Provo • There’s nothing particularly weird or extraordinary about the dream Yoeli Childs had when he was a kid playing ball in the third grade. It’s the dream a lot of kids have. In his case, though, it’s a dream that’s persisted, that has dominated pretty much his entire existence, every breath of every moment, one that has done nothing but intensify over the past decade, and one that, in his mind, answers the primary question a lot of people have for and about the BYU senior.
Will he make it in the …?
Yo. Hold it right there.
Let’s back up a hundred-thousand post moves and jump shots and rebounds and trips down the floor, shoving off from Childs’ current position and place as the Cougars’ star big man, the one who recently dropped 28 points and 10 rebounds on No. 2-ranked Gonzaga in BYU’s biggest win since Childs’ dream was first hatched, or at least incubated, and another 38 points and 14 boards in the regular-season finale at Pepperdine.
“Thirty-eight and 14,” says BYU coach Mark Pope. “There’s five players in America who could do that.”
En route back, let’s remember that the Cougars are now 24-7, projected as a fairly high seed in the NCAA Tournament field, and are a sparkling 16-2 with Childs in the lineup. A major reason he’s missed a couple of fistfuls of games this season is due to … yeah, that blessed, infernal dream that simply will not let him be.
BYU VS. TBD
When • Monday, 9:30 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN2
He embraces it now, talks about it, does not shy from it, even as that dream adds pressure to his every move in college. He seems to be the only one who is completely comfortable with it, sure that his dream isn’t a fantasy at the end of a broken pipe.
Although Pope puts it like this: “He is a young man who is driven by some kind of internal determination that is special. … When you watch him play, you think he deserves a shot. His game is incredibly versatile. I have so much confidence in Yoeli. I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do.”
Childs sledgehammers the thought.
“I know I’m going to play in the NBA,” he says. “Somehow, some way. I always have known it.”
Others have their doubts.
They wonder about his 3-point shot, about his ability to defend NBA wings since he isn’t tall enough — 6-6 without shoes, 6-7 with them, 6-8 including his hair — to patrol the paint at the highest level.
But they don’t understand. Childs’ chase is not spawned from anyone’s belief in him, nor daunted by anyone’s disbelief. It comes, as Pope says, from the inside-out, from his own feeling that … well, he has to. It’s the thumping voice in his head and in his heart: “It’s all I ever wanted to do. I fell asleep with a ball in my hands every night as a kid. I was obsessed with it. I knew when I was nine years old that I’d play in the NBA.”
But it runs deeper than just that, accelerating straight through what’s happening now at BYU.
Engulfed by the game
Here’s the set up:
Childs discovered basketball at a young age by way of his friends who played it, and he grabbed onto it for the best of reasons: It was fun.
He was born in Logan, and stayed there until his mom, Kara, who had suffered through what Yoeli characterizes as a verbally, emotionally and physically abusive marriage, divorced her husband, Yoeli’s father, moving with her two sons, Masay is the younger one, to Washington, just outside of Seattle, and then to Salt Lake and then Orem. Somewhere in that mix, along about third grade, Childs fell hard for the game. In the ensuing years, it engulfed Childs in such a manner that he sought out and started playing on a junior team in Lehi and later in South Jordan, which necessitated Kara driving him nearly 30 miles each way for every practice, every game.
“I don’t know if I was any good,” Childs says. “But I was big. I was a big kid, a heavy kid. I played in the post, moved kids around, and shot and rebounded a hundred of my own misses.”
Like parents do, Kara witnessed the passion her son had found and did all she could to encourage and facilitate that formative horsepower being channeled toward something positive, even though there were, in fact, no early indications that young Yoeli would be anyone’s star. He just loved it.
The connection stood out much more than the talent did.
“She was the most loving, caring, dedicated person in the world,” Childs says of his mom. “She gave me whatever I needed to succeed. She was unbelievable.”
Eventually, Kara Childs, who is a math teacher, moved with her kids to the South Jordan area for her son’s basketball. She commuted to UVU every day to teach classes. Now, she teaches at Corner Canyon High School.
