There was no swarming crowd of fans or giant banner at the airport welcoming new Clippers shooting guard Nick Young back to Los Angeles. But considering the enthusiasm around his acquisition, there probably could have been.
Between arriving at LAX on March 16 and making his team debut two days later against the Detroit Pistons, Young was introduced to the media, ate at Pinkberry and Jack in the Box, toured the Clippers’ Playa Vista training facility, ran through a small portion of the offensive playbook, spent time with his parents, Mae and Charles Sr., and even took the scenic route to Staples Center in order to “soak in” the experience of playing with his hometown team for the first time as a professional.
“I usually just come here as a visitor, you know, one game and I’m out, so I’ve got to adjust to that, knowing I’m not leaving,” Young told the media when he was introduced.
Young was born in Los Angeles. He endured turmoil and heartache here. He attended USC after three high schools in five years. No matter how far away basketball has taken him, the City of Angels is home. He said when news broke that the Washington Wizards, the only franchise he knew in the NBA, had dealt him to the Clippers as part of a three-team trade, his college coach Tim Floyd and several fellow NBAers that are L.A. natives called or messaged him congratulations.
“It means a lot,” Young said.”The city has embraced me. So many followers, hit me up on Twitter, saying good things. Seeing people out when I’m driving around, it’s just a great feeling, knowing the city’s behind me, too.”
The city has also been the scene of unthinkable tragedy for the Young family.
In 1991, while living near Baldwin Hills, a neighborhood south of Interstate 10 in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles, Charles Young Jr., Nick’s older brother, was shot and killed by a member of the Bloods street gang. Charles was exiting a class at a local community college and was mistaken for a rival gang member. He died almost instantly at the scene.
Nick Young was only five years old at the time, but the years that followed were tumultuous. According to the 2007 film, “Second Chance Season,” which chronicled Young’s journey through high school, his oldest brother John suffered a breakdown following the shooting and was committed to a mental institution. Charles Sr. said in the documentary, “One bullet killed two sons.”
As Young entered Dorsey High in the fall of 1999, he did not play sports and his work in the classroom was subjugated by fear. He told the L.A. Daily News in 2003 that as a freshman, things like homework were secondary to avoiding “dangerous situations.” Dorsey is located in the proximity of where his brother was killed and several members of the same gang were in his classes.
In 2003, he transferred to Cleveland High of Reseda, Calif. and rode a public bus 20 miles each way. The move sparked his basketball career and more importantly helped Young get back on track in the classroom and in life. Soon the smiling, good-natured young man that would become a bona fide NBA scorer emerged as a premier high-school athlete. He was rated among the nation’s top 50 prospects, averaging 25 points and 11 rebounds as a 6-foot-5 junior.
“[Basketball] was something that kept me focused,” he said. “It kept my mind off everything else that was going on. I figured if I just stayed in the gym it was big distraction from everything else. I’d say doing all that, it saved me.”
The Second Chance
Young’s life turnaround was far from complete.
His first year at Cleveland counted for his seventh and eighth high school semesters. Because of the problems he encountered at his previous schools, he was not on track to graduate and exhausted his athletic eligibility despite playing only one season of basketball.
According to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), a student becomes ineligible after maintaining enrollment in eight consecutive semesters (Bylaw 204). In other words, even though Young did not play varsity sports for the duration of his school years, he was no longer permitted to suit up with his Cleveland High teammates.
What followed served as a near unprecedented step for high school sports in California. Young’s choices at the time consisted of submitting a hardship waiver to allow him to continue his athletic career and attempt to earn a scholarship, transfer to a prep school outside of California, enroll at community college, or finish his credits at Cleveland, subsequently sitting out a season.
He opted for the foremost and least likely option, submitting the waiver and putting his fate in the hands of the state’s athletic board and City Section commissioner. The dilemma from on high was that CIF was leery of granting a fifth year of eligibility to an elite athlete, in part, because of the precedent it could set moving forward.
Young’s high school coach and mentor, Andre Chevalier, told the Daily News in May 2003, “Considering what he's been through with his brother and his family and how difficult things were, I think he definitely deserves it. To me, this is a case where it's in the best interest of the kid to give him another year. He is just now getting his life turned around, and basketball had played a big role in that. It gives him the motivation to stay in school and to do his homework and to be responsible.”
CIF awarded Young with a fifth season, deeming, “The hardship is the direct and sole cause of the student extending his attendance beyond eight consecutive semesters even though the student was in attendance for those eight consecutive semesters.”
In many respects it was a landmark decision and Young took advantage. He was tabbed the seventh best player in the country by Hoop Scoop and led Cleveland to a 25-4 record. He also graduated and eventually decided to stay home and attend USC on a full scholarship.
“I went through a lot, dealing with things in high school,” Young said. “I didn’t know if I was going to graduate, pass my S.A.T.’s, in general, just playing basketball. When I started off I didn’t play my first two years. To be here now, is unbelievable. To be back in L.A. is a dream.”
The Trade Back Home
Clippers Vice President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey said Young had been on the Clippers radar for a while, but talks of the trade that brought Young to L.A. appeared dead the night before and didn’t fully materialize until 11:15 a.m. Pacific Time, 45 minutes before the noon trade deadline on March 15.
“[Wizards General Manager] Ernie [Grunfeld] called about 45 minutes before the deadline and we jumped back into it,” Olshey said.
What the Clippers did to “make the math work” in a deal that sent Nene Hilario to Washington, JaVale McGee to Denver, and Young to Los Angeles, seemingly made everything work for the new Clippers shooting guard.
In Washington he was mired in four-straight years of playing near the bottom of the standings. With the Clippers he immediately became part of a team readying for a playoff run.
“You do feel a little pressure, especially being back home,” Young said. “Everybody’s calling you saying, ‘We’ve got to be a championship team now.’ I’m just going to go out there and have fun, get to the playoffs and go from there.”
The Clippers appealed to him for many reasons, including the opportunity to play alongside All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the idea of contributing to a contender. But Young said he was also excited to carry on his underdog story.
“I’m always the underdog. Just like Clippers-Lakers, I’m the underdog. I believe in making things better like we did at ‘SC, a Sweet 16 and started getting other players coming here.
“I know when I was with the Wizards, Sam [Cassell] couldn’t stop talking about his playoff run [with the Clippers]. And I remember that was during my ‘SC days. I remember that era and Quentin Richardson and them, doing ‘this’ [tapping his forehead with both fists]. They had some good times there. And the Clippers are at the top of their game right now.”
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