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Middleton is flourishing somewhere between superstar Khash and regular Khris

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t’s seven months ago and Khris Middleton is tiptoeing through a parking lot littered with puddles on way into a high school gymnasium on James Island.

His Off-White Nikes didn’t quite make it out clean, an unfortunate casualty of the unexpected summer shower. He seems displeased but he’s used to this sort of sporadic storm having grown up in Charleston’s Lowcountry. He tugs the top of his hoodie further over his brow and presses on as the rain begins to fall heavier overhead.

The line to enter the gym runs out of the building. Middleton eventually slides his long 6-foot-7 frame through the double doors of the lobby where an older, white-haired woman with cherry-flushed cheeks is taking tickets.

“It’s $5 to get in, gentlemen,” she says fiddling with her cash box. Khris smiles.

***

It’s Thursday morning and Khris is one of the first players to arrive in Charlotte for NBA All-Star Weekend.

Twelve hours ago, he was in Indianapolis helping the Milwaukee Bucks to their eighth win in nine games. The Bucks might be the hottest team in the NBA right now, carrying a league-leading 43-13 record into the all-star break.

A lot of that has to do with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ 6-foot-11 Greek megastar, who finished second in the league in all-star fan voting this season. But much of it also has to do with Khris, the 2009 Porter-Gaud graduate who’s sort of become the Scottie Pippen to Giannis’ Michael Jordan-like presence. Giannis shines like the sun, attracting attention from every angle. Khris operates differently, comfortable in the shadows with a more reserved, equable personality.

“Some people think because of his laidback personality and laidback demeanor, he’s not a star. He’s a star in this league. He’s an all-star,” Giannis said. “He’s a dangerous player out there on the court and everybody knows it.”

It’s not yet noon and Khris is in Hemby Children’s Hospital, slapping high-fives and snapping photos with patients. He plays UNO with oversized cards sitting in chairs that bend his knees up to his chest. Khris considers himself somewhat of a card shark. He has a card room at his home in Milwaukee but UNO shares little with the games of spades he plays with his family or the heated bourré battles that pass the time on team flights.

Khris is also here to deliver a surprise for a teenage patient named Zach, who’s won a pair of tickets to the all-star game in which Khris is making his first appearance of his seven-year career. Khris is welcomed into the hospital room with a warm, “nice to see you again” greeting by Zach’s father. Again, being the operative word.

Khris has quietly maintained a healthy philanthropic presence since entering the league in 2012. Little is made of it, though, because his humility seems to naturally deflect that sort of added attention. His parents told him, sitting in a hotel room just two days after he was drafted, that it was time to pick a charity to support. The 39th overall pick was set to earn $474,604 in the first year of his rookie deal, crumbs compared to the $14.1 million he made last season. Still, Khris agreed, and two hours after meeting with his parents, he chose to partner with Big Brothers Big Sisters. A lot of his choice had to do with his relationship with his older sister, Brittney, who now works as his manager. A 20-year-old Khris told his parents that day in the hotel that he wanted to provide kids the opportunity to experience relationships similar to what his family shares.

“My wife and I just looked at each other,” Khris’ father, James, said. “I mean, wow. That was powerful.”

Khris received the NBA’s Community Assist award in December for his 12 Days of Khrismas initiative that featured 12 different types of community service during the holiday season. He hosted shopping sprees for children and donated thousands of dollars to different types of organizations, including a nonprofit that teaches children of color the game of golf on the only black-owned course in Louisiana. Khris has taken a liking to golf lately. He swears he’s improving, though his friends say he shows up to play in Air Jordan Concords and is quick to call for a mulligan.

Khris is still aligned with Big Brothers Big Sisters. He hosts the Khris Middleton Skills Academy basketball camp every year at Porter-Gaud in Charleston. It started as a one-day session with maybe 50 kids. Now it hosts nearly 300 over a four-day event that’s raised more than $10,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters in the past five years.

He hosts a similar camp in Louisiana with the proceeds arranged into a scholarship fund. He’s established a $1 million scholarship fund at Porter-Gaud, too, to help promote diversity at the private school that can cost upwards of $20,000 a year in tuition. The first beneficiary of the Middleton Scholars Program is expected to be admitted into Porter-Gaud in 2020.

***

It’s All-Star Saturday Night and things aren’t going great.

Khris is shooting third of the 10 participants in the 3-Point Contest, the penultimate event of a night arranged to showcase specific skills of some of the league’s brightest stars. Three of Khris’ first five shots fly awry and he never establishes any sort of rhythm in the shooting spectacle.

James watches his son with an intense glare from his seat in the bottom bowl of the Spectrum Center. He dissects every flick of his son’s wrist and gauges the height of his release point. He used to stare at his son the same way as the two dedicated a couple of hours nearly every day to perfecting Khris' stroke on the makeshift half of a court he paved in their backyard. Khris’ high school coaches once tried to adjust his shot at practice. James called them as soon as he noticed the adjustment and enthusiastically urged the coaches to “teach him everything you want, every play and scheme, just do not mess with the shot.”

