Nick Young is playing like Swaggy P again
With last season’s drama over, and Iggy Azalea behind him, he’s one of Lakers’ top scorers this season
He had stayed for treatment, so the shadows were long by the time he turned the leather-wrapped wheel of his azure Ferrari California out of the Los Angeles Lakers’ practice compound and onto Nash Street. The rise his barbs got out of Kobe Bryant as they walked off the practice floor only sweetened the workout.
Top dropped, traffic signal pulsing red, he came to a stop at Mariposa Avenue a few blocks away. A light-rail train swooshed above the boulevard. Children played soccer on an artificial field nearby. The clear coat of the Italian auto glistened, sparkles danced off the front right quarter-panel as if dropped from a child’s sparkler.
He smiled from ear to ear — that ever-present half-smile that revealed those oversized porcelainlike Chiclets. No music poured from his speakers. There was no phone to his ear. He just sat there, in contented, windswept bliss.
The world inhabited by Nicholas Aaron Young on this day in December 2014 was perfect. He came from Robertson Park, with those wooden backboards and unforgiving double rims, so he wasn’t even supposed to be here. Truants don’t make it this far. He was going to get married to a pop star from the other side of the world. He was averaging 18 points a game. He had just texted his beloved. They might go to Target tonight. She needed stuff, as always. Maybe Roscoe’s after. Bowl of chicken over white rice was a beast.
Perhaps the El Segundo, California, sun, hovering so softly like a delicate lob yet to be caught, would forget to go down. He could be this Nick Young forever.
The light turned green. He laid into the throttle. The throaty roar of the Italian roadster reverberated off the nondescript office buildings and he disappeared up a slalom on-ramp that led to a concrete strand called 105 East.
And just like that, Nick Young was gone.
The beauty of life is impermanent. It is fragile. It is always in flux. Regardless of whose eyes are beholding. As it has a way of doing, life would come crashing down. Bliss interrupted by turmoil.
He would lose almost everything: his precious, his sense of worth and damn near the job where he gets to pull up off the dribble at will.
And troubles never singly come. They multiply into renegade battalions. They avalanche.
He tried to smile. But it was false. There was nothing there. He’d give tickets to friends and was embarrassed to see them after games when he didn’t play. Their encouragement was awkward.
“Keep your head up, baby,” his mother Mae would say. “Just be glad you’re in the NBA.”
Nick’s father Charles’ message: “Show them m—–f—–.”
Young saw his value in what he did on the court and how it made people respond.
He would look at the box score. DNP-CD (Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision) was next to his name. He got 17 straight to end last season. Sitting there during wholesale substitutions was the worst. All that empty space on the bench. Five guys standing at the scorer’s table, him trying to mask his frustration.
“Did not play,” Young said. “Coach’s decision.”
He shakes his head on a late November afternoon.
“Coach’s decision,” he repeated quietly. Thinking about the man whose decision it was and the self-esteem it cost him. “Aw, man, that’s tough.”
There is an absurdity and wonder curated by the immensity of Young’s personality. The foibles and faux pas endear us as much as anything. His peculiarities entertain every bit as much as an ill-advised 3-pointer that rips through the net.
The incongruence of Swaggy P’s theatrics and Nick Young’s humanity confound.
The smile and flamboyant alter ego tricks us into thinking he doesn’t carry pain. That he doesn’t compartmentalize like the rest of us. He emerges less a jester than a person struggling to find his way when he dares to release an ounce of that humanity.
“People think I’m not serious,” Young said. “But I really care about this. I care about my life and how I want it to be.
“Some days, I’d just be depressed thinking this could be it. I was watching them bring in other players and push me out of the way. I started to prepare my mind that I was gone. I didn’t think I was going to be here.
“I fed into all the rumors and the negativity. The comments on Instagram telling me to leave L.A. I’d be posting fun pictures of my family, and they’d say, ‘Get out of L.A.’
“I kept smiling because I wanted to psych myself out. I never wanted people to see me down. Just my whole life I’d have to smile and be tough and act like nothing bothered me. I know how it feels to be low, and I don’t want to go back there.”
