Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s basketball career can sound like a fairy tale. A McDonald’s All-American in high school in New Jersey, national player of the year, and co-MVP of the McDonald’s game itself. On to Kentucky where Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t just start as a freshman, he helped Kentucky win an NCAA title. Next stop, NBA, where Kidd-Gilchrist was the No. 2 overall draft choice, chosen by Michael Jordan himself.
“It was kind of everything that …”
Here, Kidd-Gilchrist paused for a second.
“... like, as a person who stutters, that I didn’t want. As crazy as that sounds.”
Each milestone meant literal spotlights hauled into the room, cameras focused on every word. University of Kentucky basketball is one of the great fishbowls in sports. For star players, all your words matter. The Final Four -- way more cameras and tape recorders. Moving on to the NBA? High draft status guaranteed lengthy interviews with teams, your words picked apart.
Kidd-Gilchrist was not complaining about any of this. He kept reaching his goals, quickly. They just came with this price tag often only he could see.
“It’s the difference between my life and my career,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “Looking back, I don’t know how I got through all that stuff. … Sad, lonely, frustrated, mad. I went through all that.”
About to turn 28 years old in September, Kidd-Gilchrist has had a productive and profitable NBA career, 446 games played over eight seasons, 356 games started. Not an All-Star run, with serious injuries often part of the package, just as he was hitting his prime. (News alert during his fourth season: “Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist suffered a torn labrum after dislocating his shoulder during Feb. 10′s game against the Indiana Pacers. He will not return this season.”)
He had five seasons averaging at least nine points a game, and five with at least five rebounds a game. A career not really defined by numbers, though. Ask those who worked closest with Kidd-Gilchrist as a pro, they might talk about a grounded person, a teammate who took every single loss to heart.
“At the end of the season, he wrote a thank-you note to each member of the staff,” said one former Charlotte assistant. “I still have mine. He literally bought a Hallmark card. Probably a first and only …”
Kidd-Gilchrist, raised in Somerdale, Camden County, now living in Charlotte with his wife and two children, has come to define his stuttering as a way to see the world as it is, not as it should be.
When you’re 8, 9, 10 years old and the words struggle to make it out, what you feel right then, he said, is … lonely. Nobody else in class is stuttering. The words keep flying all around you.
“You feel isolated,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
It’s natural to wonder if all the traits learned on a basketball court carry over, but Kidd-Gilchrist doesn’t go for such an easy trope. He bats it aside like a soft jumper.
“It held me back,” Kidd-Gilchrist said of the stuttering.
“He internalized it,” said one of his early coaches, Aaron Burt. “I was one who didn’t know how much he internalized it.”
Now, Kidd-Gilchrist has begun this fast break in the other direction, realizing how he wanted to make this life more meaningful. In the COVID-19 bubble last season, missing his family, he began telling himself, “I’ve got to do more.” But what? It had to be a personal discovery.
“I knew he would come to this place,” one friend said about his landing on this particular field.
He isn’t retired, he wants to make clear. Not currently on a team, after only a brief stint with the Knicks last season, Kidd-Gilchrist suggested there are irons in the fire: “I am fully committed to the game of basketball.”
There’s just this other full commitment. This year, Kidd-Gilchrist founded Change & Impact Inc., a stuttering initiative with a stated mission to improve access to health care and expand services and resources for those who stutter.
“I am personally on this mission to get speech therapy covered by the insurance firms,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
“Some insurance companies don’t cover what they call developmental communication disorders,” said Temple professor Kim Sabourin, now part of Kidd-Gilchrist’s informal advisory group. “Their excuse is, that’s covered by education. … I used to be in private practice. I tried to take insurance, it ended up bankrupting me. One girl was allowed eight visits per lifetime by her insurance. Sometimes there is a dollar cap. Some have needed some medical diagnosis, like after a stroke or an accident.”
Even getting everyone to agree to a definition of terms is impossible. Yes, Kidd-Gilchrist knows the most famous stutterer in the nation is the current president of the United States. But he’s not trying to barge into the Oval Office to talk to Joe Biden just yet. Policy is not generally changed that way.
Through an initial connection, Kidd-Gilchrist reached out to Joseph Donaher, the academic and research program director of the Center for Childhood Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“I had no idea he was starting a foundation,’’ said Donaher, who also eventually introduced Kidd-Gilchrist to Sabourin. “He was basically interviewing me.”
Donaher became one of Kidd-Gilchrist’s advisers. He’s worked with a number of celebrities who stutter, Donaher said. “No one had this kind of commitment.”
What is common, Donaher said, is the self-doubt that hits even top-level athletes who stutter. Online ridicule lingers. (One NFL player showed Donaher the YouTube comments he got from draft night, still saved on his phone.) Donaher said he worked with a former client who was an NBA player and more of a shooting specialist. This client said he’d look at his stats at halftime and if he was his team’s leading scorer, “he would get upset. He knew he’d have to do the press conference afterward.”
“I don’t know when it started, I don’t know how it started,” Kidd-Gilchrist said of his early stuttering. “But it made me me. I don’t know me without stuttering.”
He figures it takes maturity to get past all the negative thoughts, any worries about outside opinions. He wants to speak up. How many people, he said, walk around hiding something?
“I’m just tapping into this whole new avenue and field,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I knew if I didn’t do that right now, it would always be a what-if?”
