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Ryan Inzana Korleone Young

The Forgotten Phenom

Korleone Young had a chance to be the next prep-to-pro NBA success story, like KG, Kobe, and T-Mac before him. But his NBA career lasted all of 15 minutes. Today, struggling and living in Kansas, he's trying to put his life back together.

Korleone Young sat quietly in the pastor’s small office. He squared his broad shoulders toward pastor Herman Hicks. They had been here before, circling these issues like boxers. Hicks had doubts over whether Young was ready to come clean about his past. Hicks, a retired United States Air Force colonel from Mississippi, is a forthright and serious man with a gift for extracting information. In his office, an autographed picture of Colin Powell hangs from the wall. In another photo, he can be seen shaking hands with George H.W. Bush. Young has a knack for refusing anyone or anything that gets too close. He’ll talk and talk and talk in circles, revealing nothing. But today would be different.

Young is more myth than man in basketball circles. His name sits alongside prep-to-pro casualties like Lenny Cooke, Leon Smith, and DeAngelo Collins — players who reached for riches too fast and fell. They were victims of mismanagement and bad judgment. They’re the photo negative of the generation of high schoolers who became stars. All that’s left of their NBA legacy is the 2005 rule mandating that draft-eligible players be at least one year removed from high school. To most, Korleone Young is little more than a footnote in a legal battle.

Young declared for the NBA out of Virginia’s Hargrave Military Academy in 1998, shortly after his involvement in a pay-to-play AAU scandal that rocked college basketball was revealed. The Detroit Pistons took Young with the 40th pick, sandwiched between Rafer Alston and Cuttino Mobley — two players who carved out lengthy NBA careers. But Young’s dream lasted just 15 minutes — three against Washington, five against Atlanta, and seven against Orlando. That’s all he logged for Detroit in his first and last NBA season.

“Korleone should have been a hell of a pro because he dominated the Rashard Lewises and Shane Battiers and all them types of kids,” said Myron Piggie Sr., Young’s second cousin and a central figure in the AAU scandal. “There wasn’t a kid in that era he didn’t dominate.”

But Young’s life fell into a pattern typical of young men awarded too much too soon and ill-prepared for adult life. He ignored financial advice. He abused marijuana and drank. He became embroiled in legal fiascoes. One day, he found himself looking down the barrel of a robber’s gun. Young slipped away from the NBA and a life that could have been, and now found himself in the obscurity of a pastor’s office in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas.

Young’s existence peaked in those 15 minutes. He spent the intervening years making a halfhearted comeback effort, traveling and playing around the globe but never lasting anywhere for very long. Now, at 34, he’s looking for what else life has to offer. But he isn’t sure how or where to start — he hasn’t been to school since 1998. He has few desirable skills. He earns a little money training high school students, though he knows a reason local parents hire him is because he needs the work. He can’t even balance his own checkbook. His three daughters live with their mother in Houston. Young says he can’t afford to live any closer to them.

When I arrived in Wichita, Young became nervous. Though I’d landed in the morning, he waited 11 hours to return my calls. He knew I’d ask the questions he has spent years ducking. For nearly a decade, he didn’t want to answer them. Now he doesn’t even know how. He has apologized to family members and friends over the years, yet he was never quite sure what he felt so compelled to apologize for. He isolated himself from the world. The loneliness and alienation he felt while playing in places like Russia and China eventually became familiar. Comfortable, even. When he returned home, he embraced the solitude.

Young debated standing me up. He’d done it before. He hasn’t granted an interview in several years — it was always easier not to. Reporters asked questions that were none of their business, he thought, poking at wounds that were still raw. But he’d convinced himself that the time was right. He finally had something to say.

Young debated what to wear to our interview. He figured that a familiar uniform — a Nike T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers — would suffice. He called a few acquaintances to see if someone would drive him to meet with Hicks. Last year, he sold his car, a 1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, for $6,000. It was his last asset. But he could barely find anyone willing to give him a ride. Eventually, Young convinced his girlfriend to drop him off at my hotel. We drove to the Greater Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, where Pastor Hicks has served for the last decade. An ex had introduced Young to the church about six years ago. That relationship didn’t last, but the one with the church did.

Hicks warmly greeted Young. He said he wants to see him not just when Young needs an emotional, spiritual, or financial kick — he wants to see him when Young wants to give back or give thanks. Hicks pleaded with Young to open up.

“One of the things that I found out being a preacher is that we have to be honest with folks,” Hicks said to Young. “We can’t just say, ‘OK, here are the great things that happened in my life. I was drafted for the NBA.’ But what are the negatives that happened? ‘What are those decisions that I made that affected my career?’ I think when you do that with the young men in the city, you will see that you will make a difference in some folks’ lives.”

“Are you going to be there with me?” Young asked.

“Of course I’ll be there with you,” Hicks responded.

“I’m not scared with you now,” Young said.

Hicks reclined in his chair. “I think that’s the story of Korleone Young. The story is the pinnacle of the career to the bottom of the pit,” he said. “And you’re trying to pull yourself out of that pit now. It takes a while to get out of that pit. Even when you think you’re ready.”

Korleone Young was raised in a modest house at 24th Street and Lorraine Avenue. Everyone knows him here in Wichita. Cars slowed as they passed, drivers waving hello. The piercing sirens of the tornado warnings are a familiar clarion call. Young’s grandparents, Charles and Betty Young, owned their home for about 50 years before passing away in 2006 and 2008, respectively. His mother, Kim Young, who had read The Godfather shortly before her only child’s birth, named him Suntino Korleone Young, after the book’s fiery eldest son, Santino Corleone. Young knew his father was a former high school track star named Juan Johnson. But he didn’t really know him. He occasionally saw Johnson hanging around Wichita, but his father never acknowledged him.

