Michael Gilchrist has heart of a lion

Michael Gilchrist stands as arguably the nation's best prep basketball player, but the St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.) senior forward has endured several hardships along the way. Steve Boyle

On April 14, 2010, Michael Gilchrist turned tragedy into triumph.

It was the spring of Michael's junior year at St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.), and the most sought-after player in the country announced his commitment to Kentucky live on ESPNU. The date April 14 had long flooded Michael's heart with sorrow. For the past 13 years, his biological father's birthday would come and go, only the late Michael Gilchrist Sr. wasn't around to celebrate.

Although his absence from Michael's college announcement stung just as much, the soft-spoken teenager found solace in knowing that he had given new meaning to that date.

But on Nov. 10, triumph gave way to tragedy.

With just four hours separating Michael from signing his letter of intent with the Wildcats, the familiar feeling of pain resurfaced with one phone call. Michael's uncle and confidant, Darrin Kidd, had collapsed and wouldn't wake up.

Darrin lived about a mile down the road from Michael's home -- a distance short enough that Michael was there in minutes to offer help but long enough for his mind to fill with anxiety about the looming scene.

Michael's mother, Cindy Richardson, entered first, hoping to shield her son from yet another tragedy. But once it became evident her younger brother needed CPR, she called Michael in for help.

Not even two weeks earlier, Darrin, Michael and his stepfather, Vince Richardson, had stumbled into a conversation about CPR. Darrin, a respiratory therapist for almost 20 years, had shared some of the procedure's new methods. Suddenly, with his uncle lying motionless on the bathroom floor, student became teacher.

"I was doing what he had taught me to try and help him stay alive," Michael recalls. "It was crazy."

For 18 minutes, Michael attempted to revive his uncle, vigorously passing air to the man who had filled so many roles in his life after his father's death. Despite his best efforts and those of the paramedics, the day Michael signed with Kentucky turned out to be the day his uncle -- one of his closest friends -- passed away.

In honor of Darrin, the family made the tough decision to go ahead with Michael's signing and the party afterward. Throughout the celebration, smiles blended with tears and blank stares.

On that bittersweet day, the Wildcats gained more than Michael Gilchrist, the versatile basketball standout. Emerging from another life loss was Michael Gilchrist, the survivor.

"Those real rough spots we hit in our lives, those hard times, the things that hurt and disappoint, those are the things that build our character if we allow them," his grandmother Renee McCleary would tell him. "We have to choose to let our adversities make us better people.

"Don't be bitter; let it make you better."

Like Father, Like Son

Michael's relationship with his father is one built on memories. Some emanate from what he can recall of the first three years of his life. Most trickle in from the stories that his dad's friends and former teammates so eagerly share.

True to his namesake, they see the elder Gilchrist in his son's sunken eyes and infectious smile. On the court, Michael is unmistakably his father's son, too, from the No. 31 adorning his jersey to the unselfish play that makes him both the fourth-ranked player in the ESPNU 100 and the perfect teammate.

"Being unselfish, that's just something I taught myself," says the 6-foot-7 McDonald's All-American. "I've always been that way. I think everybody deserves a chance."

It seems unfair, then, that Michael didn't get a similar opportunity to build a relationship with his father. On Aug. 11, 1996, one month before his son's third birthday, Gilchrist Sr. died in Camden, N.J., from multiple gunshot wounds at age 30. The case remains unsolved.

Before his death, the two Michaels were inseparable, doing everything from playing catch to watching "The Lion King" literally every day.

"I love that movie," Michael says. "Every Friday when I get in the house from school, I'm watching 'The Lion King,' remembering my dad."

Of course, basketball made its way into their bonding time, too. Gilchrist Sr. was no stranger to the court, leading Camden to the 1984 state title. The versatile swingman was slated to play at Benedict College in South Carolina but left school for the Army before marrying Cindy in 1988 and returning to New Jersey in 1991.

"Michael is identical to his father in every way," Cindy says. "They're both fun-loving, nice guys, and they both love basketball."

Baseball also tugged on Michael's heart as a child, but the desire to follow after his father made the hardwood feel like home.

"My dad was like a legend in Camden, so I still hear that
I have his skills, play just like him," Michael says. "We do have the same name, so I wanted to be like him."

Being like Mike has helped make him into the nationĀ¹s top small forward, but it also reminds him of a harsh reality.

"I can't look up in the stands like most other people and see my dad," Michael says. "I have my stepfather, and I love him, but it's not the same. And I had my uncle, but he died, so it's hard.

