Mom plays point for likely NBA lottery pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

From Somerdale, with love: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's parents, Cindy and Vincent Richardson, check his NCAA championship ring. Cindy has taken heat for being a fierce advocate for him. "Mom don't play," she says of herself.
From Somerdale, with love: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's parents, Cindy and Vincent Richardson, check his NCAA championship ring. Cindy has taken heat for being a fierce advocate for him. "Mom don't play," she says of herself. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff photographer)
Posted: June 25, 2012

CHICAGO - Though long familiar with double- and triple-teams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stepped back in surprise when he entered an interview session at the NBA draft combine earlier this month and saw the coverage that awaited him.

A few dozen sportswriters turned his way as the basketball prodigy, a shy and sheltered 18-year-old, found his seat, inhaled deeply, and with an air of newfound authority, if not resignation, said "Let's go."

Interviews used to terrify the Camden County teenager. A speech impediment, a reserved nature, a lifetime of obstacles to be overcome made the shadows more comfortable even as his basketball ability focused an ever-intense spotlight in his direction.

Now a lifetime of interviews awaits him.

They will resume on Thursday night when Kidd-Gilchrist almost certainly will be a lottery pick in the 2012 NBA draft, and they won't stop until his career does, which, given his talent and the fact that his 19th birthday is still three months away, could be decades down the road.

If he deals with his stammer the way he and his hyper-protective family have confronted and conquered everything else - his premature birth, his father's murder, a surrogate father's death on the day he signed with Kentucky, the daily 154-mile commute throughout high school - Kidd-Gilchrist figures to overcome it soon enough.

"I'm not worried about [the stammer] anymore," he said. "I'm happy with everything."

NBA scouts say the 6-foot-7 Somerdale resident who helped lead Kentucky to an NCAA title in his one-and-done career possesses more than enough ability and intangibles to negate any concerns about his public-speaking fears or the controversial figures surrounding him.

His mother, Cindy Richardson, is a no-nonsense dynamo, a fast-talking force of nature who has advocated fiercely for her son and in doing so alienated many in the media and the youth basketball establishment.

"My reputation is what it is," Richardson said of herself, "Mom don't play."

His coach at St. Patrick's High in Elizabeth, N.J., was Kevin Boyle, whose aggressive recruiting practices have drawn frequent criticism from rivals.

Then there's the grandly named World Wide Wes, the man Kidd-Gilchrist calls "Uncle Wes" and Richardson refers to as her brother.

Among the most powerful and mysterious figures in basketball, Wes is a well-connected facilitator who has directed some of the nation's best high school players to John Calipari at Memphis and Kentucky. He is employed by Hollywood's leading talent agency, Creative Artists Agency, which represents sports figures as well as actors and entertainers.

Wes, described by one insider as "a salesman with a high social IQ and a purpose," became a trusted counselor to her son, Richardson insisted, "because he's family," not because he's plugged in to basketball's hierarchy, most notably Calipari and Leon Rose, the South Jersey-born Creative Artists agent who will add Kidd-Gilchrist to a client list that includes LeBron James.

Born William Wesley, he grew up in Camden, just across Federal Street from Richardson.

"We're so close he calls my mom 'Mom.' I'm not going to defend him, but when it comes to William, the perception does not match the reality," Richardson said. "The things they say about William aren't true. . . . He's always been a part of my life, and the ironic part is that his nephew is in the position he's in. You can't even make that up."

Boyle, who recently became the coach at Montverde Academy in Florida, said that as controversial as those surrounding Kidd-Gilchrist might be, they all had his best interests at heart.

"Just look at the kid," Boyle said. "That'll tell you everything you need to know about the people around him. Forget about basketball. He's the kind of kid you'd like to have as a son: respectful, hard-working, unselfish.

"Sure, his mom is strong-willed and did things her way. But she raised a nice young man who's going to be the No. 2 pick in the draft. I'd say that's pretty good."

On draft night, 160 of Kidd-Gilchrist's friends and relatives will ride two chartered buses to a post-selection blowout the family has planned at a Manhattan restaurant. By then, the reserved youngster who grew up in a working-class, two-parent house that his family owns should be worth about $25 million.