Outside his childhood home, a massive stump juts from the front yard, the remnants of the tree Korleone Young climbed as a boy. One day, he plummeted from the tree and broke his left arm. It was just the sort of thing his mother had warned him about when she forbade him from climbing. Typical disobedience from her free-spirited son. “[The way he acted] was so bad,” Kim Young said later. “It was pitiful.” He was always getting into fights, too — with his cousin Antoine and local kids who teased him about his stuttering.

But in her son, Kim saw an energetic young boy and she sought ways to harness that. She enrolled Korleone in extracurricular activities — “keeping busy,” she called it. So Young tap-danced. He gave football a shot. But what he really loved was basketball. He fashioned a hoop out of a bike’s wheel, removing the spokes, and raised it in their backyard. The more modest the bike, the smaller the wheel, the truer the shot. His grandfather, who had a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters in the ’60s, later erected a real hoop for Korleone.

Young shot up fast, towering over other kids. At 10, he joined Tyrone Berry’s AAU team, the Wichita Blazers, playing with and against fellow middle schoolers. The program was elite and rigorous; players were expected to attend church every Sunday and earn high marks in school. Young quickly became the team’s star — he dunked for the first time in sixth grade. Word of his unique blend of height and athleticism quickly spread across Kansas City’s bigger AAU circuit. Berry didn’t particularly enjoy the idea of his young star leaving his stable, but he knew he couldn’t keep him for long. Young already seemed destined for bigger, better things.

In 1992, Young joined the Children’s Mercy Hospital 76ers, a talented Kansas City team coached by John Walker. That team eventually featured future NBA players Earl Watson, Maurice Evans, Kareem Rush, and Corey Maggette. It was so competitive that Mike Miller, a key contributor to Miami’s back-to-back championships, couldn’t find a role during his short stint in the program. JaRon Rush, a silky forward and Kareem’s older brother, was the team’s most talented player. Tom Grant, a local millionaire, chief executive officer of LabOne Inc., and University of Kansas alumni, became Rush’s benefactor. He paid for Rush’s high school tuition and bankrolled the 76ers. JaRon was best friends with a player named Myron Piggie Jr.

During one summer practice in 1995, the team convened and Grant introduced a new head coach: Myron Piggie Sr., a former crack dealer and convicted felon who had been sentenced to a year in jail for shooting at a Kansas City police officer in 1989. Grant was familiar with JaRon Rush’s bond with the Piggie family and sought a connection to keep his prized player in his stable. Piggie, a charming conversationalist, talked his way up the organization’s ladder until he found himself at the top. “We were like, ‘What? Myron ain’t no coach,'” Young recalled. “Keep in mind, he didn’t coach us. We had coaches. He just wanted to be in control. All Piggie did was look tough, sit at the end of the bench, and scare all the other AAU coaches.”

An important meeting of Nike representatives took place the following fall. CEO Phil Knight addressed a number of influential high school coaches sponsored by the sneaker company. At the time, Nike spent $4 million annually to fund summer programs, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Still, the company had recently lost a special group of prep-to-pro players to Adidas: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Jermaine O’Neal. Sonny Vaccaro, the legendary shoe executive famous for luring Michael Jordan to Nike, was now at Adidas haunting Knight’s operation. To counteract this incursion, Nike turned more aggressive and hired more employees and “consultants” to corner the AAU circuit. Summer programs became a sign of allegiance. If a player participated in the ABCD camp in Teaneck, New Jersey, he was considered an Adidas player. If he played at the Nike All-America Camp in Indianapolis, he dedicated himself to the Swoosh.

“We messed it up for everybody,” Young said. “Shit, it became the war. We started the Nike-Adidas war. Me, Corey, JaRon, and Al [Harrington], Rashard [Lewis].”

Nike’s hiring spree included Piggie Sr., and CMH quickly became a traveling All-Star team loaded with soon-to-be Division I players.

“We were first-class everything,” said Laverne Smith, Earl Watson’s cousin and a CMH player for half a season. “We flew first-class. We stayed in five-star hotels. It was like we were in college or the league back then. We were ahead of our time.”

Opposing teams knew and respected the team long before they arrived in the gym. “We never took a backseat to anybody,” Piggie said. “When [he] stepped on that court, nobody at that time, in that era, was better than Korleone Young. Besides one other kid, but I’m not going to mention that. They were still on the same level, but they did a lot of things different. But nobody could ever touch them guys as a combination.”1 Maurice Taylor, who coached with Piggie, said that Young approached the game with the attitude of a boxer entering into a prizefight. “He gave guys this look like, This is our game, y’all are just coming along for the ride,” Taylor said.

Both Grant and Nike eventually upped Piggie’s salary, which paid off for Young.

“We hooked up with Nike and it was lovely,” Young said. “Me and my mom had a ’96 Altima in ’96. I got my ’82 Impala. Never wore nothing but Nikes. Nike care packages every couple of months. Bags full of stuff. The influence of Nike is the ultimate influence. Why do you think all the kids wear Jordans?”

Korleone Young Piggie started funneling money to his top players — Young, the Rushes, Maggette, and eventually Andre Williams. Piggie, according to a federal indictment, angled for the kind of payoff that was becoming common among the handlers of prep-to-pro prospects. “Piggie is a nuanced individual,” said Jerome Stanley, an agent who would become entangled in Piggie’s investigation. “I’ve never seen Myron Piggie try to hurt any kid. His intentions were to help every one of these kids. That’s his truthful intentions, to help every one of these kids — and benefit himself.”

During the summers, Young’s life was all about AAU. But during the school year, he belonged to Ron Allen. Young’s high school coach at Wichita East, the tough-minded Allen tried to steer him in the right direction. But he could only do so much.

