Michael Gilchrist gropes for the alarm clock each morning around the same time. He’s usually greeted by the same tableau outside his bedroom window of a rising sun slowly arcing its way upward, as the haze begins to clear. He stretches the creeks and knots out of his lean 6-foot-7 frame, and begins another long day.
Gilchrist wakes his mother, Cindy Richardson. They drive through the morning mist, but not before making a brief stop for a hasty breakfast on the way to the train. Gilchrist will take another long journey on public transportation, then finally arrive at St. Patrick’s, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
It’s about a three-hour haul round trip that one of the most gifted sophomore basketball players in the nation takes every day. Most high school athletes have a school day that lasts maybe six-to-eight hours. Gilchrist’s usually runs from 10-to-12, taking into account the trek from his home in Somerdale, New Jersey.
His day starts at five in the morning when the sun is barely waking up, let alone any national-caliber elite athlete, and ends around six or seven each evening, when most high schools kids are finishing dinner.
But it’s a sacrifice that his family and Gilchrist, considered by many recruiting experts as the best sophomore in the country, are willing to take. Walking around sometimes in a daze, because of a lack of sleep can be a daunting challenge.
It’s a life of barely being able to keep your eyes open, you’re so drowsy that sleep, school and basketball practice could all meld into this never-ending, semi-comatose existence. It’s sneaking quick catnaps when you can, and getting used to the screechy beep, beep, beep of delivery trucks backing up each morning. It’s bracing yourself against that early North Jersey chill that can seep into your bones. Some high school student/athletes would wilt under that burden.
He’s learned to smoothly transition one facet of his day into the next, much the same way he elegantly glides up and down a basketball court.
And so it’s gone for the last two years for Gilchrist, with the considerable help of Cindy and Vincent Richardson, his parents. It’s an everyday grind, but it’s been worth it. It’s an ongoing life lesson that becoming great is not easy. A fact 15-year-old Gilchrist receives every day.
“It’s not all that bad; I’m used to it after all this time, but it takes a lot of patience going back and forth,” Gilchrist said. “I pick out my little spots when I can get some sleep, but I’ve never missed school. It is a challenge though. I wake up every day to accept that challenge. All my life, I’ve had people in my past say I wouldn’t amount to anything. I think I have.”
Thanks in large part to Cindy and Vincent, a truck driver who works long hours, yet hardly misses a St. Patrick’s game. You can usually find him donning St. Patrick’s green and clapping enthusiastically at courtside.
Gilchrist’s biological father, Michael Gilchrist Sr., died when Gilchrist was two-years-old. Michael Sr. was a star who played with Billy Thompson at powerful Camden High School in the early 1980s. One of Michael’s first toys was a tiny basketball. He plays the game in honor of his father.
“But Michael calls Vincent ‘Dad,’ because he basically raised Michael,” Cindy says. “Vincent is a special man, because there aren’t too many men today who would step into a father role the way Vincent has. But we’re all basically a team, because we’ve all had to make sacrifices to make this possible. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve received great support from the Somerdale community, from St. Pat’s.
“Vincent and myself want what’s best for Michael, and that means any amount of sacrifice necessary. It’s what families do. We do the best that we can. The way we see it is that Michael playing basketball is a gift from God. It’s what you do with the gift, and the miracle part of it is Michael.”
At 6-7, 205 pounds, Gilchrist is still growing. His grade school was constantly ordering new desks for him because he was seemingly getting taller by the day, and he used to have trouble walking up steps because his feet were so big. By the time Gilchrist graduated Somerdale Park School, his coordination was refined, and he had every major area high school and prep school interested.
He wound up at St. Patrick’s because Cindy and Vincent wanted the best fit for Michael, both academically and athletically—in that order. Gilchrist visited St. Patrick’s and loved it. He started as the youngest freshman there, when he was 13.
If you live in New Jersey and follow high school basketball, you know about St. Pat’s. It’s traditionally among the top high school programs in the country. At times, the small Catholic school of roughly over 200 students has had players from all over New Jersey. This year, according to Celtics’ head coach Kevin Boyle, St. Patrick’s carried seven of its top eight players within a 10-mile radius of the school.
But if you’re 13 entering this basketball crucible, it’s like playing basketball on Mars—between the talent and the travel.
“People forget how young Michael is, but our family saw St. Pat’s as the perfect situation, because Michael is getting what he needs academically, and he’s building strong, personal relationships,” said Cindy, who used to drive Michael the 160-miles roundtrip from Somerdale to St. Patrick’s his freshman year. “Michael is a sweet kid, who can be a charmer. But we didn’t want him treated any differently because he was a basketball player. It was a little stressful, at first. We live and work in a working-class, suburban community. But we saw what Michael was getting at St. Patrick’s was a nice balance of academics and sports.
