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Just a junior, quiet but confident Gilchrist is nation's top player

CLEVELAND -- Two weeks ago, the mother of Michael Gilchrist, a 6-foot-7 forward from Somerdale, N.J., got a call from a friend who told her that a prominent recruiting publication had ranked Michael as the top high school player in the country. Michael, however, didn't exactly celebrate when his mom told him the news. "Can't you call someone and ask them to put me at No. 15 instead?" he asked.

"That's the God's honest truth," Gilchrist's mother, Cindy Richardson, said as she recounted the story Tuesday afternoon while sitting in the upper-level stands at the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University, site of Nike's King City Classic hosted by LeBron James. "Michael is a very humble kid. He doesn't like attention like that."

Said Michael, "I don't like everybody knowing me. I like being the best, but I don't like being ranked."

That could be a problem. Though the vast majority of the players at the King City Classic were rising high school seniors, Gilchrist, who led St. Patrick's High in Elizabeth, N.J., to a state title last season and was named New Jersey's Gatorade Player of the Year, is only a rising junior -- and a young one at that. He does not turn 16 until Sept. 24. Yet, Gilchrist is not just widely considered the best player in his class: Many recruiting experts consider him the best player in all of high school basketball. That means a lot more attention is coming his way, whether he likes it or not.

Gilchrist is highly skilled and bouncy, but the truly captivating thing about him is his potential for improvement. Right now, his young, coltish body is all arms and legs. His natural gifts are most apparent when he is finishing around the rim or extending his long arms to snare a rebound in traffic, but he also has a tight handle in the open floor and is an unusually good passer for a player his size.

This is not the second coming of LeBron James, but it is not hard to envision Gilchrist growing into a prototypical NBA small forward in the Tracy McGrady-Carmelo Anthony-Rudy Gay mold. His most glaring weakness is a lack of consistent range on his jump shot, but he gave a hint of what is to come in his final game at the King City Classic on Thursday morning, when he sank a trio of three-pointers.

Though Gilchrist came to St. Patrick's as an unpolished center, his coach, Kevin Boyle, will continue to push him onto the perimeter this season. When Gilchrist is a senior, Boyle says he plans to play him for long stretches at point guard. As his reaction to being ranked No. 1 indicates, the only thing Gilchrist lacks is a swagger to match his stature. "He's just growing into his personality," said Dave Telep, a recruiting analyst for Scout.com. "He doesn't look in the mirror and see what everybody else is seeing."

If Gilchrist is going to be fully comfortable as an elite prospect, he is going to have to get used to everything that comes with being the best player in the country. Though he is widely described as intelligent and outgoing -- Boyle calls him the nicest, most respectful kid he has coached in 21 years at St. Patrick's -- Gilchrist is extremely uncomfortable with interviews. That was evident when I spoke one-on-one with him for about 15 minutes Wednesday. Though he was cheerful and unfailingly polite, Gilchrist's answers consisted of brief sentence fragments followed a series of "ums" and long, awkward pauses. When I asked him if he considered himself to be shy, he grinned and said, "No, I'm not shy. See, I'm keeping my smile on for you."

"You can talk to him for half an hour at Burger King, and he can have a very nice conversation with you," Boyle said. "Once you put a microphone on him, he gets very nervous and uncomfortable. But that will come in time."

That, however, should not be confused with diffidence on the court. When I asked Gilchrist if he thought of himself as the best player when he steps on the floor, he quickly replied, "Yes, yes." Said Boyle, "In basketball, he has a dominating mentality. He is very competitive and really has a nose for the ball."

When it comes to navigating his new life in the spotlight, Gilchrist will rely heavily on the counsel of William Wesley, the well-known basketball Zelig whose network of connections spreads far and wide through all levels of the game. Though Wes, as he is known, usually establishes his relationships with players after they have emerged as elite prospects, his connection with Gilchrist actually predates Michael's birth. Wes grew up in Camden, N.J., across the street from Cindy Richardson, and the two have been good friends ever since.

Wes was in attendance at the King City Classic, but as is his custom, he declined to be interviewed. Even as Cindy praises Wes and calls him her "brother," she is careful to make clear that she and her husband are the ones who are directing Michael's life. "Wes does not play a decision-making role where Michael is concerned," Cindy said. "If I have a question, I'll ask him, but every time something happens I don't pick up the phone and say, 'Wes Wes Wes.'"

For his part, Boyle describes Wesley as an enormously positive influence in Michael's life. "Without question, he's somebody that Michael respects," Boyle said. "He's great for Michael because if Michael complains about something, Wes' answer is to work hard and do what the coach says."

Gilchrist is fortunate to have several strong male influences in his life, including his stepfather, Vince Richardson, whom Cindy married seven years ago. Tragically, Gilchrist's father was killed a month before Michael's third birthday. His death remains a delicate topic for the family; Cindy declines to disclose details of what happened, other than to confirm that Michael's dad was murdered. Boyle said he has never talked to Michael or his family about it. When I asked Michael about how his father's death affected him, Wesley, who was standing a few feet away and monitoring our interview, respectfully asked me to stop pursuing the line of questioning.

Cindy did tell me that living through that tragedy is a big reason why she is so insistent on making sure Michael enjoys his teenage years. "I do not want this to be a stressful process for him," she said. "To me, he's still a little kid. Forget the 6-7 frame and the 219 pounds. He's a little kid. He's my kid. My family is excited for his success, but this is not our life."

That attitude is nothing new. When Michael was in grade school, many parents in his neighborhood suggested to Cindy that she have Michael repeat the sixth grade so could better dominate his peer group on the basketball court. Cindy refused. "He does what he has to do in school. Why would I do that just for basketball?" she said. "What would that say about me and my husband as parents? Basketball has never been that important to me. Our concern for Michael is his educational situation."

Having spent her life shepherding her son through the world of AAU basketball, Richardson is often disgusted when she sees other parents adopting a warped perspective as they spur their sons' pursuit of NBA gold. "I've never seen children being taken advantage of as much as I see it through basketball. It breaks my heart," she said. "I'm like, 'What about your son's happiness? What about his education?' I'm flabbergasted by how many young student-athletes don't know what a core class is, or don't understand the NCAA rules. I don't live my dreams through my children, I just enjoy their dreams with them. A lot of people don't understand the difference."

As for Michael's recruitment, many people in basketball circles are assuming that his relationship with Wesley will ultimately lead Michael to sign with Kentucky, whose coach, John Calipari, is perhaps Wesley's closest friend among major college coaches. When Michael was 13, he told a newspaper reporter that he wanted to attend Memphis, where Calipari was then the coach. This week, Michael said that Kentucky and Villanova were his top choices. (Michael used to play youth basketball with Wildcats coach Jay Wright's sons, and Cindy is close with Wright.) Cindy, however, cautions against anyone playing connect-the-dots between Wesley, her son and Calipari.

"There are no dots," she said. "Wes' relationship with John Calipari, that's their relationship. Our relationship with coach Calipari is going to be the same relationship we want to extend to every other college coach. The difference is, coach Cal does his job. Coach Cal is actively recruiting Michael, but we want Michael to experience the same thing every other high school athlete has experienced. He has not decided on where he's going to go."

Michael likes the idea of being like every other high school athlete. "I don't believe in pressure. I just want to enjoy myself and be a kid out here," he said. But make no mistake: This kid is growing up fast. It's only a matter of time before he looks in the mirror and sees what everybody else is seeing.

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