Photo Credit: Diamond Bragg
It would be easy to see senior guard Suzanne Gilreath just for her exploits on the court. You might admire her silky three point stroke and confidence with the rock. You might think that it all came easy. You would be dead wrong.
Coming straight from practice, Gilreath is tired. But, she walks into the lobby of the Embassy with a smile and her flowing braids. There are many things to look forward to in Gilreath’s future. The basketball season is approaching its tipoff. However, she is not one to jump the gun before the work is done. Gilreath knows that this final year will be filled with sacrifices and big decisions. She wrote in her journal the previous night to take a deep breath and know that the work she has put in will work out.
“It’s important to reflect and continue to question what you want to do,” Gilreath said.
Growing up in Brooklyn Park, MN, Gilreath lived in a diverse neighborhood. The initiative to push herself hard came right when the bell rang in elementary school. Gilreath would wait for her mother to get home and beg to go to the local gym. Occasionally, she would drive herself just to go get shots up. Working on her individual skills as well as playing with and against the young men at the gym made Gilreath mentally and physically stronger.
Her sophomore year of high school was when she truly believed she could play college ball. Gilreath was the star player at Fridley High School, averaged 28 points per game in her junior year and went on to claim the Minnesota prep record for 3 point shots made with 294 in her high school career. The level of competition in high school was lacking for Gilreath, so she got into the Amateur Athletic Union travel basketball circuit. AAU provided a change in pace and rise in competition that Gilreath needed to keep her hungry. More intense practices, coaching, and opposition gave her the edge for the next level.
Gilreath didn’t know much about the UW-Madison experience prior to committing, but she did have a unique connection to the Badgers. Gilreath’s older brother, David, was a UW-Madison alum who played the football team and reassured her about the benefits of coming to UW-Madison from the alumni, beautiful campus and the opportunity to play at the highest level of basketball. David instilled the high level opportunities on and off the court, which were key to his sister’s decision.
“I knew that what I’m doing now is going to set me up for life,” Gilreath said.
On her journey, Gilreath went to Toledo University and University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). During her time at those schools, her awareness of social issues was not at its peak. Her high school was a primarily white institution (PWI), so she did not feel in tune with her surroundings. Her consciousness began to grow through different moments including when the coach who recruited her to UW-Madison, Bobbie Kelsey, was fired. Kelsey, along with Gilreath’s former coach at UIC, were Black and that played a huge role in Gilreath’s development.
The life of a Black athlete is full of conflicting moments and Gilreath gained experience seeing her former teammate, Marsha Howard, navigate her beliefs while being a part of the team. Howard kneeled for the National Anthem for most games last season in protest of police brutality and the systemic violence against Black people and people of color in this country.
“I looked up to her in that sense because she was very outspoken. She ain’t care what any person thought of her. She knew this was wrong and this needs to be addressed,” Gilreath said.
The backlash could have deterred Howard but she stood firm and her teammates supported her in the locker room. Gilreath lauded Howard’s leadership on and off the court and used that example to help maneuver the pressures she faces with her team. Gilreath became aware of the bubble that student-athletes are afforded and knows her life would be different if she was a regular student doing daily activities from walking to class to ordering food.
“I could only imagine if I was not an athlete walking to Gordon’s right now. I would be treated totally different or even looked at different,” Gilreath said. “I would have decided to go to another university instead of coming here if I knew how crazy the circumstances are here.”
Although she might not be dealing with the same situations as non-athlete Black students on campus, Gilreath wants to be able to share her voice. She stands against the unjust treatment and blatant inequalities that students of color go through on a daily basis and knows the importance of fighting for it.
“I don’t see people of color in my classrooms,” Gilreath said.
“I gotta fight for myself but also for the people coming in.”
Gilreath knows how tough it has been to be at UW-Madison given recent events regarding the Homecoming video with no POC, nooses being hung on campus, the poster protests at the Student Activity Center and Science Hall, and the formation of the Student Inclusion Coalition.
She was appalled and disappointed by all of those events, but not surprised.
“I was not even shocked because this was not shocking at all. It’s an ongoing thing…but I was really like ‘Wow! We exist nowhere on this campus,’” Gilreath said.
“A lot of people aren’t realizing their privilege. They’re not understanding what we’re experiencing on this campus but just in general, what’s going on in our world,” Gilreath said. “I think these situations are helping people understand that we’re actually experiencing these things and that it needs to be addressed on a higher level, not just from students but from administration.”
The video struck her in the lack of care for representation by the Homecoming Committee. The erasure for POC is something that needs to change and she feels the university needs to show they care with action. Blanket statements are not enough to improve the campus climate and this is not a moment that will be forgotten easily.
“If you watch this video as a Black person trying to come here, you’re not gonna want to come to this university at all,” Gilreath said.
The future of the athlete and Black community are of high importance to Gilreath. Despite the recognition of their physical talents, displays such as the video do not make athletes of color feel valued as people.
“Especially for athletics, we are here just for our physical abilities,” Gilreath said. “All they care about is the money that these athletes are generating and bringing in.”
While Gilreath was pleased by the new video played at the Homecoming football game, she knows this is a small step in providing and valuing actual diversity through policy. Gilreath has felt overwhelmed in certain moments including maneuvering her relationship with her new coach and being in giant lecture halls as one of a handful of black people out of 300 students. However, she is appreciative to be here, to be more knowledgeable of her surroundings and expand as a human being.
“That’s not going to break me. It’ll only make me,” Gilreath said.
Despite the difficulties Gilreath goes through like all people of color at UW-Madison, she knows that being here is only preparation for the real world. Gilreath’s responsibilities have grown since her early days. Gilreath became a part of SAESO (Student Athletes Equally Supporting Others), began to learn & helped her get out of her shell & look at herself as a Black female athlete.
Her locker room presence is strong and has embraced the uncomfortable moments of opening up to teammates about critical issues because she knows that it’s going to push her to be better as a person. Coach Tsipis called her one of the team leaders and it only further fueled her confidence to be vocal and fill the path that Howard and other seniors left for her.
“I might make mistakes. My teammates might make mistakes, but we gon’ do it together.”
Gilreath has made a habit of achieving her goals and it shouldn’t be any different this year. She strives to improve the athletic community through encouraging student involvement on campus outside of the Kohl Center. She wants to expand her journalism skills and knowledge on sports through her podcast and on-screen practice to prepare for life after basketball. On the court, Gilreath aims for more team wins, individual improvements on both sides of the ball and settling her nerves.
“I always tend to overthink. I’ve gotten better at it, but I tend to let the weight of the world become on my shoulders,” Gilreath said.
When thinking about getting her diploma, she raised her fist to represent the Black Power symbol and expressed her intent to walk on the stage like that. Gilreath has faced plenty adversity, but her belief in the royalty and power within herself and the communities she holds herself accountable to keeps her focused.
“They say we should not be on this campus. Yes, the hell we should be!” Gilreath said. “We have people of color that are powerful, marginalized communities that are bringing forth the greater good for this community here.”
Gilreath plans to play overseas after her senior year. If she maintains the humility, strength and hunger for success that started from afternoons at her local gym, nothing should stop her. There is nothing easy about Gilreath’s excellence on and off the court. She could care less if you think she deserves to be here. Whether in the clutch or the classroom, Gilreath is going to unapologetically be her full self and ball out.