“Forget ‘What if I had gone to college?’ What about if I had not left East?” Young said. “I probably would have had a much better senior year. All my friends are here. I left all my friends.”

Allen did everything he could to stop Young from leaving Wichita. He had heard about Young’s talents since Young was dominating sixth graders. He promoted him to varsity as a freshman, with a plan to bring him along slowly. That unraveled the moment the 14-year-old forward left the bench in his first game. Young lit things up, scoring 27 dazzling points. Allen said he recalled a young Charles Barkley, playing bigger and longer than his frame, snatching rebounds from the sky when the opposition had only started to jump for the ball. Laverne Smith also played at Wichita East with Young, and saw firsthand how the spotlight affected him. Smith gained his discipline from his father, a former NFL player. He sometimes wondered how much not having a father in his life affected Young. “When Korleone was coming up, he was kind of cocky toward certain people and he kind of talked down to some people,” Smith said. “He was a good person, but it’s normal. When you’re young and getting all this publicity, it’s kind of hard for it not to go to your head.”

Allen tried to keep his star grounded. He’s an old-school coach. He played at the University of Arizona in the early 1970s and wouldn’t cater to Young when he turned petulant. He regularly kicked Young out of practice to make his point. “Today’s not a good day,” Allen would say. “Try again tomorrow.”

But Allen was naive to the burgeoning power of the AAU circuit. Once the summer began, he relinquished Young to Piggie. While visiting the AAU outfit one day before Young’s junior year, Allen remembered being struck by the scope of the program — the sneakers, the equipment, the crowd, the sheer size of the apparatus. “That was like a brand-new day for me,” he said.

Then later that summer, Young disappeared from Kansas. A USA Today reporter phoned Allen in August 1997 and asked him to confirm that Young had transferred to Hargrave, a private boarding school in Chatham, Virginia. The news blindsided Allen. He phoned Young’s mother, Kim. “Coach, Korleone hasn’t talked to you?” she asked.

Allen knew that Young didn’t want to admit that he’d planned to transfer. But Kim forced her son to make the call.

“What’s happening?” Allen asked.

“I’m just going to stay up here,” Young replied.

“For what?” Allen asked. “For what reason?”

The receiver went silent.

“Look, if this is what you want to do, if this is really your decision, I’ll support you,” Allen said. “But if you are doing this for somebody else or for somebody else’s purpose, I’ve got a problem with that. We’ll leave this conversation here and when you come back to Wichita, when AAU’s over with, I want you to come back and we’ll grab a hamburger and sit and talk about this.”

When he returned to Wichita, Young met with Allen and revealed his commitment to transferring high schools. He’d outgrown the city, he said. The intense media scrutiny that followed an underage drinking incident confirmed it in his mind. Earlier that year, Young, a few other players, and some cheerleaders sneaked alcohol into a hotel room during a trip to Topeka for a tournament. After they were caught, Young lied about his involvement, then felt he’d been singled out as the only one to draw a one-game suspension. Young said that the incident had been blown out of proportion; TV stations camped outside his mother’s doorstep. He had contemplated attending Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. But then he heard about Hargrave’s loaded roster; that was where Myron Jr. also planned to attend. Allen begged him to reconsider, to no avail.

“I didn’t lose any love for the kid,” Allen recently said. “I still cared for him as a person. He has a great heart. He’d do anything for you. He was just that way. But he was too young to be off by himself. That ultimately came back to haunt him.”

Young looked at Pastor Hicks. They’re aggressive talkers, speaking over one another throughout this talk, and they have some things in common. Hicks also grew up without his father. It took him a long time to understand that pain, until one day, ministering to a group of men, when he shared his hurt and his frustration. He told them that when he attended his father’s funeral, he peered into the casket, declared that he did not know the man in the box, and walked out. Hicks knows the strength it takes to overcome this kind of pain. It’s what he wants to see from Young.

“If I’m still trying to finish … ” Young began.

Hicks cut him off.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Pushing on 40,” said the 34-year-old Young, as though life were passing him by faster than everyone else.

“How much more time you got?” Hicks said.

“I don’t know. How much time you think I got, Pastor?”

“We never know, do we?” Hicks said. “Let me ask you a question. Do you think you’ll ever play in the NBA again?”

There’s only one answer.

“No,” Young said, though reluctantly.

“That’s over, right?” Hicks said. “So right now, you’re not trying to become the next NBA All-Star. But what you’re doing now is trying to tell the story of a man who had the blessings of God, but some of the things that happened and also some of the things he did caused him to lose a lot of that. Because when you came to this church, you were at rock bottom. And what are you going to do now? You can stay and wallow in your pity party and say, ‘Poor little me.’ You can do that for years to come. But all you’re going to do is miss your blessing.”

Hargrave put Young in the spotlight. In January 1998, he squared off against St. Patrick High School and their star forward Al Harrington at Madison Square Garden, a must-see for high school hoops fanatics. Both players were ranked at the top of their class in a time before and premier high school players routinely played one another. Harrington was dominant that night, compiling 28 points and seven rebounds. Young’s play was uneven. He scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half after an incensed Piggie addressed the team during the break — just as within the AAU program, he had worked his way into the inner circle at Hargrave and gained the trust of the coaching staff. Young turned the ball over seven times before fouling out with two minutes left in a tied game, but Hargrave ultimately prevailed, 63-59. Despite his underwhelming performance, the win solidified Young’s standing among major college basketball programs.

But the transition to Hargrave had not come easily. Young often did as he pleased in Wichita. Recruiters called so often that his mother installed a second phone line in the house. Her son tied it up talking to girls. But Hargrave specialized in instilling discipline in teenage boys. Colonel John W. Ripley, a decorated Marine, presided over the school. Young was not allowed to own a phone or a television. He woke up at 6 a.m. every morning and was in bed promptly at 10 p.m. He spent the first few weeks crying with his mother whenever he could get near a phone.

