Pittsburgh's versatile forward Sam Young is poetry in motion
Pitt's Sam Young has gone from an undersized HS center to a first-round pick
When he isn't playing basketball or working out, Young writes poetry
A gym rat and perfectionist, Young is never truly happy with his play
Sam Young wants to work. Standing in his sparsely decorated bedroom on a rainy afternoon in early January, Young, a 6-foot-6 senior forward for top-ranked Pittsburgh, is explaining how he composes poetry, his second love after basketball. "Flick off the lights, turn on some music, sit right there and just let it flow," he said, pointing to the computer on his desk. "I tell people, 'Just give me a topic and I'll write a poem for you.'"
The visitor takes Young up on his offer: Write a poem about Pittsburgh being ranked No. 1 in basketball for the first time in school history. "It probably won't be done by the end of the day," Young said as he settles into his chair. "I want it perfected."
Writing poetry suits Young well. It is hard work that must be done alone. He is a man of few words, but he likes to make them count. And though Young ostensibly writes poetry for fun, he still takes it quite seriously. On two occasions last summer, he even read his work aloud at The Shadow Lounge, a coffeehouse in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood. "I got a standing ovation," he said, beaming. During one of the visits he struck up a conversation with Valdez Thompson, the author of a book of poetry called Ghetto Hot Sauce. Thompson put Young in touch with his editor so the two could discuss the possibility of Young self-publishing his own volume someday. "He really has the ability to express his heart," Thompson said. "As long as he has the passion and drive to go with his talent, he has a future as a poet."
For many of the same reasons, Young has a future as a basketball player. His unflagging determination, combined with astonishing God-given athleticism, has enabled him to evolve from an undersized high-school center to a probable NBA first-round draft pick. Pittsburgh has a top-flight point guard in 5-10 senior Levance Fields, who leads the Big East in assists with 7.5 per game, as well as a dominating inside presence in 6-7 sophomore DeJuan Blair, who is third in the nation in rebounding (13.0) while scoring 15.8 points per game. Young, however, is the queen piece that makes the offense work.
Against a smaller defender, Young, who leads Pittsburgh in scoring at 18.0 points per game, can play with his back to the basket and dominate on the glass. (He's averaging 5.8 rebounds per game, including 1.9 on the offensive end.) If he's being defended by a player his size or bigger, Young can step behind the three-point line, where he is making 37.0 percent in league games (up from 19.0 percent overall his freshman year), or blow by on the dribble. His length, strength and lateral quickness make him a devastating defender. Most of all, a toughness that was developed while growing up in Washington, D.C., helps give the Panthers their blue-collar identity. You might outplay Sam Young, but you'll never outwork him.
"Sam has always been a terrific athlete, but he's worked on his skills so much that now you can't leave him alone on the perimeter," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III, who tried to recruit Young out of Friendly High in Clinton, Md. "To be effective against him, you have to have someone who's going to roll up their sleeves and be ready to go, because Sam is going to give you a hard day's work at both ends of the floor."
Upon receiving his poetry assignment, Young doesn't roll up his sleeves per se, but he locks in all the same. After spending nearly an hour staring at his computer screen, he has mustered just a few lines of verse, but they offer a window into how he views both the promise and perils of unfinished success:
Having yet to meet our potential, I love my team's current credential
Young never has more fun than when he's playing basketball. That's why he takes it so seriously. "I still feel like a lot of people are coming to take my glory," he said. "You can never rest. You've always got to be working."
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon was taken by Young's raw potential when he first saw him play as a senior at Friendly High. It wasn't until the following summer, however, when Dixon watched Young compete at a tournament in Las Vegas, that the coach was truly impressed. "He had really improved from when I had seen him six or seven months before," Dixon recalls. "Guys who play hard get better. People underestimate that. Playing hard is a talent."
Young made another lasting impression later that fall when, during his first visit to the Pittsburgh campus, Dixon showed Young a new training center that had been built for the gymnastics team. "He went out there and did about six backflips in a row," Dixon said. "I thought, We can work with this."
Young's legs still bear scars from the flipping contests he has been having with his friends since he was in preschool. He attended a gymnastics camp at the University of the District of Columbia at the age of 6 and played football until he discovered basketball in the ninth grade. Young's excellence in sports was a source of happiness in a childhood that was otherwise pockmarked by hardship. He grew up in the poor, southeast section of Washington, D.C., as the oldest of five children born to a mother who had Sam when she was only 15. When Sam was 3, his father, Sam Jr., was arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover D.C. police officer and served three years in a juvenile detention center in Virginia. Later, when Sam was 15, his younger half-brother, Michael, who developed cataracts in his eyes when he was a baby, went completely blind after he was poked in a swimming pool shortly after undergoing a cornea transplant.
Young's mother, Marquet Craig, worked long hours as a cable television installer and moved the family nine times before Sam left for college, eventually settling in the Maryland suburbs. Each move put the family in a better, safer environment, but the repeated uprooting kept Sam from developing long-term friendships. "You kind of forget about people if you don't see them for a while," he said. "It wasn't hard for me to make those transitions, though, because I was always to myself in the first place."
After failing to qualify academically at Pitt, Young spent a postgraduate year at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. It was the hardest nine months of his life. From the time he woke up at 6 a.m. until lights-out was ordered at 10 p.m., every moment of day was regimented. "He'd call and say, I don't like this place, I want to come home," Marquet said. "I'm like, how you gonna get there? It was some tough love there."
When Sam repeated his pleas over Christmas break, Marquet broke down and shared with him the despair she often felt while trying to raise five children essentially by herself. After that talk, Sam went back to Hargrave, typed out a motivational message on his computer, printed it up in huge font and taped it a wall in his room. It read, I can't let my mother work harder than me.
On the basketball court, Young flourished at Hargrave, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds and ending the season as Scout.com's national prep player of the year. During his freshman season at Pittsburgh, however, he was not the focal point of his team for the first time in his life, and that stung. His response was typical: all work, no play, all the time. "We'd always try to force him to come out with us to parties and stuff, but he wouldn't leave the dorm unless he was going to the gym," said Tyrell Biggs, a 6-8 senior forward who shared a suite with Young that year.