Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Myth of Celebrity

By Charlie Scaturro

There used to be a fine line between athletes and celebrities, but that line has all but disappeared.

Somewhere between the time when professional football and baseball players had to hold second jobs to make ends meet, and when Michael Jordan became one of the most recognizable people on the face of the Earth, our culture has been conditioned to view athletes as a hybrid between hero and celebrity, just for playing a game very, very well. Of course, when Kobe Bryant is dropping 81 points on the Raptors, or Aaron Rodgers is picking apart every secondary in his path, while both guys are simultaneously appearing in commercials with Kanye West or pushing car insurance, it’s easy to see why the modern pro athlete is viewed the way he is.

Despite the seemingly endless number of celebrity/athlete screw-ups and unflattering moments that the public has witnessed through the years, we still hold our favorite athletes and celebrities above everyone else. Of course, even the best athletes fail sometimes, but at the end of the day they’re still multi-millionaires in peak physical condition who could run circles around 99.9% of the population, and the failures they may experience in their respective sports would be considered successes for anyone else on the planet.

After watching them dominate their opponents, experience success at the highest level of competition imaginable, and look pretty damn good and get pretty damn wealthy in the process, it’s not difficult to see why the general public doesn’t think of athletes (or celebrities) the same way they think of everyone else. The myth about athletes and celebrities is that they’re just plain better than regular people, and that everything comes easy for them. Sure, Dwight Howard is bigger than you, stronger than you, makes (a lot) more money than you, is better at basketball than you, and he’s probably better looking than you are too, but without ever having met him I can guarantee that he struggles with other parts of his life away from the basketball court just like everyone else (I think we can safely put “making a decision about his future” on the list of things he struggles with).

Celebrities are the same way. Sure, a select few of them look just as good without makeup while they’re wearing sweats to the grocery store, but when we see them on a movie screen it’s after they’ve hit the gym for three straight months and been worked on by professional make-up artists for three hours. As for celebrity transgressions, we won’t even get started down that road, but suffice to say that tabloids wouldn’t be what I’m assuming is at least a multi-million dollar a year industry if not for celebrities behaving badly. The difference of course, is that the vast majority of the time we see athletes or celebrities, they’re either on the red carpet, a movie screen, or their respective field of play doing what they do best. These are the lasting images we have of our favorite celebrities and sports hero’s, and regardless of what’s happening outside the lines, they are seemingly invincible 99 percent of the time we’re watching them.

Which brings me to Kentucky’s standout freshman, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. As you obviously know by now, MKG was the heart and soul of a Kentucky team that just completed a dominant 38-2 season that culminated in the Wildcats 8th National Championship this past Monday night. As you may or may not have heard, Kidd-Gilchrist also has a stutter that has been present since he was a child. Although it flew under the radar for the vast majority of his freshman season, numerous articles were written about Kidd-Gilchrist’s stutter in the past few days leading up to Kentucky’s appearance in the National Championship game. After reading through and digesting a few of these articles about the work that Kidd-Gilchrist has logged to overcome his speech impediment, and hearing him address the issue for the first time publicly a few days ago, I was more intrigued to hear him speak after the National Championship than I was to watch him play against Kansas on Monday night.

Not because I thought a Kentucky-Kansas final wouldn’t be a good game, and not because I wanted to watch Kidd-Gilchrist potentially have a hard time fielding questions from the media after what would be the biggest game of his life (I certainly didn’t want to see that), but because this would be the first time he addressed the media in such an open manner all season, and because some things in life are bigger than sports, and yes, even bigger than the college basketball National Championship.

After Kentucky bested Kansas on Monday night and John Calipari finally got the monkey he refused to acknowledge (even after the fact) off his back, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist joined the rest of his teammates at the podium to field questions from the media. In the 21 minutes of Q&A that ensued, Kidd-Gilchrist answered just two questions and probably said all of 20 words, but it was liberating to see this 18-year-old kid sitting alongside his teammates conquering something that has given him trouble essentially since he started speaking. This press conference was the public culmination of a lot of hard work that John Calipari and Kentucky had put into the 2011-2012 season, and at the same time it was a more private culmination for Kidd-Gilchrist who had also put in a lot of hard work to overcome a personal challenge.

Other than the fact that Doron Lamb sounds like Mr. Cheeks from the Lost Boyz (fast forward to 9:53 in this video and compare to this) and John Calipari’s righteous “this championship wasn’t about me” rhetoric taking center stage, Kentucky’s post game presser wasn’t very exciting, and Kidd-Gilchrist’s comments weren’t particularly enlightening.

When asked about his unbelievable block on Tyshawn Taylor in the final minute that essentially sealed the game for Kentucky, MKG responded how I would respond to someone who asked me to describe going to Chipotle for lunch:

MKG on blocking Tyshawn Taylor’s layup attempt: “I got beat on the backdoor, I apologize coach, but um…I just blocked the shot so…that’s it.”

Me on going to Chipotle: “I got hungry, so I left my office, and um…I just went to Chipotle to get a burrito…that’s it.”

Of course, it’s not surprising that Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t have much to say about seemingly coming out of nowhere to block Taylor and put the game on ice, because after watching him for a full season, we’ve come to know that he makes those kinds of plays about as often as I go to Chiptole for lunch. But it wasn’t what Kidd-Gilchrist said in that press conference that made his presence at that podium so memorable and impactful for me, it was merely the fact that he was up there in the first place and willing to take any question that might be thrown his way.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist just played a major part in Kentucky’s run to a National Championship, he will be a top three pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, and it looks like he’s poised for a long, successful professional career in which he will make millions upon millions of dollars. But even though a kid who doesn’t turn 19 until September is about to be living the life of an NBA superstar, Kidd-Gilchrist has a lot more in common with me and you than meets the eye. The maturity and strength with which he has talked about, worked on, and addressed his stuttering head-on is one of the most inspiring things I can remember an athlete doing in recent memory, and his story not only debunks the celebrity myth, but it also shows that everyone, no matter how gifted or talented, struggles with something and that everyone can overcome these issues. There's no doubt that this knowledge is more valuable than any trophy, sum of money, or status symbol any athlete or celebrity possesses.

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