Still, the school had its advantages. With its prestige and national profile, Young had his choice of colleges. He nearly went to the University of Kansas. He almost joined JaRon Rush at UCLA. Instead, he stunned everyone by declaring for the NBA.

“The crazy thing about it is, Hargrave, as a coaching staff, we never talked about him jumping and going directly to the NBA,” said Kevin Keatts, then an assistant at Hargrave and now a coach at Louisville. “Everything was about college and recruitment and where he wanted to go.”

But Young said the NBA had been his dream since he had fashioned that hoop out of a bike wheel. He saw only the benefits; the television appearances, the money, the women it would bring. He knew little about the work all that entailed.

Piggie, steered by Nike’s director of grassroots basketball George Raveling, chose Stanley as Young’s agent.2 “I was gonna get with Arn [Tellem], too,” Young said. “Arn was honest. A lot of the real good agents were the most honest. But when you’re from Wichita — I’ll just keep it real — I hadn’t really done [anything] like this with white people. That’s part of the business. I didn’t trust them.”

Allen met once more with his former star pupil in a last-ditch effort to push him toward college.

“Guys are looking for kickbacks and opportunities to take advantage of you, and I’m not that guy,” Allen recalled saying. “I can’t beg you to stay, and I’m not going to. I want you to stay because you know this is what you need to do. But if you honestly feel that this is the direction that you want to go, after all we’ve been through, then I’ll have to respect your decision.”

Young, dressed in the school’s white-and-gray uniform, made his announcement at Hargrave in April 1998. “I’ve made [this decision] based on many hours of consultation with my family and friends,” he said. “In my heart, I think I can become a real good NBA player.”

Kim Young greeted her son afterward. “You did great, baby,” she said. “I’m very proud of you.”

Piggie spoke with a USA Today reporter that day. “There will be a lot of criticism,” he said. “When it’s all said and done, the ones who are negative now will jump onboard later.”

Clarence Gaines Jr., a Bulls scout who had watched Young play during his senior season, was unimpressed. “Would I consider taking him?” he wrote in his report. “Not at this time. I don’t like his competitive make-up and his lack of basketball skills. If I was a college coach, I would be drooling over him. He can be a fine prospect if he pursues the traditional path. But if he chooses to go the NBA route, he could be a big bust.”

But Young was determined, and pushed by the father figure who followed him to Virginia.

“He wanted to be a pro basketball player,” Stanley said. “I laid out options. I remember I ran into [Georgetown coach] John Thompson at one point. John Thompson said, ‘Let me have him for a year.’ It really wasn’t my call to make. It was Korleone’s call to make and [Piggie’s]. Piggie was basically calling the shots.”

Young hosted a party in Wichita the night of the draft. His father, largely a stranger to him until that point, showed up. According to Young, Piggie ordered him to leave, saying that if he were here now, he’d expect something later. A wave of shock swept over Young upon seeing his father. The sensation soon evaporated. Young had envisioned this day for years — he wanted no distractions on this crucial day. So Young agreed to send his father off and settled into what would be the longest night of his life. He expected to be a first-round pick. He waited. And waited. Detroit finally selected him 11 picks into the second round. He was disappointed, to be sure, but still relieved. He signed a one-year contract with an option for a second year. Kim Young remained in Wichita and kept her job at Cessna.

Young split with Stanley soon after the draft. The agent had secured a $500,000 deal with Nike for Young, but the lockout loomed and that wasn’t the kind of shoe money that Piggie had envisioned. “I declined,” Young said. “I had people decline half a million dollars. That’s the truth. That’s a fact. Nike was gonna give me a half a million my rookie year, just for nothing.” Vaccaro remembered Piggie phoning him and asking for an outrageous price for Young to wear Adidas. With Stanley out of the picture, brothers Carl and Kevin Poston became Young’s representatives. The brothers counted NFL Pro Bowlers Charles Woodson, Orlando Pace, and Champ Bailey among their clients. “We went with bigger agents,” Young said. “That was the worst move I could’ve made.”

“If there’s a black hat on anybody, it’s the Postons,” Stanley said. “The Postons already had Rashard Lewis. That’s enough work. They just did it out of greed. They knew the kid had some work ahead of him. They knew the shoe money was what it was. It didn’t stop them. They went in there and lied to them about the shoe money just to get them to come and sign with their agency, just to have a client. They did that. They did more negative to the boy than anybody in the picture then.”3

Young still had to prove himself on the court when the NBA reconvened for the shortened season in 1999. That season, the Pistons featured a deep roster that included Joe Dumars, Bison Dele, Jerry Stackhouse, and Grant Hill.

“As he walked through the doors, I was listening to him,” said Dumars, now Detroit’s president of basketball operations. “When he got on the court, you could see he had talent, but you knew the process was going to be hard because he was just so young for the league. He sounded like a young high school kid all of a sudden thrown into the NBA world.”

But the Detroit staff — particularly then–general manager Rick Sund — was intrigued by the possibilities of Young’s size. Most high schoolers entering the league at that time needed time for their bodies to fill out. Young was a chiseled 6-foot-7 — a man-child.

“Grant Hill was one of the best young players in the NBA at that time, and for that matter one of the best players in the league, period,” said John Hammond, a Pistons assistant who is now Milwaukee’s general manager. “We used to talk about the way in which Korleone Young defended Grant Hill on a daily basis. We used to say it tongue-in-cheek but [also] somewhat seriously: ‘No one defended Grant Hill in this league as well as Korleone Young.'”

