Young's journey takes him from Iraq to NCAA tourney

Updated: March 12, 2007, 7:10 PM ET
Associated Press

DENTON, Texas -- Rich Young's road to the NCAA Tournament includes a firefight in Iraq and peacekeeping in Kosovo.

Now that the North Texas senior forward -- an ex-Marine and Iraq War veteran -- is about to play in the postseason tournament, he can hardly believe his good fortune.

"I always wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament, and I always wanted to play college basketball in Division I," Young said Monday. "And it's hard to believe I actually get that opportunity."

Young, 26, fills up most every line of the stat sheet for the Mean Green (23-10), who are making their second NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 1988. North Texas, a 15 seed, is scheduled to play second-seeded Memphis on Friday in New Orleans.

He admits he isn't much of a scorer, but he does everything else. The sometimes starter averages about 5.9 points per game. He is third on the team in rebounding with 4.5 boards per game and second in assists, steals, and blocks. He's also a 77 percent free-throw shooter, second-best among the regular Mean Green players.

Young is the first player in school history to record at least 40 assists, 25 blocks and 25 steals in the same season.

"He does everything, all the small stuff," teammate Quincy Williams said. "All the things we need to be a successful team. No back-talk -- just a disciplined and solid guy."

North Texas coach Johnny Jones said he likes how Young has brought a bit of the Marines to the Mean Green. He praised Young's maturity, attitude and leadership -- traits the coach said he hopes can rub off on the team's underclassmen, some of whom are eight years younger.

"They have a good deal of respect for him because they know how he is and what he is about," Jones said. "He's no nonsense. You can see he has a great deal of discipline in his life."

For four years, from high school graduation in 1999 until his discharge in 2003, Young lived an orderly world of salutes and spit-shined shoes. He had some low Division I scholarship offers coming out of Farrell (Pa.) High, but chose the Marines instead.

"I guess just the challenge was attractive to me," Young said. "I just wanted to do it because people said it was tough and probably the hardest branch to go to."

After boot camp, he spent most of his time at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He was also deployed overseas for 10 months, with stops in Kosovo, Kenya and Djibouti.

Sgt. Young spent about two months in Iraq in 2003, securing a dangerous stretch of road known as "Ambush Alley" for the frequent attacks on U.S. convoys speeding to Baghdad.

He never had to pull a trigger, but he and his patrol unit were shot at in one incident that lasted a few seconds. Young said his training kicked in immediately.

"When it finally did happen, it was, 'OK, here we go,'" he said. "You don't spend too much time standing around looking. That's what gets you in trouble."

Young's Marine commitment ended in the summer of 2003 and he considered re-enlisting. But a cousin convinced him to join him on a junior college basketball team, so Young headed out to Eastern Oklahoma State.

Jones, who was recruiting another player, took a closer look at Young at the urging of the coach there.

"The more we watched him, the more we really started liking him," Jones said.

That fortunate encounter -- and the Mean Green's Sun Belt Tournament championship -- helped Young achieve his goal of playing in the NCAA Tournament.

The Marines helped him fulfill some other goals: seeing the world and serving his country. The best part of wearing a uniform, he said, "was the pride you feel in being a Marine."

Unsure when he will graduate, Young said he might eventually rejoin the service.

"It was demanding physicallly and mentally but it was a good experience for me," Young said. "It helped me mature, grow into a man."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press