NEW ORLEANS -- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist set up in the Kentucky locker room Sunday afternoon roughly 30 hours before he'll be introduced as a starter in college basketball's national championship game and answered questions about Wildcats and Jayhawks and even April Fool's Day. He sat in a metal chair and held a sports drink bottle in his right hand. When he was asked about the media obligations that go along with being a high-profile player on this high-profile stage, the 18-year-old from New Jersey flashed a little smile and answered directly.
"It's fun. It's," Kidd-Gilchrist said, at which point he stopped speaking and, in simple terms, just froze for a few seconds before finishing. "It's something new for me. I'm enjoying it."
And working on it constantly.
"It's gonna come," he said. "It's gonna come eventually."
• • •
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has a stutter.
This is not surprising to anyone who knows or has spent time around him, but it's probably news to most reading this column. You might've seen him conduct an interview on television or listened to him on radio and thought he must be shy in front of cameras or uncomfortable around strangers, but that's not it. He has an actual stutter that was diagnosed at an early age and has been noticeable for as long as his mother can remember.
But it's not a stutter like you might think.
It's more like he just freezes in certain thoughts.
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He'll be talking and talking and then he just … stops. He's a smart and thoughtful young man who knows what he wants to say, but the words don't always come out smoothly. There are pauses in many answers. The length varies depending on the subject and setting, and the local media in Kentucky have grown used to the exercise over the months and handled it with terrific sensitivity. It only gets awkward when reporters who have never been around Kidd-Gilchrist are around him in large groups like the Final Four produces and interpret a pause as the end of an answer rather than just what it is -- a pause caused by a diagnosed stutter.
"Michael has done speech consistently for the majority of his life," Cindy Richardson, Kidd-Gilchrist's mother, told CBSSports.com in her first public comments about the issue. "He gets help with it. He deals with it. He's not embarrassed by it."
For proof consider that Kidd-Gilchrist elected out of high school to play at Kentucky -- a school that's covered by media more intensely than any other college basketball program. There is no hiding at UK. There are a dozen cameras in players' faces before and after every game, and everybody knew this would be an adjustment that could prove challenging.
Which brings me to Kentucky's first exhibition game.
Kidd-Gilchrist scored 19 points in 25 minutes and afterward conducted a live interview. Cindy, her husband and Michael's grandmother watched it together. A person they love was breaking a barrier. There was some level of anxiety in the room.
How would it go?
Would Michael get stuck?
Would things turn uncomfortable?
"But he was great, and I was just so happy that he was comfortable enough to do it," Cindy said. "Was I proud? Without question. Me and his grandmother and his father … we all cried. We were like, 'Wow. Look at him.'"
The reason Cindy said she's OK speaking about the issue is because it's a non-issue to her son, just another thing he's had to overcome but not something that ever brought grief into his childhood. Yes, she knows some kids with stutters are picked on because children can be immature and foolish and cruel. But that was never the case here.
"Michael has been a leader since he was in the sandbox -- a leader and a protector," Cindy said. "His father and I used to give him $5 for the week for snacks at school to try to teach him the value of a dollar, and he'd treat everybody because nobody else had money. He'd have no money by the end of the first day because he always took care of people and was compassionate toward people. So I think that's why he never suffered from the negativity or harshness of other children. He always took care of everybody. He showed compassion to other children so they showed him compassion, too. So he really never had an issue."
Kidd-Gilchrist meets with a speech specialist in Lexington twice a week, and Kentucky sports information director DeWayne Peevy said his media relations department has worked with him, too. Peevy added that neither Kidd-Gilchrist nor his family have ever asked for special treatment or protection, but that he does try to keep things "comfortable" for the star freshman as much as possible. Perhaps that's why Kidd-Gilchrist is the only starter of any Final Four team who hasn't answered questions on the stage in the main interview room here at the Superdome, but don't be surprised if he takes a seat and addresses the nation live on national television if Kentucky beats Kansas late Monday to win John Calipari's first national championship.
"He needs to be up there," Cindy said. "He's ready for that."
If it happens, it'll be a special moment for Kidd-Gilchrist and his family and, Cindy said, hopefully for kids battling the same issue because she knows not every young person with a stutter is as fortunate as her son. Maybe, she said, he can be more than just an inspiration to other basketball prodigies. Maybe, she believes, he can be a source of comfort for the millions of children who struggle speaking and are suffering in other ways because of it.
"Imagine how many kids there are out there with the same problem, but who have low self-esteem because they have a bully on them everyday," Cindy said. "Now imagine them finding out that Michael Gilchrist stutters, too. Imagine what that might do for them. He can be somebody for them to look up to. That's what Michael and I talk about it. So I'm happy for those kids, and Michael said he's happy for them, too."