Life Goes On for a March Madness Hero
By Matt Caputo
The ceiling above the basketball court inside the White Plains, New York, YMCA does not favor jump shooters. The hardwood court is so short that, if not for the poor air circulation, breaking a sweat might be impossible. The space is so narrow that the coaches must use the walls to mark the out-of-bounds areas. However, the New York Strikeforce of the National Professional Basketball League holds practice there two nights a week. For Terrell Taylor, a rookie guard from Creighton, this is a new beginning and a last chance. After scoring 28 points after halftime and drilling the game-winning three-pointer that bounced Florida in the first round of the 2002 NCAA tournament, this is the last place in the world be thought he would be by now.
“It’s frustrating. It’s hard to even show my talent in such a weird position. It’s not to knock the team or the coach. I don’t want to say I’m better than the situation that I’m in, but this is where I’ve brought myself. I can’t be mad at anyone,” says Taylor, after practice, in a window booth at the White Plains Coach Diner. “I told Coach that the only reason I’m here is to get to the next level—which is anywhere better than here.”
Taylor grew up in the West End section of Bridgeport, Connecticut. His mother, Audrey, was a schoolteacher, but she struggled to raise Taylor and his younger sister on her own. His parents split up when he was 5 years old, and he’s only seen his father twice since high school. He picked up a basketball around the third grade and has always been an athletic, scorer type of player. Growing up idolizing Michael Jordan and emulating him on the basketball court, Taylor naturally dreamed of playing in the NBA.
“From the time I was 12 years old, my mother couldn’t tell me anything. But I wasn’t a problem child; I made the honor roll every year up until freshman year of high school,” says the now 27-year-old Taylor, whose smile stretches the width of his face. “Then I got exposed to a lot of fun, girls and hanging out. I got away with everything in high school.”
At Bridgeport Central High School, Taylor became a local sports star. He earned attention from college coaches while playing for AAU teams like the Stamford Express and Connecticut Select. After three years in Bridgeport, Taylor was one of the top players in New England and seemed primed to make an impact at the next level. Because of his basketball skills, Taylor says, people ignored a lot of the trouble he was getting into. His game was on point, but his home life wasn’t going as well. Taylor moved in with an Uncle in Peekskill, New York, at the end of his junior year in high school.
Having produced current L.A. Clipper Elton Brand, Peekskill High School is known for its great basketball program. During Taylor’s summer with the Peekskill basketball team, he went to his first top-notch basketball camp. At the prestigious Five Star Camp, Taylor solidified his reputation, and he says his coaches assured him that he would have his pick of scholarships from any number of top college-basketball programs. However, Taylor decided to leave Peekskill before the school year started and return to Bridgeport to play his senior year in his hometown.
“Moving back to Bridgeport from Peekskill was probably the first mistake of my career,” says Taylor, rubbing his eyes to help think back to more than a decade ago. “I just didn’t really get a lot of good looks when I came back. My AAU coach introduced me to Greg Grensing, who was an assistant coach at Creighton. To this day, I still have a lot of admiration for Coach Grensing.”
Taylor visited Creighton and was impressed by the school and the community. He was surprised to see that Omaha was a city and not a dreary prairie town. The Bluejays had gone to the NCAA tournament and sent Rodney Buford to the NBA draft the previous year, so the program was in the midst of a successful run. Although he liked the school, Creighton emerged as Taylor’s highest division-one option. He eventually signed with Creighton on the last day of the signing period.
“It was rough—my whole swagger was totally different from anybody else’s out there,” says Taylor, who arrived at Creighton in the fall of 1999. “I remember there were little things, like the way I dressed: I had on Timberland boots, jeans and do-rags, and they weren’t really too fond of that.”
As a true freshman, Taylor received a ton of playing time alongside future Utah Jazz forward Kyle Korver. However, Taylor says he clashed with Head Coach Dana Altman almost from the beginning. In his first year on the college courts, he scored in double digits 11 times in 33 games. He was named to the Missouri Valley Conference All-Newcomer, All-Freshman and All-Bench teams, with a season high of 21 points against instate rival Nebraska. He finished the year with 11 points against Auburn in the first round of the NCAA tournament. By all accounts, the kid was a stud.
During his freshman season away from the court, Taylor was less impressive. While he admits to partying and smoking marijuana during high school, Taylor says he began drinking and excessively smoking when he arrived at Creighton. He hung out with cats from the local barbershop and eventually got in trouble with the law. Taylor received a DUI on Super Bowl Sunday his freshman year. It was one in a series of arrests and run-ins with authorities in Omaha.
