Section 119. Row R. Seats 3 and 4.
It’s 2008 and the Seattle SuperSonics have just relocated to Oklahoma City and rebranded as the Thunder. Rayford Young—a former Texas Tech basketball standout who has now settled in the neighboring suburban town of Norman—has decided he’ll get two season tickets for himself and his 9-year-old son. The games will be played at the Ford Center, now known as Chesapeake Energy Arena. It’s about a 30-minute drive north from their home.
They’ve had the same two seats as loyal ticket holders ever since. They’d pull up to every home game an hour and a half before tipoff to catch the League’s top players go through their warm-up routines. They’d study those different routines together. Rayford’s son, Trae, developed a game routine of his own, which he’d follow every time he was in attendance. At the end of the first quarter, he’d always go get his chicken strips. At halftime, he’d always go get his ice cream. And once the fourth quarter approached, there was nothing you could do or say that would get him to leave his seat. As the game came down the stretch and the intensity picked up on the hardwood, young Trae’s (no pun) enthusiasm went through the roof as well.
Other season ticket holders in the same section began taking notice of the kid who would arrive at the earliest permitted time in accordance with arena policy and who would stick to the same food routine every game. Trae became a favorite in Section 119. They’d buy him the chicken strips or ice cream sometimes.
Meanwhile, dad always made sure to have his phone in hand and ready to snap away whenever photo opportunities came by. There’s that photo of Trae and Kevin Durant taken after a home game during the Western Conference Finals when the Hawks star was only 12 years old. There’s a gazillion more photos and videos as well.
And then Friday, November 30, 2018 came. And it was quicker than any of them could have ever imagined.
Trae, fresh off a record-breaking season with the Oklahoma Sooners and having just gotten drafted with the fifth overall pick, was back at Chesapeake Energy Arena for the very first time as an NBA player. They eventually glanced at Section 119. How could they not? That’s where the dream began. Countless hours there for almost a decade. That was the “it” moment for Rayford. That full-circle moment. The moment when it became real but felt surreal all at once.
“He got to meet KD. He got to meet James Harden. He got to meet Russell Westbrook. And everyone in our section, they remembered this kid. It was the same routine every game,” recalls Rayford of their season ticket days. “We’d watch Steph [Curry] do his workout before the game. LeBron, when he came into town. So, as the years went by, this 9-year-old turned into a 15-year-old—when he started to make a name for himself. So the first time he went back to Oklahoma City [last season], we saw the same people that Trae had been sitting by since he was 9 years old. It was kind of surreal. He’s that little kid that grew up and now he’s on the court in Oklahoma City, getting ready to play against his favorite team [growing up]. I always tell him, Just always remember that there’s a kid somewhere in these stands that is looking at you the same way you looked at KD, Harden and Westbrook. And hopefully they’ll duplicate what you did.
“It was so amazing. I can give you the names of these guys [in Section 119]. Seeing the same people in our section that used to buy him ice cream and chicken strips—now they were watching him play against his favorite team.”
Fast forward some 11 years since the beginning of the Section 119 days and Trae is over 1,300 miles away, standing next to an infinity pool in Beverly Hills that looks out onto the scenic Los Angeles skyline. The heavy fog on this Friday morning in mid-November gives the backdrop a soft, moody effect. In town for back-to-back games against the Clippers and Lakers over the weekend, the 6-1 guard is at NBA superfan Jimmy Goldstein’s famous hilltop residence in the 90210 to shoot a promo video. The sleek and glassy estate, which has been the setting of many movies, music videos and celebrity parties, is serving as the set for a commercial shoot for lytepop—a startup popcorn company that Trae owns equity in. His co-star in the spot, Goldstein, is wearing his usual extra- flamboyant fit—diamond-encrusted designer shoes, jacket, black Balmain jeans and an animal-skin cowboy hat. They take turns shooting different scenes in different parts of the house: by the pool (both pools), in the living room and even on the outdoor tennis court.
Rayford is here. And just like in the old Thunder game days, he’s taking photos and videos of Trae. His son is trying to nail down his script. The director runs through multiple takes. Rayford turns around to film the large production crew behind the cameras and all the equipment laying around as well. And then there’s the L.A. skyline in the background, which is a must-get. The expensive décor and sophisticated layout are also nice. He’s soaking it all in. They both are. Trae may have made it, but the excitement and enthusiasm is still the same—just as genuine as when both were sitting in Row R a decade earlier.
