Pitino assistant Kimani Young continues his own rebuilding

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2013 - 2:18 PM

New Gophers coach Richard Pitino announced the hiring of two assistant who had been with him in Florida. One of them, Kimani Young, overcame a 1999 arrest for possession of marijuana.

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Richard Pitino during his introductory press conference last week.

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For almost 14 years, Kimani Young has had to recite the details.

It was July 1999, a year after the former University of Texas-El Paso basketball star graduated, when Young was arrested. In his possession: 96 pounds of marijuana, enough to put him away in an Allenwood, Pa., federal prison for a year. His family was shocked. His future was put on hold.

Recounting all of those specifics isn’t hard to do. Remembering that version of himself, however, is a little bit tougher. In the almost 14 years since he first wore handcuffs, Young has worked steadily at reversing his misguided moment and building in its place an effort he can smile about.

On Wednesday, when Minnesota announced that Young, along with Mike Balado — both Florida International assistants last year — would join the staff of new Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino, those old details were recited once more, even as he was celebrating a position that made that afternoon look very far away.

Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague sent out a statement around the time of the announcement acknowledging Young’s past. It read, in part: “President Eric Kaler and I each spoke at length with College Presidents and Athletic Directors at schools employing Coach Young and received assurances that Kimani was a positive influence and leader for their programs and student-athletes.”

“It’s so funny,” the now 39-year-old Young said Wednesday. “I don’t know who that person is. I really don’t. It’s just amazing. When that comes up and I look back and I kind of reflect back on that time, I was just a kid that was lost and didn’t have the answers to the test.”

Like many college standouts, Young graduated with stars in his eyes. He majored in criminal justice and thought loosely about being a coach, but when his preliminary dream of playing professionally was crushed, Young momentarily lost his drive.

He had no income, and no plan. He hadn’t — as he says — taken life after playing ball seriously.

What Young had were connections. He knew guys in New York City (he was raised in Queens) and guys in El Paso, and both seemed interested in helping him make a few dollars.

“It was more than I could hold in my pocket,” Young said of the bulky inventory he acquired. “I just got caught in the middle. It was an aberration and … I’ve been spending the last 14 years of my life trying to recover from it.”

Motivated by the weight of what he had done, Young got started immediately, working at the Kaplan House — a New York City facility for young men in foster homes — at the advice of his lawyer, while his case was still in court.

A year later, when he was sentenced to a year in prison, he had impressed enough that the program director promised him his job when he got out. When Young returned, he continued to work there while taking another job with the Police Athletic League and eventually starting to get involved with AAU programs across the city, including Juice All-Stars, when former Timberwolves guard Sebastian Telfair played.

Young had found a path and strode down it with purpose and energy. Then one week in March 2009, while Young was traveling for work, his wife, Sharette, was at home with their three young children, nursing a cold.

Sharette would never discover that the cold was actually pneumonia. She went into cardiac arrest on a Friday afternoon and didn’t regain consciousness, passing away two days later.

“It was a tremendous blow to me and our family,” Young said. “It was a tragedy that no one should have to deal with, man or woman. But at the same time, it was something that we had to deal with. We had to pick up the pieces and keep moving. I had three young children that I had to be responsible for. I wasn’t going to allow this to be an excuse of not continuing to work hard and not continuing to pursue my goals and dreams that are ultimately going to affect them.”

Young put his head down and into his work more than ever.

And three years later, while working as the athletic director for New Heights Youth Inc. in New York City, Pitino — a friend he had gotten to know well on recruiting trails — gave him a call.

Pitino, who knew some of Young’s messy past, had just taken his first head coaching job at Florida International and wanted to hire the man he had grown to respect.

“He called me and said, ‘Kimani, what’s the deal? Give it to me from A to Z; I want to go and fight for you,’ ” Young said.

When Pitino left for Minneapolis, he spoke to Young immediately about coming with him, Young said.

Now as an assistant at a major Division I school, Young has come a long way from that hazy July afternoon in 1999. He’s where he wanted to be about a decade ago, albeit with many hurdles along the way — having accomplished what would seem to inspire a man to look in the mirror and feel proud.

But for Young, it’s enough to simply recognize the reflection and see the good that surrounds him.

“I don’t look at it that way,” he said of feeling proud of his accomplishments. “I really look at myself as fortunate more than proud. I’ve had tremendous, tremendous, tremendous support along the way from coaches to administrators to professional people along the way of me trying to rebuild my image and reinvent myself. I’m more thankful and appreciative of them than I am proud of myself.”

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