Just three months from Big Blue Madness, the official tipoff to the 2011-12 Kentucky basketball season, UKAthletics.com writers Eric Lindsey and Guy Ramsey will be profiling UK’s five newcomers, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Kyle Wiltjer, Marquis Teague and Ryan Harrow, in a CoachCal.com exclusive series. First up is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
For as long as Michael Gilchrist has played basketball, he’s looked to the stands to play for the people he loves the most.
He’s played for his mother, Cindy Richardson. He’s balled for his cousin DeAnte, now 11 years old. He’s laid it on the line for the two father figures in his life, his stepfather, Vincent Richardson, and his uncle Darrin Kidd. And even though his late father, Michael Gilchrist Sr., never saw his son grow up and pick up a basketball, every once in a while Michael looks to the stands and sees him too.
Michael plays for everyone but himself. That’s why it came as no surprise to the people that know him the most when he legally changed his name last week to “Michael Kidd-Gilchrist” in honor of his uncle, his best friend and his confidant, Darrin, who died tragically of a heart attack on the same day Michael signed his national letter of intent with the University of Kentucky.
“He put the ball in my hands,” Michael said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “He introduced me to the game. I didn’t really have a dad. That was him.”
Michael lost his birth father a month before turning 3. He doesn’t remember a lot about the man he was named after, but he’s been told he mirrors him in almost every single way. From his contagious smile, to the No. 31 adorning his jersey throughout his youth, to his unselfish play on the court, Michael is the spitting image of the Camden, N.J., basketball legend.
“Michael’s style of play is so much like his father’s,” Cindy said. “His father really had a true love for the game.”
Michael was robbed of the chance to build a relationship with his father when the elder Michael Gilchrist was killed at the age of 30 from multiple gunshot wounds. Without a male presence in his life, Darrin, Cindy’s brother, took Michael under his wing at an early age and became a teacher, a mentor and a father figure.
Darrin refused to let Cindy raise Michael as a single parent, so he moved the two out of their house and insisted they move in with him. Under his guidance, Darrin introduced Michael to the game of basketball, and, alongside Michael’s stepfather and mother, helped him blossom into one of the nation’s most prized high school players.
When just about every major school in the nation watched the five-star prospect flourish at St. Patrick High School in Somerdale, N.J., and subsequently begged for his services, it was Darrin and Vincent who taped games of the different colleges and broke down film with Michael.
They handled Michael’s recruitment a little bit differently than most other people would, telling their basketball prodigy that no matter how many schools came calling, he would only have a top five.
“They’ve been an integral part in where Michael is right now,” Cindy said. “He has a really good support system of strong men in his life.”
When Michael decided early on that he wanted to play for head coach John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats, maybe no one was more excited for Michael to sign than Darrin. The day before Michael’s signing party, Darrin bounced around and talked feverishly and passionately with his nephew about the next step he was about to take in his life.
That next day, as Cindy prepared to have people over for the signing party, she called Darrin to head to the bakery to pick up rolls. He didn’t answer the first time, so she waited a bit and called back later. Again, Darrin didn’t pick up.
Sensing something was wrong, Cindy was about to dial Darrin’s wife when her phone rang and her panicked sister-in-law said Darrin was passed out on the floor.
As Cindy raced to Darrin’s house, the 911 operator on the phone told her what she needed to do until the paramedics could get there. The operator told her that Darrin needed to be flipped over onto his back, so Cindy did what she had to do and called her son for help.
Just a mile down the road and hours before his big moment, Michael got the call and ran down the street in mere minutes. What Michael saw would have made most people panic, freeze, maybe even break down.
Michael, as if it were the waning seconds of a basketball game, went into action.
A couple of weeks earlier, Darrin, a respiratory therapist for 20 years, taught Michael how to do CPR. Now, in desperate need of saving his mentor and one of his closest friends, Michael kneeled to the floor and tried to resuscitate the man that gave him new life after his father died.
He did it for almost 18 minutes.
“When you’re in the middle of a tragic situation, you can’t wrap your mind around what’s happening,” Cindy said. “Now that I think about it and remember seeing him move and be in a situation like that and know and remember what to do, it’s pretty amazing. I couldn’t do that.”
Unfortunately, Michael’s efforts were to no avail. Darrin Kidd died Nov. 10, 2010, leaving Michael on their day of triumph.
