Father and son are creatures of repetition, and in some ways they believe little steps like these are why Trae, a 6-foot-2 and 180-pound true freshman, is averaging 29.2 points and 10.1 assists — more than any other player in the nation. It's also why his fans include LeBron James and Stephen Curry, and why, in an hour or so, West Virginia fans will shout in unison "Trae Young sucks!" but, in quieter environs, admit he might be the best college guard of the last decade.
One freshman has ever finished as college basketball's scoring champion; two freshmen in history have led the nation in assists. Trae, 15 games in, is leading in both.
"I've been through this," Trae said, but how many freshman guards actually have been through anything like this? Kenny Anderson? Allen Iverson?
But that's a look into Trae's soul: calm and levelheaded, go-with-it, enjoy the ride. That might be the biggest difference between father and son, because Rayford — himself a former Big 12 point guard who, deep down, believes he underachieved and refuses to allow his son to do so — is dying over here in the corner bleachers. Normally easygoing and friendly, he's not in the mood to talk and is miffed when someone interrupts his pregame J. Cole. He isn't certain his son's rise, surreal as it has been, isn't some dream that — if the routine is trifled with — could end any moment.
Rayford, as his son put it, is "nervous about failure," whereas it's clear when Trae pivots to shoot yet another 35-footer that is not a concept that regularly occurs to him.
"He's so tense!" the Sooners point guard said recently of his dad, who before the West Virginia game couldn't unwind until Trae jogged off the floor following warm-ups and completed the routine by locating and nodding at his father. "I like staying calm; I don't like thinking about it too much."
'Do you want to have the career I did?'
Truth is, it's always been that way, and if anything Rayford wanted him to think about it more. Trae's dad had grown up poor in Texas, seeing interior heating as a luxury and his one sweater-and-jeans outfit something like a uniform, considering how often he wore it. Through force of will and smart maneuvering, he made himself into a popular student and a promising athlete, defying the odds and playing point guard at Texas Tech in the late 1990s.
Rayford, who's 40, averaged at least 15 points per game during his final three seasons, but what if he had worked harder? Been tougher? Had a few more breaks? The NBA was a dream for him, not something he could touch and experience, and this absence has haunted and pushed him for the last two decades.
He sells medical equipment now, drives a big SUV and is married to his high school sweetheart — Candice's personality is closer to her elder son's than her husband of 17 years — in a big house in a fancy part of Norman, an Oklahoma City suburb known as the home of the University of Oklahoma's campus.
So Rayford made it, metabolizing his struggles and drive into success, and that's great until you realize the unusual parenting puzzle that creates: that strategy is good for only one generation. Trae, because of the maneuvering of his dad, would attend school with the sons of former Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops, celebrate special occasions at steakhouses, play in youth games in which the mothers carried Louis Vuitton purses.
Rayford, something of a restless soul, didn't always like it. He and Candice pulled Trae out of the posh elementary school and put him in another district with more diversity and less technology. Rayford drove him to Dallas and Tulsa so he could play on teams with, Rayford's words, "hardcore kids" and the kinds of youngsters who, if they succeeded, would do so the way Trae's father had.
"Do you want to be great or do you want to be the local hero?" Rayford said he asked his son from time to time, though occasionally he rephrased. "Do you want to have the career I did, or do you want to go to Duke or Kentucky?"
Trae wanted the latter, so he kept going with his dad's plan. The other kids marveled at his Kevin Durant sneakers, that he lived in a home with stairs, that his dad could take the whole team for ice cream or to Golden Corral. A few made fun of Trae for being "rich" or pointed out the lightness of the biracial guard's skin tone, and Trae shook or laughed it off.
This, in Rayford's way, was the point: to take his talented son and de-soft-ify him, so if some opposing fan base would someday chant "Trae Young sucks," he'd keep trying those zany shots.
"You want him to have it better than you had," Rayford said, and on the drives back to Norman they listened to New Edition and Boyz II Men and talked about bootstrap upbringings, socioeconomic class and, if there was enough time for it, a little basketball.
Rayford told stories, and Trae described his entirely unrealistic goals. They laughed and looked forward, dreaming all the way back to Norman.
"The best drives ever," Rayford would recall.
'All I wanted to do was shoot threes'
Trae was in seventh grade when he realized dribbling was boring and shooting was fun.
"All I wanted to do was shoot threes," he would say much later. "I wanted to shoot, further back and further back."
Curry, an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Trae is listed now, was becoming an NBA star by then, his lightning-quick and logic-defying shots starting to upend defensive game plans and influence a generation of skinny flamethrowers. Trae and his dad watched games on weekends and decided that's what who he wanted to be.