After a soaring return to Los Angeles in 2013-14, a season in which he averaged a career-high 17.9 points — with a pair of 40-point games off the bench — for the team he rooted for as a boy, the next two seasons were defined by conflict, self-doubt, a locker room-rocking scandal, empty smiles and an imploded relationship.
“It really couldn’t get any worse,” Young said.
But then something happened. He used time and space to distance himself from his anger and pain.
A new coach, who loved his energy and personality, gave him the kind of freedom he craved and a directive that happened to be the one thing he knew how to do best: Be yourself.
He remembered how fun the game could be. He came up with a plan to change his perception yet get back to his old self. He would reinvent his swag. He would surprise them. He would play defense. He would turn the locker room around by himself if he had to.
It worked early despite the fact most thought it wouldn’t work at all.
“He had the best training camp of anyone on our team,” said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. “The bounce in his step was back. His energy lifted us. And, quite frankly, it was a surprise. The coaches were looking at me, and I’m looking at them, and we’re saying this guy could fit in. He was Nick again.”
Young’s surprise resurgence this season is the kind of feel-good story Hollywood craves. All but left for dead, Young is third on the team in scoring with 14.8 points per game and shooting a career-best 45 percent from behind the arc (compared with 32 percent last year) and even outgunning sharpshooters Stephen Curry (40 percent) and Klay Thompson (39 percent).
His true shooting percentage is a whopping 63.1 percent and his torrid pace of 41 3-pointers over the last nine games is the only such run in Lakers franchise history. What’s more, despite a rough December — due largely to a rash of injuries and his team playing the most road games in the league — the Lakers are just four spots from the eighth playoff seed thanks in large part to Young’s rediscovered swag and hot hand.
The smile returned. His eyes glowed anew. You could hear him coming down the hallway like old times, his laughter greeting you way before the man.
“It’s feels like a rebirth,” Young said, “to know that the players and coaches have your back is special. I’m still here. I’m still breathing. It’s faith. It’s luck. It’s hard work. But I’m still here.”
And just like that, Nick Young was back.
He would arrive home late at night. He was struck by how quiet the house was. Nearly 7,000 square feet of silence in the Valley. The house was loud when she was there. Her laugh echoed off the walls, too. He loved how silly she was. They would giggle about stupid stuff. They had inside jokes.
Their relationship was annoyingly flirty. He grabbed her butt on red carpets. Public-displays-of-affection-laced photo shoots were the norm. They were obsessed with one another in that raunchy romantic comedy kind of way.
He would tell her how much he loved her hair. Her voice. Her butt. He had never met a woman like this. She was sharp and quick. She could bust balls like his teammates. She was talented. And bold.
“It was crazy to move in with someone,” said Young, who had never lived with a woman before. “It’s such a big thing.”
Once he ripped pictures of himself out of a magazine and nailed them to the wall, she told radio station Power 106. Iggy responded by throwing 10 pairs of his sneakers into the pool. They thought it was so funny.
He would fart under the covers. Go No. 2 with the door wide open. He would dance. And sing off-key.
But he would hide from her. After logging zero minutes — that dreaded DNP-CD — he would take hours to return home. He would just drive. Iggy would watch the games on TV. She stopped going to Staples Center when people commented on her bored look during a blowout home loss.
They had become the NBA’s premier power couple — a spread in GQ, residency in the gossip blogs — so digs like that came often. It came with the territory like the paparazzi outside their house.
But when Young would arrive home, he didn’t want to talk. Iggy had run out of ways to say, “It’s OK.” She just let him be.
They worried about the future. Iggy didn’t want Young to be traded. Her life was in L.A. It was of great importance to live with him. She concentrated on working and recording music so she could keep her work visa. She had her Swedish Warmblood stallions — Defender and Strictly Business — that she would ride through the canyons, if it got too bad.
But she was gone now. She was angry about it. She left and took all of her stuff. Her shoes and her dresses. Everything fancy she owned. Room after empty room. Only dark hardwood floors remained like barren fields of highly polished regret.
