ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s gotta be the fro, right? This must be some Sampson-esque story about the power of some delicately sculpted follicles and the basketball skills that come from them.
How else do you explain Kansas senior Kevin Young, the 6-foot-8 human pogo stick with the never-ending supply of energy? How else do you explain a mid-major power forward transferring to a tradition-rich blue-blood and becoming a key catalyst on a No. 1 seed?
How else do you explain the reverse alley-oops, and the 6.7 rebounds per game, and Young’s starting role when the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks face No. 4 seed Michigan in the South Regional semifinal here at Cowboys Stadium at 6:37 p.m. on Friday.
“He makes the easiest plays hard,” KU coach Bill Self says, “and makes the hardest plays look easy.”
Gotta be the fro, right?
Never mind that Young has always been like this, the bouncy child in a multi-cultural family in southern California. Young’s maternal grandparents were born in Puerto Rico, and his step-grandfather was half Mexican and half Irish, and his mother, Alicia Morales, always wanted her son to be friendly and open to everything life has to offer.
“That’s just the way I was raised,” Young says.
Never mind that Morales always had to get her son on a local basketball court or a running track, lest he return home in the evening with a full tank of fuel to burn.
“I thought he had ADD when he was young,” Morales says. “He was so hyper all the time.”
And never mind that Young’s basketball style, an unconventional mix of hustle, athleticism and unbridled joy, fits his eccentric personality. Young is a college senior who enjoys reading up on forgotten Civil Rights leaders, studying the differences between religions, and once agreed to take part in a KU fraternity’s charity event that ended up with Young getting a pie in the face.
“Kevin is like the younger brother that finds out something and he has to tell you,” KU junior Justin Wesley says. “Every little thing he finds out, he wants to tell you about. Even when you don’t feel like talking, he’ll still finish his point and still finish his story.
“His personality is just one of a kind. I’ve never met anyone that just has as much energy as he does. He’s just always happy all the time.”
It’s Thursday afternoon inside the KU locker room at Cowboys Stadium, and Kevin Young is just four days removed from one of his best games in a Kansas uniform. He had scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a 70-58 victory over North Carolina, helping KU reach the Sweet 16 for the third straight year.
But afterward, Self wanted to talk about Young’s defense. He had shadowed North Carolina guard P.J. Hairston all over the floor, forcing the shorter and quicker Hairston into a six-for-17 shooting performance.
But on Thursday afternoon, Young is not talking about any of this. His teammates say that Young is the team’s wise-old storyteller, the senior who is always reading up on something that’s going on in the world. So Young tells you what he’s been pondering lately.
He’s an African-American studies major, so his latest assignment was to read “The Auto-Biography of Malcolm X.”
“It’s part of history,” Young says. “All the stories. And all the people that have touched this world.
“The men behind the scenes. And all the people like that. There were student athletes that changed their colleges and paved the way for what we’re doing now.”
Young’s intellectual curiosity doesn’t stop there. In the span of a few minutes, Young makes reference to Bayard Rustin, a prominent member in the early civil-rights moment, and talks about his interest in studying the teachings and histories of different religions.
“Religion has always been one thing that’s always fascinated me,” Young says. “There’s so many out there. And all of them all have different stories and different tales. And sometimes they’re similar.”
Young says he’s always been like this. But some of his intellectual pursuits have been refined by years of maturity. Five years ago, Young was a senior at Perris High in Perris, Calif. He was one of the better players in the area, but his slender body type and tweener status projected him as more of a mid-major recruit. He landed at nearby Loyola-Marymount in Los Angeles and averaged 9.1 points per game as a freshman and 10.7 as a sophomore. Young, though, wasn’t happy with the situation and decided to transfer. He was done with the place, and his grades suffered in his last semester.
Young would then spend a year at San Bernardino Community College. He didn’t play, but he did help the basketball program as an assistant coach. And two years later, when Young threads a high-low pass to Jeff Withey, Self will say that Young can feel like another coach on the floor.
Of course, that may come after Self is finished cursing out Young for throwing a ridiculously bad pass.
“He can make plays you can’t coach,” Self says, “and then makes plays like he’s never been coached.”
Young’s time at Kansas has been fast and furious. When he arrived on campus, KU’s coaches weren’t quite sure if Young would be able to make a major impact. And two years later, he is a starter on a team that still has visions of a second straight Final Four.
“I was just thinking about it the other day,” Young says. “I would have never thought that I’d be in two consecutive NCAA Tournaments after the first two years that I had. It’s pretty amazing, and I think it’s pretty cool.”
When basketball is over — and that could come after a professional career overseas — Young says he’s like to become a teacher. Young kids, he says. The age where he could make a difference.
“I would like to teach,” Young says.” “I think one of the most fascinating things for me is to spark one of the great minds that does change history. I think that’s very important for me, just to be able to help children learn about life and just to grow.”
But first, there is more basketball. And for Young, that means at least one more night of running and jumping and relentless energy, his afro starring on college basketball’s biggest stage.
And on Thursday afternoon, as his mother made the drive down to Texas, she confirmed one thing. No, it’s definitely not just the ’fro.
“I hate it,” Morales says. “I really hope he cuts it soon. Maybe at the end of the season.”