And even Childs couldn’t explain that unrelenting hook and link. It just … was. It just … is. Give him a ball and a basket and he operates in his happy place, determined and convinced that he would and will one day play it as a pro. This, despite the fact that he wasn’t even the best player on his junior squad. He wasn’t a star in high school until his junior and senior seasons.
A youth coach, Stu Parker, who became one of a number of father figures for Childs, had Yoeli hone his skills by playing one-on-one against the coach’s daughter, who happened to be a tall and tough, accomplished player two years older than him. Often, he wound up on the suffering end of sharp elbows, bloody noses, and short counts in those face-offs.
“She kicked my butt every day,” he says.
Parker just laughed as Childs took his beatings on the court.
In time, the results flipped.
Childs and his talent grew. He launched half-a-foot over one summer. His shoulders rose high, his arms long, even though his neck remained short, the latter costing him in body measurables.
And he exacted his hoop revenge on the coach’s daughter: “I started getting pretty good,” he says with a proud grin.
Emotionally, the kid grew, too, thanks to the help of junior coaches such as Parker, Tim Davis, and Jake Schroeder, his coach at Bingham High School. Those relationships were even more important to Childs, on account of him having no contact with his father, an individual he doesn’t care to think about or discuss. “It was like, ‘I don’t want to see you,” he says. “I don’t have anything to say to you …’”
“… It was an ugly situation, the way he treated my mom. But I had so many other positive role models in my life. I always wanted to be someone who would be there emotionally for my mom. By the time I was 12, I felt comfortable having adult conversations with her. We talked about all kinds of things, about life. She had a huge impact on me.”
Overlooked, but driven
By the time he was in high school, he was nearly 6-5. Schroeder pushed Childs hard, demanding the drive and discipline that matched the kid’s intentions. “It got real,” Childs says. “We learned the ins and outs, X’s and O’s of basketball. He was a blessing in my life.”
Childs wasn’t that much of a blessing to the coach. He allowed his intensity to spill and splash over, often pitching fits when things didn’t go his way: “I didn’t know how to understand or control my emotions,” he says. “I felt a pressure to be great, to make it to the NBA. I was so intense. I was just a pain in the butt to coach.”
He learned humility and patience.
One coach told him: “You’re undersized, you’re, essentially, no good.”
“No colleges were looking at me,” says Childs. “In my heart, I knew I was an NBA player, but my coach told me I wasn’t good enough to play D-I. I figured out that I had to work hard at this. So, I didn’t hang out with friends, I spent all my time in the gym.”
As Davis, Childs’ AAU coach with the Utah Prospects — “He’s my guy,” Yoeli says — worked closely with his pupil, Childs’ game expanded. As it expanded, recruiting letters started to flow in — first from Idaho State, Utah State, Arizona State, and then from Michigan State, Notre Dame, Miami, Vanderbilt and Florida.
Physically, mentally, developmentally, Childs says, “I was becoming a man.”
YOELI CHILDS AT A GLANCE
Vitals • Senior forward, 6-foot-8, 225 pounds
Hometown • South Jordan
Season numbers • 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists per game
Of note • Played for Jake Schroeder at Bingham High School ... Was ranked No. 53 in ESPN’s top 100 for the class of 2016 ... Picked BYU over Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford ... Childs’ wife, Megan, plays volleyball for Utah Valley.
At BYU, he’s become the man.
Childs gives much of the credit for that growth to his wife, Megan, who he met in high school and married five years later, before his junior season at BYU. The day he met her — she was a volleyball player at Bingham — he told a friend: “I need this girl in my life.”
In August of 2018, Megan became Childs’ bride. Along that path, religion and marriage became significant to him in the same manner as basketball. And now, those elements, especially Megan, roll together to his benefit, he says: “She’s my rock.”
Says Megan: “Over the years, Yoeli has grown up. He’s learned how to serve others, he’s become a thoughtful, well-rounded person, on and off the court.”