A closet full of sneakers. A driveway full of exotic cars. But no one to love.
“I would get home and feel like the house was so empty,” Young said. “There was just a void. I tried to fill it with anything. Clothes, friends, going out all the time. It was tough being alone. I had to start everything over.
“I missed her. Especially in the summer. Right after it happened. That was gonna be my wife. There’s always going to be love there. But I got over it. I had to move on. I realized I wasn’t ready to be married.”
The black of the asphalt has long since given way to a dull gray after being beaten by decades of persistent California sun. The wooden backboards weathered, the thick painted lines cracked. The two side-by-side full courts are framed by evergreen pines and firs. Gang members would sometimes congregate. Girls would giggle while watching the boys play. Streetlights went out at 10 p.m. Usually before game point.
This is where Young learned the game.
At the convergence of Robertson Boulevard and Preuss Road on a triangular lot sits Robertson Park in the Culver City neighborhood of Los Angeles. Young spent many a school day hoisting jumpers hoping his mother wouldn’t spot him as she drove to the laundromat from their cozy second-floor, three-bedroom apartment a mile away.
His older brother Terrell showed him how to separate from a defender and pull up before the defense could react. He learned spin moves and step-backs and the importance of finishing with either hand.
“That’s what gave me my basketball life,” Young said. “I was there every day getting a basketball education.”
When he wasn’t at Robertson, he was drawing sketches, trying to freestyle, heading to the mall for sneakers or spending excessive amounts of time grooming. He and his cousin, Adrian Pascascio — known around the neighborhood as Big Meat for his considerable girth — would wrestle in the living room, pull pranks and perform stunts that would draw Mae’s ire and send her stress levels through the roof. The noise their ruckus created was both the soundtrack to the living room and the block.
Not wanting to sit in class next to members of the same gang who had killed his eldest brother Charles Jr. seven years earlier — a 14-year-old Blood named Trouble was sentenced to 10 years for the crime — Young dropped out of Dorsey High School. A family friend helped arrange for him to transfer to Cleveland High School in Reseda, 20 miles away from the only home he’d ever known, which he shared with his father Charles, once an aspiring actor and Wisconsin Golden Gloves champion who became a long-haul trucker, mother Mae, who was a former Miss Black Wisconsin, and Terrell, a former college basketball player at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics’ Biola University outside of Los Angeles in La Mirada.
After transferring to Cleveland High, he averaged 27.2 points and 10.8 rebounds, and seemed to possess a preternatural ability to knife through traffic and finish at the rim. Often while grinning and playing to the crowd. Young was the seventh-ranked player in the country and signed with the University of Southern California. He declined to follow friend and rival Jordan Farmar to UCLA despite Farmar’s gift of an SAT preparation kit to help him gain eligibility as a freshman.
In his junior year, Young led USC to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history — a run that included a second-round tournament victory over Kevin Durant’s Texas Longhorns — before declaring for the NBA draft.
“He’s the best kid I ever coached,” said former USC head coach Tim Floyd. “He helped put USC basketball on the map.”
The Washington Wizards locker room was a free-for-all of youthful high jinks and reckless daring.
It’s where Young learned the first NBA lessons that would shape his professional outlook. There were tutorials on camaraderie, mischief and practical jokes. But one lesson would outlast the rest.
Gilbert Arenas taught him this: Always be yourself. You can still go hard and be true to you. Do your job. But have fun. Never change who you are.
Young would witness the eccentric Arenas practice his preaching firsthand. And he was a star. It worked for him. Arenas’ words emboldened Young. Be unflinching.
Arenas, Young and JaVale McGee turned the locker room into a playground. They would spray fire extinguishers at each other, hide belongings, steal shoes and razz each other ceaselessly.
When Young and rookie cohort Dominic McGuire crashed Arenas’ crib, they’d jack his furs or shoot each other all up with paintball guns. Arenas took the rims off Young’s car. They would run errands for Arenas and run up his black card. Young and McGee even managed to work in the cinnamon challenge during the lockout. McGee failed miserably.
