Korleone Young is 34 now and he’s never going to be an NBA superstar. That’s life.
And life is something that Young, so good as a young basketball star at East High, then Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, really never learned how to cope with.
He’s trying to learn now.
Young was the subject of a story on the web site Grantland.com a few months back in which he was revealing, honest, reflective and hopeful. If you haven’t read the piece, written by Jonathan Abrams, it’s a powerful account of Young’s promise and obliviousness.
Young once had a full bank account but couldn’t balance a checkbook. Others did his dirty work, faithful that part of the millions of dollars they knew would be coming Young’s way would land in their pockets.
But it never happened.
Young played 15 NBA games. He spent years in basketball’s minor leagues and overseas in more countries than he can remember. Those millions never came.
Young is back in Wichita, a city he still loves despite all the sleepless nights he’s spent here. He’s working with kids, teaching them to become better basketball players and, he hopes, helping them prepare for life in a way he never did. He’s working on a book he hopes to title “One and Done.”
“Every time that term is brought up, my name is mentioned,” Young said. “Stacey King (Young’s former coach in the Continental Basketball Association) says at least I’m famous for something.”
Young says he feels free from the basketball chains than bound him. Free to pursue other plans connected to the game, but not imprisoned by it. Basketball did so much for Young, he says, but he’s confused by the game’s two faces. The good and the bad.
“I almost turned to the dark side,” Young said, referring to the disappointment of not living up to the hype from his youth. “And by that I mean anything you can do that is dark.”
Young was a 6-foot-7 man-child. He could run and jump and he had a wing span straight out of an “Avengers” movie. He was so dominant, so big and powerful, that he could ignore finesse an rely on his sheer strength.
But even Michael Jordan and LeBron James needed finesse to reach their potential.
Young, with so many so-called advisers and would-be mentors whispering in his ear, made one poor choice after another.
Lacking the skills to be the kind of all-around player the NBA demands, he nonetheless chose to declare himself eligible for the 1998 draft after one season at Hargrave. He wasn’t taken until the Detroit Pistons made him the 40th pick.
A second-rounder drafted more on potential than accomplishment.
Young said he had been heavily recruited by Georgetown, Arkansas, Kansas and others. He developed relationships with coaching greats John Thompson, Nolan Richardson and Roy Williams, but likely would have had to sit out a year to become academically eligible at a Division I school.
Young couldn’t imagine sitting out a season.
So he went where he shouldn’t have gone. And for years he fought the stigma of that decision.
Until I read the Grantland piece, my perception of Young was that he had been a failure, that he had been incapable of making good decisions and that he was doomed to forever being labeled by his early mistakes.
Then I ran into Young a few weeks ago as he was preparing to start one of his youth clinics at the McAdams Park recreation center. I peeked in a few times to see what he was doing and saying and whether he was engaged.
He says he’s using basketball as a tool toward building something greater. Something that will last.
“I’ve got to be a man,” Young said. “And as a man, you’ve got to look in the mirror. I can’t be the man I’m trying to be now and not be honest. I have a lot of regrets, sure I do. But I hold no one to blame and I point no fingers.
“My goal now is to break a cycle, to direct these children in the right direction. We’ve got some great athletes coming up in this community.”
Young went years without talking to anyone in the media. He felt betrayed by the skepticism and second guessing of his choices.
“And I really didn’t know how to talk to the media,” he said. “I didn’t know how to be just me.”
He says that’s all he’s interested in being now. He wants his foundation – One Umbrella – to become a Wichita success story. He says he plans to enroll in Wichita Technical Institute this summer so that he can learn some of the basics about life. Ultimately, he would like to go to college and study sociology or psychology and perhaps become a parole officer.
He sees the dangers of being an inner-city kid and the constant threat of being taken off course.
“Maybe I can help stop some of these things,” Young said. “Before it’s too late.”
Young realizes he has to earn people’s trust. He’s been as close to down and out as a person can be, unsure of where his next 20-dollar bill was coming from. He had to sell his car for $6,000 just to have some cash.
If it’s a mountain he’s climbing, he’s just gotten to the base and he’s looking up to see how difficult it’s going to be.
“The past for me is not all bad,” Young said. “But for a long time I just didn’t want to talk about it because the main question was always about going to college, going to college, going to college. I’ve never been to college. I don’t know what it’s like to be a student.”
Young said his life was transformed the night it easily could have ended – Jan. 19, 2011. He was with friends to celebrate the 41st birthday of a cousin when two men broke into the house, hoping to rob those who had been involved in a high-stakes dice game.
Young said he answered a knock at the door, saw a gun in a man’s hand and bolted for the back door. He said he was able to escape as shots were being fired. One of those shots struck the other alleged robber, who later died.
“That changed my life,” Young said. “I’m blessed.”
He said was determined to stop driving down the dark road. He sought the advice of Wichita pastors Herman Hicks, Lincoln Montgomery and Reuben Eckels. They did not mince words, instead imploring Young to find the right path and to stop living a destructive lifestyle.
“As an athlete, you always have to be tough, you always have to be strong, you always have to be cautious,” Young said. “But I have compassion. I hate to see people hurting. I’m still the biggest crybaby of anybody.”
Young said his message to those he coaches is about abstinence. From sex, drugs, alcohol, gangs, guns, violence, dropping out and anything else that potentially gets in the way of inner-city kids.
Young didn’t have a father to tell him those things. He still has not reconnected with his father and has no idea if he ever will. But he hopes to someday.
He’s also working on his relationship with his own children, three daughters who live with their mother in Houston. That’s been a process, he said.
“I want every parent out there to know that it’s never too late,” Young said. “I try to be the best dad that I can be.”
Young realizes he’ll never be able to shake his past. He knows people have drawn conclusions about him and that he’ll never be able to change their perceptions. But he says he’s going to keep trying.
“One of the things (Abrams) kept asking me when he was here for two days, interviewing me, was why my (NBA) career didn’t last,” Young said. “Well, that’s a question I’m still trying to answer for myself.
“Some of the decisions I made at that time, I don’t know why I made them. I just don’t know. He couldn’t understand that. But I do know what I’ve learned from making those decisions.”
Young says he is determined to give back. He doesn’t want another Wichita kid to go through what he’s gone through.
“Every day, I try to get kids to believe in themselves,” Young said. “To believe that they can do it, no matter what it is. I don’t want them to be just an athlete. I’m trying to drive some character of them so that they can say no to drugs, no to sex and no to any negativity that comes into their lives.”
Young said he misses basketball. He misses playing. He misses pursuing his dream.
But he’s also looking forward to a future that is hard to see clearly.
“I can’t put basketball down,” he said. “I’m still a player at heart.
“But now, I’m free. I’m finally free. There’s no pressure from nobody. The pressure’s from the Lord up above. The pressure is just life. Now I’m normal. I tell these kids that and they wonder what I mean.”