Back when he was in high school, Anthony Gill had people convinced that in addition to being a star basketball player, he was also a national ping-pong champion.
Last season, as a redshirt freshman, Gill told a sportswriter he was a magician in his spare time. The sportswriter believed him and started planning a feature story about Gill’s love of magic.
Last month, fresh out of the locker room shower, Gill instructed television reporters to turn their cameras away because, with his wet hair, he was looking like “El DeBarge” — the 1980’s pop star known for his jheri curls.
Sandi Gill-Summers knows all about this playful side of her son.
“Someone interviewed him once,” she said, “and he told them that we had a Siamese cat with two heads.”
Virginia players have learned to tread carefully around Gill.
“He’s a prankster,” said Virginia sophomore Justin Anderson. “You would never expect the pranks he pulls. It’s always something silly.”
But beneath Gill’s lighthearted exterior is someone who cares deeply for those around him, someone who has overcome a lot of pain in his young life to get to where he is today.
Gill suffered facial paralysis at birth. His parents divorced before he was a teenager. His mother was diagnosed with cancer when he was in high school. His first college coach got fired.
“They’re just things that we go through in life,” Gill said. “We get tested day in and day out. Even to this day, I will always be tested. It’s how you react to those things that really shapes you into who you are and who you’re going to be.”
If that attitude sounds too good to be true, consider Virginia’s game against Norfolk State in December when Gill — who had turned down offers from North Carolina and Ohio State before transferring to UVa — didn’t see the court in the first half as coach Tony Bennett opted to go with more defensive-oriented lineups.
A lot of players would have sulked.
Gill did just the opposite.
“I trust [Bennett] 100 percent and whatever he wants me to do, I’ll do,” Gill told reporters after the game. “I’ll run through a wall for him. He wanted me to sit out the first half and that was fine with me.”
You didn’t need a Ph.D. in body language to see that Gill was being genuine. The High Point, N.C., native meant every word.
Gill’s reaction was just par for the course.
Since arriving at Virginia, the 6-foot-8 forward has been the epitome of a team player, according to coaches and teammates.
“He’s got a great attitude,” Bennett said. “He [has] so bought in and wants to do well. He’ll take whatever role you need him to and is such a competitor.”
Said Virginia associate head coach Ritchie McKay: “He’s not only one of the best players I’ve ever coached, but one of the best people I’ve ever coached. He’s been a lovely addition to this family.”
Anderson says Gill — who had five points and three rebounds in Virginia’s win over Notre Dame on Tuesday night — has added toughness and leadership since arriving from South Carolina.
“He’s a very strong Christian man,” Anderson said. “He brings a different aspect to our team. He’s just awesome. He’s one of those guys who you aspire to be like because his attitude is always in the right place, whether everything’s going good on the court or not as well as he wants it.”
Things were definitely not going well in the delivery room when Gill was born on Oct. 17, 1992.
“The doctor was telling his mom to push, but it wasn’t time for the baby,” recalled Gill’s father, who is also named Anthony. “He grabbed the forceps and started pulling on his head and I was like, ‘What are you doing!’”
When Gill emerged from his mother’s womb, the right side of his face was paralyzed from nerve damage.
“It was really scary,” Gill-Summers said. “He only smiled to one side for weeks.”
“We used to call him ‘Sidewinder,’” Gill’s father said, “because when he cried, one side went up and the other side couldn’t move.”
Luckily, after a few months, Gill’s paralysis went away.
However, Gill’s “life tests” were just beginning.
When he was 12, his parents divorced.
“My life revolved around them being together,” Gill said. “When they broke up, it was devastating to me.”
Gill moved with his father to Charlotte, shuttling back to High Point as often as he could to see his mother. It was about a 90-minute drive but Gill didn’t care.
“I couldn’t take being away from either one of them for very long,” he said.
Gill’s father says the divorce definitely “took a toll” on his son.
“It was rocky,” he said. “We had our battles. But at the end of the day he knew that everything he was going through was going to make him a better man. He always knew that deep down inside.”
