Kimani Young: Breakout Star

It took only only 24 minutes and 53 seconds for Kimani Young to cement his status as one of the most coveted assistant coaches in NCAA Men’s Basketball. After Dan Hurley was enthusiastically ejected by referee James Breeding with 4:53 remaining in the first half of UConn’s game vs the #8 Villanova Wildcats for pumping up the crowd, Young stepped in as the head coach for the Huskies. He proceeded to lead UConn to one of the biggest wins in recent memory and received some national attention in the process. Young’s calm demeanor and poise under pressure was on display for the whole basketball world to see on Tuesday.

Young joined Dan Hurley’s staff at UConn in April 2018 and rose to assume the Associate Head Coach role in September of 2020. The fact that he’s risen through the ranks to now be considered a top candidate for a head coaching position in the next year or two is amazing given his life story. After becoming a basketball star at UTEP, Young looked like he was on a solid path until he was arrested for possession of 96 pounds of marijuana and spent a year in federal prison. He doesn’t talk about that part of his life much, but hung around the wrong people at the wrong time and made a bad decision. Following his time in prison, Young began to rebuild his life and spent time working at a few foundations in New York.

About a decade later and Young is the Athletic Director at New Heights Youth, Inc with his life back on the rails. He’s married with three young children and living in New York when tragedy strikes. His wife, Sharette Dixon, got sick with what seemed like a normal cold that progressed into pneumonia and at age 39, she passed away unexpectedly. Young was now faced with being a single father to three children under 6. Another major life event and another opportunity to overcome adversity.

“That was a hard one, man. That was a hard one. My kids motivated me the most. I knew I had three small children that I was responsible for and I just said, ‘look, we’re going to figure this thing out.’ …We just kind of circled the wagons. They were young, but we put a system in place. We had a schedule, we had a nanny, we had a slew of people that were willing to help. As they got older, I had the ability to get back in college — they were all in school. We haven’t looked back.”

Kimani Young in an interview with the Hartford Courant in 2018

Young was able to get by with the support of his network and once again build himself back up. In 2012, he got an opportunity to jump into the college coaching ranks when Richard Pitino hired him for his staff at Florida International. The next season, when Pitino took the Minnesota job, Young came along with him and stayed for 5 seasons. In 2018, Dan Hurley came calling and Young took the opportunity to return to the east coast and as a Queens, NY native, the job at UConn made a ton of sense. He could use his connections in New York and the surrounding areas, a hot bed for UConn recruiting, and have the opportunity to grow and learn under Hurley. Just 4 years later, the decision has proven to be a wise one, both for UConn and Young.

Officially, Young is attributed with recruiting responsibilities, practice planning and game strategy (according to the UConn website). Those responsibilities came in handy on Tuesday night when he was forced to take over the game strategy as head coach in the first half of UConn’s game vs #8 Villanova. He seamlessly stepped in for the ejected Hurley and calmly managed the game and his players. Hurley’s ejection forced a 6pt swing thanks to free throws and the next possession, but Young remained calm. He knew just when to give the players leeway to take chances, when to yell in play calls and encouragement from the sidelines, and picked the right moments to use his timeouts at the end of the game. He drew up the play that sprung Tyler Polley over the screen for a 3 that cut the deficit to 1pt and put the ball in R.J. Cole’s hands for the game-winning shot. If you didn’t know anything about what transpired in the first half, you would never have known UConn was without their head coach down the stretch. Young was prepared and ready to step in without issue and looked like a veteran pacing the sidelines.

While Young was already on some watch lists for head coaching vacancies, his stock has certainly risen even more after his performance on Tuesday night. He got the chance to show the world that he’s ready to be a head coach now and took full advantage. Unfortunately for UConn, he’s likely not returning next season, but it’s hard not to be happy for Young given the adversity he has faced throughout his life. No matter where he ends up next, that school will be lucky to have him.

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