Tamera Young and Michael Jordan share more than just an undying love for the game of basketball.
They also share Wilmington, North Carolina as a hometown and Laney High School as a training ground for reaching the highest levels the game provides.
They both have retired jerseys — Young’s No. 11 and Jordan’s No. 23 — hanging high in the rafters in the gym at Laney.
Young and Jordan also share a “prove your doubters wrong” mantra.
It’s a guiding principle that continues to fuel Young’s decade-long WNBA career, which has included stops in Atlanta, Chicago and Las Vegas. The mindset was also a big part of Jordan’s championship DNA, from his NCAA title-clinching shot his freshman year at North Carolina to his final NBA title-winning shot with the Chicago Bulls.
Young, whose love and appreciation for Jordan goes deeper than a robust, Jordan-influenced sneaker collection and being kindred spirits from the same humble beginnings, spoke with NBA.com‘s Sekou Smith about all things Wilmington and Jordan with All-Star 2019 on tap for this weekend in their native North Carolina.
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Sekou Smith: When did it register for you that someone from Wilmington will always have Michael Jordan as a shadow in your in career because of that connection?
Tamera Young: I don’t think it really registered for me until I got to high school and we started getting Jordan sneakers and we would get some gear. But honestly, I never really thought about it growing up. It wasn’t until after I got older and made it to the league and you hear people talking like, ‘Wow, I’m the only woman that made it to the league’ from our hometown and Jordan, the greatest of all time, went to the same high school. But it’s certain things that you don’t really think about until later and people start talking about it to you. For me, I was so focused on getting better and reaching my own goals that I never really dwelled on it.
SS: We all have our heroes and we’re all fans of certain players. Was MJ always on that pedestal for you, given the Wilmington connection?
TY: For sure. Aside from my brother being someone that I looked up to, Michael was the one on the men’s side. I had my women’s favorite players as well. It was as much about his game and the way he played as it was anything else. I think Michael captured the imagination of generations of players, wherever you were from. And that was no different for me, being from the same place.
SS: I’d imagine growing up when you did, in the aftermath of Jordan’s playing career, that everyone you came across as you were on your own journey had a Jordan story for you.
TY: I feel like the older people, they have their stories. But other than that … I’ve heard people telling stories and talking junk like, ‘Oh, I was better than Mike when we were kids, back in my day’ and stuff like that. People always want to try to relate to Mike and what they’ve known of him and known about him or whatever. But I didn’t know anyone who personally knew him other than the teachers or coaches that were still at Laney when I went there.
SS: Speaking of Laney, his story as a guy who came up the hard away, sort of an underdog story early in his high school career, does that fuel someone with a hoop dream coming from the same place? I mean, no offense, but Wilmington isn’t exactly known as a hoops hotbed.
TY: I know it happened for me as well. I didn’t start playing AAU until maybe my sophomore year of high school. That’s really when I first heard about it. I joined a team in Raleigh and my teammates on that team had been playing together since they were 10 years old. So I didn’t start getting any real exposure until then. And then maybe my senior year, when I was playing in this East-West all-star game in Greensboro. I remember, as a matter of fact, it was one of the coaches from [North] Carolina, I had won the MVP in that game, and they were like, ‘Who is this kid?’ They didn’t really know about me and they were trying to figure out who I was and what my story was. But at that moment I was already committed and going to James Madison.
At that time I was getting those prospect letters but those prospect letters didn’t mean anything to me. At that time it was the handwritten letters that really said something. So I can feel that late bloomer vibe, so to speak, as well. Even in college, I didn’t get any real notoriety until maybe the USA Basketball tryouts my sophomore year. I got sent home. And then here I am in my senior year of college and I’m the eighth pick in the [WNBA] draft from a mid-major, you know? I didn’t have a lot of TV games or national exposure. But I was inspired and I went to the pre-draft camp and put in the work.
I could also say for myself, I was on varsity all four years and as we know famously, or maybe infamously now, Mike wasn’t on the varsity his first year. So yeah, that underdog feeling that personified certain parts of his career does resonate with me being from the same place and a somewhat similar situation. I feel like I had to put in the extra work and continually prove myself as well.
People always seem to overlook or discredit the fact that [Michael Jordan is] from Wilmington, North Carolina. And we’re proud of that fact.”
SS: How often did you hear from the people around Wilmington that being from that city, in order to make it, the chances are you’re going to have to travel that same route Jordan did, where you are always having to prove yourself at every stop?
