Charlotte Hornets

It started with lunch money: Why Hornets’ Kidd-Gilchrist feels the call for empathy

Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist shops with 10 children from Partners for Parks on Tuesday at Dick’s Sporting Goods at Southpark.
Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist shops with 10 children from Partners for Parks on Tuesday at Dick’s Sporting Goods at Southpark. rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com

When Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a boy, he’d double-dip into his school lunch account.

It wasn’t to buy himself an extra dessert. It was to make sure a classmate got something to eat.

This is how MKG was raised in New Jersey. He was pointed to service long before he became a prominent basketball player. He was taught empathy. He was reminded there is always enough to share.

So it was typical of how he conducts his life Tuesday, when Kidd-Gilchrist was at Dick’s Sporting Goods at SouthPark, Christmas shopping with 10 children with the Partners for Parks after-school program. Each child received a $100 gift card.

Kidd-Gilchrist coaxed the children toward necessities -- shoes and clothes -- and taught them to consider thrift and value. When a kid was attracted to a pair of $80 sneakers, MKG showed him a $40 pair; he asked if the difference in the two sneakers was sufficient to spend most of the $100 on one item.

Kidd-Gilchrist can afford to buy most anything after signing a four-year, $52 million contract in the summer of 2015. But his priority has always been more about people than possessions. One of the first things he did, after the then-Bobcats drafted him second overall in 2012, was ask the team’s help in finding a needy Charlotte family to adopt.

“That’s where it/ comes from: a family of service, of Christian and sympathetic people. He was raised that way, so I wouldn’t expect him to be any different,” said his mother, Cindy Richardson. “He lost his dad at a very early age. (He was 2 when his father was shot to death).

“I started Michael doing community service when he was little. When he was 2, we would feed the homeless on Sunday. We adopted families for Thanksgiving and Christmas his whole life, so this is just an extension of his upbringing.

“It’s not extraordinary to me. It’s who he is.”

On and off the court

Kidd-Gilchrist has always felt a sense of responsibility for others. As a freshman at Kentucky, he organized a “breakfast club,” convincing new teammates to gather before dawn for weight-lifting and pick-up games before fall practices began. That Kentucky team won the 2012 national championship.

He sees being a good teammate and being a good citizen as parallel pursuits.

“That’s where I come from. That’s who I am as a person on the court and off the court,” Kidd-Gilchrist told the Observer.

“I don’t care for the highlight plays, I don’t care for the stats or the points. I just want to win basketball games. It’s the same thing in life: I want every child – and human being – to be happy.”

Sense of team

One of the Hornets’ strengths in recent seasons is the camaraderie in that locker room. Professional athletes tend to be at least a little selfish and self-centered. It comes with the demands and the adulation.

The Hornets’ locker room is defined by Kidd-Gilchrist, forward Marvin Williams and point guard Kemba Walker - three players with a strong sense of team.

“He so genuinely cares about others,” Walker said of Kidd-Gilchrist. “You don’t find guys like that a lot. He’s all for the team, he’ll do anything for the team. Just a great kid from Day 1.

“That’s the very first thing I learned about him: how much he cares about other people. We all get paid well. It’s also about how you spread it out and help people. He’s one of the best at it.”

Kidd-Gilchrist arrived in Charlotte with a stuttering problem. With help from a communications specialist, he’s more comfortable each season speaking to large groups.

The positive in that? It further strengthened his empathy.

“It’s hard thinking about families who are hurting or struggling - whether they are sick, or don’t have enough money, or don’t have family,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.

“Or whether you stutter. Just how I feel.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

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