Most draft experts believe that only his Kentucky teammate, Anthony Davis, has a bigger upside and that Kidd-Gilchrist will wind up in Charlotte as the draft's No. 2 overall pick.

Though 6-7, he has a 6-11 wing-span and a relentless engine. In his lone Kentucky season, he probably was the nation's top defender, was unusually unselfish for an 18-year-old with his reputation, and became the leader of a remarkably talented and youthful team.

"Michael definitely gets it," said Calipari. "Before the SEC championship game, he asked if he could come off the bench because he thought Darius Miller might play better if he started. He's an unselfish kid with a great, great work ethic."

Complex history

Kidd-Gilchrist's story doesn't fit easily into the familiar narratives about youth basketball. While it includes plenty of obsessive touts, AAU coaches, and shady manipulators, it also depicts a personable youngster who survived and prospered because he was lovingly and jealously nurtured.

His mother and Michael Gilchrist had been married five years and had lost five children (all boys) to miscarriages when, nine weeks early, a son was born on Sept. 26, 1993.

"I never thought I was going to be able to have a child of my own," she said. "But Michael's father was just insistent that we continue to try. I was told he wouldn't survive, that he would be on a respirator and would have a lot of issues. I told the Lord if he would give me this little person, I'd be the best mom I could be.

"I never allowed work or anything to come in the way of my relationship with him. Never. I never got a baby-sitter to go out or go to a club. The only people that ever watched my son in the beginning after his father passed away was my brother Darrin, my mother, or my father. That was it."

Gilchrist's namesake father had played basketball at Camden High, gone briefly to college, served in the Army, and worked as a medical technician at Cooper Medical Center. He was, relatives say, a doting father, one who, even when drugs ensnared him, spent every possible moment with his son, playing catch, eating ice cream, and repeatedly watching The Lion King.

While neither Richardson nor her son will talk about the father's tragic end, drugs apparently overwhelmed him. On Aug. 11, 1996, as he sat in the front seat of his car in East Camden, he was shot to death. The assailant, who has never been arrested, pushed the body out the door and drove off.

The boy was affected more deeply than anyone imagined. At the funeral, he wanted to put a Lion King doll in the casket. And when a male relative offered to take him for ice cream, the emotions spilled over. The little boy, not quite a 3-year-old, screamed for his lost father, demanding that only he could buy him ice cream.

"I asked my mom what I should do and it took us six months before we went to counseling," Richardson said. "I wasn't a proponent of it right away. He was in and out of grief counseling for years. My son is a beautiful person, and I really believe part of Michael's character comes from dealing with that trauma. You're forced to learn how to deal with those emotions."

She married Vince Richardson when Michael was 5, and by then the youngster was showing an aptitude for basketball. A friend coached a youth team in nearby Magnolia and the boy signed on. Unusually tall, by the time he was 6 he was attracting the attention of AAU coaches and basketball rating services.

"Rankings for 6-year-olds? For real? All these grown men flying around the country to watch boys in shorts and tank tops? I said this was crazy and that my son wasn't going to be playing AAU," Richardson recalled.

"But Vin told me it could be an avenue for him to go to college and for him and his sister [Latasha, who is 26] there was no option. They were going to college."

Gilchrist - he wouldn't append the Kidd to his name until Darrin Kidd, the uncle who became like a surrogate father to him, died of a heart attack on Nov. 10, 2010 - played with a Willingboro team and eventually for an AAU program in West Philadelphia, the RBK All-Stars.

Drive to succeed

When it came time for high school, Gilchrist originally wanted to go to Detroit Country Day School, where his idol, Chris Webber, had played. That's about the time his mother called on "Uncle Wes."

"Things were getting crazy," Richardson recalled. "I picked up the phone and said, 'Look, I need you.' Soon as people heard Wes was involved, it all stopped."

The boy finally settled on St. Patrick's, where he joined the player who would be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, Kyrie Irving, on what would become the nation's top-ranked high school team.