“I smoked more than I drank, and that’s where all my troubles came from, flat-out. My teammates and Coach thought that because I hung out so much with women, a lot with women, and went out so much, that I wasn’t fully committed to basketball,” says Taylor. “I wasn’t too close to anybody in the school, maybe a few guys, but most of my friends were from the city of Omaha.”
Like every summer during college, Taylor thought of not returning to Creighton. He enjoyed his newfound freedom at home in Bridgeport and contemplated transferring. Ultimately, Taylor returned to Creighton for his sophomore year. “I was very immature at that age,” says Taylor. “I didn’t like Creighton; I wasn’t having fun there. My main focus wasn’t playing ball and going to school, it was to have fun.
Creighton’s basketball team experienced some changes during the summer between Taylor’s freshman and sophomore years. A few players had left the program, and Taylor and Korver were given expanded roles. He started 29 of 32 games in the 2000-2001 season and scored in double figures 15 times. He hit five of seven threes in a win over Southern Illinois and began establishing himself as a sharp-shooting combo guard with pro potential.
The Blue Jays finished with a 24-8 record and lost to Iowa 69-56 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Although Taylor’s basketball game was blossoming, his relationship with Coach Altman was further strained during his sophomore season. After the loss to Iowa in the NCAAs, Taylor left New York without permission from the coaching staff to return home to Bridgeport. Going AWOL after the season ended would prove costly when the next season began.
“I sat my entire junior year, because after we played the first round in New York, I just left and went back to Bridgeport,” Taylor says. “I left without asking permission. It wasn’t that I had a bad personality, but it was my decision-making process—I was rebellious. If I didn’t like what the coach said, I would rebel.”
Taylor started zero out of 32 games as a junior at Creighton. While he posted the best scoring numbers of his college career, the team’s offense became more and more geared toward Kyle Korver. However frustrated he was, Taylor still earned All-Missouri Valley Conference Honorable Mention and Sixth Man of the Year honors. His steady improvement was noted even considering his periodic disciplinary problems. “Even though I didn’t like my situation, I knew it was a good one,” says Taylor. “That was the best basketball I played in my life.”
As Taylor’s game improved, his troubles off the court didn’t. According to Sports Illustrated, Taylor failed a school-administered drug test in October and was arrested on January 4 on suspicion of drunk driving. He eventually pled guilty to reckless driving and was fined $250. He would later appear in court after the 2002 season to answer new charges on marijuana possession and drunk driving, having been required to receive an alcohol evaluation and being granted probation. The charges would eventually dropped.
Taylor’s real story begins in Chicago in March of 2002. Creighton, who finished 23-8, was slated to take on the University of Florida (22-9) in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The fifth-seeded Gators were highly ranked during that year and featured future NBA players like David Lee, Undonis Haslem and Matt Bonner.
Before the game, Taylor, who has the Jordan brand logo tattooed on his right arm, visited the statue of Michael Jordan outside the United Center. Several papers would later report that seeing the shrine of Jordan and sitting in the Bulls locker room was a “spiritual feeling” for Taylor. Kyle Korver told the Associated Press, “He was the last one on the bus [coming back from the statue]. I didn’t think about all the history here, but I think Terrell did.” It was a special moment in Terrell Taylor’s life.
“Right before the Florida game, I asked the trainers where Jordan used to get his ankles taped,” says Taylor, who already wore Jordan’s jersey number. “So I hopped up onto where he sat and got my ankles taped up.”
Taylor studied a Michael Jordan DVD the night before the game, but he came out ice cold in the first half. He couldn’t find his shooting touch early, going 0-6 from the field in the first 20 minutes. “I remember it like it was two days ago,” Taylor says of sitting in the locker room at halftime. “I remember thinking how I was embarrassing myself. I was just really down on myself.”
The second half was a different story. With Korver in foul trouble, Taylor found himself getting open shots and in a position to pull the Bluejays back into the game. “It was like a dream come true. I remember hitting the first shot and feeling unstoppable,” he remembers. Taylor was 8-10 from behind the three-point line in the second half. He hit big threes during several critical points in the game, including two big triples at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. It was if he’d used the first half to warm up. After the game, Gators Coach Billy Donovan told the press his team had no answer for Taylor that night.