That is not to say Young guarded Hill capably. No one in the league managed too well against Hill at that time. But Young competed against him. “Most veterans would kind of cruise through practice, do what needs to be done and rest their body,” said Steve Henson, a guard on the Pistons that season. “But Grant wasn’t doing that. Korleone was competing hard, going up against one of the best at the time. I just assumed Korleone would land somewhere else and eventually figure it out, but it just didn’t happen in the NBA for him.”

Korleone Young Sund described Young as a gamble. He said he never would have wagered a first-round pick on him. But in the second round, he was low-risk and high-reward. Alvin Gentry, Detroit’s coach at the time, had his doubts about whether Young would ever develop as a player. Young dominated in the paint in high school. But though he was strong, his height didn’t allow for that kind of overpowering in the NBA — he’d need to develop a perimeter game.

“I just thought that his game needed so much improvement,” Gentry said. “Needed improvement in ballhandling, needed improvement from transitioning from an inside player in high school to being a wing player. Defensively, guarding guys on the floor. I just thought he just needed a ton of improvement.”

Gentry said Young was the beneficiary of unusual sympathy.

“We kept him for a year, really, because we just felt sorry for the kid,” he said. “We kept him on the roster just to kind of help him out, really.” As time went on, Young’s role with the team turned hazy. On a few occasions, the organization sent him to attend community events while the team practiced, according to Young. Am I even on the team? he wondered. Meanwhile, the combination of money, idle time, and an introduction to the nightlife proved destructive. He traveled from Auburn Hills to downtown Detroit’s strip clubs and nightclubs. Even though he was just 19, Young knew that he wouldn’t be carded if he arrived with a teammate.

Some players looked out for him. Young fondly recalled spending time with Christian Laettner. Bison Dele, who died tragically in 2002, taught him how to drive a stick shift. But he spent most of the season on the injured list with back spasms. When he did finally dress, the Pistons veterans asked him to lead them onto the court. An excited Young rushed out ahead as the crowd began to cheer. Only Young looked back and noticed something horrifying: He was all by himself. His teammates stood waiting in the tunnel, giggling at the rook. The joke, he said, was one of the best and worst moments of his life. He played in just three games that season.

Detroit declined to pick up the second year of Young’s option. He spent the next fall trying to catch on in Philadelphia’s training camp (Larry Brown, Philadelphia’s coach at the time, is also a Hargrave graduate.) One morning, as he walked in Philadelphia’s Center City, two men struck him from behind and robbed him of his cash and jewelry. The Sixers cut him before the season started.

He’d burned through two organizations, but Young was just 20. He still anticipated an NBA future. Then, the past caught up to Piggie, Young, and the rest of the paid AAU players. In April 2000, a federal indictment accused Piggie of paying $35,550 to players, including $14,000 to Young. The money had come from team benefactor Grant and Nike, which had severed Piggie’s then-lucrative contract in January 1999. “This is not a case of $50, a pair of shoes and a prom corsage,” U.S. Attorney Stephen L. Hill Jr. said. “He paid these players with the expectation that he would be paid later.”

The investigation focused on Piggie, not the players or where the money had come from. “It was our sense in this that the players were mere pawns used by Piggie to facilitate his scheme,” said assistant U.S. attorney William Meiners. “Because of their youth and lack of any kind of criminal history, we believed that prosecution would not be warranted or justified.”

The disclosure came from inside the program. Grant had terminated Piggie’s contract with a six-month severance agreement after an article in The Basketball Times detailed a criminal history that Piggie had previously downplayed. He was also accused of illegally reselling complimentary Nike sneakers. Andre Williams, who eventually played for Oklahoma State, relayed to Grant his uneasiness about being paid a few months later. Grant confronted Piggie, who denied the payments. “I said, ‘I’m not going to give you any more money, you’re paying basketball players,'” Grant recalled saying to Piggie, according to the Kansas City Star. Piggie denied making the payments. I said, ‘Myron, buddy, we taped you,’ ” Grant told the newspaper. “He wasn’t very happy.”

Grant presented a secretly taped recording of Piggie discussing the payments with Williams to authorities. “I mean, [Piggie] had just basically muscled a millionaire into paying him,” Young said. The indictment also cited $76,100 in payments from Stanley and the Postons to Piggie. Stanley, the indictment said, had paid Piggie $49,400. At the time, he characterized the payments as loans that were never repaid. The indictment stated that Raveling, Piggie, and Stanley had met for cigars in Las Vegas in July 1997 and discussed Young’s expected future financial earnings. A few days later, Stanley gave $20,000 to Piggie.

Piggie pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge for defrauding four universities and the NCAA by paying players and affecting their eligibility.4 A federal judge sentenced him to 37 months in prison. “[The kids] know my heart, and I know their hearts. They know I didn’t intentionally set out to hurt anyone,” Piggie said at the sentencing.5 “And I’m sorry for the way it all went down.”

He maintains the same stance today. Piggie, now 51 years old, declined to talk much about his past when reached by phone. “You might have heard 100,000 things about me,” he said. “But nobody’s ever really set down and talked to me because they really don’t know who I am. They just know of me.

“The way that it was perceived was that it was just a monetary thing with me,” Piggie continued. “Before we even thought Korleone was going to be a pro, there was more to it. It was dealing with kids. It wasn’t about a monetary gain. It was about helping kids and really trying to develop a young man who really needed guidance because he didn’t have a real father figure and he was my cousin. When it was brought to my attention, what I did was try to get him the proper advice on how to be a young man.”

Even today, Young’s view of Piggie is conflicted. Yes, Piggie tried to profit from his talent. But it was also in Piggie’s interest for Young to succeed. Piggie didn’t just hand off duffel bags stuffed full of cash. He’d chip in the extra $50 for a tournament registration or even the box of pencils Young needed for school. Piggie became the father figure Young had always sought, a support system.