Gill enrolled in Charlotte Christian School and quickly became good friends with current Virginia teammate Akil Mitchell. The pair led the school, which also produced stars Stephen and Seth Curry, to three straight state championship games.
Charlotte Christian coach Shonn Brown says he knew he had something special in Gill from the get-go. Gill was both a model teammate and student.
Brown would often observe Gill helping teachers carry heavy boxes into the school and holding doors for people before school had started. Gill was never in detention once in his three years.
“He’s an unbelievable kid — just in terms of his demeanor,” Brown said. “His attitude, his respect for authority and his respect for himself and others is just incredible.”
Gill always expressed gratitude for any opportunity he was given.
“I think he’s such a good teammate because of his humility,” Brown said. “It speaks to his parents and how they’ve reared him.”
The summer before his senior year, Gill was at an AAU event in Phoenix when he learned that his mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Gill insisted on flying home immediately so that he could be with her.
Over the next several months, Gill was his mother’s rock.
“You couldn’t tell that it was hard on him,” Gill-Summers said. “He was just so strong for me.”
Inside, though, Gill was boiling with emotions.
“I was really upset, mad, angry,” Gill said. “I just saw how strong she was and it made me realize that she was living for something bigger than herself. I really wanted to know more, so I got really close to God then and starting building a relationship with him.”
Gill says that faith was what helped him through the toughest of times, which included shaving his mom’s head after large clumps of her hair had fallen out from chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“In my bathroom, tears were rolling down my face,” Gill-Summers recalled, “and he would say, ‘Mom, I promise it’s going to grow back.’”
Gill thought his mother had beaten the cancer, but during his freshman season at South Carolina it returned. She underwent a mastectomy, but then got an infection that hospitalized her further.
While all this was going on at home, Gill was doing his best to adapt to his first year of college. As a freshman, he started 26 of 31 games. However, the Gamecocks went just 10-21 and coach Darrin Horn was fired after the season.
Gill wanted to stay at South Carolina and play for whomever the new coach was going to be but eventually had a change of heart.
“We had a losing season and it took a lot out of me,” Gill said. “I didn’t feel like going through another transition where we would go through losing again because it took a lot out of me the first time.
“I wanted to go to a program that I knew was up-and-coming and knew was going to win, knew I could help the team win. That’s why I picked Virginia.”
For Bennett’s program, which has stated “pillars” of “humility” and “servanthood,” Gill has been the perfect fit.
Anderson and other Virginia players have been blown away by the way Gill conducts himself, both on and off the court.
“He battles through adversity better than a lot of men that I know,” Anderson said. “Honestly, you could not ask for a better teammate.”
Several hours after a recent home game, Gill was departing John Paul Jones Arena when he noticed an overweight man struggling to walk up a hill. Gill, not knowing that anybody was observing his actions, told the man to hop in his car and he would give him a lift.
“He’s all about everyone else — he puts everyone before himself,” said Gill-Summers, who has been cancer-free for about two years now. “He’s matured into a wonderful man and I love who he is, just for who he is...
“He’s just there for anybody when they need him. He’s a wonderful, kind human being. There’s no words to describe how grateful I am that God gave me such a wonderful human being and man...I would have never dreamed it.”
Gill has that innate ability to keep everyone around him smiling.
For many years now, he's told people that the paralysis he suffered as a baby is the reason why one of his eyebrows is higher than the other.
“I don’t really know if that’s true or not,” said Gill-Summers, laughing.
The Anthony Gill file
Nicknames: “A.G.” and “Geezy”
One thing people don’t know: “I love meeting new people.”
Favorite NBA player: Carmelo Anthony
If you could meet one celebrity: Oprah Winfrey
What would you ask her?: “How is she so good at motivating people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do?”
Favorite movie: “The Fox and the Hound”
Life after UVa: “My dream is to play [basketball] for money at the highest level. I’m hoping that’s what God has planned for me, but I’ll be happy with whatever’s next.”