It was the solitary moments that jumped out. How he could hardly sleep as Sunday night bled into Monday morning, getting four hours of sleep at most at the team hotel as the anxiety of finally being able to play again took over.
Then came now, after his Charlotte Hornets lost to the Dallas Mavericks in a meaningless exhibition later Monday that was anything but meaningless to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The visitor’s locker room inside American Airlines Center was close to empty by the time Kidd-Gilchrist emerged from the shower, sat in front of his cubicle near one of the back corners, dressed and smiled several times during a one-on-one conversation in the kind of self-satisfaction rarely seen from a veteran any October. Getting back on the court had been a stress reliever. He was chatty and sincere, denying none of the emotions others may have tried to dismiss in posed toughness, and he used that same phrase over and over to describe the release of eight points and five rebounds in 24 minutes: stress reliever.
He was mostly alone with his emotions, and that was fine because there is going to be a lot of that in this season that has already become Kidd-Gilchrist dealing with Kidd-Gilchrist. Defending opposing wings, handling the expectations of being on a team aiming to break 50 wins, facing continuing skepticism about whether a troubled shot can be fixed -- it’s all good. The real message, that needs to be delivered in the mirror.
“I’ve got something to prove to myself and nobody else,” he said.
“That I can count on myself and be healthy. That’s it.”
That’s everything. Kidd-Gilchrist has put himself on the spot more than any opponent, fan or media member ever could, not merely accepting the pressure to reach his lofty potential once and for all, but inviting. And not making it about his play. Kidd-Gilchrist is demanding something of himself that in many cases will be out of his control.
He missed 75 games last season after hurting his right shoulder, returning for seven contests and then hurting the same shoulder again, not because of poor conditioning or bad decisions on the court. He was limited to 55 games in 2014-15 while dealing with rib, foot and ankle problems, not because of a lack of preparation as it was the same season he made long strides into a centerpiece of a team on the rise. Charlotte management was convinced it signed him to a four-year, $52-million extension months later.
But there was Kidd-Gilchrist late Monday, in the locker room, a few teammates and staffers still around, appreciating the moment of being in an organized game for the first time in nearly eight months, preseason or not, one-on-one in conversation, and moving himself into the crosshairs.
“I don’t have doubts,” he said. “But I’ve got to prove it to myself. I’ve got to work for it. This is what I work for. I have something to prove to myself.”
The early signs are encouraging. Kidd-Gilchrist was aggressive from the first days of training camp, not protecting the shoulder that required surgery after tearing the same cartilage a second time Feb. 10 at Indiana. And then he didn’t even get through the first quarter of the first Charlotte exhibition game before driving down the lane and drawing a foul from Dallas’ Harrison Barnes. Kidd-Gilchrist went to the line and made one of two free throws, and the comeback had passed another benchmark.
“He looks good,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “We’ve done a ton of five-on-five and contact and stuff and there’s no hesitation. He’s comfortable making contact plays. So far, knock on wood, it’s as good as we could have hoped for.”
The postgame smiles were signs of agreement from Kidd-Gilchrist, after the anxiety of the night before, after being so ready to get back in uniform that he wished tipoff at American Airlines Center was at 9 a.m. instead of 7:30 p.m. and after all the calls to his cell phone throughout the day to wish him well on the next step of the journey.
After the game, he was savoring making it back this far as an accomplishment while also understanding that 24 minutes in an early-October game needs to end up as a minor development by the end of the season. Kidd-Gilchrist has made this about the games to come, not the first one. He has made this about himself.
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