Lakers guard Nick Young, left, and teammate Jordan Farmar share a light-hearted… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
It was a Christmas gift that never appeared on any star basketball player's wish list.
Inside the hefty SAT study guide filled with algebra equations and vocabulary teasers was a letter from one high school friend to another, a message of hope for better days ahead.
"It was mostly about he wanted to see me do good in my career and in life," Nick Young recalled recently of the gift he received from Jordan Farmar in December 2003, nearly a decade before the Southern California natives would become Lakers teammates this summer.
Young, then a senior at Cleveland High in the San Fernando Valley, was struggling to attain a high enough test score to allow him to attend college.
Farmar, then a senior at rival Taft High in nearby Woodland Hills, had used the same study guide he gave Young to qualify academically for UCLA. "It was really just trying to be a friend to see him play at the next level," Farmar said.
Young finally got there, starring at USC and later being selected in the first round of the NBA draft after Farmar's assist helped him get the score he needed on his third SAT attempt.
Now the players once known as Peanut Butter and Jelly when they played on the same summer club team, before being dubbed the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird of the Pacific 10 Conference, are simply Nick and Jordan, and they might be just what the Lakers need.
One season after the Lakers wrecked themselves in part by infighting and silly jealousies, their locker room should exude the warmth of close friends who adore the sometimes off-putting Kobe Bryant and are thrilled to play for maligned Coach Mike D'Antoni because Farmar and Young fit the fast-paced offense he likes to run.
Young, 28, is an energetic swingman whose ability to create his own shot leads to scoring binges.
Farmar, 26, is a dynamic playmaker who is as comfortable on forays to the basket as he is spotting up for jumpers.
"Our ability to play off one another and play at a high tempo like that and put pressure on the defense will be exciting," Farmar said.
Farmar and Young first made their marks on the court as high school nemeses in the West Valley League, though Young's prowess in the classroom wasn't quite as legendary. He landed at Cleveland High after dropping out of his first two high schools.
Young left Hamilton High because he was unfocused academically, repeatedly skipping school to play basketball at a park. He departed Dorsey because he found himself in classes with members of the Bloods gang who had murdered his older brother Charles Jr. when Nick was 5.
"They're asking you where you're from and what gang you're from, and I don't gang-bang, so I'm like, 'I play basketball,'" Young said. "I didn't want to deal with that."
Cleveland provided a sanctuary where teachers and administrators rallied around Young, even if his classmates sometimes didn't. He was enrolled in special-education classes and mocked as a dumb athlete who couldn't do anything besides shoot a basketball.
Along came Farmar, an honors student at Taft High who befriended Young despite what seemed like opposite personalities.
Said Young of Farmar: "I just heard about this guy making noise, having some big games and him just talking trash."
Said Farmar of Young: "He was always easygoing, always laughing and smiling. He was a great kid."
The smile faded a bit toward the end of Young's senior year. He prepared for the possibility of attending a junior college or a prep school after he failed to attain the SAT score he needed on his second attempt.
Young turned to his study guide, which included handwritten notes from Farmar intended to help him memorize math fundamentals. "It kind of broke it down a little easier for me," Young said.
Farmar followed up with phone calls to check on Young's progress, asking if he had any questions.
It turned out Young had just enough answers. He learned on graduation day that he had scored an 890 on his SATs, high enough to attend college. "He was running around the football field jumping up like a 2-year-old," said Andre Chevalier, Young's coach at Cleveland.
Farmar tried to persuade Young to attend UCLA, but Young stuck with his initial commitment to USC. They both continued to dream of playing for their hometown Lakers.
When Young learned the Trojans would get to use the Lakers' locker room at Staples Center for the Pac-10 tournament, he quickly snagged Bryant's locker. That wasn't all he took.
"I ended up taking one of his leg sleeves and played in the game with it," Young said. "If you go back and look, you'll see I had cardinal and gold on with a purple leg sleeve and a yellow knee sleeve."
Farmar one-upped Young when the Lakers made him a first-round draft pick in 2006, and he went on to win NBA titles as Bryant's teammate in 2009 and 2010. Farmar then spent two seasons with the New Jersey Nets before playing for a team in Turkey last season.
The allure of returning to the Lakers and playing for D'Antoni prompted Farmar to sign a one-year contract for $1.1 million, far less than he could have made overseas. Farmar also made a pitch to Young, who had spent his first six NBA seasons with the Washington Wizards, the Clippers and the Philadelphia 76ers before signing a two-year, $2.3-million contract this summer with the Lakers.
"I told him it's special to be a Laker," Farmar said, "and as kids from L.A. we have an opportunity to do some big things this year and be part of the group that helps restore things."
Young couldn't disagree, knowing Farmar's knack for helping him fix situations that seem hopeless.