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The Man Behind The Swag: Nick Young

Nick Young is giving the Lakers much-needed baskets -- and even more-needed comic relief. For the man behind the persona, providing entertainment in tough times comes naturally.

This article appears in the Jan. 19 edition of SI. To subscribe, click here.

​Nick Young is wearing a black-leather ensemble that he says was inspired by Michael Jackson and Prince, driving a white Ferrari 458 Italia that he picked up two days ago and shopping for a Christmas present to give to one of the biggest female hip‑hop stars in the world. He believes that girlfriend of about a year, Iggy Azalea, wants to marry him and is expecting an engagement ring. “But I’m not there yet,” Young cautions, so he is determined to find the next best thing. His search has brought him here, not to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills but the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn in El Segundo. 

Young steps out of the Ferrari and into a light rain. Beads of water race down his leather jacket. An elevated train rushes overhead. Across the lot, a middle-aged man emerges from a silver Prius, holding a small plastic bag. Young knows the man. They wave to each other. You wonder just what exactly Young is buying Iggy for Christmas. He reaches into the Ziploc and unearths a heart-shaped 18-karat gold locket iced with five karats of diamonds. He opens the clasp to reveal a dime-sized photo of the lip-locked couple. The man with the Prius, a jeweler named David Lemmerman, asks Young what length of chain Iggy prefers. He is stumped. “We’ll pretend this is Iggy,” Lemmerman suggests, turning to Young’s cousin, a stocky sidekick named Big Meat who bears absolutely no resemblance to a curvaceous Australian blonde. Young tenderly fits the locket around Meat’s neck. “Love,” Young says, “can make you do some crazy stuff.”

*****
There are many objects of Nick Young’s affection: Iggy, Meat, Kobe Bryant, Gilbert Arenas, Yves Saint Laurent, Hollywood, Target, the Lakers, the park on Robertson Boulevard, family, shoes, microphones, video cameras, low-percentage shots, three-point goggles, self-inflating whoopee cushions, sugar cereals, adult onesies, and two English bulldogs named Jelli and Space Jam. The 6,600-square-foot white traditional he recently purchased with Azalea -- which used to be owned by singer-actress Selena Gomez -- is a monument to his passions. The property, tucked behind a gate in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Tarzana, comes with a detached building that Young is converting into a “shoe house.” He employs not one but two “shoe keepers,” who oversee his 500-plus pairs of sneakers, a collection that includes Vans fitted with roller-skating wheels. As Young leads a tour from shoe house to main quarters, he pretends he is on MTV Cribs. Off the kitchen is a replica of the hollywood sign over a red carpet. In the billiards room is a 10-by-10-foot mural, painted by graffiti artist Dame MSK that incorporates a cartoon basketball with arms forming the three-point goggles. In the living room is a set of eight whoopee cushions, presumably for two-year-old Nick Jr., who shows less interest in them than his dad. And behind the bar are two oversized neon letters, s and p, the orange p familiar because it was once part of a Home Depot marquee. These are the initials of Young’s self-manufactured alter ego, a loopy but lovable character named Swaggy P, who fires 35-foot jumpers, attempts 360-degree layups and sometimes even makes them.

Nick Young pool

Swaggy is an adjective, derived from the noun swag, derived from the verb swagger, a term you probably started hearing from professional athletes about seven years ago. It seemed ready to fade from the popular lexicon before Young -- “Savior of Swag,” he calls himself -- swooped in. Swag is an amorphous concept, difficult to define but easy to illustrate. Picture a 6' 6" shooting guard, five months from his 30th birthday, with a four-year, $21.5 million contract, dressed in a black Versace robe, digging into a towering bowl of Fruity Pebbles, while a photographer and his assistant chronicle every spoonful. What’s swaggy about the scene, more so than the Versace or the contract, is the subject’s absolute lack of self-consciousness. “Swag is confidence: how you dress, how you move, your whole persona,” Young explains. “I tell Iggy all the time, ‘You can’t care what people say. You’ve got to have that swag!’ ” This advice could also be useful for the Lakers, who have won 16 championships and rank among the swaggiest outfits in sports history but are currently slogging through another listless season. The fall of the Lakers has coincided with the rise of Swaggy P, who provides much-needed baskets and even more crucial comic relief.

Young is in his eighth year in the NBA, and therefore in his eighth year of doing outrageous things in the spotlight. When Young was a rookie in Washington, he once borrowed Arenas’s American Express Black Card to run errands for the Wizards’ star guard, and treated himself to a laptop and an iPhone. He crashed a Pakistani wedding during a road trip to Phoenix and wound up delivering a toast. He filmed a day-in-the-life segment with the NBC affiliate in D.C., and when the shoot had barely begun, he backed into the station’s truck in front of his house. But nobody fully appreciated his antics until he arrived in the nation’s entertainment capital, where it’s acceptable and even endearing to sport a Superman onesie on the team plane, eat every home pregame meal from Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, and ask out Iggy on Twitter. Their first date was at Target, for socks and Ring Pops. The Screech of the NBA, as Lakers center Robert Sacre calls Young, now models for Forever 21, has paparazzi parked across the street and keeps a camera crew waiting at Staples Center to capture his “entry look.” Even Nick Jr., whose mother is ex-girlfriend Keonna Green, models for a children’s line, Roubleau. Time Warner Cable SportsNet, which broadcasts the Lakers’ games, camps a reporter at Young’s locker for scraps of sound. You never know what he might say. On his game: “There’s no such thing as a bad shot for me.” On his style: “It’s James Bond meets Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” On Magic Johnson more or less advising the Lakers to tank: “Chill out for a minute.” On Bryant, terming the Lakers as soft as Charmin: “I play like Scott. That’s a little rougher.”

Nick Young kid

​Nobody is better suited to lead -- or at least distract -- the Lakers through an unfamiliar existential crisis than their sixth man and second-leading scorer (14.3 points per game). What to do about Kobe’s future? Swaggy P! How to fix a hopeless defense? Swaggy P! A dearth of draft picks? Swaggy P! His moniker has become a mantra. Young connects with Lakers fans because he is one of them, still rocking his vintage tank top around town. He grew up in L.A., hounding point guard Nick Van Exel for autographs and hanging Lakers flags from his car window. His mother once spotted Bryant at Fox Hills Mall, shortly after he was charged with sexual assault (the charge was eventually dropped), and called him over. “Boy, give me a hug!” she hollered, wrapping her arms around him. “I know people say you’re an a‑‑‑‑‑‑, but I don’t think so.” Young spent three years at USC and once played a game against UCLA with more than a dozen fresh stitches in his rear, sustained when he backed into a fire extinguisher at Heritage Hall while wrestling a teammate. When he signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal with the Lakers in July 2013, he planned to rent a house and toured one in Redondo Beach owned by a former USC assistant. “Whatever you do,” the coach told his real estate agent, “don’t rent it to him.”

• MORE NBA: Iggy Azalea gives Young '62 Impala as Christmas gift

Yes, Young is accident-prone. The scar on his forehead came from a grisly collision with the rim at Shenandoah Elementary School, where he first tried to dunk. In Washington, Arenas paid him back for the shopping spree by spraying his back with a paintball gun. In China, Young rolled a toboggan while trying to take a selfie. But his hijinks are normally harmless, like celebrating a three-pointer that didn’t actually go in, or changing shoes after a couple of missed shots, or informing Bryant, “Nobody in the world can guard me!” When Young checks into a game, he tells the defender assigned to him, “Man, I don’t know why they did this to you today.” He has a tattoo on his left arm that reads, in swag we trust. He keeps the right arm ink-free because, as he tweeted, that limb is “strictly for buckets.” Young is a remorseless gunner, allergic to assists, who unleashed one jumper this season with a sneaker missing its sole. “Every time I touch the ball it feels good,” he says.

His teammates take turns mocking him and embracing him. At the Lakers’ holiday party last month, Young reclined in a 10-foot-high white leather chair, imploring guests to “come sit on Swaggy Claus’s lap.” When a young girl asked him for an iPad, he shouted, “What happened to Barbie?!” After greeting all the kids, Young turned his attention to injured swingman Xavier Henry. “Hey, X, come sit on Swaggy Claus’s lap,” he yelled. Henry hobbled away on his crutches.

nick young clause

“He has a natural joy, a natural happiness, that a lot of people are searching for,” says L.A. point guard Ronnie Price. “People are so serious in our business. There’s so much criticism. Sometimes you have to remind yourself, ‘Hey, what we’ve got here is still pretty good. Enjoy it. Have fun with it.’ I really don’t know what kind of person wouldn’t love this guy. That’s a mindset I wouldn’t even want to understand.” The Lakers were 12–26 through Sunday, and Nick Young’s life is fabulous. These facts are not mutually exclusive. “He’s disappointed when we lose, but he shows up the next day with a smile, and he makes everybody else smile with him,” says coach Byron Scott. “I don’t think that’s a bad way to be.”

Young wears an open-mouthed grin whether opining about high fashion or reflecting on unspeakable tragedy. He is a bright light in a dark corner, a role he assumed and perfected long before he reached the Lakers. All he had to do was flash that smile and shoot that ball, and he could lift everybody’s spirits, sometimes even his own. “My dad tells me I smile to keep from crying,” Young says. “I don’t know about that. But I do think you sometimes smile to hide.” 

***** 

Charles Young sits on a sofa under a photograph of Nelson Mandela with Muhammad Ali, in the Mid-City apartment where Nick was raised. Charles met Ali once, when the champ attended a fight at the Milwaukee Auditorium. “You’re not faster than me!” Charles crowed. “I’m faster than you!” Ali threw a punch at his face, pulling back just before he struck his jaw. Charles was an aspiring actor, as well as a boxer who won the Wisconsin Golden Gloves and pegs his career record at 41–7. His wife, Mae, was Miss Black Wisconsin and a J.C. Penney model. They moved to Los Angeles, lured by fame’s call, and raised five boys. They named the youngest after Nick Barkley, a hotheaded cowboy from the TV western The Big Valley.

