“He’s an icon? I think Swaggy P’s in a lane of his own,” Young decided, sunshine beaming from his face. “I’m one of them type of guys.”
There aren’t many like him, anyhow. It has been almost a decade since the Wizards drafted Young in the first round, a young scoring bench piece for a veteran team with serious ambitions. I was in Madison Square Garden that night, where I ran into Daniel Forer, the director and co-producer of a documentary about Young’s high school career in Southern California. Forer told me how much I would love Young, and then started comparing his personality to those of Muhammad Ali, Brett Favre and Magic Johnson. Wait, huh?
“He is one of the most wonderful, joyous people you will ever meet in your life. And he will make everyone forget about their problems and just enjoy watching him,” Forer said that night. “Washington has no idea what they’re getting in Nick Young. He is a blessing, a gift.”
Ten years later, I can sort of see his point. Young has played for an assortment of (mostly awful) teams, starred in countless absurd memes and headlines, gotten engaged and unengaged to an international pop star, launched his own clothing line, become a regular on TMZ — and played in more NBA games than Gilbert Arenas, Steve Francis or Brad Daugherty.
He’s now 31, and there was some speculation that he might be out of the league this season. But you can’t predict what will happen with Nick Young, so instead, he’s having the best offensive season of his career, for his hometown Lakers, which landed him in this weekend’s three-point contest. Once again: Huh? How did we get from that goofy rookie to this?
“It happens, you know?” Young explained. “I was Jackson Five then. Now I’m Michael Jackson.”
“I mean, obviously we all knew that he had the talent,” said Caron Butler, who played with Young in Washington and now watches him in Southern California. “A lot of people thought he was too goofy, but I thought it was the perfect time for him. The direction the NBA was going with personalities, it was a match made in heaven for him. The players and their personalities started to be more noticeable than anything. I knew that he would just prosper in that, because he’s a likable person. He’s a good dude, always has a smile on his face. He’s just a guy you can have fun with — and his passion, his style, everything is for that. He’s a meme every night he plays.”
Young, in fact, has produced at least two enduring memes: the one of his arms raised in happy triumph as his long-range shot clangs off the rim, and the one of his confused face surrounded by question marks. If you ask him about the question mark meme, he will laugh. Then again, if you ask him about anything, he will laugh.
“That thing ain’t died. It’s been, what, two years now?” Young said. “Some people only recognize me for that — ain’t you the meme guy?”
I wanted to corner Young when he was in Washington this month, hoping I could prompt some serious introspection on a 10-year career that’s defied conventional expectations. But trying to corner Young is like trying to corner a class of fifth-graders after a cupcake binge. In the middle of our conversation, television cameras approached, and Young bolted up the Verizon Center stairs and disappeared. That’s introspection, Swaggy P style.
But really: Did he think he would log 10 years in this league?
“They used to tell me I would, Sam Cassell and Flip [Saunders], if I continued to just work,” Young said. “But 10 years just flew by. I just sat down and realized, I ain’t got too much longer, you know? I’m one of them old guys now.”
Does he ever wonder if Gilbert Arenas — his veteran mentor in Washington, and still a close friend and neighbor — has been a good influence on his life?
“People laugh now when I tell ’em who my vet was — and they understand why I am how I am,” Young said. “At the end of the day, Gil was my vet. But he did lead the league in scoring that one year, and was an all-star.”
Well. Right. And did Young know his NBA personality would be this, let’s say, conspicuous?
“Yes,” Young said. “It’s more like genetics. Heaven-sent, really.”
There are so many laugh lines in a Nick Young interview — or a Nick Young game — that it’s easy to overlook what he’s actually doing on the court. His effective field-goal percentage this season is second only to Steph Curry’s among NBA guards. He’s making 41 percent of his three-point attempts; that’s 14th-best in the league, and the best mark of his career. After last season — when he played poorly, clashed with his hard-nosed coach and feuded with a teammate who secretly recorded him admitting he cheated on former fiancee Iggy Azalea, and not many players could star in a clause such as that — Young was supposed to be on his way out of the league. Instead, he’s the Lakers’ third-leading scorer.
“We definitely weren’t planning on him having this year when we got here,” first-year coach Luke Walton said.
“He’s come in and had the year of his life,” Butler said. “He’s a gamer. Nick Young’s the type of dude, he’s gonna have a toothpick in his mouth at the age of 45, still able to go out there and put up buckets.”
But how about his status as a wise old veteran? Can a 10-year vet with a rookie’s grin be a mentor?
“I think he’s trying, but his natural personality is to be lighthearted, and joke,” Walton said. “The NBA season can be long and grueling. It is long and grueling, especially when you’re losing. And there’s a fine line of still having fun and enjoying what we’re trying to do, and enjoying the process of getting better. I think he allows us to not just get swallowed up by the process.
“But at the same time, there’s that fine line of okay, even though we’re having fun and we’re getting better, we’re not okay with the fact that we lose,” Walton went on. “And that’s [the line] he toes sometimes. But he’s got a great heart. And when you talk to Nick about what we need, he tries to go out of his way to make that happen for you. So there’s nothing malicious about his personality, or not caring. It comes from a place of good.”
This, of course, has been the story of his career. So many smiles, so much fun, and so many losses. Only once in his career has Young spent a full season with a winning team. It has been eight years since Saunders said Young needed to smile less, yet that happiness is still the first thing people mention when asked about Young’s persona. Telling Nick Young not to smile is like telling a basketball not to bounce.
“I can’t change who I am,” he said. “ I don’t have to go through life being mean or having a stern face just to play basketball. I enjoy the game and play it how I like to play it. If you don’t have fun doing the things you love, doing your job, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Now remember Forer, the documentary director? He’s still in touch with Young and his family, and is now working on a potential reality show about basketball moms, which would include Young’s mother. I asked if anything about this strange, erratic yet joyous NBA career has surprised him.
“No, God no,” Forer said. “So many careers these days are micromanaged by agents and managers — don’t do this, don’t do that. He just said ‘I’m gonna be me,’ and he is, and people like that. The authenticity has never left him. All I can tell you is that he’s a gem of a person, and — on some nights — he’s a fantastic basketball player.”
Still, all things must end. Unlike many 10-year vets, Young figures his post-playing future won’t have much to do with basketball. Maybe he’ll get involved with fashion. Maybe he’ll be on TV, although not in sports. “So many things for me to do out there in this world,” he said. I asked how to sum up the last 10 years of his life.
“Oh man, it’s hard,” he said. “That’s why I’m gonna come out with a movie about my life when it’s over.”
A movie, really?
“Yeah,” he said. “Heaven-sent: The Nick Young Story.”