Khris’ childhood court still stands at the home his family still owns in the Archdale neighborhood of North Charleston. Someone stole the rim from it a couple summers ago but the memories of shooting in the dark, or through a downpour, or for $100 wagers still remain. Khris begged his father for years to trim the limbs from the oak tree that guarded the rim like a goaltending center. James refused, encouraging his son to instead learn to shoot over and through the obstacles.

“He used to try to act like it was something to make me work on my shooting,” Middleton said with a laugh. “But I learned when I got older that he was just too lazy to get up on the ladder and cut them down.”

Khris is being asked this season to adjust once again. He averaged career-highs of 20.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game last year. He wasn’t selected to the all-star game, though, when many thought he might be and the Bucks were bounced from the playoffs in the first round.

Milwaukee first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer challenged Khris this preseason to adjust his game to help make the team more successful. The primary principal of Budenholzer’s offensive overhaul is to line the perimeter in order to better space the floor, namely for Giannis. Three-pointers are encouraged over the midrange game that Khris is best known for. Khris has accepted the changes, shooting 323 three-pointers through 54 games this season. He shot just 407 through all of last season and that was a career-high. His scoring is slightly down at 17.1 points per game but his rebounding (5.8) and assists (4.2) are both up and the Bucks’ winning percentage is as high as its been since 1972. His value has never been higher.

“He does a little bit of everything and he deserves to be (an all-star) when you put up those kinds of numbers on the best team in the East,” Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson said before a long pause.

“It’s hard but you have to sacrifice something if you want to win,” Thompson continued. Thompson is known as one of the league’s most efficient scorers but is still considered a third or fourth option on the Warriors’ loaded roster. “You can’t put up 25 (points) a night, or everybody can’t do it. Sacrifices must be made to win a championship.”

Thompson’s respect for Khris seems to be shared throughout the league. Former MVP Kevin Durant called Khris one of the best players in the NBA. Giannis might be his biggest supporter, although he's only half joking when he says to ask Khris who wins their games of one-on-one. Two summers ago, Khris hosted the Bucks in Santa Barbara, Calif. for a week of pickup games at a local college gym. Everyone who wasn’t injured showed up for the offseason runs, which in itself speaks volumes of the respect players have for Khris.

Khris spent part of Saturday morning’s all-star practice in an impromptu shooting contest with two-time league MVP Steph Curry and hometown Charlotte Hornets favorite Kemba Walker. He shared a few laughs with former MVP Russell Westbrook as the two playfully attempted to block each other’s shots. Ben Simmons paused an interview to show love when he spotted Khris strolling down the hallway.

Khris finishes the 3-Point Contest with 11 total points, two points lower than his score the first time he participated in the event in 2016. He gazes toward the scoreboard as he exits the spot-lit floor, immediately realizing that his 11 points won’t get him out of the first round. Still, he seems content as he takes his seat alongside Curry and former league MVP Dirk Nowitzki on the bench.

You could see the disappointment in Khris’ expression after the 3-Point Contest three years ago, a rare crack in his usually reticent armor. Saturday, he smiled. He would’ve obviously liked to perform better this time around with 20 friends and family in attendance. But the fleeting notoriety that comes with things like the 3-Point Contest isn’t something he seeks anymore. He’s probably one of the least recognizable faces of the all-stars rosters, somewhat by choice. The respect of his peers has long been good enough to sustain him but now the all-star nod adds a more measurable sense of validation.  

“I don’t think I would trade,” Khris said Saturday when asked who he would be if he could be anyone. “I’m happy with being myself. I love my life. I’m not living through anybody else’s eyes, anybody else’s lives. I’m enjoying mine.”

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***

The NBA All-Star Game has just begun on Sunday night and Khris is on fire.

He hits his first shot, a three from the left wing, 32 seconds after checking into the game midway through the first quarter. Then he adds another from the same spot 22 seconds later, then another from the opposite side 22 seconds after that. He adds a fourth straight three before checking out with 12 points on 4-of-4 shooting and two assists in less than three minutes of work. This is his all-star moment.

Khris adds a fifth three and then a steal and slam in the second quarter. The crowd explodes.  Giannis rises from the bench to congratulate his teammate on the dunk. Khris’ childhood friend Travis Smith and high school coach John Pearson rise out of their seats in the stands too. They all know Khris hates to dunk.

“I had to do it for the fans. Fast break for myself, you’ve got to go up for a dunk in this game,” Khris said. “Lay it in and you might get some boos.”

Khris finishes the first half with 17 points, second only to Giannis’ 20. The two teammates stay on the court at halftime, celebrating the moment together while rapper J. Cole flows through melodic rhymes on stage. 

"This is a marathon and I'm aware I've been playing the back from a lack of promotion. I've never been one for the bragging and boasting. I guess I was hoping the music would speak for itself but the people want everything else. OK, no problem." 

This isn’t the first all-star team Khris has been a part of. It’s hard for him to say any were better than the Lowcountry Heels sixth-grade AAU team. The entire starting five played Division I basketball and at least four of them are still playing professionally. But the best part, they’re all still so close. All of them checked in to congratulate Khris this weekend.

