Longform

THE TRAGEDY OF ERIC TAYLOR

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Rick Barrett rescued him from prison--and from the streets.
Barrett ran into Taylor on the street by accident one afternoon and didn't realize that Taylor was on the way to a work-release job. Shortly afterward Barrett got a call from Scott Mossman, a coach at Grand Canyon, who was looking to recruit a power forward. Barrett recommended Taylor. Mossman followed up and found that Taylor was in prison, and so he contacted the judge who had sentenced Taylor and worked out his release. Taylor could go to Grand Canyon if he kept his nose clean--and he had to be out of the state of New Jersey within 24 hours.

"I remember the night," says Bill Smothers. "I was practicing at the high school with my basketball team when Rick walked into the gym with Eric. We talked to [then-coach at Grand Canyon] Paul Westphal on the phone in the gym lobby, and he asked me about Eric. I told him Eric was a very willful, headstrong young man, and you've got to control him. You have to break him."
Everyone held his breath. Eric Taylor was free to make something of himself. If he'd stayed in Camden, McColgan points out, the streets would have gotten him for sure. @rule:

@body:Grand Canyon University is a sleepy, mostly white, Baptist college on 33rd Avenue and Camelback Road, light-years away from the predominantly black and poor neighborhoods of Camden. Taylor's start was predictably rocky. He hadn't played ball for well on a year, and his personality was just as rough as his basketball skills.

"He would talk sometimes and it seemed like he wasn't making any sense," says Darryl Williford, who was his teammate at Grand Canyon and later his co-worker at the juvenile shelter. "You would think this guy doesn't have it all."
You had to listen to Taylor, get to know him, and once you got used to how excitable he was all the time, you realized he had lots of friendship and compassion to offer. He was loud and boisterous in a good-natured way. He said anything on his mind--even if it was more than others wanted to know. Williford got to like and trust Taylor well enough to invite him to stay at his stepmother's home.

"He seemed to me a guy who was looking for the right way to live his life, and when he got to Grand Canyon, he just seemed delighted to find a model to follow," says Garrick Barr, who was an assistant coach there. "When we brought him in, we knew that he was less than a model citizen and told him up front that at the first sign of trouble, you're out. We never had a problem."
As he became educated, Taylor spoke better, seemed calmer. "He had his priorities in line," says Williford. He was outgoing and talkative, willing to go far to make friends, tell a joke, play the dozens.

He found religion, and in the way of some evangelical Christian denominations, he touted it to anyone who would listen. He helped teach at summer basketball camps and was popular among the young campers. He was well-liked by his professors. His faculty adviser, Beverly Spitler, claims he would spend time with her teenage son, who was very fond of him. As for his academic performance, Spitler says, "There were many times you had to sit on Eric. His frustration level was short, but when he was happy, he had a smile that would go from here to eternity."

Taylor learned to channel his aggression on the basketball court. Bill Westphal, who inherited the head coach position from his brother Paul, says, "He had a fierceness to him, and you always knew that he could lose it."

On the court, Westphal says, Taylor was "a Dennis Rodman kind of player," comparing him to the explosive forward for the San Antonio Spurs. "He always had that bounce in his step and made the extra effort to get that rebound that's ten feet away from him."

But offensively, Taylor was not NBA material. His former teammates and coaches have said he didn't jump as high as he should for a man his size, that he didn't dunk well, that he didn't have good hands.

"I don't really think Eric thought he had a right to a tryout," says Garrick Barr. "Eric loved to play, but I don't think he had his life set on basketball."
He had set his sights elsewhere. In June 1991, he became the first person in his family to earn a college degree, a bachelor's in criminal justice, "the last person you'd expect to finish," says Darryl Williford, who himself has a semester's work left. And as on the basketball court, Taylor finished school through hard work and force of will, not natural talent.

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Michael Kiefer