrated basketball game," he said. "You've got Columbus High, all white, against Carver, all black. I don't know how many the old auditorium seated Say it seated 4,000. If it seated 4,000, that's how many were there."

Looking back, he's not sure he grasped the significance at the time. All he was worried about was trying to slow down Carver's Willie Alexander, who was six inches taller than him.

"The first time down the court, he looked at me and said, 'Are you guarding me?' " Gilstrap said. "I said yeah, and he just gives me a grin."

Gilstrap doesn't remember much of the game -- none of the 12 points he scored or of the fact that his team pulled out a win.

"I just remember the atmosphere and Willie wearing me out," Gilstrap said.

Speedy Gilstrap is one of five athletes being inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame this year. In this video, Gilstrap talks about the importance of always playing hard and hustling.

Gilstrap did plenty of the wearing out of others during his high school career, though, as a dangerous one-two punch with Kirkland.

And in college, he became an SEC champion in singles and doubles tennis at Alabama after quitting basketball to concentrate on one sport. As a professional tennis player, he became the only male player from Columbus to win a singles title at the Georgia Open and carried one streak of eight straight tournament wins, spanning 31 matches.

Multi-sport coach

Like his dad, Gilstrap got into coaching after leaving college.

Speedy Gilstrap is one of five athletes being inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame this year. In this video, Gilstrap relates a story from his days as head boys basketball coach at Spencer High School.

He was hired at Brookstone by Sparks out of Alabama and had the most basketball wins in the school's history, a record since surpassed. He spent 10 years coaching Spencer's boys basketball team, going 188-62 and never suffering a losing season. He was also the Region 5-A tennis coach of the year seven times while at Brookstone.

Despite the obvious success, Gilstrap refuses to take credit himself. Current Columbus boys basketball coach George Williams coached with Gilstrap at Spencer and used to tell Gilstrap there were two things about his coaching.

" 'One, you had great players,' he said. 'And, two, you were lucky,' " Gilstrap recalled. "And I do feel lucky."

He credited his mentors for his success, folks like Sparks and his dad.

"I had a foundation of what we were supposed to do as far as X's and O's," Gilstrap said.

But a lot of his success came from his style as a leader. While some coaches have a lot of success running their specific type of game plan, Gilstrap said he tried to coach others like he enjoyed being coached.

"I was never that confident in my offense," he said. "I would say, well this player can do this and this player can that, so let's come up with an offense that fits what they do. I tried not to put them in situations where they wouldn't be comfortable."

He's proud of the fellow athletes who influenced him, like Kirkland and tennis player Randy Scott. As good as Gilstrap was at tennis, he said, he was never the best in his neighborhood because Scott lived four doors down.

"What better person to practice against and watch play than the best player in Columbus?" Gilstrap said.

More than anything, though, he's proud to join his dad, who died in 2012 at 88 years old, in the Chattahoochee Valley Hall of Fame.

"If you had said something to me (about the Hall of Fame) when Willie Alexander was blowing by me, we'd have a big laugh about all that," Gilstrap said. "It's just special. Mother's still around, so she can enjoy both of them."

David Mitchell, Follow David on Twitter Speedy Gilstrap

Age: 63

High school: Columbus High, Class of 1970

College: University of Alabama, Class of 1976

Ties to Columbus: Graduated from Columbus High after moving from Dothan, Ala. Coached boys basketball and tennis at Brookstone and Spencer.

You need to know: Was named All-Bi-City in basketball as both a junior and senior at Columbus High and played in the first integrated game between Columbus and Carver. Was an All-American in tennis at Columbus College and All-SEC at Alabama, and won the Georgia State Open tennis title in singles and doubles. Coached boys basketball at Brookstone and Spencer, going 188-62 at the latter and leading the state's top-ranked team in 1987.

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