As part of a continuing series, NBA players share the various ways growing up in L.A. shaped their game.
For Washington Wizards guard Nick Young, who grew up in West L.A., the path to USC and eventually the NBA was anything but smooth. There were academic struggles. Failed SAT tests. Three different high schools (Hamilton, Dorsey, Cleveland). And at age 5, his brother Charles was murdered, a senseless tragedy that not only turned his family upside down, but later nearly derailed his high school basketball career before it got started. But due to Cleveland High School in Reseda, plus the help of concerned coaches (and, of all people, Jordan Farmar), Young got himself on track to eventually reach the NBA. This is the story of how L.A., in his words, "raised him" as a basketball player.
Andy Kamenetzky: Where did you grow up playing most of the time?
Nick Young: At Robertson Park. We would all get together, go up there. Cedric Ceballos played there. He grew up over there. Craig Smith. And also at Pan Pacific.
AK: What was the scene like? Atmosphere? Was there a lot of talking? Was it physical?
NY: It's a very small gym. It gets packed and it gets sweaty. A lot of trash talking. Mostly, there were a lot of guards. Back then, everyone wanted to be Iverson, man. But I was probably the tallest in my group, so I wanted to be like T-Mac and Kobe.
AK: Did that make you stand out, in terms of the way everyone else played?Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Before USC and the Wizards, it all began at Robertson Park for Nick Young.
NY: Yeah, but it also got my game better, going against littler people that could play defense and had handles and all that.
AK: Was there a particularly epic game or run at Robertson you'd describe as your "Robertson experience?"
NY: I'd say when I was about 14, I got a chance to really run with the older kids, the older guys. I got this one dunk and after that, I was playing with the older guys every day. That's when I started jumping more. My brother threw a lob and I caught it on somebody.
AK: Nobody expected you had those kind of hops?
NY: Nah. Back then I was just a goofy kid running around always talking trash, shooting while they were playing. The ball would get on the court, they'd get mad at me.
AK: What was it like going from playing with guys your age to mostly older players?
NY: That was fun. It was tougher. You couldn't call fouls as much, so everything you did, you just had to hold it in. That's when I got a chance to play with Craig (Smith) and all them. They had Trevor (Ariza) there. Evan Burns back then. (My brother) Terrell Young. A lot of different people.
AK: Were there any local guys you patterned your game after while growing up?
NY: I looked up to my brother Terrell. Everyone thought he was gonna go (to the NBA). That was my idol. Him and Evan Burns. My brother Terrell, everyone thought he was a park legend.
AK: How did the tragedy with your brother Charles' murder and the effect it had on your family shape basketball for you? Did it become an outlet? Or a mission? During the documentary "Second Chance Season," you mentioned feeling like the family savior.
NY: It started off as an outlet. I remember after the funeral and stuff, we went to go play at the YMCA. It was things like that. Just really stayed busy. Once I really got that season in high school, that's when I was like, "I could really do this. I'm gonna really take advantage of this right now."
AK: How much pressure was added by going in and out of high schools? Was there ever a point where basketball stopped feeling fun?
NY: No, not really. It's always been a game I liked. Even when I used to mess up in high school, every time I ditched, I went to the park. (laughs) Every time, for like two weeks straight, I'd just go to the park and reenact plays. Act like I'm this (specific) player. All the time. So I was having a vision, really.
I got caught when my mom rolled by on Robertson. I tried to hide and run back to school. I was already caught. There was a laundromat right up the street from the park. I guess she was doing some laundry. And on the way home she caught me.
AK: There was a period early in high school where your mom made you stop playing for a year. How tough was that?
NY: It was real tough. She had seen me ditching more consistently. She wanted me to do right in school, so that's when I transferred to Dorsey. I was gonna try out for that team, but the school, there was too much going on. There was too many gangs and all that up there. I just didn't feel comfortable. But I never told my mom that. I didn't want her to worry about me.
AK: These were gang members affiliated with the one involved with your brother's murder?
NY: Yeah. So, that's when I started going back to the park. She'd drop me off and I'd leave. The school, it just didn't sit right with me. Once they started realizing (the situation) and I started playing on this traveling team while I was ditching and stuff, it just happened that coach knew a coach in the valley. He said he'd get me on the team and they'd work to stay on me. And I was like, "All right." I just took a chance. So they checked me out of Dorsey and transferred me to Cleveland High.
AK: That time ditching in the park, were you just shooting by yourself or were there actual games going on?
NY: Just me and a ball.
AK: What were those hours alone like?
NY: That was probably the best time. I was acting like I was scoring 40 points against this team. "Nick, with five seconds left on the clock." Just making sure I make it in every time. Even when I miss, I'd get the rebound. "Two seconds left." That was a good time. Sometimes I would have my friend Michael Thomas come with me and we'd play one on one. If you beat me, we'd have to keep playing.
AK: What did that stability at Cleveland High mean to you as a young man trying to find your place?
NY: Oh, that meant a lot. Once I realized I'm really about to play on a high school team, like really play, because my grades and everything was just right. That was the first time in my life in my high school career that I was really that serious.
I was nervous the first game. I wasn't supposed to start the first game but somebody had come very late, so (my coach) put me in and ever since, I ain't looked back. That was my junior year. It was against Monroe in North Hollywood. I made the first shot I took. It was a jump shot. And just playing hard. Only me and my best friend, Ed. Coach came in and was yelling at everybody and said, "Only two people playing hard is Nick Young and Edmund Johnson. We gotta keep them out there every time." Right there, I was like, "Oh, man!"
