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Happy to be here

Nick Young's life has been touched by tragedy, but on the court he's as exuberant as ever

January 12, 2007|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

He looks so happy, bobbing and spinning and weaving through defenders with a smile for every fadeaway jumper and a chest-bump for every soaring drive toward the basket.

Yet there are six words that can ground Nick Young faster than a directive from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Junior, let's go out and play.

That's what the USC junior swingman says to himself before every game to honor the older brother who was taken from him by a gang member's bullet. Those words cut especially deep when the Trojans played host to UCLA last Feb. 19 -- 15 years to the day after Charles Young Jr. had been killed.

"Nick kind of dedicated that game to Junior," said Charles Young, the father of both young men.

With Young scoring a team-high 15 points and playing all 40 minutes, the Trojans upset the 15th-ranked Bruins, 71-68. It was UCLA's last defeat before reaching the NCAA tournament championship game, and it signaled a possible turning point for a USC program that had won only five Pacific 10 Conference games during Young's freshman season.

Instead, the Trojans dropped seven of their last nine games, and then they suffered their most devastating loss. Ryan Francis, a freshman guard so close to Young that some acquaintances were fooled into thinking they were cousins, was fatally shot in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., the unintended victim of a dispute between two other men.

Young was supposed to deliver a eulogy at Francis' funeral but became so grief-stricken that a teammate had to step in.

"It's been kind of hard," Young said this week. "He was my roommate on every road trip."

Young doesn't say much about the tragedies that have deprived him of a brother and a dear friend, but he is otherwise upbeat.

"Looking at where he's come from, I don't know where he gets all his joy and happiness," said Andre Chevalier, who coached Young at Reseda Cleveland High. "I don't know where he's able to pull the strength from."

*

A good starting point is Mae Young, a matriarch so boisterous that she stopped Arizona Coach Lute Olson in his tracks.

At the new Galen Center, Mae shouts encouragement to the Trojans from above the USC players' entrance. That means she's far away from opposing players and coaches, who were subjected to a different kind of banter when the Trojans played at the Sports Arena and opponents were well within earshot.

Hearing the woman's taunts last season after USC's victory over his Wildcats, Olson could only pause, shake his head and smile.

"She doesn't hold anything back," Nick Young said. "She's always opening her mouth and talking."

Acquaintances say she is the source of Young's exuberance.

"When you see him on the court, banging his chest with his fist, that's his mom," said Dan Forer, the producer of a feature-length documentary on the Young family that because of NCAA rules cannot be released until he turns professional or graduates from USC.

Young derives a different set of traits from his father, whom he describes as "relaxed all the time, very chill."

Maybe it was that side of Young that prompted him to laugh after missing a free throw last season against UCLA. Or to secretly root for an Oregon State player to make a pair of last-minute free throws, just so Young could have the opportunity to make the game-winning shot, which he buried for a 72-70 victory.

"When I laugh and joke around, I don't put that much pressure on myself," Young said. "I don't feel like if I miss, everybody will be mad. I just try to keep a good attitude about everything."

Young's trademark fadeaway jumper, described by UCLA Coach Ben Howland as a "pro shot," is a direct descendant of his playing against four older brothers, who used to take him to the park and bang him around on the basketball court.

"When I was 5 or 6," Young recalled, "they were about 6-foot-3, so playing with them I had to fade away or do reverse layups because I knew they would block my shots. I just grew up around tall people."

The tallest figuratively was Charles Jr., who had a special bond with his youngest brother.

"Junior would take him to the movies, to the beach, to the parks," Charles Young said. "Every time he and his girlfriend would go out, they would take him with them.

"Nick was the baby. And you know how babies are -- they always get their way."

Charles Jr., who had just started business school and had plans to get married, was shot by a gang member a few blocks from Dorsey High in 1991. The family doesn't like to discuss the details. Nick was 5 at the time.

The pain of that loss only intensified over the years, especially when Young enrolled at Dorsey and had classes with members of the gang that had murdered his brother.

"It was real tough there," he said. "Gang-bangers and stuff used to try to come at me and mess with me. I just didn't like it."

Distraught, Young stopped going to class and spent his days at a nearby park shooting baskets. He was a high school dropout without a future.

"He kind of gave up a little bit," Mae Young said. "He stopped caring."

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