“His freshman year, it was a struggle. It was a sacrifice on all of us. But we as a family made a decision, and we talked to Michael about the decision. Vincent would never let Michael quit anything. We wanted to see this through, and after the first year, it’s worked out great. He's doing this on his own and he's not stressed out at all. He loves it. He’s become very independent. The first year, I used to wake up Michael. Now he wakes me up.”
And makes his daily commute now seem effortless. So each morning, Gilchrist will stretch out his long limbs in the car, maybe curl up and dose for a few minutes, before Cindy drops him off, then spends the 90-minute ride home reading and doing homework.
“It’s about discipline, and I think it’s something I’ve always had,” Michael says. “That comes from my parents. My parents and my best friend, Myneice, keep me motivated. I do appreciate what my parents did and still do. Without them, I wouldn’t be in this position.”
HOW GOOD IS GILCHRIST?
When Gilchrist was 8-years-old, he wore a size 8 shoe. He wears size 16 now. By the time he’s 18, Gilchrist is projected to be 7-feet. He’s 15 years old and won’t turn 16 until Sept. 26th. He finished playing one of the most grueling high school schedules in the nation this past season, averaging 16 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks a game.
And guess what? He’s only going to get better.
Gilchrist likes to compare himself to Kevin Durant. Vincent Richardson, his father, says Tim Duncan. Kevin Boyle, St, Patrick’s coach, says he’s a high school Scottie Pippen, and Reggie Evans, Director of Team Final, Gilchrist’s AAU team, says he’s the high school Kevin Garnett.
Others have publicly said O.J. Mayo and Greg Oden, and some even had him as a future NBA lottery pick as an eighth grader.
One thing is certain: He has the attention of every major college coach in the country. It’s not unusual to see North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Rutgers’ Fred Hill Jr., Villanova’s Jay Wright, or Kentucky’s new boss, John Calipari, at courtside watching Gilchrist.
He’s been speculated to go to Villanova, UConn, Rutgers, Kentucky and Virginia. Cindy squashes any talk like that. Again, she reminds anyone who wants to speculate, “Michael is just 15, the time for college choices will come. We have no guaranteed five schools, or 10 schools. We want to take our time with this process.”
With all this swirl of hype surrounding Gilchrist, you would figure he would have an aura of arrogance about him. To the contrary, you might not come across a more grounded, humble star than the talented Gilchrist.
“That’s because of his family, they’re great people, Cindy and Vincent, they keep Michael humble and with an attitude nothing is going to be handed to him, just because he’s good at basketball,” said Reggie Evans, Tyreke Evans’ older brother. “Right now, though, the sky really is the limit for Michael. He has his own flavor, he’s tall and lanky, who can do everything from play the point, to run the floor, and he can even play down in the post.
“We always knew the kid was a special player, but I think what really proved it to everyone else was when Michael was named MVP of the Primetime Shootout last year. People found out the kid can do special things. We’ve known Michael for years after he approached Tyreke for an autograph when Michael was 11. His mother Cindy wanted Michael to meet Tyreke and we’ve known each other ever since. I call it a match made in heaven. You won’t find a better family.”
Boyle sees Gilchrist’s game expanding the more versatile he becomes. Boyle says Gilchrist has made great strides in his development as a player, using spacing much better on the court. Boyle has a good sense of what it will ultimately take Gilchrist to reach those lofty standards that have been placed on him. He’s coached the 76ers’ Samuel Dalembert and the Knicks’ Al Harrington when they played for St. Patrick’s.
“Expanding Michael is the key,” Boyle said. “We’ll try to develop other skills, and we have a system at times when we’ve played four guys on the perimeter and one inside, with Michael inside sometimes. Next year, I’d like to see him make three, four, five jumpers a game. By the time he’s a senior, I think he can make two or three treys every game and then hand him to a college. By then, he’ll be ready to play inside or outside.
“I’d say even now, he can name the college he wants to go to. But I also have to say Michael is a star player with low maintenance. You rarely get that. He does everything you want as a coach. He’s an immensely talented kid who everyone likes. The other thing about Michael is he practices likes he’s fighting for playing time, not like he’s the No. 1 or No. 2 sophomore in America.”
It’s safe to say no one is sleeping on Michael Gilchrist.
Joseph Santoliquito covers high schools for the Philadelphia Daily News and is a frequent contributor to MaxPreps.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com .