Original Old School: Higher Learning

This past Saturday, March 6, Princeton University at long last got around to properly honoring the contributions of Brian Taylor, retiring his number during a half-time ceremony. Taylor was surrounded by family, friends, former teammates, and Coach Pete Carrill as he received a silver dish commemorating his great contribution to the University. In only two seasons on the Varsity, Taylor left an indelible mark on the record books at Princeton, finishing his amateur career as the second highest scorer in University history (behind only Bill Bradley). He went on to win two ABA championships with the New York Nets, the defensive stopper and offensive signal caller for one of the defining franchises of the legendary American Basketball Association.

Perhaps even more important, however, is the work Mr. Taylor has accomplished since hanging up his sneakers. As Vice President of the Inner City Education Foundation in Los Angeles, Taylor has played an essential role in developing one of the nation’s finest urban charter school systems. At the moment, ICEF runs 13 schools in south L.A., serving 4,000 students and possessing the awe-inspiring record of sending 100% of its graduates on to college.

Mr. Taylor thanked his teammates, the University, and Coach Carrill, saying, “Thanks Coach for seeing something in me. I thank you for believing in me and pushing me to become something better.” He also managed to rally the home crowd, helping push the Tigers to overcome a first half deficit to take down long-time rival Harvard, which completed a season sweep.—Colin Powers

Brian Taylor.

By Chris Warren

Brian Taylor creates a stir when he walks the halls of View Park Prep Middle School in south Los Angeles. One young teacher’s face lights up when he spots Taylor and, making his way through the throngs of African-American students changing classes, he crows about a Lakers’ narrow Playoff win. As he continues down the hall, Taylor—who at 6-3 towers over the young kids who attend this charter school located in an area known for its deep-seated problems with gangs, violence and failing schools—is approached by a succession of students. Some just say hi, some want to talk about their classes and others angle for a pat on the shoulder or a hug.

One subject that isn’t broached, at least on this day, is Taylor’s highly successful career in the ABA and NBA. Not that there isn’t a lot to talk about. After a standout tenure at Princeton, where he led the Pete Carril-coached Tigers to the NIT Tournament and wins over Bobby Knight’s Indiana and Dean Smith’s UNC Tar Heels (“Bob McAdoo is still in denial,” he says), Taylor was lured to the pros after his junior year in 1972, one of the first athletes to make the jump early—so unusual at the time that Howard Cosell did a story about it for ABC Sports. In a decade-long career in the pros, Taylor rolled up a Rookie of the Year award and two ABA championships with the New York Nets, where he played great D and dished the ball to Dr. J, Larry Kenon and John Williamson, before going on to stints with the Kansas City Kings, Denver Nuggets and the San Diego Clippers in the NBA.

Taylor isn’t interested in rehashing past glory, though sometimes he can’t avoid it because zealous fans still track him down and send him items to autograph. These days, Taylor, who is head of View Park Prep Schools and senior vice president at the Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF), which runs 13 charter schools in south L.A., including View Park Prep Middle School, would much rather talk about the challenges and triumphs of providing a top-notch education to minority students who typically have few, if any, good options when it comes to schools. Taylor certainly has a great story to tell. Since their founding in ’94, ICEF schools have emerged as an educational powerhouse in an area of Los Angeles where only 9 percent of freshmen who enter public schools eventually graduate from college. By stark contrast, ICEF schools have not only routinely registered top scores on California standardized tests, often besting much wealthier areas, but have a goal, so far attained, of sending 100 percent of their graduates to college. Taylor needs to tell this story as a way to drum up support amongst parents, politicians, donors and neighbors, because their support is vital for ICEF to flourish and expand; their goal is to eventually operate 35 schools in south L.A., ultimately serving 10,000 students and producing 2,000 college graduates per year.

“My job is to help the outside world understand what we’re doing and why and how we are achieving at a high level and get their support and their understanding,” Taylor says. “Us being here has affected people’s lives—there are more kids and more traffic and it has affected people’s lives in the community—and my job is to have them understand that it’s worth it for the kids.”

By experience and connections, it’s hard to imagine a better spokesperson. Not only is Taylor a Princeton grad, which speaks volumes about the value he places on education, but he was one of the founding board members and treasurer when ICEF was nothing more than an idea and later left a position at one of L.A.’s most prestigious private schools to become principal of View Park Middle School before starting his current job. Taylor’s network is wide and he uses it well; he has coaxed former professional ballplayers to come work at the school and got Lakers’ great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to speak to the kids about black history; while I’m with him, he misses a call from President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

Given all that, it’s still Taylor’s temperament that is arguably his most effective tool in garnering support for ICEF’s mission to provide an elite private school quality education to traditionally underserved, forgotten African-American children. “Brian is the most modest person I’ve ever met,” says ICEF founder Mike Piscal.

As Taylor, whose playing days were ended by an Achilles heel injury in ’82, leads a tour around the school, he is continually deflecting attention away from himself. Introducing Dwight Sanders, View Park’s current principal, Taylor calls him one of ICEF’s “rising stars,” and says that students already like Sanders better than him. Every teacher we meet is doing something extraordinary, he says, and I really should be talking to them, not him.

