THREE MINUTES and 20 seconds into this season, Hornets small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist caught a pass in the right corner at Time Warner Cable Arena and took a pronounced jab step toward the baseline. He prepared to drive, as he had been instructed, and kick, as he had been conditioned. Bucks forward Jared Dudley, assigned to Kidd-Gilchrist, reflexively sagged in anticipation of the inevitable bull rush. No, Kidd-Gilchrist told himself. I'm going to shoot the ball this time. He dribbled once back to his left, pulled up in front of the three-point line and buried a smooth 19-footer over a startled Dudley. On the bench, point guard Jannero Pargo raised his fist. On the court, center Al Jefferson nodded his head. And in the stands, Cindy Richardson hurried up the aisle to the restroom. After the game, Kidd-Gilchrist stood at his locker in a brown blazer over a white dress shirt, assessing his performance. "I was just being Mike," he calmly told a camera crew. "I didn't do anything special."
In a sense he was correct. There is nothing inherently exceptional about an NBA player sinking a long first-quarter jump shot and nothing at all unusual about that player giving a postgame interview. Dozens of similar scenes unfold across the league every night. But the effort that Kidd-Gilchrist poured into hoisting the shot, and doing the interview, was far more significant than he let on.
AAU programs recruited Kidd-Gilchrist when he was seven. Jay Z befriended him when he was 12. His middle school team was sponsored by Reebok. His high school team was the subject of a documentary on HBO. He was considered by many the best prep prospect in the country—when he was still a junior. He played in high school with Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 draft pick in 2011, and in college with Anthony Davis, the No. 1 selection in '12, and Kidd-Gilchrist was more acclaimed than either. Charlotte chose him with the second pick in '12 after he won a national championship in his lone season at Kentucky. Getting buckets and addressing reporters was as much a part of his routine as his morning Bible study.
But if the events of opening night were so customary, why did his mother break down in that arena restroom? Why did one of the most accurate shooters in basketball history embrace her on the court following the game? And why did an acclaimed speech pathologist in Lexington, Ky., call up the Hornets' website and listen to the postgame sound bites?
"MKG is just about everything you'd want in a player," Jefferson says of the 6'7" slasher who can cut and finish, run the floor and defend the perimeter, create shots and contest them. Kidd-Gilchrist remains the rare prodigy who scraps like a 12th man. But the modern NBA requires that its wings fire jumpers and its stars command microphones, and those happen to be the two areas in which he is not preposterously talented. Those happen to be the two subjects of his life's work.
KIDD-GILCHRIST IS rummaging through his backpack on the 14th floor of the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles, searching for a DVD of The Lion King, which he carries almost everywhere he goes. His earliest memories are of watching the movie with his father, Michael Gilchrist Sr. He was Simba. His dad was Mufasa. They bought the stuffed animals. They recited the lines. In August 1996, a month before the boy's third birthday, Michael Sr. was shot and killed in a still-unsolved murder on the east side of Camden, N.J. Michael says he remembers the last time they were together. "We were in bed," he says, "watching The Lion King." At the funeral, he slid the Simba doll into the casket.
Cindy, who had suffered through four failed pregnancies and delivered Michael seven weeks early, built a cocoon around her son. They lived in Somerdale, N.J., and spent afternoons at the Camden County Library, reading books and sipping cocoa. They went on "date nights" every Thursday, eating at fancy restaurants and discussing the difference between dessert forks and regular forks. Cindy found several father figures for Michael: her second husband, Vincent Richardson; her brother, Darrin Kidd; and her childhood friend William Wesley, whom she knew long before he became the ubiquitous CAA agent nicknamed Worldwide Wes.
Cindy was not Catholic, but she entered Michael in grief counseling with a Camden nun named Helen Cole. "I'd see her every week," Kidd-Gilchrist recalls, "and I could talk to her about anything. She became like my second mom." Sister Cole taught him that help was always available, as long as a person was humble enough and courageous enough to accept it. In first grade Michael was diagnosed with cognitive learning disabilities, and in second he started seeing a speech therapist for the stutter he had developed as a toddler. "God has blessed Michael with a gift," a school administrator told Cindy. "Help him discover what that gift is."
Michael Sr. was a scoring guard at Camden High who starred on its 1984 state championship team. "I hooped," his son says, "because he hooped." Michael joined a team at Magnolia Elementary School, and AAU coaches across South Jersey flocked to watch, but kids from nearby Camden assumed the suburbs made him soft. "I had to prove myself," Michael recalls, "by going into other neighborhoods and attacking the rim." The first day he showed up at Cobbs Creek Recreation Center in West Philadelphia, there were 65 kids in the gym, including Dion Waiters and Tyreke Evans. "You had to win to keep the court," recalls Paul Gripper. "He won 17 in a row."