The first overtime was rather uneventful. Creighton’s Mike Grimes scored all four of the Bluejays’ points. Taylor came on strong again in the second overtime. Relentless, Taylor hit a baseline jumper to cut Florida’s lead to two points. With less than 30 seconds left in the second OT, Creighton called a time out.
Coach Altman drew up a play to free a Creighton shooter for an open look. However, Bluejay guard Ismael Caro got tangled up with Florida’s Justin Hamilton, sending the ball out of bounds. Creighton got the ball back at halfcourt with 4.5 seconds to go in the second OT.
Taylor ran hard to meet the in-bound pass, got it, dribbled three times, crossed over once, raised his shot over Brett Nelson and hit nothing but the bottom of the net. With only two-tenths of a second remaining, all Florida could really do was put the ball in play and let time expire. Terrell Taylor, who finished with 28 points, all in the second half, was a hero.
“We were working on last-second shots, just in case we ever got into that scenario before the conference tournament,” says Taylor, who shot 8-15 from three and 10-20 overall. “I had nothing preconceived in my head, I knew it was going in when I pulled up for it. It was just something that happened.”
When celebration ended, Taylor was still in trouble with the law and still set on leaving Creighton. The Bluejays lost to Illinois in the second round, Taylor did not start. However, considering his performance in the NCAA tournament, Taylor focused less on finding a new school to play at and more on entering the NBA draft.
Creighton made the NCAA tournament in each of the three years Taylor went to school there. Despite the fact that he’d won several honors from the Missouri Valley Conference, and that he’d just completed his most productive season of college ball, Taylor left Creighton in the spring of 2002 and never returned.
“I told myself early in my junior year that I wasn’t coming back the next year. I was going to try and transfer or whatever,” Taylor says. “I knew I wasn’t going back, and I know now that was the biggest mistake I’ve made. I should have just stuck it out one more year.”
Taylor wasn’t picked in the draft, and no teams showed any serious interest in him. Although many agents and scouts were interested in helping Taylor move on to the next level, he says the phone slowly stopped ringing. Taylor says one caller told him that word of his legal troubles had come out to the public. While he didn’t make the NBA, it wouldn’t be long before Taylor was playing basketball on TV again.
As a member of MTV’s streetball reality series, Who’s Got Game?, Taylor was once again showing off his game on national television. The show, produced by Magic Johnson and Pee Wee Kirkland, pitted contestants against each other in a variety of basketball competitions to play for a $100,000 grand prize. In his bio for the show, he listed his player weaknesses as “beautiful women and late-night escapades.” The show was shot in two months, and Taylor could be spotted wearing his old Creighton shorts on a couple of episodes. Who’s Got Game? wasn’t a tremendous success, but it did help catapult the careers of streetball stars Randy “White Chocolate” Gill and world-class leaper Jamal “Springs” Nelson.
“I made it to the finals. I played against White Chocolate and another guy,” says Taylor, who was only one year removed from playing in the NCAA tournament at the time. “I was killing them—the score was like 13-2-1. Then they started fouling, and the whole game changed. It was streetball for real. I ended up losing to Chocolate by one point.”
Once again, Taylor enjoyed a short dose of fame. His appearance on Who’s Got Game? brought him to millions of viewers via MTV, had him hanging out at the Playboy Mansion and even dating actress Meagan Good for a while. When the show wrapped, Taylor went on a couple of AND1 trips and played games with some exhibition teams, like Global Sports. However, his newfound streetball fame didn’t bring him any closer to playing in the NBA or too many other leagues, for that matter. “I hated that shit,” Taylor says of his streetballer stardom. “The pay was alright, but I didn’t like playing streetball. It was stupid.”
Taylor returned to Bridgeport and allowed time to pass. He spent the next two years primarily hanging around his hometown and playing ball when he could. He began dating a local girl, Iveelisse “Velly” Rivera, who was 11 years older. He tried his best to stay out of trouble by working out in the gym at the University of Bridgeport. It didn’t always work, but it was at the “UB” that Terrell found himself presented with a unique opportunity.
“I was aware of him when I first got the job here in 2000. We would have the local kids from the area play in our gym, and Terrell was one of them,” says Bridgeport coach Mike Ruane. Bridgeport has a strong Division II basketball program and has had success in finding many top-notch D-I transfers. “I knew he only played three years at Creighton, and he had a year left, so we had to file an exemption with the NCAA for us to get him the year back. They gave it to us.”
