NEW YORK – He strolled through the lobby with herds of reporters trailing his every step, following his every move all the way to a room filled with tables and cameras where future stars of the NBA offered thoughts on the eve of the biggest day of their lives.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, slated to be a high lottery pick in Thursday's draft, plopped down comfortably in his seat and exhaled as the lights went on and the pens hit the pads at the start of the event's media day. He was smiling and joking about how his spiffy get-up set him apart from the other basketball players in the room, and, quite frankly, that was enough to signify how far he’s come.
Unlike his peers, the story on this morning isn’t about which team will select Kidd-Gilchrist, a former All-American at St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J., or about how it’s the start of an open-ended journey for a young man chasing a dream.
It’s about how he’s already hurdled every obstacle along the way.
Home is where the heart is
Michael Anthony Edward Gilchrist was born in Philadelphia in September of 1993 to Cindy Richardson and Michael Sr. He’s always been labeled something of a miracle baby, simply because he entered the world nine weeks early to a mother who had suffered through five miscarriages.
Such a wonderful gift to the family, Mike was treated like royalty in their Camden, N.J. home. Cindy spent every waking moment making sure her boy had everything he needed, while, as he got older, his father made it a tradition to watch “The Lion King” over and over together.
But on August 11, 1996 little Mike’s world changed forever when his father – a former Camden High School hoops legend – was shot and killed in the passenger’s seat of his car. The murder still remains unsolved.
Such a horrific memory spawned a certain edge to Mike’s gentle character. “I think if he was here, I wouldn’t have a motor,” he once insisted about the very trait that had college basketball scouts all over the country salivating over the thought of recruiting him by the time he was in high school.
Mike eventually grew to 6-foot-5 in eighth grade and realized basketball could be a fruitful life path. Armed with the love and support of Cindy, her husband Vincent Richardson, and brother Darrin Kidd, who assumed the duel role of “dad”, Mike was fortunate to cultivate his dream of one day playing in the NBA.
That couldn’t happen, though, unless the family committed to an unorthodox method of sending a teenager to high school for the first time.
St. Patrick had spent the previous two decades establishing itself as one of the premiere basketball programs in the United States under the direction of three-time National Coach of the Year recipient Kevin Boyle.
That was enough to attract Mike, but there was one problem: joining the Elizabeth school would entail a 154-mile round-trip commute from Somerdale every day. Still, Cindy couldn’t say no.
By the time Mike enrolled, Boyle had produced over 100 Division I athletes and multiple NBA players, such as Shaheen Holloway, Al Harrington, Sam Dalembert, Mike Nardi, Grant Billmeier, Derrick Caracter, Corey Fisher and Dexter Strickland.
Scouts immediately saw him as the next big thing to come out of a green and yellow uniform, and they were right. Mike, who had grown to 6-foot-7, helped the Celtics capture the 2009 Tournament of Champions title as well as garnering the state’s Player of the Year award as a sophomore. His junior year brought even more attention, this time because he served as the sidekick to a transfer from Montclair Kimberley Academy named Kyrie Irving.
However, Mike and Kyrie -- the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011 and eventual NBA Rookie of the Year -- would not be able to compete for a second straight TOC crown in the wake of the NJSIAA punishing Boyle for being present during offseason workouts before the cut-off date of November 27. The Celtics were banned from the state tournament, and winning – the only thing Mike proclaims to care about – was not an option.
By Mike’s senior year, Kyrie had graduated and already begun making a name for himself as Duke’s superstar freshman floor general. Instead of Robin at St. Patrick, he was finally Batman.
“I kind of see Mike as the Kevin Garnett of high school basketball,” Boyle said. “He’s a terrific all-around player who can play multiple positions. He can score from anywhere on the floor, rebound, block, defend, play in the post. You name it. He’s the best you’ll see at filling up the stat sheet. He’s the reason why we’ve been so good, and he’s so good because of how unselfish he is.”
Despite the accumulation of fame, Mike endured another heartbreak, learning of his uncle Darrin’s passing on the day he was to sign his National Letter of Intent with the University of Kentucky in November.