Charles appeared in three movies, most notably the 1979 blaxploitation film Penitentiary, playing prison-yard boxer Tough Tony. But friends who really knew Charles labeled him Pretty Tony, after another character from another movie, the pimp in the Richard Pryor film The Mack. Nick learned swag, before it had a name, from his dad. “I’d look at all those old pictures where he had the big Afro and the gold chains,” Nick remembers. “That was so cool to me.”

In preschool Nick was already picking out his own clothes -- scarred by the memory of an alligator-print shirt his mom once made him wear -- and accompanying his oldest brother, Charles Jr., on dates. Junior, 17 years older than Nick, was like his second father. He worked at the Hamilton High cafeteria and rushed home every day with extra cookies. By the time Nick turned five, Junior was engaged and his fiancée pregnant. He was taking a class at Jim Gilliam Recreation Center, and after he finished one day his fiancée was waiting to pick him up in the parking lot. She heard the shots. A 14-year-old Blood, who went by the name Trouble, mistook Junior for a rival gang member and killed him.

The family splintered. One brother, John, suffered a breakdown and was committed to a mental institution. Another brother, Andre, moved to Milwaukee to live with his paternal grandmother. Charles and Mae tried to preserve Nick’s childhood. Charles, by then a truck driver, took him on two-week cross-country trips and paid him $200 per haul. Mae played hide-and-seek with his Fruit Roll‑Ups and challenged him to rap battles in the living room. Nick saw how they disguised their grief. He liked to draw, particularly caricatures, usually of himself. He sketched self-portraits with a massive head on a tiny body. They made everybody laugh. Nick brought the caricature to life, becoming the clown prince of Robertson Park, dribbling balls off opponents’ heads, sliding across the court, sinking improbable shots and then sprinting out of the gym. This was the And1 era, and Nick acted like he was auditioning for the street-ball tour. “He talked so much jazz,” recalls Nick’s brother Terrell. “He’d start all these fights, and I’d have to finish them.” Cedric Ceballos, an L.A. native who spent 11 years in the NBA, was a summer regular at Robertson. “If that boy ever gets serious,” Ceballos told Terrell, “he’ll be something.”

Nick was serious -- about his hair. He went from a Jheri curl and lines in his eyebrows to a weave with extensions. Friends called him Pretty Tony, like his dad. “I was just trying to be cool,” he says. He enrolled at Hamilton in ninth grade and flunked out. He transferred to Dorsey for 10th grade and dropped out. Not only did Nick suffer from learning disabilities, some of the kids at Dorsey were Bloods, like Trouble, and they kept asking if he was in a gang. He felt safer at Robertson, or at home, doing flips off his second-story balcony for fun. He started driving when he was 14, on Terrell’s license, racking up tickets Terrell had to pay. Big Meat—known then by his real name, Adrian Pascascio -- was often in the passenger seat. But sometimes Big Meat had to settle for public transportation, and on one of those days a basketball coach pulled up alongside Meat as he dribbled to the bus stop. Derrick Cooper explained that he was launching an AAU team called the L.A. Wildcats. He asked Meat, barely 5' 5", to tell some friends. Meat called Nick.

Nick Young chair

By then, Terrell was a successful NAIA center at Biola University in La Mirada. Nick went to the games with his parents. He noticed how they smiled when Terrell scored. He admired the trophies they displayed in the apartment. Nick never left Robertson -- he dominated the Friday night dunk contests, pocketing $100 for each win, and even jammed over Ceballos once—but he finally saw a world beyond the park. He joined the Wildcats and befriended Cooper, who directed him to Cleveland High in Reseda. As a junior, Nick played high school basketball for the first time, and some of his slams were so spectacular that fans poured out of the stands and onto the floor. Still, Nick could not graduate on schedule because of his scattered academic record and filed three appeals before the Los Angeles Unified School District granted him a fifth year of eligibility.

Nick’s final season at Cleveland was captured by filmmaker Dan Forer, who put the Youngs in front of the camera, which they once wanted, and asked them about Junior, which they now needed. Charles said he felt like one bullet killed two sons. Mae said she considered suicide. Nick, sobbing, told Forer, “Before every game I talk to my brother Junior. I want my brother to see me playing now, see all this happen. But you can’t now. You can’t. He can’t come see me play. What would he be thinking? Would he be proud of me?” The result was the 2007 documentary Second Chance Season, which cut through the caricatures and revealed a boy desperate to boost a family. “There’s been a lot of tragedy,” Young says in the movie. “That’s why I go out there—try to make them forget about it, try to bring life back into the home.” Seven years have passed since the doc was released, and Mae still watches it regularly. Nick showed it to Iggy recently. She cried like everybody else. “You can’t be embarrassed by your pain,” Mae says. “You have to embrace it. There is hope. This is not all there will be.”

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