When it came time to pick a place to play basketball in college, Caroline Gilling could rely upon an uncommonly strong system of reference. Two of her older siblings were playing in Division I—Jonathan at Arizona State, Mathilde at Washington. The oldest of the four Gilling children, Sophie, had played at Seminole College, in Florida.
And yet, as the recruiting process wound down, an unexpected source stepped up.
Eva and Jesper Gilling own a dental practice, and though neither played basketball, they quickly became fans of the sport due to their childrens’ interest and aptitude. Each of the four children was born in Liechtenstein, but they grew up in Rungsted, a neighborhood in the Danish city of Hørsholm, north of Copenhagen.
Sophie was the first of the Gillings to show interest in the sport. Then came Jonathan. Soon, the entire family was heading to games, even Caroline, who watched her older siblings with awe.
Jesper served on the board of Hørsholm 79ers, the local club the kids played for. Eva helped organize the team’s summer camps.
“They’re so engaged,” says Caroline. “My dad knows everything about the sport now; my mom knows even more.”
And so it was Eva who scoured the web, researching players and coaches from the programs that Caroline was considering. “It got to the point where I was like, Mom, no, please stop,” Caroline says, chuckling.
Last winter, Caroline visited Los Angeles and loved it. She knew she wanted to play in California, so Eva sent highlight tapes to Big West schools. Jason Flowers, the coach at Cal State Northridge, responded immediately—Caroline clocked his return e-mail within five minutes of Eva having hit ‘Send’ on their end.
“I knew that school was right, because of him,” says Caroline, who also happens to be a big fan of Kobe and Ryan Gosling. She’s majoring in cinema and television arts. Ergo, CSUN, a snapshot away from Tinseltown, stood a solid chance. “And when I visited,” Caroline says, “all the coaches were so nice. I met most of the girls, and I knew that this was the right fit.”
Caroline arrived in Northridge in mid-August, and quickly fell into the rigors of collegiate training. The individual workouts and weights. By the time official practice started in October, it felt like she’d been here years. This is part of the adjustment her older siblings had encountered as well. Though a proficient English speaker (in fact, he speaks four languages), when Jonathan arrived at Arizona State three years ago, it was overwhelming to use it as his primary tongue. The same went for Mathilde at U-Dub.
So, both Jonathan and Mathilde made it a priority to help their youngest sister, when she made her own move. In October, Mathilde visited Northridge. Jonathan peeled his 6-8 frame into his car and trekked out from Tempe earlier this fall. On one of those days, Jonathan and Caroline headed to Santa Monica. During a day by the pier, Jonathan gave away some of his old team shoes, which he’d brought along, to some people who looked down on their luck. “They were so happy,” Caroline says.
Like Jonathan and Mathilde, Caroline, at 6-1, is a forward, and a highly skilled one at that. She remembers her first days with Hørsholm. “When they figured out I could shoot, they let me shoot,” she says. “They didn’t just make me play in the post because I was tall.” Mathilde echoes that aspect of development. “In Denmark, it’s not as specific as over here,” she says. “It’s about knowing each spot on the floor, and trying to play different positions.”
For Caroline, it helped to have siblings she could study. “With Jonathan, we play almost the same position, and I really admire the way he plays. He’s not the type to give quotes, but he’ll give me advice if I need it, or ask for it. When we talk on the phone, it’s not so much about what’s going on the court; it’s more about how we’re doing.”
Jonathan just so happens to bear the double distinction of being the Pac-12’s most versatile, and funniest, player.
For a sense of the dynamic, Jonathan was once asked by the Arizona State student newspaper to describe his relationship with his head coach, Herb Sendek. “I always try to make fun of him,” Gilling said. “He likes it, so I’m going to keep doing it.” Jonathan was a freshman at this point.
Flash forward to last month’s Pac-12 Media Day, where Gilling, now a senior, and Sendek fielded 10 minutes’ worth of questions from a roomful of reporters. “So, you’re from Denver…” began one. Sensing the honest mistake, Gilling leaned in, feigning offense: “Wait, did you ask if I’m from Denver?” The room erupted.
Later, Sendek was reminded that he’d called Jonathan “the most cerebral player he’d ever coached.” Sendek waited a beat, then said with a grin, “One of them.” To which Jonathan, correcting the obvious slip, informed the room that Sendek had, in fact, meant “ever.”
“I misspoke, I apologize,” Sendek said.
That’s the way Caroline always remembers big brother. “He doesn’t like to take everything so seriously,” she says. “I like that about him. He’s so funny.”
In some of his most stirring fits of verbosity, Sendek has likened Jonathan to everything from a symphony conductor to Peyton Manning—the latter a reference to his ability to direct traffic on offense before even touching the ball. Jonathan started 53 of 65 games in his first two seasons in Tempe, until Sendek found that he was the perfect sixth man. Jonathan accepted and has thrived in that role.
All three have now started their respective seasons. Caroline is already showcasing the kind of versatility now becoming synonymous with the Gilling name. Not bad for college basketball’s first family. As Jonathan puts it, “We’re kind of taking over the West Coast.”
And next month, more of them will make the trip. The reunion begins in San Diego, when Washington plays at San Diego State on December 18. Then, Cal State Northridge faces the Aztecs on the 20th. (Talk about serendipitous scheduling.)
From there, the family will head out to Tempe in time for Arizona State’s home game against Detroit on the 23rd. Then, Christmas in Arizona. Has a nice ring to it.
The final leg of the trip ends in the place Jonathan calls home away from home. The Gilling family will sit in the stands at Wells Fargo Arena. Calls of “Jon!” will ring out.
See, Caroline explains, they’ve kind of taken to calling him by his American nickname.