He chose BYU, in part, because he liked the way the Cougars played.
The fact that he ended up in Provo surprised him, initially. When then-coach Dave Rose first called him when Childs was 16, and asked the recruit if he would be interested in playing for the Cougars, he laughed and said, “No.” He then hung up on Rose.
A few years later, Childs was starting for him.
He started most of his freshman year, was all-conference in his sophomore season, and thereafter, Childs went throttle up. He subsequently checked out his chances with the NBA after last season, his junior year, which led to a clerical, procedural mix-up where he signed with an agent before submitting a form for an NBA evaluation. He was supposed to do those two things, according to NCAA rules, in the other order.
Thereafter, he decided to return to BYU for his senior year, captivated by his teammates who had bonded with him. The NCAA, in a controversial move criticized by many for being too harsh, suspended Childs for nine games at the start of this season for his mistake.
“I believe in honesty,” Childs says. “That whole thing easily could have been swept under the rug and I wouldn’t have missed a game. But that’s not what I stand for. I told the truth. I thought I’d get maybe one or two games [suspended]. It was nine. I was mad, sad, upset, but it was an opportunity to fight through adversity. Was I gonna sit around and cry about it? No. That’s life. My thing is, I’m gonna do what I can no matter what. I’m gonna fight every day to do what I can to succeed.”
A stellar finish
So, he has. After sitting out, Childs has played his best ball, despite suffering an open dislocation of a finger on his right hand, causing him to miss more games. Regardless, he is averaging 22 points and nine rebounds for BYU, shooting 59 percent overall, 49 percent from deep. On many occasions, including the last two wins over Gonzaga and Pepperdine, he has been, by a substantial margin, the best player on the floor.
“He’s always been able to rebound and score the ball,” Pope says. “I’m excited now about him pushing the ball in transition, his transition defense, his ball-screen defense. He learns.”
Childs considers that last part to be his greatest characteristic, “the ability to absorb information and get better. I’m doing that. I’ve done it every year.”
“What makes his game special is what can also hurt him at times — his competitiveness, his intensity, his passion,” he says. “I always tell him he’s insane, he works so hard, his attention to detail. … That’s just how he’s mentally built. He’s gonna push himself as hard as he can. ‘I’m in, I’m in.’ He’s a special talent who figures it out.”
After a substandard home game earlier this season, Childs left the Marriott Center and went directly to the basketball annex, where he put up hundreds of shots while Megan rebounded deep into the night.
“I want to win with these guys,” he says, pointing to his teammates. “Everything that’s happened here at BYU has been a blessing. My faith has grown, my game has grown, I have grown. The guys and I have fought through adversity. We love each other. We fight for each other every day. We’re a brotherhood. We care about each other. It makes all the other stuff easy.”
Namely, the winning.
Childs now is dialed in on the WCC tournament and March Madness. He’s optimistic about BYU’s chances through both, and traces them back to the leathery toughness Pope brought to the Cougars when he initially arrived.
“He came in and told us, ‘We’re going to work and we’re going to fight. I don’t care if you’re throwing up, you’re going to be in here and give it your all,’” says Childs. “I’ve never seen a coach who’s such a perfect balance of getting the most out of players, but also instilling confidence in them.”
Looking back, it’s all worked out for Yoeli Childs. He’s followed his passion, he’s polished his game in a place that he says was right for him, with teammates who are friends. He fell in love and married his high school sweetheart. He found his faith. He’s overcome his anxious hyper-drive, turning, as Pope says it, “frustrations into fight.”
Looking ahead, what comes next, after his final game for BYU, depends on Childs himself. Is he big enough? Is he quick enough? Is he good enough?
“He wants to make an impact in the world for good,” says Megan. “Whether it’s basketball or something else, he wants to make the world better. He wants to have an impact on people’s lives.”
Childs believes the world, his world, would be a much better place playing in the NBA.
“My dream is still alive,” he says. “It will never die.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.