“I’m going to fail every day”
There was no introduction. The Speak Now campers knew an NBA player was coming in, and knew why. Kidd-Gilchrist, 6-foot-6, still looking like he’s in playing shape, walked into a classroom on Temple’s Ambler campus and quickly slid into a seat. He began helping a couple of boys with the collages they were creating, grabbing some scissors to cut a photo out of a magazine. Kidd-Gilchrist asked if anyone had any glue, was handed a stick.
There were nine campers in the room, ages 11 to 18, most from the Philadelphia area. The day camp is designed to be a place where kids can come together and learn about stuttering and, its camp director said later, “learn how to become more independent in their choices and decisions in reaching their communication goals, and also to build support and friendship from others.”
Every day, adult mentors came in.
“That’s important,” said Sabourin, the camp director, a Temple professor and specialist in stuttering treatment. “To see people with some stuttering in their speech speak is really important. You never see the famous people who stutter actually stutter.”
Kidd-Gilchrist asked a boy his name. The boy gave it, then asked Kidd-Gilchrist his name.
‘Michael Kidd,’’ Kidd-Gilchrist said, simplifying it. “Are you from Philly?”
The boy was.
“Solid,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
(The specialists note that saying your name often is a tough one, simply because of how it sounds to outsiders if you don’t get your own name out cleanly.)
Kidd-Gilchrist had just spoken to parents and a couple of grandparents of campers in another room.
“I’m going to fail every day,” Kidd-Gilchrist told them. “But I’m going to get up. I’m going to talk.”
It was a lonely place as a child, he told them, using that word again. Going into a different room, working on exercises with an adult who didn’t seem 100 percent engaged, didn’t seem to care. That was like class, but worse than class.
Eventually, at Kentucky, he found a speech therapist thoroughly engaged. (He told Donaher that it had been a condition of his recruiting, that he would consider only schools that would provide a speech language pathologist for him to work with.) The blocks came less frequently, the words arriving a bit easier, and when they didn’t, there were techniques to help. Tapping on the ground with an Apple AirPods case, to help dislodge a word, still helps.
“I want kids who do stutter to look at it as a superpower,” Kidd-Gilchrist said to the parents.
Part of what he meant is seeing the world with some empathy, and seeing who returns that empathy. Kidd-Gilchrist used the word patience as a key trait he looked for in his friends.
“That’s a weird thing, from this angle — I had to know who was who, as a real friend,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
Later, Kidd-Gilchrist told the campers he was taking classes online, looking to get into the speech language pathology field himself.
“I’m all in,’’ he said later.
After making the collages, Kidd-Gilchrist and the campers went into another room, designed as an Escape Room. Solve a clue, find the next one.
“She got it,” Kidd-Gilchrist said midway through. “She got it.”
A camper read the next clue, “You found the red herring. Look behind who’s gathering.”
A key was soon located to unlock the door. They were out of the room.
‘Never saw a motor like he had’
Aaron Burt has known Kidd-Gilchrist since Kidd-Gilchrist was in seventh grade, a couple of years before the youth began playing for Burt as part of the Team Final AAU program.
“At an early age, I’ve never seen a kid — besides Dajuan Wagner — love basketball the way he loved basketball,” Burt said of Kidd-Gilchrist. “Every day, both ends of the floor. That’s when I knew he was going to be special. I never saw a motor like he had on a kid that young.”
It’s easy to view Kidd-Gilchrist’s decision to play high school basketball for New Jersey powerhouse St. Patrick’s through the lens of big-time hoops. It was. Kyrie Irving was a year ahead of Kidd-Gilchrist there. Other Jersey greats had been there on their way to the NBA.
“I wanted something different for myself,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “As much as I love home, home had taken my dad away from me. My dad was shot at a young age. I wanted to be my own light. I wanted to carry a legacy.”
Nope, not a fairy tale life.
“He was always the guy you looked for — something was wrong, it’s going to be all right,” Burt said. “He was always that guy. He was that uplifting person.”
Within the confines of the team, he talked.
“He was never teased,” Burt said. “It was just Mike. He was never shy about talking.”
There were sacrifices required, not just by him, just getting to St. Patrick’s up in Union County.
“I would wake up around 4:15 a.m., drive to the Hamilton train station for a 5:30 train,” said Kidd-Gilchrist, meaning his mother usually drove him there. “All the credit to my family, holding it down, even trusting me.”
Here’s an easy way to say it all paid off: Kidd-Gilchrist has earned more than $72 million in his NBA career. His desire to give back comes with knowledge that he can do so.
“I want to help move the needle,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
Leaving the camp just before noon, he had an afternoon flight to catch, to meet up with a businessman in Texas who also was a stutterer and heavily involved in the kinds of initiatives Kidd-Gilchrist is building. In addition to meeting medical scientific specialists, Kidd-Gilchrist is being introduced to politicians who can push on the policy front.
“He seems to be enjoying his new role. It’s a much kinder, gentler community,” Sabourin, the Speak Now camp director, said of the stuttering treatment field. “We appreciate your NBA career. However, we value you for the person you are, as opposed to valuing you for the games that you played.”
“I’m on a mission,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “This feels way better than any basketball game.”
His career can’t be dismissed, though. It’s a key part of this path. How would he describe Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as an NBA player? Is there a way to sum up what his place in the league was?
“From my career, as a whole?”
“Damn, that’s a tough one.”
He paused for a bit, not blocked in his speech, just thinking through how it all added up. Maybe that was an unfair question, maybe the question should be ...
Kidd-Gilchrist interrupted that thought.
“If you never quit,” he said, “you never fail.”