Former Mercury star Gillom and Xavier reunite after five years apart

Standing in the rotunda of Xavier’s Activity Center, Jennifer Gillom heard students say “superstar” and “famous” as they walked by her after the bell rang.

“Not at all,” said Gillom, who played and coached in the WNBA and is in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Grandmama” was simply home.

Gillom returned to Xavier College Preparatory in September as assistant varsity basketball coach, consultant to the basketball program and physical education instructor. This came five years after she departed as head coach of Xavier’s basketball team to focus on her coaching career in the WNBA and with USA Women’s Basketball.

“My heart and my mind has always been here at Xavier, and I knew I always wanted to return. But the timing had to be right as well, and I felt like the time is now because it’s another challenging time,” Gillom said of a Gators program that had gone 18-37 the last two years.

“They haven’t had a great season the last couple of years and the program is not where it used to be right now as far as basketball, and it’d be a great time to build it back up again.”

If the past is any evidence, Gillom’s second stint with the Gators should go well. She began her coaching career at Xavier in 2004 after another down period for the program. The season prior to her arrival, the Gators went 8-28. Just one year later, with Gillom at the helm, they went 28-8.

Xavier’s decision to hire Gillom in 2004 was a simple one. She was an All-American in 1986 at the University of Mississippi. After college she played for Team USA, earning a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. In 1997, she became one of the first players to step onto the court for the Phoenix Mercury. She played for the Mercury until 2002 before ending her WNBA playing career with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2003.

Gillom spent six seasons as Xavier’s head coach, amassing a 130-25 record.

During the summer of 2008, while Xavier was out of session, Gillom joined the Minnesota Lynx as an assistant coach. The following summer she took over Minnesota’s head coaching position.

After the 2009-10 school year, Gillom left Xavier to focus on her coaching career in the WNBA. That same year, she became the head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, serving in that role for two seasons. She then served as an assistant coach for the Washington Mystics in 2012 and the Connecticut Sun from 2013 through this year.

Jennifer Gillom, also known as “Grandmama” from her Phoenix Mercury days, returns to Xavier College Preparatory, a school she led to success on the basketball court for six years. (Xavier College Preparatory)

Jennifer Gillom, also known as “Grandmama” from her Phoenix Mercury days, returns to Xavier College Preparatory, a school she led to success on the basketball court for six years. (Xavier College Preparatory)

Gillom said she returned to Xavier in September because of her unwavering passion for the school.

“What I love is developing young women and young players,” Gillom said. “And I thought that coming back here would bring my passion back for the game because coaching at the professional level and coaching here at the high school level is totally different.”

Sister Lynn Winsor, athletic director and vice principal at Xavier, said the school is excited to have Gillom back.

“She’s just a fabulous person, and I think she’s the kind of face that we would like on Xavier,” Winsor said. “That face of a coach who really knows what they’re doing but also has that caring, wonderful attitude.”

Winsor said Gillom’s was the first name to pop into the head of Sister Joan Fitzgerald, principal at Xavier since 1974, when the school was in search of a new physical education instructor after the previous one left for another job.

Gillom was still on staff with the Sun, but once her contract with the team ended in September, she was free to join the Gators.

“Xavier’s her home,” Winsor said. “She’s always been great with teenagers, especially young women, so she’s come back. She’s had the pros, she’s had the college, she’s had it all and now she’s working with kids who really, really want to work hard and be a part of this Xavier team.”

Gillom received standing ovations and claps upon returning to Xavier. Some students couldn’t believe she was there.

“What a welcome,” Gillom said. “They were very excited that I came here. Some can’t believe that I’m here. But that’s the first thing I said to them: I want to be here.”

Players like senior Sarah Perrin are excited Gillom will be part of the team. Perrin said Gillom stresses fundamentals, which Perrin said the team has gotten away from in past years. Having Gillom on the staff gives players an opportunity to learn from an experienced person.

“I love how she’s so positive, and it just radiates to the whole team,” Perrin said. “She’s so funny about it because she never yells at you when you get something wrong. She just corrects you but she makes it silly so you’re actually having a good time and learning at the same time.”

But Gillom will call a spade a spade, Winsor said.

“She’ll tell you exactly what’s the truth,” Winsor said. “If there’s a student-athlete who really needs to work on something she’ll tell them but in a nice way that they need to get it going or improve on this.”

Gillom said her goal has always been to work with young kids, and while learning from players and coaches at the professional level was a rewarding opportunity, it wasn’t the same as being a Gator.

“I felt like I wasn’t being productive at that level,” Gillom said. “But coming here to Xavier you feel like you’re making an impact in these young ladies’ lives. And to me that’s something I’ve always wanted to do, is be a role model for these young ladies as well as to help them be good citizens.”¬