CHRIS YOUNG + ROY WALKER
"Growing up with a hardworking single mother, the streets could have taken my freedom or life many times. But the city gave me a pass and allowed me the opportunity to chase my goals."
IMAGES: ESTEVAN ORIOL; WORDS: DREW RUIZ.
Chris Young predicates his life on giving back through basketball. From building programs in local neighborhoods to coaching High School talent like Russell Westbrook, Young is a keystone of a tight knit community built around love for the game.
Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, the game was something he was surrounded by from an early age. A “love-hate relationship,” according to Young, who originally was drawn to football, hoops became more than a game for him; it was a way of living that would open up endless possibilities throughout his life and steer him from the wrong path.
“Basketball has kept me from a lot of things that I would’ve gotten into or seen if I wasn’t in the gym all the time,” says Young, 41. “It’s kept me out of trouble and optimistic.”
This optimism led him to use his platform to help those who grew up in the same area searching for guidance and a sense of community. For Young, teaching through the game of basketball was the perfect tool.
It’s a Friday afternoon inside a recreation facility located at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Bill Robertson Lane, Los Angeles. Speaking about life and basketball-related things, it’s a building where Young used to work.
Take the elevator to the third floor and as you exit, you’re greeted by two regulation-size basketball courts. Inside this gym lies opportunity. It’s the place where Air West, an exclusive pickup run that Young helped, alongside Kieon Kindred, bring to fruition takes place every Wednesday night. Players of all ranks — pro, semi-pro, collegiate and amateur — fill both courts and compete for hours.
One of the most rewarding parts about creating Air West for Young was knowing that he was able to do this in his own community.
“This is my neighborhood,” says Young. “I’m from L.A. and I’m very proud of that. To know you’ve helped create a sports program in your neighborhood – I thought that was cool.”
Brotherhood plays a pivotal role in Young’s life, too. He credits the camaraderie he’s established over decades with teammates-turned-family members to the game of basketball. He speaks highly of his former college teammate Reggie Morris Jr., who, like himself, is a staple in the L.A. basketball community.
Morris Jr. inherited a love for the game from his father, beloved in the community, who coached him alongside Young and Walker during his 16 seasons at L.A. Southwest.
It was Morris — then a 24-year-old head basketball coach at Leuzinger HS in Lawndale, a city about 12 miles south of downtown L.A. — who offered Young a position on his coaching staff back in 2003. Hesitant at first, Young agreed; this was where he was first introduced to a player by the name of Russell Westbrook.
Fast-forward 14 years, and that same kid whose jersey would droop off his shoulders continues to play with that same tenacity, winning the league MVP in 2017 and becoming one of the most explosive players the world has ever seen. In the process, he recently released a signature shoe with Jordan Brand.
He reminisces on the player that evolved into the “Brodie,” while wearing the “Triple-Double” colorway of the Why Not Zer0.1. This is Westbrook’s first signature shoe, released this past January, that commemorates his single season triple-double record (42). Westbrook also has the “Tribute” colorway dedicated to a former high school teammate Khelcey Barrs who passed away in 2004.
Young enjoys seeing his former players succeed in life, whether it’s watching players like Westbrook on court or teaching the next generation about the game through coaching.
“[Young] and Coach Morris are big parts of why I am the way I am with basketball —coming in every day no matter what’s going on at home or work,” says Roy Walker. Walker is now an assistant coach at Culver City HS during the fall and on Westbrook’s “Why Not?” AAU team in the summer. Walker does his due diligence for the players coming up in the program who are drawn to the values of mentorship and a love for hoops.
“I saw [lots] of people, as a 13-year-old, come and talk to them,” recalls Walker, on seeing the impact Morris and Young had on others through basketball. “Now I’m at the point where I can be a mentor, coach and people know me all throughout the basketball community. It’s about coming in, helping kids and giving more than you have.”
The domino effect of this has trickled down generations of former players, and the community looks out for one another — and never more so than during a health scare Young encountered last summer that almost cost him his life.
During Peach Jam, the final stop on Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) in North Augusta, SC, Young suffered a stroke and needed two consecutive brain surgeries when he returned home to Los Angeles.
“At times, I couldn’t feed myself,” says Young. “I’m laying there thinking I’m finally going to get this opportunity that I’ve wanted for a few years and I’m about to blow it.”
Support poured in for the “Ghetto Bird,” Young’s nickname given to him by announcer George Preciado from Drew League days that complemented his game —high-flying and always in the vicinity when something was happening.
Morris and Walker were among the extended family and friends at Young’s side during this crucial time.
“I had no doubt in my mind he was going to bounce back from that because that’s who he is,” says Walker. “He’s very resilient and I love him to death because he’s helped mold me into a good coach.”
Young’s road to recovery has been steady and he uses his experience to motivate others by showing them you don’t have to be in the big leagues to live a life dedicated to basketball.
“My little mantra is that everyone has a story,” he says. “What I hope my city picks up from me is that I stayed the course for the life I’m building. Growing up with a hardworking single mother, the streets could have taken my freedom or life many times. But the city gave me a pass and allowed me the opportunity to chase my goals. Who knew one day I would be blessed with the responsibility to be the EYBL’s West Coast Regional Scout.”
Young now has a six-inch scar on the back of his head that he freely talks about almost a year after the incident. Back at the practice facility, Los Angeles-based photographer Estevan Oriol is documenting Young through the lens of his camera. Before the photo shoot concludes, Oriol props Young a few steps away from the main entrance in between two words engraved on the pavement, “Thank You” and “Mentor,” for his final shot of the day.
“[Chris] is what you want to be as a mentor,” says Walker. “And I try to mold myself after him.”