Persistence on and off court defines Kevin Young’s journey to KU

Kansas forward Kevin Young celebrates a dunk by center Jeff Withey against Belmont during the second half on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas forward Kevin Young celebrates a dunk by center Jeff Withey against Belmont during the second half on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Friday, February 1, 2013

There’s a fence near St. James Catholic Church in Kevin Young’s hometown of Perris, Calif., that stands just 3-4 feet tall but once looked like the gates of Troy to young Kevin.

Every Sunday starting at age 4, Kevin would follow his father, Kevin Young Sr., down to that fence and figure out a way to work his skinny frame over the chain-link barrier.

The leap was easy for Kevin’s father, a 6-foot-7 former San Jacinto College basketball player who routinely joined friends and family members on the outdoor court for pick-up games. Getting to the other side was a little tougher for Kevin, but always worth it because it started a passion for the game that would lead him to four different schools and countless thrills, most notably those he has experienced at Kansas University, where the 6-8 senior forward starts for the nation’s No. 2-ranked team.

“I think that’s the earliest memory I have of basketball,” Young said. “I remember dribbling on the sideline and I got to shoot when they were picking the teams. I just fell in love with the whole thing.”

Basketball cast such a strong spell on Young that, if left on his own, his obsession easily could have kept him from playing at a level his talents merit. Whenever his passion tugged him too far in one direction, a powerful force in his life tugged hard in the other direction. Young’s mother, Alicia Morales, admitted to being more strict with her son than most parents.

“He wasn’t allowed to go out in the streets, he wasn’t allowed to go to house parties, he had a curfew at 10 o’clock,” Morales said. “Everywhere I went, he went. If I went to a baby shower, he was there with me.”

First stop of many

As Young’s basketball talents blossomed — he first dunked as an eighth- grader, said Missouri recruited him throughout high school and North Carolina coach Roy Williams told him he would sign him after he attended a year of prep school — his mother’s academic expectations kept pace. Morales said no when her uncle asked Young to join his traveling team and, later, made her son repeat English and Spanish classes, even though he passed them the first time.

“His grades were good but not by my standards,” Morales said. “I knew they weren’t good enough for him to go Division I, and I wanted him to have that option.”

The summer after his senior year of high school, Young was invited to the Reebok All-American Camp and signed with coach Bill Bayno at nearby Loyola-Marymount in time for the 2008-09 season.

“I saw an opportunity to get playing time right away and I jumped on it,” Young said.

The playing time came, even when the coach left after just three games because of health reasons, and, with assistant coach Max Good elevated to head coach, Young had a blast despite LMU’s 3-28 final record.

“My freshman year I just jacked up a crazy number of shots,” he recalled. “I played 39-40 minutes a game, I was a starter and we did as much as we could.”

During his sophomore year, things changed. Good, with whom Young still keeps in touch, began giving his minutes to younger players. Young stewed as he watched others play in his place and often stared into the crowd toward his parents, trying to explain with a look that he had no clue what was happening. The issue never was the forward’s ability. Good liked Young then. He loves him now.

“He has an extremely high motor, he’s active, he’s tireless, he has a great deal of toughness,” Good said in a telephone interview. “You don’t usually associate toughness with someone of his body type, but he’s very tough and he has a relentless refuse-to-lose attitude.”

What Good witnessed, through the ups and downs of those two seasons at LMU, was merely the beginning of Young showing just how tough he could be.

A college student out on his own now, Young did not have his mother there making him study, holding basketball as a motivational carrot. The state of his basketball career consumed him. After deciding to transfer, Young let his grades slip.

“I just wanted out of there,” he said. “I wasn’t happy anymore.”

Putting in the work

Unable to transfer to a Div. I school because of his poor grades, Young enrolled at Barstow Community College about an hour away from his home. He was placed there by Fresno State, which wanted to bring him on the following semester, but he never played a minute of basketball during the fall of 2010. While focusing on his grades, Young worked as an unofficial assistant coach. Being around the team gave him the opportunity to design practice plans, draw up plays and, most importantly, stay in shape and keep his game sharp.

While at Barstow, Young got wind that the Fresno State coaching staff was likely leaving and found himself looking for another path, this time with the help of San Diego State. That led him to San Bernardino Junior College, just 20 minutes from his home, where he loaded up his schedule and passed 31 units during the spring of 2011 to regain his Div. I eligibility. He never suited up at SBJC either, but did practice with the women’s team regularly, which allowed him to round out his game.

Those who knew him at both places saw the same player that KU fans see today — a happy, high-energy, afro-wearing athlete who operates as if he gets paid per smile.

“I’ve never seen him be anything but humble, but thankful,” said Mark Fraser, a former Bartsow assistant coach. “He would always say, ‘You guys gotta realize this might be your last year playing. You gotta do everything you can every chance you get.’ He constantly was talking about what a wonderful experience it was to play ball, even at Barstow. They were lucky to get there is what he would tell them. Nobody knew he was going to Kansas, but the guys really respected him even then.”

If there’s such a thing as basketball karma, it soon found Young.

Shortly after graduating from San Bernardino in 2011, and two days before leaving for Puerto Rico to play summer ball with the national team (he was eligible because his grandparents were born there), Young received a call from Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend. 

“It shocked me,” he said. “I wasn’t really expecting it. For Kansas to call was out of nowhere. I never would’ve thought I’d be given the opportunity to play here.”

A day after talking to his parents about the conversation in his grandmother’s front yard, Young took a phone call from KU coach Bill Self.

“He told me he’d never seen me play, but he’d heard a lot of great things about me and he liked my energy,” Young said.

Even though he had committed to San Diego State, Young said he felt he owed it to himself — after all he had done to keep basketball in his life — to check out KU.

“The first thing that went through my mind was that Kansas was a bigger stage,” he said with a smile. “I always remembered when I was looking at Missouri, people told me I wouldn’t be able to play in the Big 12 and this was an opportunity to prove them wrong. So I came here on an unofficial visit and I just never really left.”

A part of history

Each time Young reached a turning point, his parents left the decisions to him. Others did not.

“To us, Kansas is like the holy grail,” said Fraser, who watches every KU game with a group of Young’s Barstow buddies. “When he said he had a chance to go to Kansas, I said, ‘You go there for the education, buddy.’ I said, ‘If you get to play, if you even get to step on the court, you are blessed.’”

Good credits Young’s path and persistence — from his immediate impact at LMU to three transfers, a stint as dorm president, a coaching gig and regular scrimmages with nine women — for landing him in the position he’s in today.

“He already had an incredible motor,” Good said. “But going through all of that probably hardened his nose even more. I’m sure he’s tickled to death to be where he is and I’m tickled to death for him.”

For many athletes, the appreciation part of the experience usually comes much later, years down the road when the letter jacket no longer fits and the newspaper clippings have started to yellow. Not Young.

“Every time I watch the intro video and they show all the past players and all the history, it’s like, ‘I’m a part of this now,’” he said. “People don’t always understand that they’re living in history, that they’re creating history. I’m just grateful.”

Those who know him best don’t need to hear it to know it.

“It doesn’t come into conversations when we talk and stuff, but I understand it,” said Young’s father. “Every time I see him play, I can tell.”

Added Morales: “I always knew he would get back to playing because I knew how much it meant to him. What I like, when I see him out there, is he’s enjoying it. He loves it. And I’m just so proud that he made it here. He considers this home.”