Hours after Darrin collapsed of a heart attack, Mike and his family composed themselves to arrive at a posh signing party in south Jersey. Trying his best to mask the pain, he turned his attention to the greatest escape he’s come to know: basketball.
“I will not lose this year,” he told reporters. “I will not lose this year.”
And he didn’t, until the final showdown of the season – the one which many call the most anticipated high school basketball game ever played on New Jersey soil. St. Patrick enjoyed an undefeated season and was ranked No. 1 in the USA Today national rankings until March 9 when Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley and his second-ranked St. Anthony Friars upset the Celtics in the North Non-Public B title game and mythical national championship.
Mike scored seven measly points, grabbed 14 rebounds and fouled out in the final high school game he’d ever play.
His subpar performance didn’t deteriorate his reputation of being a flat-out winner, a relentless competitor with the most heart. One of the most highly touted prospects in the country was still considered special, and he went on to collect his third All-American honor along with being named the co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago.
Mike created a media blitz in his senior year at St. Patrick unrivaled by any high school player aside from one-time prodigies such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Still, though, he never forgot where he came from and never ignored the values he learned from Cindy, Vincent, Darrin, or the man he missed so dearly for so long, his father.
“I’ve never seen someone as humble as Mike,” St. Pat’s principal Joe Picaro once said. “It’s almost like it’s embarrassing for him when he gets an award or does something special. I told him, ‘Michael, don’t change. Stay the way you are.’”
It didn’t take long for Mike to transform into a fan-favorite at Kentucky. He traded in his No. 31 – his father’s former number -- for No. 14 – another number with family-oriented significance – and eased into a starting role alongside two other nationally known recruits, center Anthony Davis and point guard Marquis Teague.
He also altered his identity, adding Kidd to his last name, to pay tribute to a man who helped his mother raise him. Picaro told him, “don’t change.” His values sure didn’t.
Mike spent this past winter making peace with the pain he had endured and found happiness on his own, hundreds upon hundreds of miles away from his Somerdale home. He made his mark on the NCAA and ultimately was selected as a Second-Team USBWA All-American and Third-Team NABC All-American.
It was the big games Mike shined brightest, though. He was named the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player and was a key cog to the Wildcats capturing the NCAA national crown. Davis, one of the most prolific freshmen to ever play college basketball, was the centerpiece of John Calipari’s dream team, but Mike was in the middle of every big play.
He made shots when they counted. He hustled from the first minute to the fortieth. He convinced anyone and everyone that the Wildcats wouldn’t have hoisted a trophy without him.
It was only fitting the Garden State’s biggest winner punctuated March Madness standing on top of the hoops universe.
A whole new world
Fast-forward about three months later and he finds himself holding court on the NBA Draft’s media day in the Westin Hotel in Times Square.
“You know I’m the flyest one here,” he quips, pointing to his baby-blue shirt, navy blue tie and gray jacket. That laughter taught him a lesson: anything can be conquered with hard work.
See, Mike has been battling a stutter for years; it has been the main contributor to his soft, shy personality. But he used his budding fame as a platform to reveal his obstacle and become an inspiration. Mike remembers the first interview he ever did -- he froze and couldn’t spit out a word. Nearly four years later, he was the most talkative, personable, likeable guy in the room.
“It’s my life. It’s me and I’ve had to deal with it,” he shrugs after being asked about the speech impediment. “But I’ve dealt with it and I’ve worked hard.”
Family tragedy. Personal struggle. It all made Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who he is on this day, the day a young man lives his dream. And who knows, maybe life will throw him a splendid curveball tonight; perhaps he will be drafted fourth overall by the Cavaliers, a scenario which would enable him to suit up with Kyrie, his former high school teammate and best friend, once again.
“That’d be cool,” he smiled. “That’d be really cool for both of us.”
Mike went on to discuss his time at St. Patrick, calling it “a brotherhood” and how he extracted many life lessons from his alma mater, as if to remind us he’s officially ready to grow up and enter a whole new world.
“I love to work hard and this is going to be a good, emotional feeling for me, my family and friends,” he said. “I’m excited for everything that’s coming my way.”
Contact Brian Fitzsimmons at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzWriter