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Yogi Ferrell's rise to college basketball stardom

Yogi Ferrell has had a decorated career at Indiana, but the odds were stacked against him from the beginning. This is Yogi's Story.

 

Yogi Ferrell sits in his Tenth and College apartment, taking a few minutes to relax before another school day at Indiana University. Only hours earlier, Ferrell became the school's all-time assists leader in a 103-69 win over Illinois, passing Michael Lewis, now an assistant coach at Butler.

Ferrell's phone vibrates, an indication that he's received yet another text message congratulating him on his latest achievement.

This one's from his mom, Lydia. She's excited about her son's impressive feat. Yogi, not all that much.

He openly acknowledges he didn't know who Lewis was. It's not because Ferrell has a lack of respect for those who came before him. He's simply too locked in to the here and now to worry about individual accolades.

“I’ll text him or I’ll call him after a game and say, ‘Do you know you just broke this record or that record?’ And he doesn’t have any idea," Lydia says. "He really doesn’t keep an eye on records like that. He’s not looking to score, he’s not looking to pass. He’s just out there trying to play good basketball.”

Ferrell has always been that way. In a world where many people let outside noise determine their mood and subsequent action, Ferrell is the model for how to block it all out. It's easier said than done, of course, but Ferrell's ability to stay level-headed and ignore all the chatter is among the primary reasons he is where he is. That chatter has crippled the once-promising careers of many athletes, and it will destroy many more in the years to come.

After all, many more young stars fail than succeed, and the odds were stacked against Ferrell. He was lauded as the nation's best 4th grader by the Louisville-based Hoop Scoop. Ferrell was just 10 years old and stood 4-foot-10. At the time, Ferrell was among the youngest kids ever placed in the national spotlight, something that was, and continues to be, somewhat controversial. 

How can a 10-year-old be expected to succeed with those kind of expectations? The best player in the country? That's some serious pressure.

But Yogi never looked at it that way, likely because his parents never let him feel any of that pressure. Many parents would become crazed by the early praise and push their child to the point of burn out. 

Lydia and Kevin Sr. didn't do that. When the Hoop Scoop article came out, they printed it out, laminated it, and put it up in the house. They didn't do it to put pressure on their young son, but rather to show him they were proud. 

That's when Yogi started to learn how to block out all the talk, good and bad, a skill just as important to his success as his jump shot. 

“Yogi has always been a really down to earth kid," Lydia says. "Around that time, he was obviously doing a whole lotta basketball as opposed to playing with his siblings or playing with his friends at school. I didn’t know how good he was until I saw him being compared to some other kids and things like that. In order to kind of help with his ego, we also had him in several other sports, which I think was helpful. He’s been in baseball, he’s been in football, he’s been in — even gymnastics. By putting him in other things, I think that kind of rounded him out a little more and didn’t give him the big head in basketball, at least not at that age.”

That well-rounded approach kept Ferrell from getting burned out on basketball too early, and it taught him that there was much more to life than sports. Kevin Sr. and Lydia wanted Yogi to stay active, but they made it clear to him very early that academics would always come first.

“There were other kids that were in the spotlight at that time, and they didn’t pan out or do very well. That could have very easily been Yogi," Lydia says. "So I’ve always told him, ‘You have to have another plan. Basketball is always Plan B. It’s never Plan A because you’re always just one injury away from not being able to play the game.”

'He should have a chance to enjoy his childhood'

While Ferrell eventually learned to ignore all the rankings, it's virtually impossible for a 10-year-old to do that. Some of it was going to get to his head. That's human nature. 

When Ferrell and his younger brother, Kaleb, would have an argument, Ferrell often used "Look me up on Google" as a comeback. He knew people were talking about him. 

"My earliest memory of Yogi actually was when I was probably in middle school," says Jordan Hulls, Ferrell's future teammate at Indiana. "We were at an AAU tournament in Bloomington, and all I kept hearing about was this kid named Yogi who was destroying his age group. I knew some people who had played or coached against him in that age group and that's when I heard of Yogi. He's always been known about in Indiana, even as a little kid."

Keep him in the spotlight, and who knows where Ferrell would have ended up. Maybe he would have made it, maybe not. 

But Yogi's parents opted instead to pull him out of AAU in the 7th grade to let him be a kid. Ferrell dropped out of the rankings and fell out of the spotlight, the best thing that could have happened to him at that time. In many ways, Kevin Sr. and Lydia's methods should be a lesson to all parents of young athletes.

“It was better to kind of slow him down and pull him out of the AAU spotlight and kind of let him be a kid because I did notice, when he was younger, he wasn’t as playful as I thought a kid would be," Lydia says. "He was my first born, but I still thought that he should have a chance to enjoy his childhood more. And he got a chance to do that.”

Ferrell returned to the AAU circuit after his sophomore year at Park Tudor, rejoining the Adidas-sponsored Indiana Elite. Ferrell played up a year with players like Cody Zeller, Jeremiah Davis and Austin Etherington. Two of the three would also be his teammates at Indiana. 

Ferrell was very much back on the radar, and he quickly gained interest from schools like Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan. Indiana became a serious contender when it became a finalist for Zeller. When the big man committed to Tom Crean and the Hoosiers, Ferrell quickly followed suit. 

'The Movement'

The next summer -- following a State Championship run at Park Tudor -- Ferrell's Indiana Elite team was among the most talked about in the country. The team featured Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Jeremy Hollowell, Peter Jurkin and Ron Patterson, all of whom joined Ferrell in Indiana's 2012 recruiting class.

The group referred to themselves as 'The Movement' because of the impact they planned to have at Indiana. 

That, of course, didn't exactly work out. Patterson never played a game at IU, Jurkin was often injured and eventually transferred, Hollowell departed for Georgia State, and Mosquera-Perea was dismissed from the team after a troubled career last year. Ferrell was the only member of 'The Movement' to actually make a positive impact on the program.

But as an AAU team, the group was quite successful, and very fun to watch. 

In a tournament game at the Super 64 in Las Vegas, Ferrell and Indiana Elite faced CBC, a team they had beaten just two weeks earlier at the Adidas Invitational in Indianapolis. CBC was led by Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons) and Kris Dunn (Providence), and the gym was packed with fans, national media, and college coaches. Crean was there front and center to see his 2012 class.

"It was probably the most intense we have been as a staff in an AAU game," said Kristof Kendrick, now an assistant coach at Warren Central who still coaches with Indiana Elite. "It was such a high level game at a college-level intensity and Yogi shined, helping lead our team to a double-digit victory In a game that felt like a nail biter all the way. The tipping point was when he made a sweet alley-oop pass to Hanner that brought the crowd to its feet late in the second half."

Ferrell finished with 18 points, 11 assists and 7 rebounds. The win put Indiana Elite in the Final 4 against Shabazz Muhammed and the Las Vegas-based Dream Vision.

'The bigger the shot, the bigger the game'

Ferrell's AAU performance against Dunn and Drummond's CBC team was just one example of Yogi shining brightest on the biggest stage. Ferrell lives for those moments.

“The bigger the challenge, the more you knew he was gonna come through," said Ed Schilling, Ferrell's high school coach at Park Tudor and now an assistant for Steve Alford at UCLA. "That’s just how he was. The bigger the shot, the bigger the game, that’s how he was. He was always locked in, but he also loved the big moment. All you had to do was challenge him.

“I remember in one of the games in the regional, he came down and took some deep jumpers. And I called a timeout and I’m like, ‘Yogi, I didn’t realize these guys are so much better than you that they make you take a 30-footer. I just didn’t realize that they’re that much better than you.’ You talk about lighting a fire, not that you really needed to light much of one. That was over. He got about five straight layups, a few assists, and that was it.”

Schilling had been a head coach at Wright State and Memphis, and an assistant for the New Jersey Nets in the NBA. Park Tudor knew it was a long shot when it reached out to Schilling after former coach Darnell Archey left to return to Butler in 2010. 

Schilling, who was running a basketball academy in Indiana at the time, took the job, in large part, because Ferrell was there. He had worked with Yogi many times at his academy, and the two grew close. 

"I said, 'I'll do it for a year and see if I can help,'" Schilling says.

In Schilling's first year -- Yogi's sophomore season -- Park Tudor advanced to the 2A state title game and lost by three points. The team was just 7-14 the year before Schilling took over.

Yogi, Schilling and Park Tudor won 51 games and back-to-back state championships during their final two years, and established a winning culture at the school that continued after they left. 

Schilling says it was clear Ferrell was different from the very first practice they had together.

“The thing that I appreciated so much about him, from the minute I started, he gave phenomenal eye contact every second I spoke, and he worked with a sense of purpose and urgency that you only see from the great ones," Schilling says. "He shot every shot in every shooting drill as if it was the game winner.

“When your best player was the hardest worker, you became a leader just because of that. Because of his work ethic, there was a culture that was developed at Park Tudor. If you didn’t work with an incredible passion, then you were kinda like the weird one. Yogi established that. It wasn’t that Yogi was telling them, it was that he did it, and he did it every single day, from start to finish.”

The End of 'The Movement'

When Ferrell and the rest of 'The Movement' stepped on campus in Bloomington, they joined a roster that included Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo, Zeller and Will Sheehey. The Hoosiers had made a surprise run to the Sweet Sixteen a year earlier, and some players weren't thrilled about the attitude of the incoming recruiting class.

Chief among them was Sheehey, who thrived as Indiana's bad boy during his career. He and Ferrell butted heads almost immediately. 

In the very first open gym session for the new freshmen, Ferrell called a foul on Sheehey. Sheehey tossed the ball back at Ferrell and said, "That might be a foul where you're from, but that's not a foul here."

"He was a little too Hollywood for me at that point in time," Sheehey said later. "He thought it was his show."

Sheehey quickly let Ferrell and the other freshmen know that it was not their show, and he openly mocked the moniker 'The Movement'. The way Sheehey saw it, Ferrell and his classmates hadn't done anything. They hadn't proven themselves yet. 

