THE TRAGEDY OF ERIC TAYLOR

THE BASKETBALL STAR HAD ESCAPED HIS GHETTO PAST. BUT HE COULDN'T ESCAPE HIS INNER TORMENT.

Eric Taylor was a proud father, an exceptional college athlete, a hard worker and a devout Christian. He was six feet seven inches tall, with a strong jaw, heavy brows and chiseled features that could look forbidding until they eased into a freely given, gap-toothed smile.

But he lived his life holding back a Richter scale rage that some people sensed, and few people saw until the last seven minutes of his life. When it broke loose, it surged out of his being through every crack and fault line of a long-weakening composure, an unstoppable event.

Early on the morning of January 12, Taylor, 25, rammed his car into a tree outside the juvenile shelter where he worked, accidentally or intentionally putting his head through the windshield. Then, spurting blood from a gaping wound in his forehead, he crashed through the shelter's front door and tore through the building, his rage building like a natural disaster whose trajectory carried him down 51st Avenue in Glendale. There Taylor pointed a handgun at a police officer and was shot to death. The Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette painted Taylor as just another black man on a rampage. They pointed out his conviction as a teenager for aggravated assault, and faulted the shelter's operator, Arizona Baptist Children's Services, for hiring a felon. They speculated that Taylor was despondent over not being drafted into the National Basketball Association after playing for coach Paul Westphal at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.

Taylor's clergyman, Pastor Edward Carter, pronounced the R&G coverage "fly by night" and "sensational journalism," and he not only refused to talk to New Times, but also advised all members of his church to do the same. As one member of the black community said with a sigh of disapproval, Taylor was perhaps not someone to be written about because he was "just another black man who died of neglect."

None of which is true. Eric Taylor was not a street brawler or a hardened criminal. Nor was he neglected; he had friends and mentors pulling and pushing him most of his life. Despite his emotional problems, he had the kind of winning ways that made people bend over backward to help him.

"There was a kind of unstableness about him," says Garrick Barr, a coach for the Phoenix Suns who tutored Taylor at Grand Canyon. "But when you got to know him, you pretty quickly started rooting for him because you thought he was winning."
Taylor wanted so badly to lead an exemplary Christian life. He had a strong work ethic at school, at his job and on the basketball court. His high school and college coaches and teachers pointed to him as a success story, a tough kid from a broken home in the ghettos of New Jersey who'd gotten his priorities straight.

He was outgoing and friendly. He could not, however, cope with the pressures of life. His wife had left him and was taking his children out of state, apparently to escape Taylor's increasing emotional problems.

And though there were friends around to help him, in the end, Taylor needed more than they could give him.

Tragically, Taylor's roommate, Benny Knox, had taken him to a hospital on the evening he lost control, but Taylor was turned away, even though he was employed and had health insurance, even though he was talking about suicide and may have already attempted it, even though the ugly force inside him was shaking every molecule of his body, building to escape velocity.

Pastor Carter later asked the police why they had not shot to wound Taylor. Part of the answer is that police officers in potentially mortal situations always aim for center body mass to increase the likelihood of hitting the intended target and not an innocent bystander, and to hedge bets that an attacker will indeed be stopped.

For Taylor was beyond any man's control: Despite going through the windshield of his car, despite prodigious blood loss from his hands and head, he had torn apart doors with his bare hands. It took five bullets shot at intervals over 30 seconds to fell him. They passed completely through his body, through his vital organs, and had to be removed from just under the skin of his back, where they raised lumps.

Though he acted like a man on angel dust, there was not a drop of alcohol, not a milligram of drugs in Taylor's system. The autopsy turned up no sign of brain damage that might have explained Taylor's extreme state of agitation.

In the breast pocket of his bloodied tee shirt, medical examiners found "a business card . . . with a note on the back referring to Charter Hospital."

But his destiny was as unstoppable as his force. As his friend Darryl Williford later said, "I think Eric did it on purpose. I think he didn't want to live without his wife and kids."

@rule:
@body:Camden, New Jersey, is a withered old city that clings to the Delaware River like flotsam washed up by Philadelphia's stormy urban overflow. Eric Taylor was born there in 1968 into a family that was so fractured that the coaches who virtually raised him and his brothers didn't realize there were sisters in the family until they met them at Taylor's funeral. All of the children grew up in separate foster homes.

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