"But I just use it as motivation to go harder."

It Takes a Village

Michael is the first to admit he's a "mommy's boy." But as the sun crept below the trees on a Saturday afternoon in March and with his closest family and friends gathered in the kitchen at his Somerdale home, the young man in Michael surfaced.

"When he went overseas this summer [with Team USA for the FIBA U17 World Championships in Germany], he couldn't wait to get back. He was saying he missed us, missed the house, missed the walls," Vince says, sending everyone into laughter.

Well, almost everyone.

"It wasn't that bad. I wasn't homesick," the 17-year-old quickly responds. "I told you, I needed a haircut."

As Michael defended himself, Cindy couldn't help but smile at her only child. The odds said Michael wasn't supposed to be here, and Cindy started to believe them after suffering through four miscarriages. But on Sept. 28, 1993, her "miracle child," as Darrin often called Michael Gilchrist Jr., arrived four weeks ahead of his due date.

That God had blessed her with a child drove Cindy's journey through single motherhood following her first husband's death. She taught her son the value of education, pursuing her college degree while nurturing Michael's scholastic growth after he enrolled in first grade a year early. Thursday was date night, when they would head to Michael's restaurant of choice -- just as long as he opened the door and acted like a gentleman.

Supermom or not, Cindy knew she couldn't fulfill the role of father for Michael. That's where "the village" has come into play.

Quietly leading the way is Michael's grandmother, Renee. What Michael is on the court -- a do-everything workhorse with the team's interest always in mind -- personifies Renee. She dishes out everything from wisdom ("Every smiling face is not happy with you") to a critique of his evolving jump shot ("It needs more work").

Then there was Uncle Darrin, Michael's protective, tough-loving comrade.

"He was proud of Michael and so excited for his senior year," says Love Kidd, Darrin's wife. "He would work his schedule around Michael's games, and it was Michael this, Michael that."

Darrin served as surrogate father until Cindy remarried in 2002, bringing into the circle Vince and his daughter, Latasha, a good athlete in her own right who never backed down from Michael on the basketball court.

Initially, though, Michael was none too excited to share his mom, and he let Vince know as much, spitting in his hand before introducing himself when they first met. Now, soiled hands are substituted with loving hugs for the man simply known as "Dad," a playful yet dead-honest anchor in his son's life.

As the Saturday evening chatter continues, Michael intently listens to the handful of strong male influences surrounding him. Men like Mike Israel and Kurtis Still couldn't care less if Michael never picked up a basketball again. But every day that he does, their support helps push him to new heights.

"Uncle Mike" was there when a 10-year-old Michael sharpened his competitive edge against men twice his age at Hank Gathers Recreation Center in Philadelphia.

Kurtis, his middle school coach at Somerdale Park School, helped Michael realize, even though he was taller than most at 12, his perimeter game would have to develop if he wanted his hoops love affair to truly blossom.

And though he wasn't there this Saturday, count William Wesley among this group. Yes, World Wide Wes, the basketball consultant whose ties stretch to Michael Jordan, Jay-Z and LeBron James.

Of course, when Wesley's name is connected to Michael, some eyebrows are raised. But Cindy, who's known Wesley since their childhood in Jersey, simply laughs at the rumors of him latching on and pushing Michael to Kentucky under John Calipari.

"We come from an old-fashioned community where families are extremely close, but some people can't understand that," Cindy says. "Wes is like an uncle to Michael, but William Wesley has never made any decision for Michael."

Even Wesley, who rarely speaks to the media, can't help but share love and respect for Michael.

"Michael has a desire and a will to win," Wesley says. "A get-it-done attitude, as we say. He got to the level he is now because of the work he put in."

As the evening wears on, Michael's attention shifts to his 11-year-old cousin DeAnte Kidd, who had plopped into a kitchen chair beside him.

"What've you got to say about me, DeAnte?" Michael asks with a wide smile. "I want to hear this."

All heads turn to Michael's "little brother," a wide-eyed, miniature version of the St. Patrick star. After DeAnte lost his father, Darrin, this past fall, Michael stepped in as a role model.

"I'm real proud of him," DeAnte says shyly, with a grin. "Sometimes, it does get on my nerves because people always ask me about him. But he calls me every day and we'll watch cartoons."

Times like these with his family, sprinkled with doses of SpongeBob SquarePants, are what Michael uses to escape the demands of his unique existence.

