By: Lauren Jones
Whether you know him for playing 1-on-1 with Michael Jordan, coaching and mentoring at Leuzinger High School or creating the invite-only open gym Air West with Drew League coach and professional trainer Keion Kindred, if you know Los Angeles basketball, then you know the name Chris “Ghetto Bird” Young.
“You don’t have to play in the NBA to be in the NBA,” Young said so prophetically. And he’s right. In fact, the undersized forward is living proof. Young has made a name for himself as a self-proclaimed “basketball guru.”
“Basketball is my blueprint for how I go about my life,” Young said.
Standing in the shadow of his talented older brother, Young says he was never the biggest fan of basketball growing up.
“I didn’t want to play because I didn’t want to try and live up to what [my brother] was doing,” Young said. “My brother was really good, so I kind of hated basketball.”
In 8th grade, the inevitable happened. Young, being too small to take up football, tried out for the Audubon Middle School basketball team and made it. With encouragement from his friends and middle school coach, Young fell in love with the sport.
“I wasn’t very good,” Young admitted. Despite his limited success on the court, after his first season he tried out for an AAU team. “I went through the hard part of hearing ‘No’ and ‘You aren’t good enough,” said Young. “I had to work hard to get a uniform.”
So how did a mediocre middle schooler find his niche in the basketball world? Like a true athlete who fell in love with the sport, Young altered his approach and allowed those “No’s” to mold his character and only motivate him to work harder. He shifted his game to a defense-first mentality and just like that Young got in the game. The following summer he tried out for the same AAU team and made the roster.
“I was a late bloomer,” said Young. “I didn’t grow until I was 17 and I didn’t dunk on someone until two months after I graduated from high school.”
Young began playing at the Drew League as a tryout for the LA Southwest Junior College basketball team. He finished that first summer playing in the Drew with the LA Fire Department, since then Young has become an integral part of the Drew League family.
“Now he’s like a godfather,” Chaniel Smiley, Deputy Commissioner of the Drew League, said on Young’s role in the League. “He’s like player personnel.”
In 2011, Young sat down with reigning MVP, Kevin Durant, and Dorell Wright and brainstormed how to get the Drew League to play against the Goodman League. Once they came up with a solid plan, Young pitched the idea of having the two most talked about summer leagues in the world — the Drew League and the Goodman League (Washington D.C.) — face off.
“He was very very instrumental in putting together that Drew Goodman game together,” said Dino Smiley, Drew League Commissioner. The game came to be known as “Capital Punishment” held in Washington D.C. and headlined by 20 professional players including Kevin Durant, John Wall and James Harden.
“He likes to evaluate talent,” said Dino Smiley. “A lot of times we will talk to him when we’re getting ready to put a team together; he knows talent from the AAU, high school, college and [professional] circuit.”
A year prior, in 2010, Young helped put together another winning formula that brought Leuzinger a CIF Championship. At the time, Young was an assistant coach to Reggie Morris at Leuzinger High School. Leuzinger had a track record of producing quality collegiate and professional players like Russell Westbrook, Dorell and Delon Wright, Aqeel Quinn, Jerry Evans and the list goes on.
“It was probably the biggest moment I can remember because it was a lot of years of hard work,” remembers Morris. “To start from the ground and build all the way up to something respectable and we did it together; it’s something we definitely cherish.”
Morris and Young were teammates at Los Angeles Southwest Junior College. Back to that first summer where Young played at the Drew League was when he was given one of the first classic nicknames bestowed by George, the official voice of the Drew.
Chris Young became known as “Ghetto Bird.”
A term used to describe a police helicopter equipped with a 1,000,000 watt flashlight often shone in a backyard or residence when ground police forces are unable to keep up with a criminal suspect(s) in a low-income, high-crime rate community.
“If you’re from LA, you know what a ghetto bird is,” said Young. “It fit my game perfect back then.”
Drew League P.A. announcer George says Young’s game was a “high-wire act.”