“He was my consigliere,” Young explained. “If he told me to do it, then I did it. So to throw anyone under the bus for the decisions that I made is tough. But when you’re a child, you got a lot of different people influencing you.”6

Some view Piggie as a convenient scapegoat7 in a larger web of corruption. “Did Piggie do some drug business?” Stanley said. “Yeah. A lot of these AAU guys aren’t Prince Charming. A lot of these AAU guys are guys who did some street stuff and then decide they want to help the kids, a lot of them. They decide they want to help the kids and they really do want to help the kids. I can find a number of these guys across America.”



People ask me ‘Where did it all go wrong?'” Young told Hicks. “After the lockout, after my rookie summer. I had a good summer and then the Pistons, they called me in the office, and I hear the bad news.”

Young was devastated by the news. It was his first real taste of failure.

“That really messed me up because I didn’t want to leave. I was in a childish mind-set that this was my home now. I didn’t feel like I could bounce around. That summer I was depressed, with $300,000 [in the bank]. Endless money. I could do what I want. But I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t in Detroit no more. So that summer I went and bought $120,000 worth of jewelry and then the next year they robbed me in Philadelphia when I was walking in the middle of the city. I only had $30,000 insured. I had bad guidance, made terrible decisions by not just insuring it … “

Hicks stopped him: “Korleone, you said, ‘I made some mistakes, like not insuring it.’ Is that really the mistake? That statement you just made right there is a perfect example of how a kid will go out and get a job and make a thousand dollars, and go and pay for $800 worth of jewelry, instead of thinking, I need to take care of my rent. I need savings.

Young tried to talk over Hicks again, but the pastor was persistent. “Forget that you were robbed. What is the lesson now that you can use to teach somebody else?”

“Responsibility,” Young said.

“Responsibility,” Hicks echoed. “I should have insured it. No, you shouldn’t have spent it.”

Though he was never as highly touted a prospect, Young’s free fall stands in stark contrast to Garnett, McGrady, and Bryant. The Postons, Young said, told him that they do not represent minor league players and ceased their partnership after he failed to secure an NBA roster spot. For years, Young toiled in basketball’s lower rungs. His first layover was with the Rockford Lightning in the Continental Basketball Association, where he averaged 18.3 points and 7.3 rebounds under former Bull Stacey King.

He had mostly stopped talking to reporters during this period. “My dream is to play in the NBA again,” he told the Wichita Eagle in a rare interview in June 2001. “That’s where I belong.”

Stacey King ran the Triangle offense and Young’s knowledge of the system eventually earned him an invitation to the Lakers’ summer league team in 2001. He was still only 22 years old. “The most intriguing thing right now, in addition to the things that got him drafted three years ago, is his age,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told the Los Angeles Daily News.

Korleone Young But he failed to make the roster and spent that fall with the Canberra Cannons of Australia’s National Basketball League. His career eroded from there. He ruptured his Achilles in his first Australian game. The following January, Young crashed his car while driving in Canberra, Australia’s capital city. He had been at a club, drinking. A friend offered to drive him and teammate Emmanuel D’Cress home. “Man, I got it,” Young replied.

In his haze, Young drove as though he were in the United States and not Australia. He went the wrong way on a roundabout. He avoided hitting another car, but swerved his Holden into a ravine. Young’s airbag deployed and knocked him out. The radio had been tuned to a fast beat before the crash. Young awoke to the radio playing in slow motion. He believes his seat belt saved his life — he carries the scar it left across his neck to this day.

When he regained consciousness, his senses slowly returned. He looked at D’Cress, still knocked out. Young said he carried D’Cress nearly two miles back to his apartment. Young called his coach and informed him of the crash. D’Cress was left with a broken neck. Doctors, Young said, later told him that if he had carried D’Cress much farther, D’Cress would have never walked again. The Cannons and Young agreed to terminate his contract after the accident — with Young’s visa now voided. He contemplated retirement.

Instead, Young embarked on a self-destructive cycle. Though there was still interest from overseas teams, he let himself slip out of shape. He treated the tryouts with foreign squads like paid vacations. Young did stints in Australia, Russia, China, and Israel from 1999 to 2006. The farther he traveled, the further he got from his dream of returning to the NBA. He started to think of himself as a victim. He drank. He smoked. He partied. He struggled with depression, wracked by the mistakes he’d made.

“Shit, I was so dumb,” Young said. “I leased shit then. I had a Ford Explorer. I had a Chevy Corvette. I had a couple mopeds. I was a big kid. I had toys, man. Kids have toys.”

During this time, Young employed a financial adviser to oversee his affairs. But he’d sabotage himself. He’d tell the adviser, a young woman, that he planned to visit his daughters in Houston for a couple of weeks. The adviser would give him the money he needed for the trip, then Young would leave Houston after a couple of days, return home, and burn the surplus on more cars and clubs, and on fronting money to more friends and family. His father asked for money every once in a while. Young said he gave what he could when he could.

“[The adviser] couldn’t tell me what to do,” Young said. “She answered to me. It was the complete opposite. I should have been answering to her.”

This cycle continued until Young could no longer secure a roster spot on a team overseas. Back in Wichita, police arrested him for missing a hearing over child-support payments. Young said that he could not afford to pay them at the time. That was four years ago.

Young exhaled.

“I’ve tried to right wrongs,” he said. “But depression and self-medication was so hard. I’m one of those athletes that never smoked marijuana until I got grown. You experiment with that stuff in high school. I didn’t try it until I was an adult. I drank a little beer and stuff. My mom drank Colt 45. Sometimes a few would come up missing. But I went through a self-medicated depression. I was reckless.”

