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How Trae Young’s grandfather inspired his journey to the NBA

Rayford Young I, who died when Young was 10, always knew his grandson would make it to the league

Trae Young was too young to have seen Julius “Dr. J” Erving play in anything other than highlights. But by the way Young’s grandfather described his favorite NBA player of all time, it felt like he had watched Dr. J dunk.

One of the perks of playing in the 2022 NBA All-Star Game on Sunday for the Atlanta Hawks guard is he will get to rub elbows with Erving and other legends when the NBA 75th Anniversary Team is honored.

Unfortunately for Young, his beloved grandfather did not live long enough to be there to meet Erving and see his beloved grandson play in the NBA as he projected.

“Just even thinking about that makes me emotional,” said Young’s father, Rayford Young II. “He would flip. He would go crazy. He would probably start talking about how all these young dudes don’t understand what he [Erving] meant to the league coming from the ABA to the NBA.

“I think my dad would have called him Julius Erving like he knew him. He wouldn’t have called him Dr. J. That would have been special.”

Rayford Young I died of cancer in Pampa, Texas, at the age of 52 in 2009. However, fond memories and appreciation of Young’s grandfather still strongly resound with the Hawks star.

For example, on March 23, 2020, @ATL_IU_Sports asked Young during a Twitter Q&A: “Biggest inspiration in life and ball?” The Hawks guard responded from his @TheTraeYoung account by saying, “My grandfather who passed away when I was 10…”

Long before Young was born, his grandfather was a star basketball player at Pampa High School who played one year at Western Oklahoma State College in the 1970s.

“Great player from what I was always told,” Rayford Young said. “Cat quick, could shoot it better than Trae, with the same range, and was super competitive.”

Rayford Young I (No. 20), Trae Young’s grandfather, was a star basketball player at Pampa High School in the 1970s.

Rayford Young II

Rayford Young was a Texas Tech basketball star who scored 1,525 points from 1996 to 2000 and guarded current Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups and LA Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue as well as Jacque Vaughn and Kirk Hinrich in the Big 12 Conference.

While starring in Lubbock, Texas, he and his wife, Candice, had the first of four children in a son named Rayford Trae Young in 1998. Rayford Young went undrafted by the NBA in 2000. He tried out for the Houston Rockets but never played in the league.

However, Rayford Young did play professionally in the American minor leagues and Spain, France, Italy and Portugal. While he was playing pro ball, Candice and their son stayed in Pampa with his parents, who were gladly willing to help.

During that time, Young and his grandfather built a lasting bond.

“My parents had me [at a] pretty young age, and my dad was still playing,” Young said. “I was always around my grandfather growing up.”

“He wanted me to be the first one to make it to the highest level, the NBA. My dad did a little bit, but my grandfather always knew I was going to be the next one.”

— Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young

Young’s grandfather was the first to teach him how to shoot a basketball, putting a Nerf hoop on the back of a door in the house when he was a toddler. Today, the Hawks star is one of the NBA’s top scorers and is slated to participate in the 3-point contest during All-Star Weekend.

“He would shoot from the couch and across the room,” Rayford Young said. “Trae would go rebound and give him the ball. My dad would just shoot, and then they would switch off, and Trae would shoot. My dad would rebound. And so I would say, as much as he fell in love with basketball, watching me as a kid, my dad probably introduced him to basketball.”

Said Young: “That was my first basketball memory along with watching basketball with my grandfather.”

As a kid, Trae Young (left) thought LeBron James (right) was the greatest NBA player of all time. Young’s grandfather stood by his opinion that basketball legend Julius Erving was the greatest of all time.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Rayford Young put in his overseas basketball contracts to get Christmas off to spend time in Pampa with his wife and kids. One of the family Christmas traditions was that the Young men would watch NBA games all day. Inevitably, a healthy argument would ensue about who the greatest NBA player of all time was.

Young would argue LeBron James. Rayford Young would preach for Michael Jordan. And grandpa would always firmly state Erving’s case.

“I wouldn’t say my dad was a hater, but if it wasn’t Dr. J, he wasn’t really messing with you,” Rayford Young said. “Like, not even Michael Jordan.”

Young, 23, said: “I remember watching Christmas games with them all the time as a little kid when LeBron first got into the league.”

As Young got older, his bond with his grandfather grew into a loving, fun, mentor-mentee relationship.

They would laugh hysterically watching Chappelle’s Show together. His grandfather is why Young loves R&B slow jams to this day, as they often listened to New Edition, Boyz II Men and Bobby Brown. Young I also told his grandson he had to be twice as good as his white counterparts to succeed in life. Young I preached to his grandson to focus on school and books and not to be sidetracked. Moreover, Young’s grandfather instilled confidence that he would be the first in the family to make it to the NBA.

“Growing up where I grew up, there were a lot of white kids around,” said Young, a former University of Oklahoma star who grew up in Norman, Okla. “I was told that I had to be two times better and [that] they would get recognition before a Black kid. That was the way my grandparents raised me, to think about when I grew up. That was my mindset. That was always on the top of my mind when I was in high school.

“It was big to me to learn that I had to represent my last name. He wanted me to be the first one to make it to the highest level, the NBA. My dad did a little bit, but my grandfather always knew I was going to be the next one.”

Rayford Young II (center), pictured with his wife Candice (left), didn’t realize how close his late father, Rayford Young I, was to his son, Trae Young, until Young I’s death in 2009.

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

When Young I died, Young II passed the news on to his son. Every summer since, he makes a trip to Pampa to visit his grandfather’s gravesite.

“He passed away when I was 10. He’s always been on my mind ever since,” Young said. “I was sad. I remember that was my first big family member passing. I remember my dad calling me into the room, he knew how close I was with him. I just started crying; being 10 years old, I didn’t really know how much it would really affect me today. Definitely, I still think about it.

“I always go back to talk to him every time we go there in the summer. I go back, look at [the headstone] and tell him thank you.”

Said Rayford Young: “I never even realized how close they really were until Trae got to junior high and my dad passed. How much they really talked and how many things were between them. I just thought my dad was doing his job as a grandfather. But he talked to Trae a lot about the same thing he talked to me about.”

Young was a finalist for the 2018 Bob Cousy Award for college basketball’s top point guard, which was announced during ESPN’s College Basketball Awards in Los Angeles in April 2018. Another honor given that night was the Julius Erving Award for the nation’s top small forward. While Villanova guard Jalen Brunson won the Bob Cousy Award over Young, the latter did get an opportunity to tell Erving how much his grandfather loved him.

“Trae told him what he meant to our family, more so what he meant to his grandfather,” Rayford Young said.

Young lived up to his grandfather’s prediction and made it to the NBA. And before every NBA game, he prays, asking his grandfather to watch over him.

“I always try to make him proud. I’m hopefully accomplishing that. That is my main objective, to make my family proud and make him proud,” Young said.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.