Toni Young embraces basketball
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Basketball most definitely was not Oklahoma State senior Toni Young's first love. From the time she was a little girl, she was captivated by art and wanted to draw all the time. Hoops wasn't even in the picture.
Basketball wasn't her second love, either. That was volleyball, the first sport that she really embraced.
Basketball was something that other people thought Young should pursue, as was track and field. Young initially wasn't too keen on either one -- to say the least -- when she finally took them up in high school.
"I didn't start basketball until my sophomore year," Young said. "And then I got forced into track when I was a sophomore, too. My coaches and my brother made me do it; I hated it then. But it was something I was good at, so it became a hobby."
Young grins now as she recounts this, because it sounds preposterous. She was an All-American in the high jump at the NCAA outdoor track meet last summer (placing fifth) and then competed in the U.S. Olympic trials. That's some hobby.
Ask track folks, and they'll say if Young ever had much time to practice and actually master technique, there's no telling how high she could soar. And while she's a little less of an ingénue in basketball, the reality is she's still just scratching the surface of her potential in that sport, too.
"Toni's athleticism is unbelievable," Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell said. "She can do things on the court -- with her quickness, how high she can jump -- that make me think her best days are ahead of her."
But what path will she take? Young, a 6-foot-2 forward, is averaging 17.2 points and 9.8 rebounds for the Cowgirls. At 15-3 overall and 4-3 in the Big 12, they are aiming for the NCAA tournament after a tragic and triumphant 2011-12 season in which they lost two beloved coaches in a plane crash but went on to win a WNIT title.
Young already knows she has this very viable option: She could stay at Oklahoma State on scholarship for a fifth year and do the high jump, then pursue a professional track career. But her ambition is more with basketball.
"I feel like I'm always open to learning and getting better, and I have another level to reach," Young said of pursuing pro hoops. "When I was younger, I heard people say I could be good, but I didn't always believe it. I didn't put the effort into being a great player then.
"I never imagined even being the player I am today. But once I fell in love with basketball, I thought, 'Maybe I can keep on playing and go to that next level.'"
Among the people who believed in Young before she believed in herself were Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, the former Cowgirls head coach and assistant who died in a plane crash while on a recruiting trip in November 2011.
Young, like all the Cowgirls, got a hard lesson in how, actually, you don't always have tomorrow.
"After the accident," Young said, "I made a promise to them that I would work and do my best to be the player they saw in me."
That emotional pledge has been backed up with pragmatic action. Young averaged 12.0 points and 7.0 rebounds last season, starting just 10 games as she worked back to her pre-injury self. By the end of the season, she was there, averaging 20.7 points and 8.7 rebounds in six games as MVP of the WNIT.
A native of Del City, Okla. -- a suburb of Oklahoma City -- Young had chosen Oklahoma State before she was even actually sure she wanted to play college basketball.
She went to an OSU camp and thought the school was the right place for her. But at the time, she leaned more toward playing college volleyball, which she couldn't do at Oklahoma State. The school doesn't have a volleyball program.
So basketball it was. And early on, Young didn't let her lack of experience keep her from sometimes being, frankly, an over-confident knucklehead. She'd be the first to tell you that now.
"I was so hard-headed, a freshman thinking I knew everything," Young said. "Being younger, you always think, 'I have tomorrow.' You put off really committing. And I didn't feel I had that role, at first, of being the athlete on the court that really had to show up every day.
"My second year, I realized, 'This is something I need to do.' Coach Budke believed in me, and that helped me motivate myself."
Young suffered a broken left arm when she fell after dunking in practice in March of 2011, while the Cowgirls were in the midst of the WNIT. She had 34 points and 18 rebounds in their first-round win; they lost in the second round without her.
Heading into the 2011-12 season, Budke felt sure Young could build on sophomore season averages of 15.5 points and a Big 12-best 9.1 rebounds. But he knew she'd likely have a slow start returning from the arm injury, and he said in October 2011 that he hoped she'd be 100 percent by the following January.
Last Saturday after a 65-52 victory at Kansas in which she had 15 points and 15 rebounds, Young pointed to the tattoos she has, which she designed herself. More than a year has passed since Budke and Serna died, but they're never all that far away for Young.
"I have two praying hands, a rosary and a dove with clouds. And the words with that are 'strength' and 'courage,'" she said of the tattoos on the front of her body. "On my back is from the quote that Miranda always said was her motto."
"When I stand before God at the end of my life, I hope that I have not a single bit of talent left and could say to him, 'Dear Lord -- I used everything you gave me, and thank you for all you entrusted in me!'"
This past spring -- speaking of using all your talent -- she went back to track and field for the first time since high school and was immediately a star there, too. Her NCAA championship-best leap of 6 feet, 1½ inches set a school record.
Young had to work on her relationship and Littell, who has a bit more of a strict personality than Budke did, as he became head coach. And that has been another area of growth for Young.
"We banged heads together for a little while, but I'm very proud of how she's matured," Littell said. "The biggest thing is what she's done in the classroom; she's got a lot better there. She won some academic awards last spring and really wants to get her degree."
Young has come a long way in relatively short time; she now very much wants to continue her basketball career beyond college. Her raw talent is evident. But how will WNBA coaches evaluate her learning curve, especially if she needs to play more on the perimeter as a pro?
In a league in which coaches don't have a lot of time to teach, will Young be seen as too much of a project? Or will her undeniable gifts and her evident progress while in college make pro coaches see her as a worthy diamond-in-the-rough who just needs more polishing?
"She's going to have to work on her game and develop more ballhandling skills as she goes to the next level," Littell says. "She knows that. But there are not many out there who can dunk, who can rise up and shoot over people like she can. She's just an exceptional athlete who's turning into a better basketball player."
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