Walking down the hall at the end of a school day, a boy in the fourth grade stops and sinks at the sight of multiple bullies waiting for him outside the school’s doors. He’s been bullied for some time now; it even got so bad the year before that he stopped going to school all together, forcing him to stay in the fourth grade for another year.
As he stands at the door, he decides that he’s not going to leave; he’ll avoid this for as long as he possibly can. That’s when the school custodian intervenes.
“Hey, you need to face your fears.”
But this is a fourth grader, he’s not ready for that kind of confrontation. The custodian continues.
“The alternative is they’re having basketball tryouts in the gym today and maybe you should go out there and tryout.”
The boy once again declines, he’s never played basketball before, and it’s not something he’s interested in. The custodian then gives the boy a simple ultimatum.
“Well you either face your fear or go and try out for the basketball team.”
The fourth grader is this story is Will Kirkaldy, and he decides it would be better to spend his time in the gym rather than being bullied outside.
“I didn’t have any sneakers,” Kirkaldy recalled. “One of the students that was trying out loaned me his sneakers and I remember playing and trying out in blue jeans and a tee shirt.”
Despite not having any prior experience with the sport, Kirkaldy makes the team. His significant height certainly helped his chances. “In the fourth grade I was very close to being 5’10, almost 6 feet tall,” Kirkaldy said. “I was the tallest in the building.”
Kirkaldy was born in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised by his mother and father, both first-generation Americans from Panama, his mother coming to America when she was just 11 years old. He has four siblings, two brothers and two sisters. Will is the youngest...and the tallest.
“[We were] not rich monetarily, but we had family, we had each other,” he said.
Kirkaldy never had an interest in basketball, not until it helped him evade those bullies. Once he picked up the sport, he bloomed quickly. He honed his skills playing street ball at Kingston Park rather than organized basketball. By the time he was a freshman in high school, he was playing against grown men at legendary courts like Soul in the Hole and Rucker Park.
“They called me 'Diapers' because I was the youngest guy on the court and I was holding my own.” recalls Kirkaldy.
He learned the game of basketball on the streets of New York City, but he was molded into an All-American once he attended Oak Hill Academy. Oak Hill, located in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, is a private boarding school known for its prestigious basketball program. It has produced numerous NBA players including Rod Strickland, Jerry Stackhouse, Carmelo Anthony and many more. Kirkaldy described it as “the one place you want to play if you’re a blue ribbon [basketball] player.”
Kirkaldy thrived there right away, both on and off the court. At Oak Hill, Kirkaldy said his basketball skill fully blossomed, but it also helped him become a “complete person.” He developed into an All-American, won a national championship and had “90 to 95 percent” of colleges recruiting him. His parents enrolled him into Oak Hill in order to help him progress his basketball career, but that wasn’t the only reason. Then his life was considerably altered during a recruiting trip to Syracuse University in September, 1990.
“They put me in a place at Oak Hill to keep me away from the activities I engaged in at Syracuse during my visit…they wanted to shelter me,” Kirkaldy said.
Those activities were spending time at bars, drinking and being with women. While he was on the visit, he met a woman at a bar and brought her back to his hotel room. Kirkaldy is arrested and charged with rape that night, although he never engaged in sexual intercourse with the woman.
“I felt bad for my family because the name Kirkaldy is a unique last name. I wish we could have been a Smith or a Johnson, but Kirkaldy stands out and the backlash that my family took was severe to me,” Kirkaldy said.
After the charge, Kirkaldy was expelled from Oak Hill. The schools near his hometown of Brooklyn, Syracuse and St. John’s, and all other colleges who were drooling over him now wanted nothing to do with him. Despite all of this negative backlash on his future basketball career, Kirkaldy never felt bad for himself.
“I knew I was innocent. I always believed that whatever I went through, I can handle. It was more my family, just disappointing them in that sense. My whole family was affected by it and that was one of my low hanging fruit, if you will, days of my life.”
Kirkaldy was mostly upset that he let his family down. He knew he did nothing wrong, and he knew he could bounce back from this.
And he did. He was proven innocent 11 months later and the judge in the case ended up labeling Kirkaldy as the victim. In that time, Kirkaldy transferred to Simon Gratz, a secondary school in Philadelphia, where he would play his senior year.
Kirkaldy thrived, leading the team (a team that included future NBA champion Rasheed Wallace, who was a sophomore at the time) in points and rebounds and leading them to his second national title. Still, many colleges remembered the incident at Syracuse and wouldn’t throw an offer his way.
West Virginia was not one of those colleges. Kirkaldy’s best friend, Lawrence Pollard, was currently at West Virginia and vouched for Kirkaldy. They seemed interested, and once they met with Kirkaldy and his family, they decided to let him enroll. “Looking back I knew it wasn’t just me, I knew it wasn’t solely based on what I could do, but it was on what my family could do and what my family brought to the table and the values that they had,” Kirkaldy said.
So Kirkaldy went off to Morgantown, where he played 9.5 minutes per game in his freshman season. Late in the season, he’s named the Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Week. Kirkaldy had been through hell and proved he could fight through hard times.
“I was blessed. I was completely blessed through a tragedy…those lessons will never be forgotten and it propels me to be the man I am today,” he said.
He felt blessed to be at West Virginia, and at the end of his freshman season, he felt like he was on his way to becoming great. He saw the NBA in sight, his dreams were about to become true.
Then, tragedy struck. Again. This time though, it wasn’t a fork in the road for his NBA playing dreams.
It was the end of them.
In April 1992, Kirkaldy wakes up in a hospital bed.
