Rugged body, soft heart: How Patric Young transformed into a leader for Florida

Rugged body, soft heart: How Patric Young transformed into a leader for Florida

The answer is yes. Patric Young always has been built like a Greek god.

Bennita Young remembers taking her boy to the pediatrician when he was 2 or 3. She remembers the doctor exclaiming over his tiny six-pack of abs and muscular frame.

"My God, what does this kid do?" the doctor asked.

Bennita promised the doctor her toddler was not lifting weights at home. That's simply the way the son of a former college and professional tight end was born – sculpted and strong.

This week the 6-foot-9, 249-pound Florida big man will bring the most imposing physique of anyone to the Final Four. But to know Pat Young for his hard body only is to disregard the soft center that truly makes him who he is – for better and worse. He is far more than a powerful pair of biceps and a manly Zeus beard; the heart and soul are where his story truly lies.

Growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., Patric Young never locked his basketball locker in middle school. Everyone kept telling him to do it, and he never did.

"Who is going to take something from me?" he said.

Someone took something from him. His game jersey. He missed that game and two more, as the school principal reinforced the lesson: Quit blindly trusting the world around you, and lock your locker.

"He was a babe," Bennita Young said. "This big manchild who was very naïve about some things in the world. He learned hard lessons at times about people not always telling you the truth or wanting you to do things that were only good for them and not for you."

That would be an ongoing lesson. The kid who looked like a Greek god also had a touch of Greek philosopher in him – always thinking deep thoughts.

From a young age, Patric digested every conversation between his older sister Sara and his parents. He soaked in his surroundings. His mind was always going.

"Honestly, I always call him an old soul," Bennita Young said. "He was always reasoning through things. He was very introspective and pretty quiet. He would be keeping his own counsel."

But the old soul could also be easily led. He was respectful enough to listen to everyone and gullible enough to believe most of what they said.

So when adults started comparing him to Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, he listened to it. They had the same physique and similar height. Why not model yourself after a guy who became a teenage millionaire?

The first key difference was that Young would go to college. The McDonald's All-American picked his dream school – the place where parents Robert and Bennita had season football tickets.

But that glorious body of his turned out to be as much a detriment as an advantage. Everyone wanted him to dominate like Dwight; instead he averaged just 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds.

"People do him no service always comparing him to Dwight Howard," Bennita Young said. "He cannot help the body God blessed him with. He's very sensitive to how others perceive him."

Still, since the NBA draft is all about potential, he was a projected lottery pick after one season. And what projected lottery pick goes back to school?

"I was listening to people say who I should be," Patric said. "People saying I should do this, I should do that. I needed to minimize that circle of people around me. You have this false reality in your mind. …You get hit with the reality, 'Wow, I'm not as good as I thought I was.' "

That realization led him to the decision to return to school for his sophomore year. And really, he was happy to stay at Florida – he loved school, and was intrigued by the diversity of a college campus after spending so many years in the enjoyable but homogenous company of AAU basketball and travel baseball teams. There was so much to learn in Gainesville – including a lot of basketball, and that was the hard part.

Patric had gotten by on sheer size and strength to that point. Playing the same way he did in AAU ball and high school wasn't going to beat Kentucky.

Florida coach Billy Donovan knew what he had in Young: a smart, diligent guy who looked great but didn't have the ideal basketball skill set. He was thick, not lithe. He was a "phone booth" rebounder, not someone capable of explosive movements to grab rebounds outside his area. His hands and shooting touch needed work.

"He was big enough and good enough that nobody ever worked on the fine points," Bennita Young said. "Billy Donovan told us they were going to have to rebuild his game. What? Rebuild? That's hard. Hard for anyone to hear that you're not good enough."

Donovan went hard at Young, challenging him to stop letting minor injuries derail his focus. He memorably called him out during one practice his sophomore year, then followed up in a closed-door meeting the day after. It was time for the man-child to grow up, and he finally accepted the challenge.

"He fought Billy a lot," Bennita said. "I talked and talked to Billy. I have great respect for Coach Donovan."

