The number 22 appeared from every angle of the room that was near capacity. From fan paraphernalia to jerseys to basketball cards, Porter-Gaud legend and NBA All-Star Khris Middleton was everywhere to be seen.
Everyone from immediate family and friends, school faculty, to dignitaries such as Charleston mayor John Tecklenburg congregated in the Upper School Library on Wednesday evening, July 17. All were there to honor the first official jersey retirement of any Porter-Gaud alumnus, but equally eager to welcome the basketball star home.
The night tipped off with an eloquent proclamation from Tecklenburg. After much praise and many kind words, he embraced the lanky 6-foot-8 forward and bestowed upon him a key to the City of Charleston, declaring July 17 Khris Middleton Day.
“This isn’t just a stellar basketball player, this is a stellar human being,” Tecklenburg said. He noted his son, Bishop England graduate Joseph Tecklenburg, played on the same all-star travel team with Middleton during his high school days.
After the applause and camera flashes settled, the mood inside the library shifted. The chatter was no longer about Middleton’s stats or accolades; it was about sentimental memories shared by former Cyclones athletics director Ed Steers, and Travis Smith, an old teammate and childhood friend who now coaches at Porter-Gaud after a brief professional career overseas.
Steers spoke of Middleton’s sheer determination to play the game no matter the adversity he was dealt. He recalled a bus ride to Sumter during the SCISA state championships. Middleton was so ill at the time; he “lost his lunch” on several occasions during the ride. He scored 27 points that day.
“It was the determination that he had to be a team player, to carry the team through,” Steers continued. “He knew how empty we would be if he wasn’t out there and it just made such a big impact on me to see how determined he was.”
Smith too told a story of Middleton’s perseverance. In September 2016, Middleton was ruled out for six months after sustaining a left hamstring injury in preseason workouts with the Milwaukee Bucks. The injury required surgery and he would need somebody to physically be there to bring him back and forth to doctors’ appointments and, maybe more importantly, offer emotional support. He asked Smith to fly to Milwaukee to hang out while he recovered. During the rehab, Smith saw Middleton’s true grit at a vulnerable time removed from the spotlight when nobody else was watching.
“Everybody will tell you, that’s been close to him, he’s way more than a basketball player,” Smith said. “The other thing that I admire about Khris is he’s never changed. Period.”
To seemingly everyone’s surprise, especially the man of the hour, a congratulatory video aired from several of Middleton’s teammates including league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even Middleton, in his stoically humble demeanor, was gleefully grinning from ear to ear.
Finally, the moment that everyone was anxiously awaiting followed, the unveiling of Middleton’s retired jersey. The mass of attendees and media filed out of the library toward the Wendell Center, the Cyclones’ hardwood court where Middleton’s skills and love for the game blossomed throughout 2007-09
Once all of the visual and audio recording devices were positioned in the direction of the main attraction, Middleton’s father James Middleton sprung out of his seat and took to the podium to say a few words on his son’s legacy.
James remembered when Middleton was a newborn, just one or two days old at the time, he told Middleton’s mother he was going to be a basketball star. Growing up Middleton loved playing outdoors; he never spent much time indoors. His life revolved around sports, everything from rollerblading to baseball. He was an all-around athlete, but what James admired most was his passion for whatever activity he was doing, whether it was athletic or not.
“What I love about who he has become, is he chose a passion,” James continued. “Once he chose that passion, which was basketball, he put all his efforts into that. Now he’s one of the best in the world at what he does and what he chose to do.”
James spoke of what Middleton has sacrificed over the years to get to where he is today. What he didn’t mention were all of the 5-10 hour car rides to games.
Next to testify to Middleton’s character was his former Cyclones coach, John “J.P.” Pearson. He was the man responsible for unlocking the gym door on the weekend so Middleton could spend more time honing his craft, particularly his jump shot that he’s become known for.
Pearson confessed he wasn’t that awe-struck by the scoring records Middleton shattered or milestones he achieved, like being named the South Carolina Player of the Year in both junior and senior seasons or a McDonald’s All-American nominee.
“I could tell you all those accolades, but there’s a little bit more to this guy,” Pearson said. What truly impressed him the most about Khris was the grounded manner in which he carried himself on and off the court. How as his talent matured, he never let the clout that surrounds him consume who he is and the roots from which he came.
After Pearson wiped the tears rolling down his face, he bear-hugged Middleton and then raised a glass of champagne as a toast to his success. It was not for what he accomplished as a former player, although the duo did win two state championships together, but more so as a person.
“To me, the Middleton family, you raised a whole man. Keep doing it,” Pearson added.
Followed by a moment of deafening silence, Middleton’s blinding white shoes clacked their way up to the podium. It was his turn to say a few remarks. Rather than talk about the recent transcendence of his glittery pro career — like his first NBA All-Star game in February or the five-year $178 million contract he signed in June — rather than discuss how he returns home each summer to coach his annual basketball summer camp at Porter-Gaud, or the $1 million he pledged for his Middleton Scholars program to support the school’s scholarship fund for underserved and minority students, Middleton elected to talk about virtually everything except himself. If you ask any of his peers, they’ll concur that’s just classic him.
He began by paying homage to family, friends and coaches along the way who helped him transform into who he is today. He also thanked Porter-Gaud for forcing him to dress like the gentleman he already was. At first he despised wearing the school uniform, but in retrospect he admitted those little things made him a better man. Also, for accountability, he had to sit out his entire freshman season due to unsatisfactory grades.
Without further ado, Middleton pulled a long string that hung down from the gym rafters and unveiled his jersey from his Porter-Gaud days. He gazed nostalgically up at the maroon No. 22 Middleton jersey. Ten years later it was a ceremonious salute to his impact on the school and community.
“I really can’t describe it,” Middleton said. “You dream about it but it’s hard to believe sometimes but you work toward it. I set out a goal in some way to get better to accomplish my dream and right now I feel like I’m doing it.”
As far as the No. 22 is concerned, which he’s had ever since he started playing the game, Middleton declined to reveal too much about the number, saying he didn’t want to jinx anything.
“When you get your jersey retired that’s something special, I think that tops everything,” Middleton continued. “It’s really not about the money. It’s not about what you did on the court. When you get your jersey retired that means you’re respected in some type of way, in basketball, off the court or all the above.”
“I think that’s what all players play for, is to have their jersey up in the rafters and a championship in some type of way,” he added.
Middleton confided that his secret to success is keeping that low-key aura in everything that he does.
“I think what a lot of people notice about me is I don’t worry about too much or how people view me,” he said. “I just worry about being the best person I can be on the court and off the court. I don’t care about underrated, overrated, best player ever, worst player ever, I just want to be me.”
When asked to describe his legacy, he was at a loss for words. Not because his resume lacked luster, but because he’s just not wired that way.
“I’m not a guy that thinks about myself a lot,” Middleton added. “I just try to do the right thing so as long as people associate me with trying to do the right thing no matter what it is that’s all I want.”
Once Middleton finished posing for photos and answering reporters’ questions, the fanfare began to fade. The only piece of evidence the night existed was his jersey, No. 22 glistening in the gym’s golden hue.