An entire day earlier, he was involved in a car crash while on his way back to Morgantown after spending spring break in Brooklyn. He was in the passenger side while Pollard was driving. At the foot of his bed were many members of the coaching staff at West Virginia, his aunt, the pastor from his church and his mother, Evelia.
“The first words of the doctor was we’re going to have to amputate your leg,” Kirkaldy said.
Kirkaldy had been unconscious for 24 hours. Up to this point, he already had two operations done, one on his skull and one on his right leg. His right leg was broken in 11 places and completely shattered. He was told that he’d never walk again.
“I wasn’t prepared for that, I don’t think anyone would be prepared for that. There was a sense of fight in me that said I think you’re wrong, I believe you’re wrong, doc. I will be up and running and playing and I’ll get my mother from the inner city and I’ll fulfill my promise to her,” he said.
Kirkaldy was prepared to fight. He wanted to fight for his mother, for his goal of getting to the NBA, but most of all, he was fighting to keep his right leg. Over the next five years, he would go through over 30 operations, including skin grafts, muscle grafts and vein grafts, in an attempt to avoid amputation. Throughout the first year after the accident, Kirkaldy couldn’t watch basketball.
“It was excruciating [to watch].”
Kirkaldy was able to go back to school a year later. He gets introduced once again at a West Virginia basketball game. He is brought out in his wheelchair by Lawrence Pollard, his best friend and the driver of the car that resulted in Kirkaldy being in that wheelchair.
Going back to the court was “bittersweet” for Kirkaldy. What made things easier was all the love and support that was shown to him by the players, coaches and crowd in attendance. It’s at that moment where he feels that his destiny was being fulfilled.
“No matter what had taken place, [I felt] that I was in the right place, that whatever had taken place should have taken place.”
But this was not the end of his destiny. This was just one year after his accident. He would continue to have numerous operations on his leg in order to fight off amputation. Throughout that time, Kirkaldy never asked ‘why me?’ He preferred to ask the question, ‘why not me?’
“I had so many mountains to climb, so much adversity to go over that I was primed to be in that position and never once did I doubt myself, never.”
Kirkaldy is a fighter, and he told the doctors to do everything in their power to save his right leg. They continually advised him that this was a bad idea, that his leg had to be amputated and he was just delaying the inevitable. To some extent, Kirkaldy also knew that, but he didn’t want to doubt the doctors’ skills, and he especially did not want to doubt his decision.
“Knowing that at the end I would lose a leg, I could handle that. I couldn’t handle not going through the journey of trying, I just couldn’t. I wasn’t raised that way.”
Kirkaldy encouraged the doctors to use him as their “guinea pig.” He knew his end game, but he wanted to be an experiment in order to help others, to show them that they did not have to have the same end game.
His end game came in 1997. Before he went in for the operation, he spent time with the prosthetist telling him how to cut the leg, where to cut it and how much skin should be on the stump.
“No prosthetist has ever seen, well at the time, a patient come in pre-operation and look for a prosthetic limb. They felt that was pretty insane.”
The operation was a success, and three months later, Kirkaldy was fitted for a leg. A week after that, he got a test leg, and within two minutes he was up and running again.
“It felt great, it was the best feeling ever. To be able to have the wind passing by my face, to sweat and perspire, being able to be out of breath and mobile and on my two feet. It was the best feeling."
Kirkaldy, now 43, is still walking, running and playing basketball. He joined the Life Time Fitness Center in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, back in November. Originally, his intention was to just be a member, then he was referred to James Mooney, Regional Manager of Ultimate Hoops' Northeast Region, about working for UH.
Kirkaldy applied to be a coordinator, but Mooney envisioned Kirkaldy as a trainer. This meant Kirkaldy had to sell the game of basketball, something he had never done, in order to attract new clients.
But this is a man who was bullied so bad that he had to repeat the fourth grade. This is a man who was falsely accused of rape and he had to walk around with the perception of a guilty man. This is a man who had a shattered leg due to a horrifying car accident, and then he lost that leg after five years of fighting to keep it. This was simply another adversity to overcome, another mountain to climb, and Kirkaldy is not one to back away from a challenge.
“My vision in life, my goal in life, to make the NBA can now be funneled and given to all of my clients,” he said. He strives to talk to any child or adult that walks into the gym and try to help them overcome any doubts or adversities they may have with the game of basketball. And who better to teach them than Kirkaldy?
In just his third month at Ultimate Hoops, he was already hitting his sales goals. While this was a good milestone for him, he is now expected to continue to grow on that mark every month. It is a challenge, but nothing he can’t overcome.
He encourages his clients to come and see him play when he suits up for The Entourage in Mt. Laurel’s open league, where he averages 8 points and 8 rebounds a game.
“Being 43-years-old, an amputee, and still having the drive to play with 18 & 19-year-old able bodied players; it gives them no excuse.”
One drill he always teaches his clients is called retreat. In this drill, you are dribbling backwards, but he advises his clients to keep their eyes on the rim, because even though they are retreating, getting to the rim is still the goal.
“Don’t ever give up, continue to look at that goal. I’m going to play until, until, until…”
He pauses for a while after that third until.
Until...all of my college offers are gone because I was accused of a crime I didn’t commit? Until I wake up in a hospital not knowing if I’ll ever walk again? Until I get my leg amputated?
Kirkaldy has already played past all of those roadblocks, so there really is no "until" anything. The bottom line is that Will Kirkaldy will always play basketball, no matter what obstacles get in the way.
Will Krikaldy will never retire.