“I still can’t believe it to this day,” Michael said. “I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
As the tragic magnitude of the situation fully set in that day, no one would have thought any differently of Michael if he would have called off the signing and delayed the party. But he decided to follow through with it anyway, inking his letter of intent to play basketball at Kentucky.
“My uncle loved Coach Cal and would have wanted me to sign,” Michael said. “I don’t really know what was going through my head that day.”
What Michael does remember is a lot of blank stares, hollow smiles and tons of tears. He pushed through it, as his uncle would have wished, but it was a day that will never leave his memories, both good and bad.
Tragedy and triumph intertwined that day to form the foundation of his life, his drive, his basketball skills and his name-altering decision. It was on that day that Michael decided he wanted to pay tribute to his uncle by adding “Kidd” to his name.
Cindy said her son was forced to grow up early and deal with his emotions before his peers because of the death of his father, but even she was taken aback by the 17-year-old’s decision.
“For a young man of Michael’s age and maturity, to not be selfish with basketball and understanding that what he has is a gift from God, we just thought it was so awesome that he could make those kinds of sacrifices for his family,” Cindy said. “Michael never, ever thinks about himself in any situation, at any given time. His concern is always for somebody else.”
Michael went through all the proper channels to get his name changed and it became official last week when he tweeted the news to the world. The name will adorn his Kentucky jersey this fall.
The gesture is par for the course for Michael, who is changing his jersey number from 31 to 14. The 14 represents his father’s birthday, April 14, the very same day Michael verbally committed to Kentucky.
“Michael is so much more than just basketball,” Cindy said. “Basketball is what he does; it’s not who he is.”
For a player who is ranked a top-five star by just about every major recruiting service, Michael doesn’t carry himself like a superstar. At 6-foot-7, he’s physically imposing, but he’s a man of few words who shies away from the spotlight.
When the game is on the line and the pressure is at its highest, Michael thrives, but he doesn’t like to talk about himself and an overwhelming aura of humbleness surrounds him.
Cindy said that’s the way his support system raised him.
“We come from an era where your mom’s best friend is your aunt and your best friend is your cousin,” Cindy said. “That’s where we come from. We didn’t raise Michael from a basketball perspective. We raised him from a very old-fashioned perspective. That’s why Michael is like he is. He has to conduct himself in life the way he always has, with a humble spirit. That character spills over to the basketball court.”
Unbefitting of a player of his magnitude, Michael is a team-first player. In high school, he possessed the skills to dominate games – and he often did at times – but he preferred to get his teammates involved.
“I’m not the only one on the team,” Michael said. “I hate the limelight. I want my teammates to have it. It’s a team effort to me. I was born with that mentality and play like a point guard sometimes. That’s my father in me.”
At the prodding of his uncle, he’s embraced the defensive side of the game, becoming a feisty, lockdown defender. He’s become so good on the defensive side of the ball that Calipari believes he can not only take the place of defensive stopper DeAndre Liggins, but be even better.
“I was 11 years old and my uncle told me I had to play defense or I wouldn’t be good,” Michael said. “I took it to heart. I love playing defense. I’m taking on DeAndre Liggins’ role as the defensive guy on this team.”
Michael’s approach, both on and off the court, speaks to the character his family instilled him.
Even now, without his uncle and father in his life, he’s found two new people to play for: his cousin, DeAnte, and his mother.
“Him and my mom are my No. 1 fans,” Michael said. “At the end of the day I can count on them to cheer me up. I can always look in the crowd and see them. I know my uncle and father are not here, but him and my mom being at the games makes me feel a lot better.”
For someone who prefers to stay out of the spotlight, it seems odd that Michael chose to play at Kentucky, the center of the college basketball universe. But Michael did it for all the right reasons.
He wants to make a Final Four and compete for the national title for his teammates. He wants to take the game his uncle taught him and take it to the next level in honor of him. He wants to mature and improve off the court into the man his mother has molded him to be.
It’s obvious Michael is playing for a lot more than just the name on the back of his jersey.
“I just think Michael’s life is destined for something so much greater,” Cindy says.
With the humility, maturity and talents of a superstar, a lot of people would have a tough time arguing with that.
To read more about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, including his thoughts on this summer’s pickup games at the Joe Craft Center and his relationship with former Memphis star Chris Douglas-Roberts, tune in tomorrow for some additional notes.