"I don't remember the exact words, but the whole 'Movement' thing didn't last very long," Hulls says. "It was made clear by everyone that this wasn't high school anymore and that you'd have to prove yourself at this level and work hard to get where you want to be for yourself and for the team. College is such a different game than high school and it was clear from the very first workouts." 

'The Movement' was over. Those words never came out of Ferrell's mouth again after his first media day at Indiana.

"It's not really 'The Movement' anymore," Ferrell said then. "We're just all Hoosiers."

Learning to lead

At Park Tudor, Ferrell was able to successfully lead only by example. He's never been a real 'rah-rah' guy and vocal leadership wasn't natural to him. When he arrived at Indiana, there were many upperclassmen who had a firm grip on the leadership responsibilities.

But when those guys left after Ferrell's freshman season, it took him time to learn to be a vocal leader at the college level. Ferrell struggled with it for the better part of two years. He was vocal sometimes, but not all the time. Vocal on the court, but not always off of it.

During those two years, the program was hampered by numerous off-court incidents, one that even involved Ferrell. Fans clamored for Crean to regain control of the program, and many called for his job.

Now, those incidents are starting to become a distant memory as the Hoosiers have cleaned up their act both on the court and off. Ferrell, now a senior, has learned to be the leader he struggled to be as a sophomore and junior, and he's become one of the best players in all of college basketball.

“Obviously there were many circumstances and situations over the last 3 years that we can question, but I sent a boy to IU to play basketball, and I am definitely getting back a man," Lydia says. "He is a really great kid, if people would actually get to know him. He seems kinda shy and kinda quiet, but he’s actually a really funny, really gentle kid. I mean a gentle man. I think a lot of the fans are starting to see the same Yogi and the man that I always knew he could be off the court.

“At this point he enjoys being the leader. He knows that he has control of the other guys, and the younger guys look to him for advice. He always says it’s not his team, it’s their team. He tries to make sure everybody knows they have a spot on the team, and they all have to play it to their full capacity.”

Indiana's season got off to a rocky start. The Hoosiers lost two out of their three games at the Maui Invitational in November, and were blown out at Duke. They trailed Notre Dame by 16 points in the second half at the Crossroads Classic in December, which ironically became the crossroads of Indiana's season. 

The Hoosiers battled back and knocked off the Irish, a win that turned their season around. 

“They looked at each other and said, ‘Now we know that nothing is impossible,'" Lydia says.

The Final Chapter

Ferrell is nearing the end of his decorated college career, one that has been full of both ups and downs. He owns the school's all-time assists record and has moved into the top 10 on the all-time scoring list, but those things don't matter to Ferrell.

Maybe one day he'll look back and think about the individual things he accomplished at Indiana. Right now, though, he is solely focused on the goal he came to Indiana to achieve -- winning a national championship.

"As much as anything, when you see where the program was before he got there and where it is now, and the amount of winning that he has been an integral part of, that’s the thing that stands out to me," Schilling says. "Obviously he’s had some huge games and assists records and all that, but more than anything, what he’s done is he’s helped Indiana to be where Indiana belongs. That’s in the upper echelon of all of college basketball.”

Ferrell's ability to completely ignore the individual accolades and focus on the team success can be directly linked to the skill his parents taught him way back in middle school. He never looked at the rankings, never studied the record books. Some might see that as a disregard for history, but it's Ferrell's way of living in the moment and staying locked in on the things that are most important.

“He’s always been a really hard worker, and you can’t get that motivation from outside sources," Lydia says. "I’ve always taught him that motivation comes from within. You have to do it for yourself, otherwise you’ll never love the game.”

The country is littered with talented athletes that never lived up to the hype. Very few ever do. The earlier the recognition comes, the lower the chances for ultimate success. 

Ferrell's recognition came as early as anyone's, yet he's still standing. He's not only lived up to the lofty expectations -- he's exceeded them. 

"As much as it is a challenge to deal with failure, sometimes it’s even harder to deal with success," Schilling says. "When you start hearing praise at a young age — and high praise — it’s easy to get complacent. That’s one thing that Yogi did not do. He was about as steady a worker as I’ve ever been around. It didn’t matter what it was, he was always the same. Despite all the praise, you wouldn’t know it by how hard he worked. I think that’s why he’s had such a great career.”

The book of Ferrell's career has been a masterpiece, but the final chapter has yet to be written. Nine games remain in Yogi's final Big Ten season, and then comes the NCAA Tournament that will likely play a large role in defining Ferrell's college career. 

Yogi also has dreams of playing in the NBA, something Schilling has little doubt he will accomplish. After all, Yogi has always shined brightest on the biggest stage.

"Having worked in the NBA, I definitely think there’s a place for Yogi on an NBA team, and I think he could have a long career in the NBA," Schilling says. "Obviously the deck is stacked against him. When you look at 6-foot guards in the NBA, you’re only talking about 10 or 12 guys. But I think Yogi is special. He’s gonna do whatever it takes.”


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