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'He was always the villain': Trae Young's high school coach, teammate reflect on his playoff heel turn

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Trae Young

Former Sooner point guard Trae Young on the sideline before the game against Texas Tech Sept. 28, 2019. 

Trae Young stared down the rim after heaving a 32-foot stepback jumper with less than 50 seconds left in Atlanta’s playoff matchup against New York in Madison Square Garden.

The Hawks were up 12 and held a 3-1 series advantage over the Knicks. All signs heading into the closing minute of the game 5 matchup pointed toward Atlanta moving on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but Young’s final jumpshot of the night looked to be the dagger that sent New York home.

And it was. The former OU standout sank the 3-pointer, all but ensuring the Hawks’ eventual 103-89 win on June 2. Young then turned and faced the Knicks crowd — which made an effort to trash talk Young all series long — and gave them  an emphatic bow before getting back to his side of the court.

The moment created a villainous reputation for Young as Atlanta’s playoff run began. The Hawks went on to down the 76ers in seven games in round two, and Young’s tendencies to shush and gesture to fans in Philadelphia only grew his heel turn. But this behavior isn’t anything new for Young. Those close to the 22-year-old say he’s always been this way. 

“He’s been getting stuff from crowds since he was probably a sophomore,” said Bryan Merritt, Young’s head coach at Norman North High School. “When you start talking to him and he takes it as a personal challenge, you’re in trouble.  That just gives him more energy.”

During a road game against Norman High in his senior year, Young dribbled the ball in between the defender's legs and caught it on the other end. He would proceed to hit a three and balloon Norman North’s lead late in the game. Afterward, Young took a bow.

“We had some tough road games in high school,” said Jalen Crutchfield, a childhood friend and former Norman North teammate of Young’s. “They would heckle Trae a lot. He was always the villain ahead of every big road game, so he’s embraced that role really well.”

While the crowd sizes for amateur games are drastically different compared to Madison Square Garden, Merritt said having an arena packed full of people who are booing and chanting vulgar words is something that Young has been dealing with since he was 15 years old.

Even though Young’s viewed as a villain on the court, many view Young as a hero off of it. Mostly because of his willingness to give back to the Norman community.

Young, who averaged 27.4 points and 8.7 assists in 32 games with the Sooners, oversaw the creation of the Young Family Athletic Center, a sports facility located in Norman that will help give residents a place to play recreational sports in Norman. The Young family donated $4 million to the city in 2020 to help start up the facility and announced the center is breaking ground Wednesday. 

A popular chant heard against Young during Atlanta’s playoff run involved his hair, which Merritt and Crutchfield say is something Young has heard since high school. Still, that taunt stands out to them.

“The bald headed chants,” Crutchfield said. “That was the worst one.” 

Despite chants getting more ruthless as Young continues his playing career, Merritt and Crutchfield said Young does not shy away from them. Instead, he embraces the chants to give him an extra boost of energy.

“That stuff does not bother him at all,” Merritt said. “The best way to get to him is to just not talk to him and just have the atmosphere blah and just kind of dull.

“I actually think he probably likes playing on the road, even more so than playing at home. He's got supreme confidence. He's not scared to fail. So he's not worried about somebody talking in the stands, you know, he knows they can't come down there and play.”

Atlanta’s championship hopes came to an end with a 4-1 series loss to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, Young left his mark in the playoffs. He averaged 28.8 points and 9.5 assists in 16 playoff games, and his surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals even caught Young’s old high school teammates and coach by surprise. 

As Young improves, the boos will grow louder. But Young’s old high school circle thinks he is more than prepared to handle the antagonism that comes with being one of the more promising players in the league who isn’t afraid to talk back.

“Anybody that’s a competitor loves sticking it to the other guy’s face,” Merritt said.

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