“You saw how much life he brought into the locker room,” said former Wizards teammate Antawn Jamison. “He could just brighten your whole day. He wanted to make everybody smile. In our first couple years in Washington, I never saw Nick down or sad. Every team needs a Nick Young.”
Young found huge reward in bonding with his teammates. After short stints with the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, Young signed as a free agent with the Lakers in July 2013 and recaptured the type of camaraderie he had in Washington.
With the Lakers, Young was drawn to the younger players on the team. They liked to joke and tease each other. Most were single and down to hang out. They’d hit shoe stores on Melrose Avenue or ring up tabs at fancy restaurants. They showed up at the city’s most exclusive clubs such as The Nice Guy on La Cienega Boulevard or Bootsy Bellows on the Sunset Strip.
He adopted a new nickname that was basically a descriptor of his relationship with his younger teammates: Uncle P. It’s a play on Swaggy P, which he insists God gave him in a dream.
There was Julius Randle, the even-tempered affable third-year forward, who seemed to get along with everyone. Laid-back second-year guard Jordan Clarkson, owner of a mischievous wit. Young would often trade barbs with next-door locker neighbor Tarik Black, a 25-year-old bruising upstart, from fashion sense to their potentially Shaqtin’ A Fool moments. After a win, they would ham it up during postgame interviews taking the art of video bombing and locker room bro culture to a new level.
But unwavering support was the overriding theme.
“Defensive player of the year!” shouted Clarkson to Young as he darted out of the locker room after Young’s surprising defensive display in the first game of this season. “Lock ’em up, shorty!”
But Young was drawn to D’Angelo Russell, the baby-faced rookie during the 2015-16 season, in the way that Arenas was drawn to him during his rookie season eight years ago. He was someone to mold and show the way. Russell was an apt pupil and thought it was cool to have a big bro like Young.
“D’Angelo was my boy,” Young said. “We were tight. All we did was hang out and joke. Just a good dude. We were real close. That’s why he was in my hotel room that night.”
It would have been difficult for Young to lead a more public life than the one he had crafted. He starred as the crowd favorite for the Lakers, despite their dismal record, still the biggest show in town. He bathed in the attention and loved the camera. With his sartorial stylings, easygoing manner, catchy nickname and peculiar musings (he once claimed a dolphin tried to kill him and steal his girlfriend), he had developed one of the most unique personas in the NBA.
That girlfriend in question, Iggy Azalea, had a devoted following far bigger than Young’s. With more than 25 million social media followers, she would often give revealing interviews about Young. They were a fixture on red carpets and received dozens of requests for interviews.
The blowback against Russell was swift and fierce. He was eviscerated in comment sections all across social media. His Wikipedia page was immediately defaced listing his name as “D’Angelo Rat Russell,” and his position as “Point Rat/Snitching Guard.” Reports emerged that teammates were isolating him. Leaving him to eat breakfast alone on the road.
What chemistry and ambition the team had was blasted right out of the locker room.
Friends were calling for swift retribution. Russell must be dealt with, they urged.
“People wanted me to take it back to the streets,” Young said. “Telling me to go get that boy. But I couldn’t do that. I still wanted to play in this league. I had to think this through. I didn’t want to do anything irrational.
“If this was 25-year-old me, I probably would have done it different. I probably would have fed into the streets. Some days you’re like, ‘Forget all this.’ Then you realize this is your life and you have a long time to live after this.”
Players around the league were disgusted with Russell’s actions.
“It’s just plain disrespect,” said a former Western Conference All-Star. “Just stupid. How do you even get it in your mind to do that?”
Sacramento Kings forward Matt Barnes, no stranger to public strife, echoed the thought.
“He was a kid and he made a mistake,” said Barnes of Russell, “but he should have got his a– whooped.
“You can’t trust anyone. How do you really know anyone? I have people I’ll vouch for, but you really don’t know anybody. You’re with your teammates all the time, but you just don’t know people’s motives or initiatives.”
