PITTSBURGH — Michael Young leans forward in his chair and makes direct eye contact as he speaks, not showing any sign of uneasiness at the somber line of questioning. You can tell this is a topic he thinks about a lot.
"Everything a little kid shouldn't get into or shouldn't see," he says, "I basically have seen."
As he speaks, the star University of Pittsburgh junior sits in a room adjacent to the basketball court at the school's Petersen Events Center. Outside Petersen, ambitious-looking students hustle to grab lunch or get to class. It's an idyllic college scene. Everyone is in a hurry to get someplace—a pace that suits Young. He fits in here. His ambition fits in.
"I always knew that if I wanted to be something in life, I had to never let anything take me down the wrong path," he says.
He saw what happened to people who grew up where he grew up, and he knew he needed to find a way out. "No matter what."
Young is from Duquesne, one of the most crime-ridden areas in Pittsburgh. His first AAU team was based in nearby McKeesport, which was in the news last month when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that a joint task force of the FBI, city police, county police and sheriff's office arrested 21 people to "impact the emerging violence in McKeesport."
Positive influences weren't easy to come by. Young's mother is one—a rare college graduate from Duquesne. But his cousin and childhood best friend, also a talented athlete, went to prison. And his father, Michael Sr., was murdered during Young's sophomore year of high school, the details of which he does not discuss.
"You might see a kid lose their father and become depressed, and he'll fight in school, and he'll get kicked out, and he'll do things of that nature. He'll take a wrong path," Young says. "Then you might see another kid lose their father, and he might put it into school. He might become the valedictorian of the school eventually."
Young looks at a basketball sitting to his right, as if to acknowledge the role it played in getting him here.
But as you hear his story, you realize that if it hadn't been basketball—if not for his 6'9" frame and obvious talent—it would have been something else. He would've found a way to surround himself with the right people no matter what.
Someone who didn't know Young might point to an explosive season as a high schooler as having changed his life. That's when Young started to get high-major college basketball offers.
But Young's personal transformation didn't happen holding a basketball.
Through elementary school, Young played recreationally to get off the streets. But he never participated with an organized team. Then the summer before his eighth-grade year, Young was shooting around at a local Boys and Girls Club when a coach from the Pittsburgh Storm AAU program took notice of his already-exceptional height. He offered him a spot on one of the program's teams.
Young accepted only because tournaments allowed him the opportunity to spend time away from Duquesne. He had no idea the Pittsburgh Storm would provide him a platform to showcase his talent to schools—no idea it would lead to him being offered a spot at a well-respected private school, Shady Side Academy.
Young attended Shady Side as a freshman, and it was there, he says, that his outlook changed. He grew as a player, sure. But his personal development was the result of spending time with the type of people who weren't in his life in Duquesne.
Young could go home to Duquesne on weekends but rarely took the opportunity. Instead, he stayed with newfound friends, focused on furthering their educations.
"Being around those different type of kids—kids that didn't have to deal with some of the things I had to deal with—that changed my life, just knowing that there is a different way of life," Young says.
After his freshman season, Young transferred to a better basketball school: famed St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey.
St. Benedict's nationally recognized basketball program gave him more exposure to top schools. As a senior, he averaged 14.6 points per game for St. Benedict's and led the school to the New Jersey Prep Championship. He earned scholarship offers from schools like UConn and Florida.
As with Shady Side, St. Benedict's also exposed him to young men with different types of ambitions than he'd seen back in Duquesne. Prominent among those was a teammate who would become his best friend and whom he now refers to as his "brother."
Jamel Artis is nearly a carbon copy of Young. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in Baltimore, has a twin brother who went to prison and lost his mom. When the two met as sophomores at St. Benedict's, Artis was also a promising high school basketball player beginning to gain interest from top schools around the country.
"We instantly clicked—similar kids from similar backgrounds," Young says.
As sophomores at St. Benedict's, the two were roommates. After their sophomore season, Artis left the school, but the two remained close. They would see one another on the AAU circuit, talk on the phone and FaceTime regularly.
When it came time to decide where each would play college basketball, they discussed their options. Wanting to play closer to friends and family, Young committed to Pittsburgh the summer before his senior year.