I think I had 17 points. I think we won by 6. I had my first dunk in a game, off a lob. My brother and my mom came down. My mom even told me she didn't think I could play like that. She thought my brother Terrell was always the one everyone was talking about, and I was just a goofy kid coming behind him. She thought she was just gonna be a mom supporting me, but once she saw me play, she was like, I got game. She told me I could really play. So that really helped me. That got me confident, too.Dwain Scott/Getty Images
As a high school kid, Jordan Farmar looked out for Young in a major way.
AK: Describe the influence Coach Chevalier had on you as a coach and an adult figure?
NY: Coach Andre was like that big brother or your favorite uncle. He stayed on me. From day one, he didn't let me miss school. Or when I missed school, he called my mom to find out where I'm at, and all that. "Why did you let him stay home?" So he stayed on me. That was the best thing for me. Still to this day, we've got that relationship. We run a camp together at Oaks Christian. Even in college, he was still on me, telling me little things, training me and working me out sometimes. He was that guy, that dude, for me. If it wasn't for him at that time, I wouldn't be doing this right now.
AK: Can you talk about how Jordan Farmar helped you with the SAT?
NY: It really started because me and Jordan played on the same traveling team, Pump n' Run, and our relationship really gained a little bit from there. Once I started hearing his name, I guess you started hearing mine, because we was in rival schools. So we always had a little trash talking here and there.
One day, he sent me, like, Christmas. I got a package from Jordan Farmar and I was shocked. It was some SAT books, something he told me to study on. He used them. They worked for him. And he had a note that said you need this opportunity because you're a great player and a great person. Anything I can do, I want to help and I want you to take full advantage of it. And the letter blew me away, because it's another player in high school sending me something like that. I gained the most respect for him and from there on, we've stayed the best of friends.
But I couldn't go to UCLA. (laughs) We had to stay that rivalry.
AK: You mentioned Ceballos playing at Robertson Park. The story of you dunking on him at age 16 is a kind of a local legend.
NY: Yeah, that's when I started getting in my mojo. (laughs) My name was getting out there a little bit. Ced came to the park, him and his brother. That's when the run started getting good and I wanted to see where I was at. I used to try to guard Ced every time and talk trash to him. And (then) we jumped.
It was like a little cross. I hit his brother with a move and Ced was coming over to help side and we jumped. Once he jumped, I was already having my legs, I was young, I was already excited. I got extra high for some reason. And it was over. Everyone in the gym ran out and all that.
AK: How did Ceballos react?
NY: He always told me I had potential. I just wasn't ever serious. But that day, he was like, "that's what I'm talking about. You could do that all the time." I was so excited he had to pull me to the side afterward. Because I was just talking trash at that point.
AK: So he told you to act like you've done it before.
NY: But I hadn't done it before. (laughs) And he was in the dunk contest. That's all we knew from the park. Nobody else really made it except Craig (Smith) and he was in college then. I grew up watching him all this time since I was a kid, so the reaction was big.
AK: How was your game honed at USC?
NY: Tim Floyd and Henry Bibby, the assistant coach the first year, every morning they used to have us doing mid-range jump shots. And that's something I wasn't really doing. I was either going to the hole, trying to dunk or shooting threes. I never had really a mid-range game. My freshman year, I worked on it, and (eventually) got comfortable with it. Too comfortable with it, I think, now. (laughs)Collin Erie/US Presswire
If this was a mid-range shot, Young learned it as a Trojan.
I didn't really start doing it until my sophomore year during the Pac-10 (tournament) against Arizona State. I realized all you really had to do was make a quick move and pull up. I remember that game. I did it mostly every time. It just stuck with me from there.
AK: What made you choose USC?
NY: I was an 'SC guy growing up. I remember my high school coach asking everybody what college and he was shocked when I said I wanted to go to USC. It wasn't too far from us. There was something about 'SC. Everybody wanted to go to UCLA, but I was always an 'SC guy.
AK: What part of your game most reflects having grown up in L.A.?
NY: I'd probably have to say our swag on the court. We have a different swag. I'd say we're a little more flashy, because we always had good weather out here and basketball is the thing to do. We had people coming and girls coming, so they're kind of drawn to your game. You wanna show off a little bit.
AK: Do you remember the first time you recognized you had some swag?
NY: When I had my mohawk at 'SC. My swag started coming right there. I was close to it (before), but once everyone started getting the mohawk, I was like, "Okay. People was watching me."
AK: What is the feeling of "swag" like? And specifically, an "L.A." swag? Because you're representing at that point.
NY: Yeah. Your city. Your neighborhood. Over in my area, Ced Ceballos is gone now. Everybody was looking up to me, so I gotta have that swag, that California swag, going on out there. That coolness. That cool.
AK: Does it take a certain amount of confidence to actively decide, "I'm gonna put the swag out there and I don't care what anyone thinks?"
NY: Yeah, you gotta be confident. I think it helps players. You see it for most players (from L.A.). Brandon Jennings. Trevor (Ariza). Jordan Farmar had that confidence. He's telling (Andrew) Bynum what to do out there and trying to tell Kobe.
AK: How fortunate do you consider yourself for having grown up in L.A. when it comes to basketball and becoming who you are on the court?
NY: Very fortunate. I believe L.A. made me, really raised me. I think about that all the time. If I was raised in New York, how would I be? Would my game be different? You know, I think about that a lot, if I was raised somewhere else. People come here and visit, some of my teammates, and they stay here all summer. And I'm like, "Man, that's crazy. This is home for me and this is where some people want to come." It's a blessing.