This came at a time when Young had effectively been benched by former Lakers head coach Byron Scott, who had regularly questioned Young’s focus and commitment to basketball. On the floor, Young was lost in Scott’s sluggish, beleaguered offense and all but abandoned defense when his poorly chosen shots weren’t falling.
He finished the season with career-lows in points (7.3), rebounds (1.8), assists (0.6), field-goal percentage (.339) and confidence.
“I was out there looking over my shoulder,” Young explained, “not knowing if I was going to get taken out if I made a mistake or missed a shot. I just couldn’t play like that. It takes a toll on you.
“Everything happened at once. The [sexual harassment] incident with Jordan Clarkson, then D. Lo happened the next week. You hear people saying, ‘Get him away from the young guys. He’s a bad person.’ But that’s not my character. I’ve never been the bad guy, and I didn’t like it. They were tarnishing everything I had worked so hard for. I was fighting for my name.
“I just felt like everyone and everything was against me. I didn’t know what to do.”
Young didn’t hate Russell. He never did. But he was understandably angry. Kid messed up. But Young messed up, too.
He stands there with his arms folded, a serious man. He’s rarely seen smiling in public. Colleagues are stumped when asked about the last time they heard him laugh. Kupchak is not here to coddle you. His voice bears a striking resemblance to the actor Harvey Keitel, known for his tough-talking no-nonsense roles. At a slender 6-feet-8, with a shock of white hair, Kupchak’s brooding presence changes a room.
In his 28th year with the Lakers, his 13th as general manager, his reputation for deal-making and building rosters is renowned. He is a shrewd talent evaluator and in recent years has drafted as well as any of his peers.
He would decide Young’s future. The 31-year-old guard was in the final year of a four-year, $21 million deal, but didn’t have much going for him. Kupchak’s phone was not ringing off the hook with general managers inquiring about his availability.
“The last couple years, he struggled, and it was something we had to get through,” Kupchak said. “There were discussions about his performance the last year or two. We talked about his concentration and wondered if we ran the right offense. We wondered if he just wasn’t the player he once was.”
But Kupchak knew things were broken.
“Our team is dramatically different than it was last year from a personnel and talent standpoint,” said Kupchak after the Lakers’ surprising 10-7 start. “We had a lot of guys who did not have good years. It’s not an environment that brought out the best in players. It’s hard to play on a bad team. It’s hard to coach a bad team. It’s hard to be around a bad team, and we were a bad team.”
Every time Young touched the ball, the offense seemed to grind to a halt. He dropped his head each time a ball rimmed out, which was often. He was out of position. Scott’s instruction didn’t make sense. Young resisted.
“I felt like he [Byron Scott] was trying to change me,” Young said, “and I felt like I’ve been in this game too long just to be changed. The atmosphere was so stiff. There was no life. We were all just working machines.”
But before they could get started on the rebirth, there was the very legit issue as to whether or not Young could coexist with Russell. Kupchak discussed it with current head coach Luke Walton and several coaches, but not the players themselves.
Kupchak explained his thought process heading into this season: “Quite frankly, it wasn’t a big problem. You come to work, do your job and leave. But that’s the lowest possible effort. We always hope for better. You hope relationships improve and players can put aside any differences they might have. We hope for more than just showing up and in this case we got more. If a month or two or three later, it’s determined the chemistry is not helping us win games, then maybe we look to make a change.
“But you don’t have to get along to win. I’ve played on teams where there was not great harmony. I played on a team where there was no harmony and we won a championship.”
Young’s teammates also didn’t know what to expect.
“I didn’t set an expectation for their relationship,” said Black, a third-year forward for the Lakers. “You’re talking about two grown men. People get into fights and things happen between people. You get into fights with your friends, and I’m sure you’ll work it out. With them, you see the actual maturation process, and it’s to be appreciated and respected.”
“If you want to get paid,” he said, “then show up, play, and with the players we tell you to play with.”
Young knew he had to forgive Russell. He had been through too much to keep burying things. He started going to church more. He prayed on it. He went to his mom’s house a couple of times a week, because it grounded him. She would tease him. It was therapy. It sped up the healing process. Young had found refuge in the arms of his family.