Hicks listened quietly. He thinks Young has the chance to help kids who were once like him. There are more than 4,000 gang members belonging to between 40 and 50 gangs in Wichita, according to the Wichita Eagle. One hundred thirty kids attended Hicks’s summer camp this year. Twenty-five had to be removed for fighting. Earlier that day, Young chatted with a neighbor who had lost two of her children to violence. Her husband was attending a funeral for a recently killed neighbor. Hicks said Wichita needs Korleone Young, now more than ever.

“You will never fulfill a purpose until you start,” Hicks said, “and right now, you have a problem starting.”

“This is really setting on my heart now, because I don’t live in the same city as my children,” Young said. “I’ll always be a ‘daddy from a distance.’ Because me and their mother will never be together. And I will never live in Houston … I tell men that I talk with that there’s some things that we just can’t do anything about in the past,” Hicks said. “But I think every man has a responsibility to be in their child’s life, whether they’re married to the mother or can even get along with the mother. They have a responsibility to be in that child’s life. Now you won’t end up being in that child’s life if you don’t pay child support because the mother ain’t gonna let you. That’s why we have to pick ourselves up and become men. We have to pick up ourselves, get jobs, and find ways to take care of our children. We have to be in our children’s lives. We have to be. And there comes a time when it almost is too late. I said almost because there’s always an opportunity to get involved in their life whether they’re grown or not.”

As his life unraveled, Young sheltered himself from the outside world. A tragedy forced him back out. On the evening of January 19, 2011, Young gathered with family and friends to celebrate the 41st birthday of his cousin, Deon White. They shot dice, drank, and watched the Dallas Mavericks host the Lakers. Young settled into what he thought would be another lazy, enjoyable evening in Wichita. Then a bang on the door came and all hell broke loose.

Terrell Cole and Andre Lovett were behind that knock, there to break up the party. Cole had served prison time for a drug conviction in 2002 and was paroled in 2006. After he was released, he partnered with Lovett, an avid sports fan who had played Biddy Basketball in Wichita a few years after Young started his hoops journey in the same league.

Allegedly, Cole and Lovett had heard that a high-stakes dice game was taking place. They intended to rob the house.

Young answered the door, saw a gun in Cole’s hand, and bolted out the door. Cole allegedly fired in Young’s direction as he raced through the doorway. The bullet instead struck Lovett in his abdomen. Everyone at the party fled. Later that evening, a blue Chevrolet Uplander dropped a bleeding man at the entrance of Wesley Medical Center. Lovett, 30, died the next day.

Authorities interviewed Young as a primary witness in Cole’s trial. The prosecution later played a videotape of Young’s questioning. “He rushed in, cocked the gun, and I’m gone,” Young told detective Dan Harty, according to the Wichita Eagle. “All I can say is it was a black, African American individual … if you had a silhouette [lineup], maybe I could match the silhouette.”

Young’s attitude changed when Officer Stella Boyd replaced Harty and his partner, the newspaper reported. He treated her like a friend. “You know I live around here,” Young told her. “People recognize me. People are going to be suspicious if I come in here and talk to police.” The Eagle reported that Young, in tears, eventually folded a lineup sheet containing six pictures until Cole’s photograph appeared, alone.

Cole was also charged with aggravated intimidation of a witness for allegedly firing shots into a house four days after Lovett’s killing. The house, where Young often stayed, belonged to Young’s aunt. In court, Young testified that he didn’t know Cole or Lovett and could not identify either as one of the robbers, according to the Eagle. He added that his folding of Cole’s picture in the lineup should not be viewed as a positive identification. “If you’ve ever looked through a peephole, which all of us have, you know how objects look disfigured,” Young said on the witness stand. Young testified that he opened the door and viewed a man in a dark coat with a cocked gun. “That was enough for me,” he said. “I was the first person out of the house.”

Others at the house also failed to identify the would-be robbers. Cole, 32, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter in July.

The incident and subsequent trial have weighed on Young. He said that he realized later that he knew Lovett’s extended family and had played basketball with his uncles. He resented having to testify.

“I wasn’t in the realm of starting life again, but how do I start now?” Young continued. “Not only am I a snitch — y’all are forcing me to be the snitch — they’re making me go to court. But the sad thing about it is, what you want me to say? I want to carry on with life after this.”

For years, Young felt selfish for being the first one out the door. He finally feels comfortable walking around the city again. “I’ve faced death already,” he said. “I’m sitting here like if somebody walked in and put [a gun] to my head, it wouldn’t shake me up. Really, if they gave me a chance to sit back and think, I might be able to call his bluff. And say, ‘Man, go ahead. Make yourself famous, bro.’ What I’ve been through. Where I’m going. Thank you. I hope I’m going up there. The land of no hurt. I don’t want to sound crazy or nothing. I’m not ready to leave this earth. But when I do leave, I want to leave on the right accord.”

I think you’re running,” Hicks said. “I want to know you. I want to know what’s going on in you. Where’s your pain? Where’s your hurt? What do you feel about you? How do you feel about you? Because you can get to the point where you feel bad about you and you can’t help you and you can’t help nobody else because you haven’t accepted the fact that what has happened has happened. It’s over. ‘I’m moving on. I cannot help the past, but I can decide what I’m going to do with the future.’ That’s what I really want to see in your life.”

“I want to work with kids,” Young said. “But, like, how do you start?”

“Your purpose was part being a basketball player,” Hicks replied. “But now you have other purposes. And so what is that purpose? Find that out and get to it.”

The discussion ended in typical fashion. Young promised to come by more often. As usual, Hicks was dubious.

“He’s always saying, ‘The Lord is trying to use you,'” Young said afterward. “He’s been saying that since we met. And maybe He is. But it’s gonna have to be at a time when I’m really ready.”