"He doesn't play for himself; he plays for everybody else," says close friend Shawn Valentine. "He always says, 'If one of us eats, we all eat.' He goes hard for everybody in his circle."

From Awkward to All-American

For someone called the next Kevin Durant at age 13 and widely considered the nation's best player regardless of class by the time he was a sophomore, Michael's basketball beginnings were humble, to say the least.

There were no 50-point games during his youth career, and he wasn't one of those kids who slept with his favorite basketball. Instead, Michael's first few years were spent awkwardly running alongside his smaller peers.

"He would pull rebounds down but would automatically fall down or be tripping over his own feet," Vince says. "But you could tell how much he loved playing."

Most call it his motor. It's a passion for the game that drives Michael to take pride in the skills most see as secondary -- the rebounding, shot-blocking and lockdown defense.

Using this extra gear, Michael sped forward, averaging 23 points as an eighth-grader while holding his own on the AAU circuit. Soon enough, he was the talk of the state and apple of several high school coaches' eye.

Initially, Michael wanted to attend basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), but Cindy wasn't too fond of her son living so far from home. Michael got a similar reaction when he asked his mom about St. Patrick in north Jersey.

"All I heard then was that St. Pat's was a basketball factory," she says. "So I said my son wasn't going there because education comes first for us."

But after more research, a visit to the 240-student school and a little coaxing from Vince, she was sold. Halfway into Michael's freshman year, though, Cindy was singing a different tune.

Each day consisted of a 6 a.m. wake-up call, followed by a 90-minute drive up the New Jersey Turnpike during rush hour. Fortunately, Cindy's job was near St. Pat's, but when Michael had practice or a half-day, she had to reshuffle her schedule before making the drive back home, bringing their 14-hour day to a close.

"I would be in the car sometimes thinking, 'This is crazy,'" says Cindy, whose son now stays with family friends during the week to cut down on the commute. "Michael would be stretched out asleep in the seat or in the back with the light on, doing homework. All of us hated it at one time."

His first game didn't help that feeling, either. Michael finished with zero points and five turnovers. "I almost left at one point," Michael admits.

The early jitters didn't last long, though. By the end of his freshman year, Michael was starting. And by the end of his sophomore season, he had earned the first of two Gatorade State Player of the Year awards, helping push the Celtics to the 2009 state title.

"He's one of the most well-rounded high school kids in the last
10-15 years; the Kevin Garnett of high school basketball," St. Patrick coach
Kevin Boyle says. "He's got that incredible motor where, regardless of where he's ranked, he has a great desire to compete. He had it coming in and never lost it."

To say Michael had high expectations entering his senior season would be a stark understatement. After publicly stating that he was "not losing this year" and tirelessly working to refine his jump shot, both scouts and opponents were abuzz about Michael and the Celtics.

"He really did get hyped up early, but he never let the hype affect his productivity," says Paul Biancardi, ESPN director of basketball recruiting. "That's the trademark of Michael Gilchrist -- how hard he works at the game."

Michael stole the show during the team's 26-0 start, winning MVP at the City of Palms Classic, Hoop Hall Classic and Prime Time Shootout while averaging 19.4 points, 14.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 5.2 blocks to place the Celtics atop the national polls.

Ultimately, the season culminated in the North Jersey Non-Public B championship and a dream matchup against rival St. Anthony (Jersey City,
N.J.), then the No. 2 team in the country.

"For the first time, I was kind of nervous before the game," Michael recalls of the March 9 contest before more than 8,000 fans at Rutgers. "That was the biggest game of my life."

But for the first time this season, St. Patrick found itself behind in the fourth quarter. Fatigue and two late runs by the Bob Hurley-coached Friars eventually finished the Celtics. Although he made his mark with a game-high 14 rebounds and five blocks, a swarming St. Anthony defense held Michael to seven points on 2-for-11 shooting.

With 46 seconds remaining, Michael's high school career ended with his fifth foul, prompting a round of applause from the crowd but one of the longest nights of his life.

"Michael can't stand to see other people hurting, but unfortunately it was beyond his control," Cindy says. "He beat himself up a little bit."

That didn't stop him from hugging and thanking his teammates in the locker room, whispering a word of encouragement to each one. And as he exited the arena, hood over his head, tears drying on his cheeks, he still managed to crack that contagious smile.

Losses may hurt Michael Gilchrist, but they don't make him bitter. They make him better.

Brandon Parker covers high school sports for ESPNHS. Follow him on Twitter @brandoncparker or email him at brandon.c.parker@espn.com.