Gripper coached Michael's middle school AAU team, the RBK All-Stars, and he pegs their record at 100--1. "The loss," Gripper laments, "was on a half-court heave at the buzzer." When Michael reached eighth grade, he stood 6'6", a center racking up quadruple doubles. He so relished contact in the key that he wondered if he should take up football instead. His jumper was unorthodox—he kept his guide hand on top of the ball—but only a nitpicker would have complained. He controlled every inch of the floor. Who cared whether he spaced it too?
At powerful St. Patrick High in Elizabeth, N.J., Irving ran the backcourt, and Michael controlled the front line. When he strayed from the lane he grew uncomfortable, and a hitch formed near the top of his stroke. It was a dramatic pause, as if he were second-guessing himself, reconsidering whether he should pass or drive. By the time John Calipari visited St. Pat's, Michael had stopped growing, and Kentucky wanted him on the wing. In other words the Wildcats needed their prized recruit to let fly. Coach Cal had to see the J. "What," he asked, "has happened here?"
It is the ultimate testament to Kidd-Gilchrist's diverse array of skills that Kentucky signed him despite his choppy shooting motion; that he made second-team all-America despite hitting 25.5% of his threes; that Charlotte picked him No. 2 despite his erratic predraft workouts. "What I saw was a tenacious defender who could get to the basket and a motor that would not shut off," says former Charlotte general manager Rod Higgins. "I thought, If there is a way to improve the shot, this kid is going to find it."
Kidd-Gilchrist searched. He experimented with hand placements, release points, the direction of his feet and the angle of his elbow. "You could see him thinking, pressing, aiming," Higgins says. One hitch turned into three. During the most desperate stretches of his first two seasons, Kidd-Gilchrist's left hand covered the top of the ball, his feet pointed at the sideline and his right shoulder at the rim. He had to contort his body almost 90 degrees in midair just to face the hoop. The left hand, pushing down on the ball, forced the right wrist downward and the right elbow inward. Kidd-Gilchrist shot 15.4% from 10 to 16 feet last season, hit only one of nine attempts from three-point range and shot 61.4% from the foul line. During film study, he silently wondered, What the f--- am I doing? That isn't me. I don't shoot like that. Everyone approached with advice or criticism. He saved the snarkiest tweets for motivation. Coach Steve Clifford called Kidd-Gilchrist into his office and highlighted all his strengths, but that didn't help. "A lot of guys only see the good in what they do," Clifford says. "He is the opposite."
Kidd-Gilchrist watched old clips of himself on his phone, draining jumpers at Kentucky, set to Eminem's "Not Afraid." He was no marksman then, either, but he was a near 75% free throw shooter, and you couldn't leave him alone at 10 feet. "I don't know what happened or why it happened," he says, calling up the footage on his phone. "Everything got in my head. I was like, Damn, I can't shoot anymore." Kidd-Gilchrist is the kind of guy who will go shopping for jeans and immediately see a pair he likes, but then go to five other stores to see if they have a pair he likes better. The shots were like the jeans: None of them were good enough. "I turned them all down," he says. "I lost my confidence." He attempted just 5.7 field goals per game last season, and most of those were within three feet.
Charlotte still needed Kidd-Gilchrist on the court—he is among the most ferocious defenders in the league, and grabs more rebounds than any small forward in the Eastern Conference—but Clifford had to bench his stopper in the final minutes, lest opponents sag off him and clog the paint. Given the preponderance of the pick-and-roll in today's NBA, spacing is crucial, and clubs can't depend on small forwards who don't pose a perimeter threat. "There are players who can't shoot the ball that well and are still very valuable," Clifford says. "But to be an every-night closer, you have to shoot it." Last spring Kidd-Gilchrist went to dinner with Higgins in Charlotte. Irving and Davis, his old sidekicks, were already All-Stars. His own career was in crisis. "What are your fears?" Kidd-Gilchrist asked Higgins. "Do you ever have a fear of failure?"
A REPORTER ONCE asked Mark Price what he thought about when he missed five shots in a row. "That I'll make the next five," Price replied. Over a 12-year NBA career, spent mostly in Cleveland, Price hit 90.4% of his free throws and 40.2% of his three-pointers. In 1998 he retired and moved home to the Atlanta suburbs, where some friends were starting a training facility with seven basketball courts called Suwanee Sports Academy. Price built a shooting lab in the complex, outfitted with cameras that measured arc and angle. At least 25 pros, including then Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, took summer trips to the lab. Price was Hakeem Olajuwon for the smaller set.