Donovan rebuilt Young into a three-year starter, double-digit scorer and consistent rebounder. He is the centerpiece of Florida's brilliant defense, using his intelligence to excel as a help defender and against the pick-and-roll. And his sheer physical stature has deterred more than a few opponents from driving to the basket.

If you collide with Pat Young, he's going to win the collision.

What opponents don't know is how much the Greek god needed every bit of the college experience to become that imposing presence. He was still a babe on the inside.

"It was absolutely the right thing for him to spend this time in school," Bennita said. "He needed to get a little stronger and put his armor on. He would have failed as a 19-year-old playing with 25- and 30-year-olds."

The Gators were at the airport in Gainesville last week, preparing to fly to Memphis for the South Regional semifinals. And Chris Walker was a mess.

The freshman forward had never liked to fly, and for some reason his dread had gotten worse in recent weeks. At that moment, getting on the team charter seemed unbearable.

"I was having a little anxious attack," Walker said.

Patric Young intervened. He talked to Walker, walked on the plane with him and introduced him to the pilot, who told him he'd been on the job for 30 years and everything was going to be fine.

That's the way this entire season has been for Young and Walker. One McDonald's All-American at the end of his college journey helping another one who is at the beginning.

"He's been a great teammate and a great friend, on and off the court," Walker said.

"Patric Young has grabbed Chris Walker and dragged him in his footsteps," Gators assistant coach John Pelphrey said.

After some initial eligibility issues, Walker was a late arrival at Florida – he didn't join the team until mid-December. With the season in full swing, the coaching staff really didn't have the time to teach Walker College Basketball 101 – but they didn't have to. Young took over.

"He had no idea about anything," Donovan said of Walker. "He didn't know how we stretched, how we lifted weights. He did not know any drill in practice. He didn't know what we were doing on offense, defense. Didn't know how to guard a pick and roll. …As a coach, we spent a lot of time with Chris trying to get him caught up on what we do. What was probably more impactful for Chris was the amount of time that Patric spent with him, explained to him why it's important to stretch, how to go about stretching, how to get yourself ready to play, how to get yourself ready for practice, not showing up 15 minutes before we practice to get taped, but get here 45 minutes or an hour [early], get out on the court.

"Patric has spent a lot of time helping him. That's just the way Patric is as a kid. It probably has less to do with Chris Walker and much, much more to do with Patric. I think if any player was here with the situation that Chris Walker was in, Patric would do it."

Having grown up the baby of his family, here was a chance for Patric to be the big brother, the nurturer and the mentor. After all those years of quietly listening and watching, here was his chance to lead.

"I've really embraced it," Patric said. "I wish somebody had done that for me. Not that there weren't good guys on the team when I was a freshman, but nobody was really there like that for me."

Florida's quartet of seniors – Young, Will Yeguete, Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin – have slowly metamorphosed into quite a leadership group. It didn't happen overnight, but over the course of a full college experience. And nobody has blossomed in that role more than Patric.

"I expected this," Bennita Young said. "He finally got that 'Eureka' moment. He's engaged, and you can see the difference.

"I told him, 'You have a natural leadership skill. You shy away from it sometimes, but you have that skill and you have to own it. That doesn't mean you have to be THE leader, but when it's time for you to lead, you have to do it.' "

While the leadership aspect is relatively new, being a caring and generous teammate has always come naturally to Young.

His roommate the past three years has been Yeguete, a native of France who grew up in Ivory Coast. The Youngs have almost adopted him as a second son since his family lives in Africa. That means having Yeguete stay at their house during the team's brief Christmas break.

One year before Christmas, Patric called his mom and asked what she was getting him for a present. Thinking that an odd question, Bennita asked him why.

"He didn't want to have a present and have Will get nothing," Bennita recalled. "So he said, 'Just spend half what you were going to spend on me and get the same for Will.' "

That is the kid Bennita Young has known his whole life. What she is enjoying now is the man her son has come to be. Patric Young who has grown into his godlike body, every bit as impressive on the inside as he is on the exterior.

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