MEMPHIS — Thaddeus Young has his job in Toronto, lives in Dallas, and was born in New Orleans. But Memphis is where he’s from.
It’s where he learned the nuances of his crafty, in-between game that has served him well through 16 NBA seasons and counting, and where he developed his identity as a player and person.
He maintains a residence in the mid-South city known for music, basketball, and soul food. It’s also where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, felled by a sniper while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel not far from the bright lights of Beale Street where B.B. King played the blues.
But it’s a city with challenges. It’s been recognized in recent years as the most dangerous and poverty-stricken metropolitan areas in the United States, and has been in the news recently following the beating death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old father and FedEx employee, by local police after a traffic stop.
Memphis is a city that needs a helping hand.
It’s why Young has kept his ties here, professionally, and personally, even as his career has taken him to Georgia for college and stops in Philadelphia, Indiana, Chicago, San Antonio and now Toronto as a pro. He considers it home.
“Memphis is how I was raised,” says the veteran Toronto Raptors forward. “Hard workers, getting-it-out-the-mud individuals. People who are blue collar. They gave me my identity and who I am today. Obviously, my parents had a lot to do with it as well, but growing up in Memphis, it’s tough. If you can make it out and you can do certain things, I always recommend trying to give back to your community.”
Young has done just that.
For more than a decade now he’s sponsored Team Thad, an elite AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) program that has been a gateway for dozens of athletes to earn Division I scholarships and a launching pad for several NBA careers, including Young’s Raptors teammate O.G. Anunoby.
Young also owns Reform Sports Training, a multi-court training facility on the outskirts of Memphis that is home to everything from youth leagues and summer basketball camps, to personal skills training, as well as being the hub for Team Thad during the Elite Youth Basketball League season. His father, Felton, once drafted by the Buffalo Braves of the defunct American Basketball Association, acts as the chief financial officer, while Norton Hurd IV, his best friend and high school teammate at Mitchell High School (where Young was player-of-the-year in Tennessee as a senior) runs the AAU program.
Not surprisingly, Young will be hosting a sizable contingent Sunday when the Raptors conclude their seven-game road trip at the FedEx Forum against the Memphis Grizzlies.
“We’ll have a bunch of my AAU kids there, a lot of my AAU coaches, a lot of people who work for me, a lot of family members,” said Young. “There will definitely be some people there. It’s always great to be back and see them [and] get a chance to tap in with each other to see what’s going on with each other outside of basketball. Everything is centered around basketball, but it’s not the biggest thing.”
One of the reasons the Raptors traded for Young at the deadline last season was (in addition to bolstering their rotation for their playoff push) to provide a young locker room with an on-and-off-court example to learn from. He’s made an impact. Precious Achiuwa, who played college basketball in Memphis, has cited Young as an important mentor who has contributed to his development over the past 12 months. Young is regularly in the ear of rookie centre Christian Koloko. He’s also been an important sounding board for Fred VanVleet — they have lockers adjacent to each other — as the younger veteran navigates leading an NBA team.
VanVleet has also used his basketball success as a platform to uplift others in his hometown of Rockford, Ill., and cites Young as an inspiration there too.
“He’s a stand-up guy,” says VanVleet. “Thad’s a great role model, a great veteran presence that you want on your team, that stands for the right things and is a leader in his own community … and I think that you know, we need that to help those under-served communities, the places that we come from that need extra attention and resources and motivation. So it’s a credit to him as a man, as a person, and somebody that I definitely look up to as a young guy coming up in the league.”
Memphis will test you though. Young’s local ties are one reason the beating death of Nichols, in which five Memphis police officers were subsequently charged with second-degree murder, among other offences, was so gut-wrenching for Young.
“I mean everybody’s gonna process it differently. Some people that are gonna go into complete rage and then you have some people that’s gonna go about it though the system and the political way. Then you have some people who are going to put their voices out there. Everybody’s gonna process a differently,” said Young when we spoke shortly after the officers’ body camera footage was made public, setting off protests in Memphis that have continued for more than a week.
“I think the biggest thing is just making sure that we get justice for the tragedy that happened,” said Young. “They all should go down. Every last one of them. Everybody who’s involved there’s just no other way to put it. … they should have to face every single repercussion that comes with what they did.”
Young’s commitment to the city he grew up in runs deeper than basketball. It’s what he’s known for — he’s arguably the most accomplished player to ever come from the area — and what he knows best. But for Young it’s just a vehicle to help a city could use some.
“One of the things that I try to do is give back to my community in different ways. Not just through basketball, but my time and my knowledge and teaching young kids about business and teaching young kids about life skills and helping adults get leadership skills, jobs skills, by giving jobs to the community,” he says.
“I still have my hands on the pulse of the city,” he says. “I go back home I try to make sure I know I’m doing all the things I can to help individuals get better and be successful.”
Early in his career, Young made a pledge to his hometown and has stood by it ever since.
“When I was coming up I said, ‘Once I made some money, once I did something successful, I was always gonna come back and give back to, you know, not just my community but the city.’ “