The tranquility at the Beverly Hills residence, as Trae lounges in one of the chairs by the pool while the production crew prepares for the next shot, is a stark contrast to what Trae’s first few days in the NBA were like. After becoming the first and only player in history to lead the NCAA in points (27.4) and assists (8.7) in a single season, Trae entered the League with lots of hype but also lots of haters. There were those who swore he wouldn’t be able to replicate in the NBA what he did at Oklahoma in his lone season with the Sooners. They said he was too small to hang. That he wasn’t athletic or explosive enough to make an impact against the big boys. That his numbers in the Big 12 Conference were inflated. That he’d be a “bust.”
And so, when he shot two consecutive airballs from deep to begin Summer League play in Utah before going 4/20 from the field and 1/11 from three, Twitter exploded. Trolls rejoiced. Trae was the topic of discussion on social media and sports networks that night. The second night, he’d go 5/16. In three games in Salt Lake City, he shot 23.1 percent from the floor and 12.5 percent from behind the arc. Twitter fingers everywhere.
“It was crazy just how quick people were to make judgment. First shots were airballs,” says Trae, laughing. “And it felt like that was the biggest news on every television channel that night. People always say you want to block out the noise but it’s hard when you’re on TV all the time and that’s the topic of discussion. Those first couple of days in Summer League were tough.”
He adds: “Whenever you hear a lot of [bad] things, you definitely second-judge yourself sometimes. For me, it’s all about the people around me that helped me get through what I’ve gotten through over the years, especially these last couple of years with all the doubt and criticism.
I know I’ve been blessed with great people around me that helped me get through those [moments]. It’s tough mentally. It’s not easy being 19, 20 years old and everybody is talking bad about you.”
Postgame talks with his dad helped keep him level-headed through the bumps. That’s been the routine since his high school days and still is to this day. After road games, once he’s done taking a shower and speaking with the media, Trae hops on the phone with Rayford as the team bus heads from the arena to the tarmac. They share game notes and the convo just flows from there.
“We get on the phone and we talk after every game. We just talk about what he saw on the floor and what he could’ve done better. There’s always something that he could’ve done better. That’s always my main role—to always be there. When he gets on that team bus to head to the next city for the next night, he knows that when he makes that phone call, I’m always going to pick up,” says Rayford. “We talk about different situations. My role now is more mental than physical. At this level, that’s where it’s going to make the biggest difference.”
Trae quickly bounced back. He posted 21 points and 11 assists in his first game in the Vegas Summer League. Then he dropped 24 points, including 7 three-pointers. The next game he had 23 points and 8 assists. He was ultimately named to the All-NBA Summer League Second Team.
Once the regular season came around, Trae really found his groove. In just the third game of the season, he posted 35 points and 11 assists. The following month he had a 25-point, 17-assist stat line. In March, he gave the Chicago Bulls 49 points and 16 assists.
He ended up averaging 19.1 points and 8.1 assists during his first season—becoming only the third rookie in NBA history to average over 18 and 8. He’s the second rookie in League history to have more than 1,400 points and 600 assists in the same season.
He had five consecutive 23-plus points and 8-plus assists games—only Oscar Robertson had a longer streak as a rookie. Trae became the first rookie to post consecutive 35-point games since Allen Iverson in 1997.
All the doubt seems to have slowly faded, but Trae hasn’t forgotten any of your takes. And he plans on reminding you of what you said about him back in 2018. The hashtag “#AlwaysRemember” is plastered across his Twitter bio.
He’s started his second season even stronger. As of this writing, he’s averaging 28.4 points and 8.4 assists per game, including a 49-point outing against Indiana and a 42-point performance in a victory over Denver. That same night he tweeted, “YOUR APOLOGY NEEDS TO BE AS LOUD AS THE DISRESPECT WAS…” An Instagram post after that same game instructed everyone to “KEEP THAT SAME ENERGY…”
Trae is here to stay. And to those who swore he wouldn’t be, he plans on refreshing your memory every time he steps on the hardwood and even on the same social media platforms you tried to write him off on.
“I always keep a mental note. Especially if I was a fan of a reporter growing up. That’s the crazy thing—I’ve been a fan of some of these reporters growing up and then to hear them say something negative about me, it kind of hurt,” says Trae. “But at the end of the day, I know this is what they’re paid to do and it’s something that I have to go through if I want to be a high-level player. So, I definitely keep mental notes of who says what and I use it as fuel to get better.
“Keep that same energy is something that I live by today. People that had that energy of just always talking bad or just not believing in me, it’s just something that has motivated me. Every high-level player has something that motivates them. And criticism is one thing that motivates me. It’s just something that I always live by. I just want people to keep that same energy.”
Franklyn Calle is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @FrankieC7.
Portraits by Atiba Jefferson.