TY: For sure. Even with Jordan, people love to say he’s originally from New York. He was born in Brooklyn. But he was raised in Wilmington. Or people want to affiliate him with Chicago because that’s where he became a superstar and global icon, winning championships for the Bulls. It’e easy to forget Wilmington. People always seem to overlook or discredit the fact that he’s from Wilmington, North Carolina. And we’re proud of that fact. It’s just how the basketball world is with the notoriety. They want you to be from a certain place where the talent is always known. But I relish the fact that being from Wilmington, whether you were the greatest player of all time or me or anyone else, we’ve always had to push and grind to get your respect. And no, I don’t think the exposure is there. Like I said, I didn’t have a lot of college coaches coming to my game or even knowing about me until I went to Raleigh, to that bigger city where there was more exposure. It’s something we carry being from Wilmington that I think sets us apart.
SS: Do you sit back now at this stage of your career, after seeing all that you’ve done and doing all the you have done, and think about how to change that for the next generation of kids, the next Michael Jordan or Tamera Young in Wilmington dreaming about chasing that same dream?
TY: I think the people there in the city have to support the kids and that’s where it starts. Don’t get me wrong, I did have the support of the community behind me. But it’s also about the exposure of bringing people to Wilmington to see these kids and the work they put in. I always had to travel somewhere else for the exposure. A lot of girls my age weren’t loving the game the way I was or as much as I was. That’s one reason I gravitated towards playing with the boys. But at the same time, there’s only so long you can do that and so far your game will grow doing that before you are really going to get the exposure you need. It helped my game, no doubt, playing with the boys growing up. And believe me, every single one of them thought they were going to be the next Michael Jordan, being from Wilmington. But I also think it’s just something in each generation, in terms of what the kids want and what they are willing to work for, because no one is given anything. You have to work for it.
SS: We’ve always heard about Jordan’s work ethic and where that came from. Even after he’d made it and started winning championships at the NBA level, his work ethic was legendary. Do you think that’s at least partially a product of that Wilmington and Laney environment he came up in?
TY: Absolutely. It’s who we are in Wilmington. People work their fingers to the bone. For me, I was always determined and this was something that I loved, so I was always prepared to go that extra mile to see it through. I knew that was a part of the story, that being from such humble beginnings, you’d have to put in that extra work to make it.
SS: What was it about you and perhaps inside of you as a youngster that kept driving you, because the understanding you’re talking about is usually absent in most people on the way up the mountain?
TY: I know I keep bringing it up but it’s the truth. I think the fact that I always felt overlooked gave me that extra motivation. Nobody ever really gave anything to me. I always had to prove myself. Even when I was going to college, people used to always tell me I wasn’t going to make it to the WNBA from James Madison. And if you look at it, they would have seemed right. No one had ever been drafted from James Madison until I was drafted. But it was just something that was instilled in me, to prove doubters wrong and then the love that I had. Just playing outside in my backyard with my brother when I was little. I just had a love for the game. I just continued to work at it and want to be the best. And not just basketball but everything I competed in. Even when I ran sprints in track, I wasn’t running for second place. I was always working to be the best. I think having that drive is what pushed me to get here and then stay at this level as long as I can. The average WNBA career lasts three and half years. And here I am going into my 11th season. So I think that was the main thing for me, being self-self-motivated and having that work ethic.
When someone from your hometown makes it, someone who has walked the same halls at Laney, someone truly from Wilmington, it’s inspirational.”
SS: All-Star weekend brings an unusual spotlight on not only the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, Michael Jordan and by extension Wilmington and everyone connected to that city. What does that mean to you as a Wilmington native knowing what’s coming with basketball’s biggest showcase coming to your home state?
TY: It means so much. More than you could understand if you’re not from Wilmington. When someone from your hometown makes it, someone who has walked the same halls at Laney, someone truly from Wilmington, it’s inspirational. I don’t think there is any stronger element than inspiration. And this is an inspiration for all young people from where I’m from that anything is possible. You feel like we all made it. This is a moment where you really feel like Wilmington is on the map now. People see where we are from. North Carolina. Charlotte. It’s just the love that you know is coming for the place you are from and cherish.
SS: You have a unique perspective, though, living and playing overseas as well (in Israel right now). So you also get a global view of how impactful Michael Jordan’s legacy and brand is beyond the United States. I think everybody thinks they understand that but if you haven’t traveled to the other side of the world, you really don’t. I’d imagine that makes you smile every now and then when you notice that logo in your travels?
TY: Definitely. It just shows his impact on the world. Not just adults but kids, people of all ages, you see them rocking Jordans and the gear. They’re buying it for babies and grandparents alike. And it’s literally all over the world. How many brands are consistent with that all over the world? It just shows the impact Jordan had as a player and even more since he played. Even now, he’s still one of the top-selling and most iconic brands and figures out there. It just shows the love the world has always had for him, his abilities and the inspiration he has provided to countless people from all walks of life. And it’s honestly crazy to think it all started in Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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