Several teams hired Price as a shooting consultant or player development coach, but in 2013 the Hornets made him a full-time assistant. His first project was Kidd-Gilchrist. "Good luck," another coach told him. "You can't fix that." Price accepted the job on one condition: "Nobody tells Michael Kidd-Gilchrist anything about his shot but me." Price suggested subtle alterations throughout last season, but the stroke required massive reconstruction, and that demanded months of dedicated training.
They spent the summer together—at the practice facility in Charlotte, the lab in Suwanee, summer league in Las Vegas. They started with the feet, pointing them at the basket, in order to square the body. At first, Kidd-Gilchrist wasn't allowed to shoot. He just jumped in place. Then he was allowed to shoot, but without his left hand, which forced him to straighten his right wrist and right elbow. An entire month was devoted to form shooting from 10 feet and in. Slowly they inched back. The release rose. The hitches vanished. Sometimes they only worked 30 minutes a day, and sometimes three hours. "I wanted him to leave the gym with confidence," Price says. Kidd-Gilchrist was banned from playing pickup, or shooting on his own, for fear that old habits would resurface. Price kept him close. He invited him over for family dinners. Price's youngest son, Josh, did the rebounding.
When Jefferson returned to Charlotte last August, he watched Kidd-Gilchrist take aim. "Damn," Jefferson gushed, "that looks good." Kidd-Gilchrist could not remember the last time someone said something genuinely nice about his J. "Really?" he asked. "I mean, for real? It looks good?" Price won't go quite that far. "It looks ... normal," he says, the implication being that normal in this case is remarkable. When Kidd-Gilchrist's form was first broadcast in training camp, via the Hornets' Instagram account, he called his mom. "Did you see it?" he hollered. "You've got to see it."
Through Sunday, Kidd-Gilchrist was averaging 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds for a team seven games under .500 but charging up the East standings. He is a long way from sniper status, yet he has shot 67.4% from the line and 52.0% from 10 to 16 feet, and defenders don't abandon him anymore. "I still play him as a driver," Lakers forward Wesley Johnson says, "but you have to respect his shot now."
Price can teach the mechanics. What's harder to instill is the mentality. When Kidd-Gilchrist misfires, he is prone to panic. "What am I doing wrong?" he asks. "You're fine," Price reassures him. "Keep doing what you're doing." When he turns down open looks, teammates remind him, "You can shoot now." Kidd-Gilchrist admittedly forgets. "Oh, that's right," he responds. "I can shoot now."
Only 21, he has overhauled a fundamental part of himself. And it's not the first time.
IN JUNE 2011, Kidd-Gilchrist met Meg Shake at Kentucky's Center of Academic and Tutorial Services, known on campus as CATS. He talked about his father, whose murder site on North Dudley Street he still visits to feel his dad's presence. He talked about his Uncle Darrin, who died of a heart attack the day Kidd-Gilchrist signed at Kentucky, inspiring him to add Kidd to his last name. But mostly he talked about his stutter.
Kidd-Gilchrist visited three speech therapists over 11 years as a child. When classmates made fun of him, he pretended not to care, and when family members asked about his progress, he waved them off. He never controlled the stutter, but he learned how to mask it. He removed himself from situations where he had to speak publicly, or replaced words he wasn't comfortable saying, or simply turned away and fell silent. His mom and his stepdad insulated him from excessive media attention. But the '11--12 Wildcats were the most talented team in the country, under immeasurable scrutiny, and there was no hiding. Shortly after Kidd-Gilchrist arrived in Lexington, the sports information staff put him through a mock interview, and he froze. "I want you to help me," he told Shake, a speech pathologist at Kentucky's College of Health Sciences. "I want this to go away."
If Price was his shot doctor, Shake was his speech guru. She met with him twice a week and demystified the phenomenon that is human speech: how the mouth and tongue and lips form different sounds, how vocal cords vibrate, and how we all stammer occasionally at the onset of pressure. Kidd-Gilchrist relearned, in a sense, how to speak. "Make a p," Shake says. "Where does your tongue go? What do you do with the air? Does it pop out of your mouth or glide out?" For letters that pop, like p and b, he tried to lighten the contact between his lips. For ones that glide, like all the vowels, he tried to stretch the sounds and therefore ease the tension in his mouth: "I looove the fans," for example. He honed a technique called continuous phonation, in which he linked words together as if they had no spaces, allowing the vocal cords to continue vibrating.