Candice wouldn't allow a basketball hoop to be erected at the family home, the game being enough of an obsession as it was, so the guys went to the YMCA before and after school. "Stop-and-pop," Rayford instructed, and the sequence was 50 shots from the lane, 50 from the college three-point line, 50 from the NBA line and 50 from, well, pretty far beyond that.
The kid had a knack for it, and in time he came to believe he could stop and pop from most anywhere.
"I try not to take any bad shots," he said, a simple enough philosophy. "People have different definitions of a bad shot."
In time Trae turned himself into a more well-rounded point guard, learning that dribbling and passing can be interesting weapons of their own. But he was a shooter, no doubt about it. And after a while college coaches were calling so often that Candice, who usually spent weekends with the couple's three younger children and shuttling their daughters to volleyball matches, started wondering what she was missing when Rayford and Trae left for some AAU tournament.
She joined them and took note of which programs sent a single coach to watch Trae and which sent the whole staff. She made mental reminders about Kentucky's unimpressive dorm rooms and the way Kansas students treated her son as if he were famous.
Rayford, like always, saw things through a different prism — his own. He had never played in the Sweet 16 or been part of a top-10 team or celebrated an upset one of the giants. His plan, all this time, had been positioning Trae for one eventuality: to someday join one of those giants and take steps he never had.
Which is why, when they'd gather a year or so ago to discuss recruiting, Oklahoma being one of Trae's favorites, Rayford would say things like this: "Dude, you're really going to turn this down to go to a football school?"
Also like always, Trae saw things his own way. By then he was so confident, physics defied and a basketball trend on his side, he believed he could succeed anywhere.
"This doesn't look so hard," he'd recall thinking while watching college basketball last year. "I don't know, scoring has always come easy to me. I just felt like I could score so easy at this level if I just got better at a few things and I was in the right situation."
So he made his choice, and football school it was.
"I just wanted to be different," Trae said.
In his worst game as a college player, facing No. 6 West Virginia on its home floor, matched against reigning Big 12 defensive player of the year Jevon Carter, in a hostile environment that was positively tournament-like, Trae Young still scored 29 points.
In 15 games this season, 13 of them Sooners victories, he has finished the last 14 with at least 20; five with at least 30, one — against Oregon, which reached last year's Final Four — with 43. Last month he tied an NCAA record with 22 assists, and after once being seen as a potential first-round NBA draft pick in a few months, he's now projected as high as the top 10.
So what's next?
Rayford, as much as he enjoys college basketball and driving the three miles to Oklahoma's Lloyd Noble Center to put his son through the old 50-shots drill before games, can't keep himself from looking ahead. He sometimes calls NBA coaches and scouts, some of whom he came to know during his playing days, and they insist his son is league-ready. Basketball agents, Rayford said, have begun to call with increasing frequency.
But Rayford, always maneuvering, doesn't tell his son about this. Trae, preferring to absorb the moment, said he doesn't think about it anyway.
On this Saturday night in Morgantown, the Sooners would lose by 13. They were unpredictable, unconventional, a little irresponsible and a lot of fun — something like their best player, whom Coach Lon Kruger has no intention of reining in.
"Why change anything?" said Kruger, a 65-year-old former NBA coach who is pioneering in at least one way: Unlike other well-known coaches, he seems willing to forfeit the traditional strictness of a college "system" while embracing the freewheeling and fast-paced style of today's NBA.
Which, even Trae would admit, isn't always pretty.
"If I feel like I'm in range and get it off and I can make it, I just do it," he said. "It's a good thing and a bad thing, I guess. I look at the film the next day and I'm like: 'Oh my gosh, what am I doing?' "
After the West Virginia game, Rayford and Candice — Trae's parents haven't missed an Oklahoma game, home or away — waited for their famous son in a tunnel near the visitors' locker room. After awhile Trae emerged, headphones in and playing New Edition like he and his dad once listened to in the car, before stowing his phone to hug his parents.
"Hey, Trae, take a picture with these kids?" a West Virginia fan asked, and Trae obliged and walked over.
The fans swarmed him, by no means just a local hero, and Rayford stepped forward to restore order. Instead, someone pushed a phone into his hand, and suddenly Trae's dad was the photographer.
Ceding, for once, to the present, Rayford smiled and shook his head and aimed the camera.
"I'm used to it, ever since high school," he said before taking the photo and trying to nudge Trae toward the exit.
"Ready?" Rayford asked, dad looking for the next move and son content to absorb the moment a bit longer, and finally Trae said he was, and in keeping with the postgame routine they walked out together toward whatever might possibly await.
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