STORRS — Kimani Young had already made it back from a dark place, there as a result of his own mistake. At a critical intersection in 1998, he self-corrected and chose the right direction.
And then a decade later life hit again — as hard as life can possibly hit. His wife, Sharette Dixon, had caught a cold, or the flu, it seemed. It developed into pneumonia, and she died from cardiac arrest — just 39 years old. Kimani and Sharette had three children — Kamaal, 6; Khaliq, 4; Salimah, 2 — a beautiful young family, and now mom was gone. Words are still hard to come by.
"That was a hard one, man," says Kimani Young, who is beginning his new job as an assistant coach at UConn and sat down with The Courant for an interview last week. "That was a hard one. My kids motivated me the most. I knew I had three small children that I was responsible for and I just said, 'look, we're going to figure this thing out.'"
Young, from Queens, had planted seeds for a college coaching career, but he knew he had to give up his spot as team manager and video coordinator at St. John's in 2009 and establish a more structured life. He went back to New Heights, the AAU program that had long been a haven for him. The Sharette Dixon Classic, a high school tournament, is played each fall in the Bronx in her memory.
I knew I had three small children that I was responsible for and I just said, 'look, we’re going to figure this thing out.'
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"We just kind of circled the wagons," he said. "They were young, but we put a system in place. We had a schedule, we had a nanny, we had a slew of people that were willing to help. As they got older, I had the ability to get back in college — they were all in school. We haven't looked back."
They were a family, they sacrificed for one another, supported, set examples for one another, they figured it out.
"You focus on them," says Young, 44, "make them the priority, do whatever you've got to do to make sure they're safe, because they've only got one parent now. You've got to really, hug 'em tight, let them know that everything's going to be OK, listen to them. You can't use it as an excuse or a crutch not to do what they're supposed to do. That's a huge message I would always use with them. 'This is not going to allow us not to do the right thing, not to be successful and value our education, not to be good people — that's not going to happen.'"
A decade earlier, Young was in a different place — in federal prison in Pennsylvania, after he was arrested for possession of 96 pounds of marijuana. A year after completing a 1,000-point playing career at Texas-El Paso, he had lost his way. When he returned home to New York, Young worked with the Aim High Foundation, Big Apple Basketball and the Police Athletic League. He helped coach a young Kemba Walker at Rice High School in Harlem before getting the job at St. John's.
"I just depended on my family," Young said. "A lot of people in the New York City basketball community were there to help me. I had lived a large part of my life doing the right thing, and made a mistake and I felt like I could bounce back from it. I was determined to bounce back from it. But I never knew I would be coaching in college 20 years later. That wasn't the goal. The goal was just getting back to what I loved as a kid and that was basketball. This is my life experience, living in the gym, helping kids, mentoring. I just got on that track and this is where it's led."
Richard Pitino gave Young the chance to coach college basketball, hiring him for his staff at Florida International in 2012, and then taking him to Minnesota. Young took his three children to Miami for a year, and Minneapolis for five, where they were welcomed as part of the team's family, as they will be at UConn. When Dan Hurley, familiar as he is with New York area basketball, took over the Huskies and went looking for assistants, he focused on Young.
"All of us that are here, when you're involved in sports, we've all been through a lot," Hurley said. "In particular, the players we recruit, it's taken a lot for them to get to this point. They've overcome a lot of things in their life. Kimani brings a unique perspective, a way of communicating and drawing from his own experiences. He can be a great role model for these guys, a great mentor for the choices they've got to make and the things that can be thrown your way in life.
"We're probably going to be the last group of educators and teachers and mentors for these kids and having someone on the staff who has dealt with the things he's been forced to deal with, I think it's invaluable."
Young, who will be paid $250,000, joined Tom Moore and Kenya Hunter to form Hurley's first staff at UConn. Observers of the first round of workouts were impressed with the pace and intensity, and the coaches are a steady presence at Werth Family Center.
"[Hurley] is a connector," Young says. "I think that comes from his high school background, and I come from a similar background. This is something we've grown into, dealing with kids and families on that level. We spend a ton of time with our guys, letting them know we're in this battle with them, I think that's important. He's going to drive people to their best, players and coaches alike, and that's what kids want, they want to know that we care about them. Whether it's on the court, in the classroom, in the community, in the dorm, we're going to have our fingerprint on them and they're going to be held accountable."
As Kimani Young looks up at the walls at Werth and sees Kemba Walker, he's struck by an amusing thought.
"He's got this warrior mentality, this tough, edgy player," Young said. "But I just remember him being a humble kid that wanted to work hard every day. He played for a tough high school, Moe Hicks, and I spent a lot of afternoons and evenings with him telling him it was all going to pay off. This was a dream school for Kemba, he had the who's who of college basketball after him, but he had his mind made up that he was coming here if he got that opportunity. If somebody has that kind of conviction about where they want to go to school, it's going to work out for them."
Now Young is at UConn and his job will be to help make it a dream school again, particularly for New York kids. The staff is East Coast oriented and heavily into recruiting for 2019 and 2020.
"I think this school still resonates with high school coaches, AAU coaches," Young said. "And once we make those connections, we can start getting kids to see what this place is all about. It's still close to the city, close enough to get to, but far enough to get some separation and feel like you're going away to college. It still think it has that brand, it's still UConn."
I’ve never had a bad day in coaching, not one.
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As he settles in and looks for a home, Young's children, who will turn 16, 14 and 12 by fall, are finishing the school year in Minnesota. They'll be with their grandmother in New York a lot of the summer and eventually rejoin their father, and figure it out.
"My kids will always be around," Young said. "They'll know all the players, know what's going on. They were excited for me, but weren't excited about leaving their friends in Minnesota — they've been there five years. But they get it, they know it's the profession I've chosen, that's been great for me and great for them. They're resilient. They're amazing.
"… This is a tough business that we're in. You're evaluated by wins and losses, it's an awesome business when you're winning, an awful business when you're losing, but to go through what I've been through is not even close. I've never had a bad day in coaching, not one. I think we've got awesome jobs, it's a privilege, a blessing to be doing what we're doing for a living. I'm just excited to be doing it here."