After heartbreak and loss, Thaddeus Young finds firmer ground

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NEW YORK -- Nets power forward Thaddeus Young has long craved stability for himself and his family, and he believes they've found it here, at a luxury condominium complex along the waterfront in Brooklyn Heights.

Outside Young's building, Girl Scouts sell cookies, while boys play soccer at the nearby pier. Downtown Manhattan looms in the distance across the East River. Young says the view from his window is incredible. He's still unpacking, but with wife Shekinah and their two young sons, ages 5 and 2, by his side, it's already starting to feel like home.

The last 2 1/2 years have been a whirlwind, filled with tragedies and trades, trials and tribulations. Two seasons ago, Young's nephew died in a car accident. Last season, his mother died following a lengthy battle with breast cancer. In that span, he played for three different teams: the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Brooklyn.

But over the summer, he signed a four-year, $50 million contract -- which includes a fourth-year player option -- to remain with the Nets. He also became the first player in franchise history to move to the borough. Indeed, Young feels good again, and he sees big things on the horizon in Brooklyn.

"I think I'm finally getting back to [being] myself," Young told ESPN.com. "I haven't told too many people this, but for a minute, I just didn't want to do anything. I was just like, 'Let's just get today over with and get to the next day,' because there was just so much going on."

A year of loss

On Nov. 16, 2013, Young scored 11 points in Philadelphia's loss to the Hornets in New Orleans. His nephew, Ori Hall, was in the crowd. Hall, 20, was extremely close to Young and had made the trip south from their hometown of Memphis to visit him. It was the last time Hall saw Young play.

Four days later, after stopping in Houston, Hall and his girlfriend were heading back to Memphis when she fell asleep at the wheel, Young said. According to a police report filed in Arkansas, around 8:30 a.m., her car drove off I-30 into a rest area at a high rate of speed, striking the rear of a parked tractor trailer. Hall, who was in the passenger's seat, was severely injured, and died a few hours later at a nearby hospital.

"It was devastating," Young said. "Ori lived with me for a brief period. He was like a little brother to me."

Dealing with that tragedy was hard enough. Young took a brief leave of absence from the 76ers to grieve. Ori's death was still on his heart months later. But in April and May 2014, things would only get worse, as Young's mother, Lula Hall, came to visit, delivering what proved to be life-shattering news.

"She said to me, 'I don't want to alarm you or anything, but I feel a lump on my breast,'" Young said.

"I grabbed her hand, and of course I was very emotional, I was crying. I was hugging her. I could feel her take her last breath. She smiled at me, and then you just hear the [hospital] buzzer going off and she passed away. Just like that."
Thaddeus Young, on the death of his mother, Lula, on Nov. 14, 2014

Lula was reluctant to get the lump checked out because she was afraid of the results. A week later, mother and son's worst fears were realized. A visit with her doctor revealed breast cancer.

Surgery and chemotherapy followed. And for a while, Lula felt better. But her health deteriorated. Meanwhile, Young was traded from Philadelphia to Minnesota in August 2014. In a cruel twist of fate, on Oct. 29, 2014, Young was to make his Timberwolves debut in his hometown of Memphis. However, Lula was too sick to attend. Her side was hurting badly, she told him.

"When someone's talking about their pain, you begin to think that something's very, very wrong," Young said.

Two weeks later, with the Timberwolves in the midst of a long road trip -- which included a game in Mexico City -- Young's uncle, Ken Carter (who also serves as a mentor and financial advisor to Young) urged him to return to Memphis immediately. His mother was in grave condition.

"I didn't know what was going on at the time because they were trying to let me just play. And my mom kept saying, 'Just play. I'll be fine. Just play,'" Young said.

There, Young arrived at the hospital, joining his four sisters and brother, just minutes before Lula passed away on Nov. 13, 2014. She was 57.

"It was like she was waiting for me to get there," Young said. "I grabbed her hand, and of course I was very emotional, I was crying. I was hugging her. I could feel her take her last breath. She smiled at me, and then you just hear the [hospital] buzzer going off and she passed away. Just like that."

Young once again had to take a brief leave of absence to grieve. Nearly a year to the day he lost his "brother," he lost his mother.

"My mom was definitely a hard worker. She's definitely one of the people who taught me how to work and continue to stay hungry," he said. "My thing was I always wanted to make my mom proud. Whether it was getting straight A's in school or scoring 30 or 40 points in a basketball game, I'd always tell my mom it was for her. My mom was my everything."