“I remember the day. [Chris and I] actually came into the Drew League the same year. He was just hovering over the basket. Once he spotted you, it was bird nuts. Once he put that light on, it was just like the ghetto bird in South Central.”
Since his Drew League debut back in the late 90’s, Young has played with four teams in total. The majority of his career, however, has been split between Casper Ware’s Cheaters and Dorell Wright’s Kings of LA.
“He used to always play with the Cheaters,” said Dino Smiley.
Now head coach of Houdini’s All-Stars, Allen Caveness, played with Young on Cheaters. “Chris Young was like an x-factor on our team,” said Caveness. “He was the guy who would always come out of nowhere to block shots, tip dunks, offensive rebounds and he gave us extra opportunities.”
It was not until three years ago that Young decided to switch teams when he realized it was time to pass the torch to former Leuzinger product Delon Wright (Utah), Dorell Wright’s younger brother.
“Cheaters are like family to me, Casper, his wife and the boys are all family,” said Young. “It was tough when it was time for me to do my own thing.”
Out of that blossomed Kings of LA. Young’s tenure with Cheaters was at the height of his basketball career. The Drew acted as Young’s gateway to unimaginable opportunities like Slamball, a team sport intended to be a scripted television series where teams showcased high flying, physical athletes, but turned into a real sport. The sport was developed with influences from hockey, basketball, football and gymnastics according to SlamBall.net.
“Slamball was the most fun I’ve ever had,” Young said. “I went overseas and had my passport stamped.”
In Young’s first year, he led the league in scoring and became the first ever to score 40 points in a game. His career was being taken to new heights, literally. Once more, it was not enough for the Ghetto Bird, whose ultimate dream was to play professional basketball overseas.
In that way, “I have a love hate relationship with basketball,” said Young. It is clear that love weighs out as Young is still playing in the Drew League eighteen years later, but he is in more of a supportive, leadership centric role.
Aqeel Quinn (SDSU), one of Young’s players on the 2010 CIF Championship team says he tries to mimic the leadership qualities of his former coach.
“Chris is a real loving guy,” said Quinn. “He touches everybody; he touches their soul.”
Those exact qualities have landed Young ties with the Nike brand. Young hosts basketball clinics for Jordan brand, which has afforded him a rare opportunity to forge a friendship with Michael Jordan. At one particular camp in Santa Barbara, Jordan had been shooting and dunking for the campers.
“He’s never seen me play, so he challenged me to a dunking contest then he said ‘You don’t want to play me in 1-on-1,'” Young remembers. “Michael Jordan’s a notorious $*&@ talker and I got suckered into it.”
The video below captures what happened from there. It was taken a month prior to Jordan being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“My last pair of shoes in high school were Jordans that my mom had to really work hard to get,” Young said keenly. “Now I don’t have to pay for a pair of Jordans for the rest of my life.”
Like so many occurrences in Young’s life, one more thing that came full circle. Although Young holds many hats these days, his “9-5” job is working for the City of Los Angeles as a Parks & Recreation Coordinator.
“I’m able to put 50 plus pairs of shoes on inner city kids at Christmas,” said Young proudly.
It is ironic that someone who never played in a professional basketball league could have such a lasting impact on the sport further proving that basketball can take you as far as your passion and love for the game allows. Young is a living legend who has left an indelible mark on the sport and will continue to do so long after he puts the ball down.
In loving memory of Khelcey Barrs, former Leuzinger player who passed away due to a heart attack. Kings of LA was created in Barr’s memory.
Lauren Jones is the co-editor of DrewLeague.com and has been with the league for the past three years. She is also a recent graduate of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where she earned her B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and Sports Media Studies. She currently works as a freelance journalist with her work published on sites such as Yahoo! and SB Nation. Her long term career goal is to be an on-air sports reporter and an entrepreneur specializing in financial literacy, crisis and brand management for professional athletes. Her past internship experiences include working for the Los Angeles Clippers, USC Athletics Dept., BET and EAG Sports Management.