Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is in love.
He always was, but he was denied the object of his affection for most of the past eight months. Now that basketball is back in his daily routine, he holds on tight.
"Unconditional love," Kidd-Gilchrist described Wednesday following a workout at Time Warner Cable Arena.
"I always knew I loved to hoop, but now it’s like I wake up thinking about basketball and go to sleep thinking about basketball."
Kidd-Gilchrist’s fourth NBA season was sidetracked by two separate torn labrums in his right shoulder. The second of those injuries came in February after Kidd-Gilchrist played in seven games at midseason. He was recently cleared for on-court training and says he’ll be back to normal in time to fully participate in training camp in October.
"I’m shooting, I’m lifting, I’m running. I’ll be ready for next season," he assures.
This was his first extended absence from basketball and he didn’t take it well. He tried to fill the void with movies and books and friends, but nothing substituted for the routines he developed, having turned pro after winning a national championship with Kentucky in the spring of 2012.
He’s never seen either of the plays that caused his injuries (a collision with then-Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris and Indiana Pacers center Ian Mahinmi later falling on him). He says why look back on something bad when you can instead look forward to something great?
He says the coaches and his teammates were terrific about keeping him attached to the team. Coach Steve Clifford would frequently call or text, asking his opinion about certain plays. Small forward Nic Batum checked on him often, in part because Batum suffered a similar shoulder injury when he played for the Portland Trail Blazers.
The plan was for Kidd-Gilchrist to be the defensive stopper and Batum to orchestrate the offense. With Kidd-Gilchrist under contract another four seasons, that can still be the plan if Batum re-signs with the Hornets.
Kidd-Gilchrist has always had high expectations of himself. He once told the Observer he aspires to be the best defensive player in the NBA. The extreme energy he plays with sets a tone for the Hornets that is hard to replace.
"There is always something more I expect of myself. If I have a double-double, then I still expect more," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "That’s not really about stats, it’s more about leadership stuff, having my mental (approach) right for all of 100 games.
"That’s just who I am. I know I set the tone for this team. I know how important I am to this team and the coaching staff. My presence means a lot. Whether it’s being here all summer long or being the first to show up and the last to leave."
The playoffs – starting with the Hornets’ seven-game series loss to the Miami Heat and up through the Finals – have gripped his attention. Kidd-Gilchrist played in high school with Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving and in college with New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, so he knows greatness up close.
"I’ve been watching the Finals, thinking, ‘Can I ever be that good?’ " Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I don’t strive to be like anyone else – I want to have my own identity – but always in a light where people say, ‘He can’t do this, he can’t do that.’ "
He says the past eight months have been instructive, reminding him not to get frustrated over the little things. His team is coming off a 48-victory season and he’s all in on what comes next.
"In Charlotte we’ve come this far and we still need to get this far, but we’re on the right track, finally," Kidd-Gilchrist said.
"It’s overwhelming, but I’m excited for the future."