"I didn't want him there at first," Richardson said. "It was an urban situation. I'm not saying that's bad, because I'm from Camden. But we worked too hard to put him in an urban situation. Michael was such a suburbanite, and I'm thinking it was going to be too stressful. But we both fell in love with the place."

She worked then for a food company in North Jersey and the two would leave on the daily 154-mile commute at 5 a.m., not returning until 8 p.m. Michael would usually sleep in the back of the Chrysler Pacifica, which now has 246,000 miles on it.

"That was my life," Richardson said. "But he was so happy. When you see a kid happy and being positive, you can't say no."

He excelled on the court and, according to teachers, in the classroom, where he took extra courses to help him maintain the 80 average most colleges required.

"He worked hard to compensate for his learning disability," said Maria Kanaley, a special-needs resource specialist at St. Patrick's. "He was a good kid who worked as hard as anyone I ever had. He didn't try to get by on his basketball reputation. In fact, he was so humble, he didn't even like it when you brought that up."

As a junior, Kidd-Gilchrist was rated the nation's top prospect. Soon the recruiters, sportswriters, and hangers-on flocked to him. His mother ran interference.

"Michael wanted to focus on schoolwork, focus on the game," Richardson said. "He didn't want to be in the media. So we always protected Michael from the media. We wanted him to have a sense of normalcy.

"I don't trust anybody when it comes to my kids. And Michael being in that situation, it was magnified to the tenth power. I didn't want anybody coming near him. I didn't want anybody trying to use him. He learned pretty soon to say 'Call my mom.' "

The Richardsons told their son to limit his college choices to six. He eventually whittled the list to Villanova and Kentucky.

"Kentucky was too far," Richardson said. "I really liked Villanova and wanted him there. But Vin said, 'You can't hinder his dreams. He worked for this. He created his own opportunities. Who are you to stomp on them?' "

With four young teammates who also eventually declared early for the draft, Kidd-Gilchrist not only fit in at Kentucky but quickly assumed a leadership role. After a one-point loss to Indiana in December, he went to Calipari and suggested the players institute an early-morning practice.

"After our first loss," Kidd-Gilchrist recalled, "it just hurt so much. I didn't want to lose again. So I went to Coach Cal and had a long talk with him [about the morning practice] and he said, 'Just do it.' So I did and it worked out. We won a national championship."

In the NBA, especially if the Bobcats, Wizards, or Cavaliers select him, he will have to learn to accept defeat, something he's rarely had to do.

"I don't know yet," Kidd-Gilchrist said of how he'll deal with it. "I might cry some nights. But, hey, it is what it is. I know I'm going to lose."

Even now, when he is about to become a multimillionaire, he won't be alone. The family has hired an assistant to help him with his new responsibilities, and his sister will be living with her younger brother wherever he ends up.

And when time permits, he will pop The Lion King into his DVD player and remember the father he hardly knew.

"I just want to make him proud," Kidd-Gilchrist said, the pauses between these words seemingly due to emotion instead of a stammer. "That's all."


Locals in the NBA Draft's Top 5

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of South Jersey is expected to be among the top five players picked in Thursday's 2012 NBA draft. Many experts are predicting he will go No. 2 overall. That will put the 6-foot-7 forward

from Somerdale in exclusive company.

Despite the Philadelphia area's rich basketball tradition, only one of the area's high school or college products has gone as high as No. 2 and only six have been taken in the top five since the NBA's territorial draft ended in 1966.

Year   Player   Local school   Pick No., team   

 1967   Earl Monroe   Bartram High   2, Baltimore   

1969   Larry Cannon   Lincoln High   5, Chicago   

1971   Ken Durrett   La Salle University   4, Cincinnati   

1972   Corky Calhoun   Penn   4, Phoenix   

1995   Rasheed Wallace   Simon Gratz High   4, Washington   

2009   Tyreke Evans   American Christian   4, Sacramento   

      School, Aston      

- Frank Fitzpatrick


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick

at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @philafitz and read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at philly.com/fitz

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