Young settled into a booth at a local diner. A patron asked if he was a basketball player. “Nope, golf,” he said, straight-faced. Young is polite when he’s recognized. He understands his reputation, and his friendliness is an attempt to change the conversation about him, one chance meeting at a time.

Young took a call in the booth before starting again.

“People don’t realize the life of an athlete, bro,” he said. “It’s not all instructional. You gotta learn a lot of shit on your own. I know I did. I didn’t [know] successful people. The woman that just called me — my mom — I love her to death, but she’s a check-to-check person. I have never worked in my life. I had a job because my best friend worked there. I talked my way into it, really. They said, ‘Can I see your résumé?’ I just told them, ‘Well, I really don’t have one, but if you would like for me to start, I’d like to work for you. Feel free to go look online.’ My basketball history and going to different cultures is really my résumé.”

His voice cracked. His eyes began to water when he started to talk about his three daughters. Though evasive about his children, he said, “What kills me is I’m a dad from a distance. I mean, not having nothing and I ain’t even got my kids, you feel me?”

“I’ll never be in the home,” Young says as he clutches his cracked cell phone. “They got iPhones and shit, the two oldest ones. I’m dealing with prepaids and stuff like that. People don’t give me the credit. Motherfucker, I deserve it. ‘Cause I’ve been through a lot. Everybody wants to be patted on the back every now and then. I don’t care how successful you get, but everybody wants to know that they’re accepted, that they’re loved.”

Tears rolled down his cheek. His voice tightened.

“Fuck money,” he said. “I’m telling you this now, on record. At one point in time, money made me. It made me a lot of things. It made me happy. It made me pretty close to being rich … Life ain’t comfortable right now.”

“Until I get married, I will always sleep at home,” he said. “Seriously. I always lived at home. Until my mother leaves me. I hope no time soon. There’s a lot of things I’ve been blessed with. My mom. If I didn’t have that lady, I know I’d be dead by now, for sure. In a coffin. Dead.”

“Right now all we have is each other,” he said. “That’s all I need now. If I’m never successful at anything else — I said this to my friends — make sure people know I was successful. Hopefully, if I’m dead, they won’t say a lot of bad stuff. My friends always hate this. ‘Man, don’t talk about that shit. You crazy, bro. You’re gonna talk that shit into existing.’ Couple times I ain’t care. Couple times I looked at that woman in there and I’m ready to go. ‘I ain’t even strong enough. Plus I’m hurting y’all. I can’t even take care of y’all. Imagine me gone, life’s easier. One less person that you really got to take care of.’ Imagine that. A professional athlete. Now he needs his mom to take care of [him]. We’re surviving off disability money.”

The next day, Kim sobbed while discussing her son.

“We bump heads so much it’s pitiful,” she said. “Sometimes it just seems like he hates me. It’s like sometimes he doesn’t want me as a mom.”

After a game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic in February, Al Harrington thought back to his showdown against Korleone Young in high school.

“That was a good game, man,” Harrington recalled. “We lost the game. But that was a very hyped-up game because he might have been right behind me [in the rankings], two or three or whatever. I think I had the better game, but his team won.”

Harrington has played 15 NBA seasons — one for every minute Young’s career lasted.

“I always ask about him,” Harrington said. “I haven’t heard anything about him in years. Do you know?”

It’s a familiar question among NBA players and personnel who remember the talented teenager with the sculpted frame.

“That’s a sad one there,” said Gentry, now a Clippers assistant. “He was one of those guys — he was the poster boy for what they do now, making them go to college for one year. If it was left to me, I think they would have to go for at least two … Korleone was one of those kids that if he would’ve gone to college, even for a year, he could’ve had a doggone decent pro career. But he was so deficient in so many areas that he just wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready for this league.”

Stanley, the agent, also had not heard from Young in years. “The league doesn’t draft ready players,” he said. “What they do is they develop them. What they look for is, Are you willing to work with me? Are you showing me enough that I can see what the end result looks like?

Young had everything but the will to grow. “I don’t care what anybody said,” Stanley said. “If Korleone had a dad and his mind-set was mature, he could have been a professional basketball player for 14, 15 years. No doubt in my mind. Even with hindsight, I would put everything I own on that.”

Piggie believes that Young’s career would have blossomed had he, Piggie, stayed involved. “With the situation that happened with me, everybody ran,” he said. “Everybody ran because of what was written that wasn’t true. So people didn’t want to get involved. People were scared. And what they did, they just left him out there butt naked.”

“It was bittersweet,” Piggie said of Young’s truncated NBA career. “If I would have known then what I know now, he would have never, ever went in [the second] round. He would’ve went to college. I’ll just say this: People who were in bigger positions than I was gave a lot of misleading information.”

Taylor, his other AAU coach, remembers having to push Young. “Looking back on it, he may have liked basketball, I don’t know if he loved basketball,” Taylor said. “I led him to the water, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t want to drink. That sometimes causes friction because, you know, just like a father-son, you want your son to do something and they don’t want to do it.”

Life went on for Al Harrington, for Gentry, for Stanley, and for the others. Young’s life has become suspended in time, a Möbius strip of what-ifs. What if he’d had his father in his life? What if he’d never left Wichita East? What if he had gone to college? What if he had dedicated himself to the game? What if he’d studied the business of the NBA? What if he’d accepted responsibility earlier?

Where is Korleone Young now? Right where he started, still trying to get started.

“I just like to hide from people, really,” Young said. “I didn’t want to face a lot of these questions I got to face. I took myself into a shell, like a hermit … “

“I’ve hurt myself a lot by running, hiding. I’m still dealing with my own depression. I just can’t face it.”

Filed Under: NBA, Sports

Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, is due out in March.

Archive @ JPdabrams