MKG grows into role for Kentucky after heartache
The two most important men in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's life will be on display on Saturday night at the national semifinals in New Orleans. They're the two names sewn into the back of his Kentucky jersey.
The quiet freshman will be playing for his family when Kentucky (36-2) faces Louisville (30-9) on Saturday - the father he never really knew, the uncle who taught him the game and his mother who kept everything together for the grief-stricken boy.
''It's been a lot for me,'' Kidd-Gilchrist said of his personal journey. ''I'm just very excited. That's it. I'm very excited for the opportunity.''
Kidd-Gilchrist's heartache began as a boy. A month shy of his third birthday in 1996, Michael Gilchrist, Sr. was shot and killed in Camden, N.J. All that was left was the movie they used to watch over and over together, ''The Lion King,'' which quickly became his favorite film.
A new father figure emerged in his uncle, Darrin Kidd, who didn't want Michael to grow up alone with his mother, Cindy Richardson. It was Kidd who instilled a love of basketball and was by his side at every step of the recruiting process, including when Kidd-Gilchrist got his first taste of Kentucky basketball at Big Blue Madness.
On Nov. 10, 2010, hours before Michael was to sign his letter of intent to come to Kentucky, Kidd collapsed and died of a heart attack. To honor him, he legally changed his name, adding Kidd to his own.
''(He was) my best friend,'' said Kidd-Gilchrist, who brings a photo of his uncle with him on every road trip and says he's still watching him play every game. ''He's always with me.''
His father stays near, too, through the animated film that Kidd-Gilchrist watches and can recite word-for-word nearly daily to the chagrin of his teammates.
''Mike is great,'' Kentucky forward Anthony Davis said. ''He loves ''The Lion King,'' but I get tired of watching it. He puts it in every night.''
Kidd-Gilchrist said he took strength from the tragedy, finding motivation and a will to never give up and got a boost from the resolve of his mother not to let her son falter - ''It was her who got me through everything.''
That gritty determination comes through on the court.
The best of his 38 games this season came against the Cardinals on Dec. 31. Kidd-Gilchrist played all but one minute, scoring 24 points and grabbing 19 rebounds, both career-highs.
But he's also done a little bit of everything for Kentucky, and some of his biggest contributions rarely show up in the box score, despite averaging 12 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
He's the man in the center of Kentucky's circle when they huddle before taking the court and it's his smile that the cameras catch on the bench during moments of rest.
Kidd-Gilchrist had to grow up so quickly, it's easy to forget that he's one of the younger players in Division I basketball. While the NCAA doesn't publish players' birthdates, the 18-year-old Kidd-Gilchrist, who was born on Sept. 26, 1993, is the third youngest player in the Southeastern Conference among the data STATS, LLC, has and sixth youngest among BCS automatic qualifying conferences.
Even so, if Kidd-Gilchrist declares for the NBA draft, he's expected to be among the first players taken. That's why it raised eyebrows when he said after a game earlier this year that he would stay in school and graduate from Kentucky.
Kidd-Gilchrist has since said he'll wait until after the season to decide what he will do and repeated that Friday.
''Obviously, if he wants to stay, I'm going to be very happy,'' coach John Calipari said earlier this season. ''He says, `I want to get my degree from Kentucky,' and I agree. I want him to also. Basketball-wise, he's got to wait until the year is out and figure out where everything is. He is a young freshman. He's very young.''
But Kidd-Gilchrist keeps getting better, especially in the NCAA tournament.
He grabbed seven rebounds in each of Kentucky's first two wins before stepping up his offensive play. He scored 24 points against Indiana and 19 more against Baylor in the South Regional Finals to help bring Kentucky to the Final Four.
Kidd-Gilchrist doesn't want to stop here. He readily says his only goal is a title, which would be a fitting tribute to the men he lost in his family and his new one at Kentucky.
''It's a young group of guys, and it's the Final Four. But I don't believe in pressure at all, I think that's me. I don't believe there's pressure,'' Kidd-Gilchrist said. ''I'm not feeling the attention at all.''