To understand Tim Young, Stanford's towering center, you must
drive into the dark, green heart of northern California,
outrunning the Bay Area and its interstates, the fast food and
the fast drivers, until all that remains is mountains draped
with spruce and fir forests. Then take a perilously twisty
two-lane highway that sweeps past the white waters of the
Klamath and Trinity rivers and through no-stoplight hamlets with
names like Weitchpec and Somes Bar. Just 50 miles or so from the
Oregon border you turn onto a gravel road with no name, marked
only by a U.S. Forest Service sign that says, with considerable
understatement, DEAD END--NOT MAINTAINED for travel. For more
than a mile the road ascends toward the heavens, winding ever
steeper and narrower. Next to an amber meadow at the road's end,
there is a Native American homestead built a century ago,
sagging under the weight of its years. Inside you will find
Young's mom, Mary Harris; you will also find a window into the
soul of her 7'1" son.
This is an article from the Nov. 15, 1996 issue
"It's simpler out here," Harris says. She has a soft voice and
gentle manner, but she is a sturdy woman of 6 feet who supports
herself and her 10-year-old son, Tim's half-brother Everest, by
baking bread for her neighbors and raising much of her own food.
The only electricity up there comes from a generator that sparks
the lightbulbs and the oven. There is no phone. Water comes from
a nearby stream, brought down the mountain by an old-fashioned
line that runs on gravity and nothing else.
This is all quite agreeable to Harris, who has never traveled
comfortably through the material world. She grew up in the high
desert of Nevada and was living in an apple orchard when Tim was
born. After splitting up with Tim's father, Greg Young, she
worked on an avocado farm near Santa Barbara, where Tim spent
his summers while living the rest of the year in Santa Cruz with
his dad. Now Tim visits Harris every chance he gets and revels
in chores like picking tomatoes. "Tim has always appreciated
simplicity, just as I have," she says. "He's never been
impressed with what impresses other people."
But things may not be as simple for Young this season as he
would like. At 20, he is an academic junior but an athletic
sophomore; he was granted medical redshirt status last year when
a bulging disk forced him out of Stanford's lineup after five
He is healthy now, and expectations are high that Young will
improve upon his '94-95 freshman numbers: 12.3 points and 8.6
rebounds per game, and a Stanford-record 43 blocked shots. But
if he feels any pressure to enter the NBA draft early and forgo
his extra year of eligibility, he is ignoring it. "I dream about
playing in the NBA, but it's still so far away," Young says. "It
will take me five years to become the player I want to be."
Although at one point Harris had wanted her son to give up
basketball because it was taking over his life, she now sees an
important role for the game--and him. "I've told Tim that
athletes are really medicine men," she says. "They are vehicles
for human catharsis, for letting fans express many human
emotions--rage, joy, gladness, sadness, happiness, anger. People
probably are greatly relieved after watching competitive sports."
With such counsel, it's no wonder Young prompts comparisons to
Bill Walton. Much has been made in Bay Area newspapers about his
reluctance to get his driver's license, a shocking act of
nonconformity in car-crazy California. Young has always
preferred riding a bike to being trapped in the belly of a steel
beast, in part for environmental reasons, but also because he
enjoys the open-air fun of pedaling. Young finally got his
license this spring; one of the first things he did with it was
drive his grandfather's van to the Grand Canyon, alone. "It was
a personal journey," he says. "There was a feeling I got there,
a spiritual thing that I can't really put into words. It's an
extremely cerebral place." Young camped, hiked and chronicled
his thoughts in a journal.
An English major, Young often expresses his deepest emotions to
his family and friends in poetry--which is surprising only to
those who don't know him. Mike Gruber, who coached Young through
four years of varsity basketball at Harbor High School in Santa
Cruz, offers this stream-of-consciousness bouquet about his old
star: "He's very private, very thoughtful, truly humble,
nonmaterialistic, very sincere."
In other words he's unlike most big-time basketball players. But
his serene style, so appealing away from the game, actually
hinders Young on the court. Mark McNamara, an eight-year
journeyman NBA center, has been a confidant and tutor of Young's
since Tim's high school days. He says, "Tim needs to see that
dominating a game is not a selfish thing." Young acknowledges
this, but says, "It's hard because a lot of your personality
goes into your game. My personality is quiet, kind of mellow. I
have to be a different person on the court, and I'm still
dealing with that."
Young's unusual world view is matched by his uncommon talent.
After last year's redshirt season, he spent the summer with USA
Basketball's Under-22 Select Team, practicing and playing with
some of the country's most talented college players. It was the
best tonic the sore-backed Young could have had. Says Mike
Montgomery, Young's coach at Stanford as well as on the Under-22
team, "The fact that he saw he could compete favorably with Tim
Duncan, who's going to be the Number 1 draft pick in the country
next year, was a tremendous confidence boost."
Young started playing basketball at age six, when his
grandfather Roy Young taught him the two-handed set shot on a
backyard hoop. Grandpa Young had learned the game in gyms where
athletes had to shoot over rafters to reach the rim. As a
result, in his backyard tutorials he stressed a soft,
high-arcing shot that is evident in his grandson's buttery stroke.
Grandpa Young's zeal is exceeded only by that of Greg Young. "I
used to tell Tim, you handle the game on the floor, leave the
game in the stands up to me," says Greg, describing his son's
fifth-grade basketball games. Greg is a powerfully built 6'4",
and he tends to talk in italics. "Tim was the tallest kid, and
he had the most skill, and so the other parents used to
complain. I would get in their face and say, 'If your kid can't
handle the heat, then get him out of the kitchen!'"
Greg is the yang to Mary Harris's yin. But give the man credit:
He weaned Tim on tapes of old Celtics games and had him reading
the biographies of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn at
an early age. The Celtics' way--selfless team play--has never
left Tim, and Larry Bird remains his idol.
Until last year the biggest challenge Tim had faced on a
basketball court was trying to block out his dad's rants from
the bleachers. But coming off his stellar freshman year, the
expectations were as tall as he is. "There was a lot of
pressure, on me and the team," he says. "It got to me in a big
way." When he hurt his back and was forced to sit out, Young
felt as if he had let his teammates down. "It was the toughest
thing I've had to go through in my entire life," he says; after
one game he went home and bawled. "I was hurting so much, I just
lay on my bed and cried," he says.
But now, his health and confidence almost fully restored, Young
once again is likely to be in the spotlight, whether he's ready
for it or not. At least he will have a place he can escape to
should the light burn too brightly. "When Tim comes here, I can
just see the change in him," Harris says. It is the last blush
of daylight, and her eyes are fixed on the sun as it disappears
behind a faraway hilltop. "It frees him," she says softly. "It
frees his spirit."