Artis played a postgraduate year at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, then he joined Young and the Panthers. He says Young was the primary reason for his decision. The two are housemates this year. They spend most of their free time together and even some holidays. They call each other brothers.
But most importantly, one keeps the other focused.
"Sometimes, he might show his emotions too much, get angry, and you just have to talk to him, just calm him down a little bit, and he will sit down and listen," Artis says. "Coming from a tough background, we know the struggle, and we know how much hard work it takes to get to the next level."
The struggle is something Artis constantly references when he talks about Young. It's the two-word answer for everything he and Young have accomplished to date. What motivates Young? Where does his work ethic come from? How does he juggle basketball, academics and commitment as one of two players on the Division I Men's Basketball Oversight Committee?
Choosing a college a 20-minute drive from Duquesne might seem an odd choice considering what Young went through there and how much he wanted to get out, but he says he never believed he needed mileage to distance himself from his roots.
To him, choosing Pittsburgh meant returning to a community that would be supportive of his goals. He is reunited with former classmates from Shady Side Academy, including a Panthers manager who was his teammate his freshman year of high school.
And another important person from his past is now his assistant coach.
Young has known Brandin Knight, a former star at Pittsburgh and now assistant coach, since he was in elementary school—long before he played basketball competitively. Knight's best friend, Tariq Francis, was an assistant coach on Young's first AAU team.
Knight says he and Francis saw themselves as "father figures" to Young, especially after Michael Sr.'s murder.
"After his dad passed, our involvement was more," Knight says.
Knight was a four-year starter at point guard for Pittsburgh and holds Panthers records in career assists (785), career steals (298) and most minutes played in a season (1,284). In 2002, he was named an Associated Press All-American and had his No. 20 jersey retired in 2009—only the fourth Panthers player to earn that honor. He has served on Pittsburgh's basketball staff since 2006 and as an assistant coach since 2008.
Young aspires to be as successful as Knight was as a college player. But more than that, he has used him as a role model off the court.
"Just seeing how he goes about his days, his job and practice definitely, I don't know if he knows it, but definitely I watch him more outside of basketball," Young says. "It's more about life—how to be a man, how to conduct yourself, how to go about your job and be professional."
Asked to quantify his success, Young will tell you about the hours he has spent in the gym or how the Panthers' lifting program has helped him become a stronger inside player. It's all about the work. His statistics show the results of that work.
As a freshman, Young—who has started every game of his career at Pittsburgh—averaged only six points per game and shot 41.3 percent from the field. Over time, he has become head coach Jamie Dixon's most reliable player—a solid scorer around the rim and a player the team can run the offense through.
He leads the Panthers with 16.1 points per game this year and has the team in the tournament picture. He's shooting 54 percent from the field—the best mark of his career.
"There's no question that he's a guy that has worked as hard as any guy we've ever had in our program, and his development has been dramatic in every facet of the game," Dixon says.
"The intensity with which he does it [sets him apart]. He practices very hard. He goes very hard working out on his own. He really does push himself, and it's reflective in his improvement."
Young doesn't like to discuss his future or professional aspirations, but he would probably be well-served staying at Pitt for his senior year. None of the major mock drafts have him as a first-round pick this year.
"He's worth a closer look. I would probably say he's more of late second, undrafted kind of guy," a Western Conference executive says. "You can never say who might have put a cap on somebody's potential. The reality of it is that somebody isn't going to become a different player. But he definitely can improve [by returning for his senior season]."
Perhaps his greatest asset at the NBA level—be it this year or the next—would be the grit he could add to a team.
"Growing up where I grew up, you got to be tough," Young says. "The weak don't survive. You've got to be tough—mentally tough. You can't let a lot of situations bring you down or hinder your life or you're not going to make it in life," he says.
Young gives due credit for his success thus far to his upbringing. He has tattoos that represent his hometown. He isn't afraid or embarrassed to call Duquesne home.
But soon after he does, he steps out and joins those hustling college students outside the Petersen Events Center, reminding you what he's become—and that Duquesne is far from where he's going.