He wasn’t the best player on that team. Maybe not even top three. He didn’t grow into his body until about junior year of high school. He always wore thick t-shirts that hung long underneath his jerseys to pad his scrawny frame. And he was slow enough that his friends still tease him about the time they were 12 years old and Khris woefully chased a seemingly attainable loose ball from half court all the way out of bounds during a game.

“Saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Smith, who now coaches at Porter-Gaud after a brief professional career overseas. “He hates for me to bring that up but I have to remind him every now and then.”

Khris takes the ribbings well. Like the time he bought a Dodge Challenger his second year in the league. It was a basic model, all stock, too boring for an NBA player, his friends told him. The car disappeared for two weeks until one day it arrived back in the parking lot tricked out. Everyone shared a laugh when the tinted window rolled down to reveal Khris inside grinning. Or there's the time he and his cousin Kenny Manigault were getting chased by a greyhound through a neighbor’s backyard. Kenny jumped on top of a car to escape. Khris slipped and fell down.

“I swear he thought he was going to die,” Kenny jokes now. “It was a puppy, man. And he thought it was over.”

Although Khris is climbing the NBA hierarchy, his circle remains airtight. It’s tough to earn his trust. Even if someone else vouches for you, it still may not be enough. The few that surround him are mostly family and the same friends he’s been with since he was a kid. Nothing has changed as far as that’s concerned. And that’s the way he likes it. It keeps him grounded with a sense of stability as so much changes around him.

He doesn’t party much. He more prefers to hang at home watching Will Ferrell comedies. When he does hit the club with friends, he’s probably posted in the back wearing a black hoodie just bobbing to the music. Khris is in line to receive a huge payday this summer, should he exercise the player option in his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. He’s expected to attract a max contract, which now in his seventh year would command 30 percent of the NBA salary cap, or more than $30 million per year. It’s a enormous come up for a second-round draft pick who visited the G-League and was traded within his first 11 months in the league. 

“It can be easy to get caught up in everything if you’re not surrounded by the right people,” Khris said. “I don’t need a lot of people hanging around me. As long as I have my friends and family I know they won’t let me go wrong.”

Khris finishes the all-star game with 20 points, four assists and four rebounds in 22 minutes. They call him Kha$h or Money Middleton in Milwaukee when he goes off like that. Fans with shirts bearing a silhouette of Khris’ fadeway with money raining from his hand ask for pictures inside the local Pick ‘N Save. They play the hook from the O’Jays classic “For the Love of Money” inside the Bucks’ Fiserv Forum when he’s shooting it like that. It’s all beautifully ironic because Khris would never refer to himself as Kha$h or Money and would much prefer to play it cool rather than celebrate with ‘70s funk, although the catchy riff has grown on him.

“I just try to be myself,” Khris said. “I can’t change anything now. I wouldn’t have gotten here if I wasn’t myself so why would I change anything now that I’m on this stage.”

***

It’s somewhat surprising the white-haired ticket taker doesn’t recognize Khris at the door of the gym on James Island. He’s headlining the alumni game inside.

Khris never actually played for the TMP AAU team hosting the event but respects Pearson enough to show up anyway, no security, no entourage, no weird demands, just a couple hours of basketball with old friends, knowing it would be good for Pearson’s TMP program and good for the community.

Khris is becoming an icon of basketball in an area that’s much better known for football. Basketball is blossoming lately in the Lowcountry though and some of its brightest prospects credit Khris for paving the way. Vanderbilt standout freshman Aaron Nesmith calls him a mentor. Tennessee five-star signee Josiah James calls him a big brother. When James made the McDonald’s High School All-American Game last month, Khris was among the first people to reach out, FaceTiming him from the gym. Khris works out privately with both of them when he's home during the summers. Pearson calls him a hero.

“He is so incredibly important to basketball in this area,” Pearson said. “For kids to see someone like him — a regular guy from their city that they can see and interact with — when they see him reaching the level of success that he has in the NBA, it’s hard to describe how important that is to our community.”

Khris pushed to include Porter-Gaud and TMP in the new endorsement contract he signed with Nike last summer. Porter-Gaud received new jerseys and shoes by the fall. TMP should this summer. He's working on outfitting them with his player exclusive shoes he wears in games, the ones with the KM logo on the tongue. And that's all just out of respect for Pearson. Loyalty is something he takes very seriously. Khris jokes that it's payback for the hibachi dinners Pearson would buy him every time he received a scholarship offer in high school, even when he probably couldn’t afford it.

“I’ll never forget things like that,” Khris assures.

Khris embraces the underdog role but the idea of a chip on his shoulder is probably overdoing it a little. He's comfortable with just being himself in a league where most stars are crafted and created. The NBA has embraced his unassuming personality. It's more real, more relatable. Fans can identify with a guy like Khris. He's made selflessness and humility attractive. He's a role model. 

“I don’t want to act like something I’m not, like I’m some huge celebrity, he said. I’m the same as I always was, just a regular guy from Charleston.”

The white-haired woman looks up from her cash box to realize it’s Khris smiling in front of her. She smiles back sheepishly and apologizes for not recognizing him when he first arrived.

“It’s cool,” Khris assures her with a smile. “Happens all the time.”