He decided hate was too heavy a burden to bear.
“It takes too much energy to walk around angry all the time,” said Young’s agent, Mark Bartelstein.
“The young man made a mistake,” Jamison said of Russell, “but Nick is a man and just had to learn to forgive and forget.”
Russell’s conciliatory press conference was sincere, though it didn’t cool Young off right away. Russell later tried to ease tensions by shooting a Foot Locker commercial in which he throws former high school teammate Ben Simmons’ phone out a window and delivers the line, “Trust me.”
The results were mixed. While Russell, Randle, Clarkson and second-year small forward Larry Nance Jr. worked out daily at the Lakers’ practice facility over the summer, Young kept his distance.
Bartelstein kept in regular touch with Kupchak as he directed a watchful eye toward the practice floor and heard the shouts, arguments and encouragement come from his brash young core below.
Kupchak wanted Young to change his perception. He had to get rid of the off-court distractions. He liked Young. He wanted him to remain in Los Angeles but wasn’t sold.
The weeks came and went, the dry summer gave way to autumn. Bartelstein got assurance that Young would remain a Laker. For now. But expectations were high.
During the summer, Young was goaded by paparazzi to disparage Russell, but didn’t take the bait. Morning hip-hop radio breathlessly hyped every development, but Young refused to add fuel to the fire.
“We’ve moved past all that,” Young said. “You try to be mature and take the high road. And I did do that. I tried to take care of home at the same time.”
Do you want to recapture a friendship with Russell?
“Yeah, for sure. Anything’s possible,” Young said. “I think that’s what makes this team better — that we all get along and that we’ve been through everything.”
That mentality has carried over splendidly.
After a blowout road loss to the Golden State Warriors in which an injured Russell did not play, Young said, “Man, we really needed D’Angelo out there.”
Young still playfully mocks Russell’s wardrobe choices. After Young chose a Saturday Night Fever-esque ensemble while sitting out a December game, Russell declared, “You look like a member of the Jackson 5.”
Perhaps the most telling sign was in the moments after Young intercepted a pass intended for Lou Williams and drilled the game-winner in a Nov. 22 home clash against the Oklahoma City Thunder when he pointed to his right forearm, borrowing Russell’s signature phrase.
“Ice in my veins! Ice in my veins!” shouted Young as he was being mobbed by teammates. The injured Russell jumped off the bench with his blue blazer and wired-rimmed glasses and pointed enthusiastically at Young.
His eyes were wide.
They had both survived.
Russell pushed the ball up the left side of the floor in an early-season game. He zipped a 30-foot pass as perfectly timed as it was crisp. It arrived in Young’s large, ready hands just above the zero on his jersey as he curled off a screen to find himself on the 3-point elbow. Young caught it in motion and released a rainbow that splashed through the net.
The defense never had a chance. He pointed at a backpedaling Russell, who knowingly pointed back.
The locker room after the game was so rambunctious it shook. Players mocked, boasted, teased and grinned. The interplay had the pace of a pingpong match. The corner occupied by Black, Young and Clarkson was the busiest.
Young stood in the middle of a media scrum in his bare feet wearing a plum crushed velvet hoodie, a T-shirt with a badly drawn Prince and skinny black leather jeans. Reporters quizzed him about his fine defense and contagious energy.
“Aw, man,” Young said, “you know … the swag is back.”
In the hallway, he was met by his mother Mae and a small group of family and friends.
“Tell ’em you can’t turn the swag off,” she said.
Nick Jr., with energy mirroring his father’s, darted back and forth with an insatiable giggle. Young dropped to a defensive stance and extended his 7-foot wingspan. His pants made a creaking sound.
“You can’t get by me,” he said.
Junior went left. Then right. Dad scooped him up with a roar and put him over his shoulder.
“What I tell you?” crowed Young, ever the defender. They both laughed.
He was Nick again.
They turned and made their way down the hallway leading to the players’ parking lot. The laughter hung in the air.
Just like that, Nick Young was gone. And it was as if Swaggy P had never left.