No time to chill

Young might be $50 million richer, but he hasn't gotten complacent. Late into the offseason, he could frequently be found at the team's East Rutherford, New Jersey, practice facility at midnight on weekends, working on his jump shot and finishing with his right hand. But he'll always be his mother's son.

"When I got my first contract with Philly, people were like, 'You got paid, now you're good, you can chill.' And I'm like, 'Nah, I can't chill,'" said Young, 27, who is heading into his ninth season in the NBA. "I still have a long career ahead of me. I have to prep for my next [contract] and my next [contract] after that.

"Like I said, it's a continued grind, and the thing is, I'm a grinder. I feel like I'm definitely not the greatest player in the world, but I'm a good player, I can do a lot of things on the court to help my team win games, and at the end of the day, that's the thing that's kept me in the league and that's what's gotten me paid. I don't try to shy away from something that I can do in order to do something that I can't do."

Losing situations in Philadelphia and Minnesota had taken their toll on Young. He needed a change. After approaching the Timberwolves front office about moving on, president and coach Flip Saunders (who, unfortunately, is now fighting cancer himself) and general manager Milt Newton helped accommodate Young's request, sending him to the Nets at the Feb. 19, 2015 trade deadline in exchange for franchise icon Kevin Garnett.

Nets GM Billy King was very familiar with Young, having selected the Georgia Tech product in the first round of the 2007 NBA draft when he was GM of the 76ers.

"I thought from the beginning that he was a very loyal guy and a team guy," King said of Young. "And throughout his career, he's only gotten better."

The Nets immediately flourished after acquiring Young. He meshed perfectly with franchise center Brook Lopez, while helping to space the floor with his consistent shooting from the perimeter. Brooklyn went 17-13 following the Young-KG deal, overcoming a 21-31 start to make the playoffs. Young averaged nearly 14 points per game, shot nearly 50 percent from the field and endeared himself throughout the organization.

He could've elected to play out the final year of his contract and become a free agent in the summer of 2016. Instead, he opted out and re-signed with the Nets. Young is in Brooklyn for the long haul.

"It was a smooth transition. The guys on the team, the front office and the coaching staff were so welcoming that it made me want to stay," Young said. "Whatever we asked for, they got it done. It's frustrating when you're in an environment where you're not happy with a lot of things that go on. But for the most part, I'm happy here, and we have a great coach in Lionel Hollins. I think he's done a helluva job putting us in a position where we can be successful, and I think he's going to continue to do that."

Emboldened by his new contract and his emergence as one of the team's pillars, Young's primary goal is to make his teammates better with his leadership.

"I just want to become a better leader, a more vocal leader, and be able to go out there and lead my troops," he said. "Win, lose or draw, you're going to know I was out there giving 110 percent. And as a team, just continue to make the playoffs, but hopefully get farther and potentially advance to the Eastern Conference championship or win the championship."

Many people believe just making the playoffs would be a surprise for this team. After all, Lopez and veteran swingman Joe Johnson are the lone players left from a failed championship-or-bust core that once included point guard Deron Williams, future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce and Garnett. Even some people inside the organization are viewing 2015-16 as a "bridge" or "rebuilding" year.

But Young doesn't think that way.

"I mean, this isn't my first rodeo," Young said. "Just about every team I've been on has been an underdog. And I like playing that way, I like being the underdog. I like playing with a chip on my shoulder. I like playing with a sense of urgency, because when you're not playing with a sense of urgency, that's when people creep up on you. That's when they beat you."

Young expects to have an expanded offensive role this season.

"I definitely expect them to have plays for me," he said. "I think last year I came in so late, everything already was kind of set and settled. It was just one of those situations where it was just you couldn't really take the time to throw plays at me. I got one or two plays that were drawn up for me every game, but I'm one of those guys that's an intangibles player. I can do a lot of different things -- whether it's hustling, getting rebounds, hitting the offensive glass."

The Nets and their fans look forward to having Young in the fold for a full season. Young simply is looking forward to focusing on basketball and glad he's finally getting back to being himself again -- living for today rather than living just to get to tomorrow.

"For all the women out there, I would definitely say it's important to get regular exams, because breast cancer is brutal," said Young, who is working closely with the Susan G. Komen breast cancer awareness organization in Memphis.

"It's a terrible, terrible disease that's not just killing lots and lots of women, but men, too. It's one of those things you don't want to have to deal with, but we have to find a cure."