Shake discovered that Kidd-Gilchrist responded to movement, so he sometimes spoke while sliding a finger across his leg, and to rhythm, so she brought a metronome to their sessions. For Christmas, Kidd-Gilchrist's grandmother gave him a metronome watch, the kind worn by drummers. Like many people who stutter, Kidd-Gilchrist is mostly fluent when he sings, speaks in accents or reads aloud. He and Shake read in unison. She provided tools and confidence, same as Price.
They graduated from sounds to words to sentences. Shake would give Kidd-Gilchrist an a, which would become apple, which would become a short sentence about an apple, which would become a longer sentence about an apple. They mimicked interviews on Kentucky's practice court, starting with simple questions ("What's your birthday? What's your favorite food? What's your favorite movie?") and progressing to involved ones ("Why did you change your name? Where does your motor come from? What is it like being so far from home?"). Shake used a microphone from her children's Wii. She then assigned Kidd-Gilchrist more questions to answer in his spare time. He talked to himself a lot.
Shake was not a big basketball fan, and privacy laws prohibited her from discussing her high-profile patient without his permission, so her kids didn't understand why Mom kept sneaking into the bathroom after games, listening to interviews on the radio. She and Kidd-Gilchrist broke down the tapes later. "Listen to how beautiful your statement was!" Shake would exclaim, while he protested. They could typically hear a water bottle, which he clutched to occupy his hands, crunching in the background.
The Final Four was challenging because of unwanted media queries about his speech, but by then it was obvious that the therapy's purpose went far beyond any press conference. Sound bites are significant in the social media age—if a player clanks a 10-footer at the buzzer, the public demands an explanation and revolts when it too falls short—but the interviews were just an excuse. "This was for when he gives his wedding vows," Shake says, "and when he gets his honorary degree from UK, and when he goes to his grandchildren's graduation. It was for a more fluent future."
OVER THREE MILLION Americans stutter and nobody knows exactly why. Genetics are a factor, according to Shake, and so are life events. "Everyone's story is different," she says. "But a lot of people who fit this profile do have certain personality characteristics that are similar. They're often perfectionists. They're pleasers. They might be worriers. They tend to carry a lot on their shoulders." These are some of the qualities that made Kidd-Gilchrist the second pick in the draft. They're also some of the qualities that made his jump shot go haywire.
Price believes there is a connection between the stroke and the speech. Shake isn't sure. Speaking and shooting are both finely coordinated movements, and a person who falls out of coordination in one area could theoretically do the same in another. But speaking comes naturally, while shooting is learned, and a shot is supposed to stay consistent while speech is constantly in flux.
"They remind me a lot of each other," Kidd-Gilchrist says. "I was laughed at for my speech, and I was laughed at for my shot, and I went through a big process for both of them." In each case there is no simple cure. Just as his right elbow still sometimes drifts inward, he often pauses between phrases, as if warming up the vocal cords. He fiddles with his phone, regains his rhythm and continues. He enjoys talking about speech, though not necessarily his own, and he leans forward when he hears about kids who stutter. He helped inspire a 13-year-old boy from his Jersey neighborhood, Saadiq Wicks, to establish a small nonprofit called L-L-Let Me Finish. The organization raises awareness and money to send children with speech impediments to Camp SAY in Hendersonville, N.C. Kidd-Gilchrist is on the board.
"Everybody has flaws, and I'm a prime example," he says. "But this is me. I've come a long way. Everyone can see it. I can see it myself."
Night has fallen on downtown L.A., and Kidd-Gilchrist waits for an elevator in the JW Marriott. He is heading out for dinner when he notices Price walking down the hall. It's as if the Hornets have fit their young forward with a tracker. "See you tomorrow?" Price asks. "Yeah," Kidd-Gilchrist replies. He is finding his voice, his shot and his cause, all at once. "See you tomorrow."
"I thought, If there is a way to improve the shot," says former GM Higgins, "this kid is going to find it."
When classmates made fun of his stutter, he pretended not to care; when family members asked about his progress, he waved them off.
Photograph by Al Tielemans Sports Illustrated
TIM CLAYTON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WITH PRICE)
PRICE IS RIGHT Hornets assistant coach Price (above) helped Kidd-Gilchrist revamp his shot, after a high school--era hitch (above right) got out of hand.
ANDREW MILLS/THE STAR-LEDGER/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/LANDOV
[See caption above]
RON TURENNE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
KELLY KLINE (HIGH SCHOOL)
EARLY BLOOMER Kidd-Gilchrist was a star at high school tournaments (above) and during his title run at Kentucky (with Davis, right).
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KENTUCKY)
[See caption above]
WILLIAM PERLMAN/THE STAR-LEDGER/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/LANDOV
FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE Kidd-Gilchrist's mother (above, with her son at the 2012 draft) and stepfather helped prepare him for the challenges he'd face as a pro.