As Bridgeport was preparing for Taylor to become eligible with the NCAA for the 2005-2006 season, Velly became pregnant. She was eights months along in April 2005 when she began suffering from a serious headache. Taylor drove his girlfriend to Hartford, where doctors discovered she had a blood clot lodged in her brain. An emergency surgery saved the life of Terrell Taylor Jr., but Velly did not survive.
“That was just the worst time. UB happened in the middle of that; she had gotten pregnant before, ” says Taylor. “We were in love. It wasn’t like she was my baby-mama or anything like that. I was going to marry that girl.”
The transition back into college life was a true test for Taylor. As he returned to school and college-basketball life, he battled with Velly’s family over custody of Terrell Jr. Since winning sole custody, Taylor has smoothed over any hard feelings between him and his son’s mother’s family.
“We gave him off-campus housing, out of the dorms, and that’s where he lived with the baby,” says Ruane. “He brought him to class a lot, and little Terrell was also at practice every day with us.”
Taylor was required to sit out his first semester at Bridgeport, though he did practice with the team. While he was busy with school and basketball, his son took up most of his free time away from books and ball.
Taylor had trouble getting back into the groove of college ball at first. However, from about his third game on, he began impacting the Purple Knights’ season. Taylor averaged 17.4 points in just 20 games, helping the team to a 23-11 record. The Purple Knights won 17 games in a row after Taylor joined the team.
“Terrell is a pro shooter. He’s a shooter – like the shooters in the NBA – but he’s more athletic than them,” says Ruane of his former player. “He’s a professional shooter, for sure. But things didn’t work out for him where he could get that opportunity. He missed out on that NBA opportunity.”
In his last college game, Taylor led Bridgeport with 16 points in a loss against a tough St. Anslem team in the opening round of the NCAA D2 Northeast Regional. Once the season ended, Taylor was again left with few basketball options and a child to support. In many ways, the same problems he had before Bridgeport took him in returned once his time at Bridgeport expired in 2006.
“He’s from the city of Bridgeport, and he’s had some trouble in the city, but everyone at the university loved him. From the president to the athletic director to our janitors,” says Ruane. “I hug him every time I see him; I would do anything for him. It doesn’t always seem that he’s done the right thing legally, he’s had some problems, but he’s got a great heart.”
After two years of looking for places to play and being a full-time single parent, Taylor works at a landscaping company where he works with former UCONN and UMass guard Marcus Cox. He signed with the Strikeforce in early April after meeting the team’s coach at a tryout for a Connecticut based team that decided to sit out this season.
The National Professional Basketball League is made up of seven semipro teams stretching from Elmira, New York, to Alexandria, Virginia. Many of the teams operate on small budgets and travel to games via carpool. The three-point line is high school/college distance, and most players only have small-college basketball experience, if any. Team’s like the Elmira Bulldogs and Hudson Valley Hawks are putting on fun games and building their respective fan bases, others are trying to get it together. Essentially, the NPBL is working to establish itself as a quality entry-level basketball league.
The Strikeforce play their home games at Dominican College in Rockland County, about one hour outside of the city. When the Delaware Destroyers, who joined the league midseason, come to town, only about 50 people show up to support the home team. However the female rapper from the halftime show, Shy Thoro, definitely made the crowd live. The Destroyers travel to New York with eight players, but judging by the crowd behind their bench, it seems like they brought more fans. The game on the floor, however unorganized, is physical and entertaining. Despite the fun, the NPBL might as well be a million miles away from the NBA. “I do it for the love and for the game tape,” says former Utah Valley State forward Carl Lee, now playing with the Strikeforce. “But I still believe that you never know who is watching.”
In one of his first “pro” games, Taylor is silky and elusive on the court. He nails a series of threes with hands in his face and completes a pair of dunks, including a very impressive reverse dunk, to put his team up 10 in the third quarter. He leads the Strikeforce in scoring with 24 points and adds two rebounds, two assists and one steal in the victory. Despite leading his team to a comeback win, Taylor finishes the game on the bench.
In the time that’s passed since his winning basket against Florida, Taylor believes he’s learned from his mistakes. He’s learned, maybe more importantly, that every decision has a consequence. Now, at age 27, Taylor is taking his last shot at launching a pro basketball career.
“Right now, I’m not going to say I’m at my lowest point, but I think about where I could have been if I’d made some of the right decisions. I kick myself every day thinking about it,” Taylor says, now sitting in the parking lot outside the Dominican gym. “Sometimes it’s bad—I mean, really sad. I still have this idea of where my life should be. It kills me.”