Taylor would be the first to say that he’s in a position today to make a huge difference in thousands of young lives largely because of basketball. Growing up in the housing projects of Perth Amboy, NJ, Taylor had two distinct advantages over his peers who were never able to rise above their tough environment: family and sports. His father, “Big” Steve, a former semi-pro football player and the family disciplinarian, worked as a laborer at the Raritan Copper Works, and his mother, Maude, was a homemaker. “Even though we had a small place, it was the place to go to get home cooking and a lot of loving from my mom,” he recalls. Along with a secure and loving home life, the Taylors were also awash in athletic talent. Big Steve was a skilled athlete and Brian’s older brother, Bruce, was a standout football player who went on to become a Pro Bowl cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers. For his part, Brian excelled at everything he tried—he says baseball was his first love—becoming a three sport letterman all four years of high school, leading his basketball team to one state championship and a second-place trophy.

Brian Taylor. Fortunately for Taylor, he also had a football coach, Bob Estok, who stressed education. “After my freshman year in high school, he says, You’re a good enough student, you have a profile here that if we get you moving in the right track, you’ll have tremendous opportunities to go anywhere in the country for college,” Taylor says. For Estok, that track meant making sure Taylor spent two summers taking academic enrichment courses at an elite private school and maintaining an A-minus average in his regular courses. It also meant making sure that Taylor knew the dangers faced by talented athletes, so Estok gave him the book, The Black Athlete: The Shameful Story. “It’s a cautionary book, talking about how athletes are exploited for their physical abilities and don’t take advantage of the opportunities they have as students,” Taylor says.

That was never a possibility for Taylor. Even though he was heavily recruited out of high school—UCLA, Cal-Berkeley and Rutgers were among his suitors—it was Princeton, located just 30 miles from home, which eventually won out. “We didn’t recruit him that hard. I guess his mom, the last thing she said was that I was the only honest guy he talked to,” laughs Pete Carril, who coached the Tigers from 1967-96. “He had his sights set on a good education and that really helped us.”

Taylor flourished at Princeton, using his blazing speed and strength to break down defenses and shut down the opposing team’s best players. “Brian was a terrific shooter and he had great quickness and he could defend,” says Gary Walters, Princeton’s current athletic director, who played point guard on the school’s 1965 Final Four team. “He was one of Pete’s all-time most talented and gifted players.” During the summer, Taylor would train with another of Princeton’s all-time greats, Bill Bradley. Taylor remembers how Bradley would come to the gym each day clutching a notebook in which he’d jotted down all the drills he wanted to do. After each was completed, Bradley would methodically go back to the notebook and check it off—a powerful lesson about the importance of preparation and hard work in pursuing one’s goals.

Taylor’s focus on academics waned when, after a wildly successful junior year, the ABA came calling. “I was like, wow, I’ve got an opportunity to play with the great New York Nets in the beautiful Nassau Coliseum and they’re going to pay me to do it? Or I’m going to have to write a 100-page thesis?” When Taylor’s father was interviewed by Cosell, the sportscaster asked him what his son should do; take the money and run, Big Steve said. Brian did just that, although he eventually went back to Princeton and earned two degrees.

Taylor quickly established himself in the pros, not only winning ROY honors in the ABA, but helping lead the Nets to championships in his second and fourth years in the league, when the team came back from a 22-point deficit to best the Denver Nuggets. The way Taylor saw it, his job was to do two things: shut down the opposing team’s best player and get the ball to a certain future hall of famer. “My responsibility was making sure I got the ball to Dr. J in the right position,” he says.

Night after long night, he had to try and slow the prolific scoring of the likes of David Thompson, George Gervin, Norm Nixon and Pete Maravich. It was no easy task. “They hated me because the only way I could slow them down was to do anything possible: grab them, hold them, trip them, bite them,” he says with a laugh. Ron Boone, who played for numerous ABA and NBA teams and is now color commentator with the Utah Jazz, used to hate it when Taylor guarded him. “He was just one of those guys you wanted to get off of you because he was there all of the time,” Boone recalls. In the ’76 Playoffs, Boone grew so frustrated with Taylor’s defense that he punched him in the mouth, but the next year, Taylor and Boone were roommates on the Kansas City Kings and became good friends.

Although undersized, Taylor had plenty of other tools. One was speed: he was known as the BT Express. “He was the fastest guy I had seen in the league up to that point, and I’m not sure if people of the ilk of [Allen]Iverson are faster,” says Kim Hughes, an assistant coach with the L.A. Clippers, who played with Taylor on the Nets. Hughes says Taylor and Dr. J were the smartest teammates he ever had, and that Taylor duped people into making ill-conceived passes. “I heard how Bill Russell used to taunt people into blocking shots. Brian was lurking, waiting for the cross-court pass and he would get it almost every time.”

Although Nate “Tiny” Archibald is better known than Taylor, Hughes says it was a “terrible deal” when the Nets traded Taylor for Tiny. “I thought Brian was a better player than Tiny, even though Tiny was a much better offensive player,” he says. “Brian was such a good rebounder, defender and overall player.”

Taylor’s leadership also set him apart, remembers Eric Money, a former Pistons point guard. As Money recalls, Taylor didn’t lead by shouting or hogging the ball, but by quietly making everyone else better. “He was always the floor general,” says Money, who Taylor lured to ICEF schools to become a PE teacher and to help him coach the high school basketball team. “He was a great complementary player to let guys like Dr. J have the spotlight. The leader sometimes has to defer that was one of his stronger qualities.”

Taylor will need to draw on every bit of those leadership skills in his current role. Education, especially in California, has been hit hard by the economy, with massive state budget cuts decimating teaching staffs, increasing class sizes and dimming prospects of academic progress. The challenge is particularly acute for charter schools, which already don’t receive as much funding as regular public schools, even though their test scores and achievements are often far superior, most markedly in predominantly minority areas. Taylor has to work extra hard to try and drum up financial resources from foundations, individuals and the federal government, whatever it takes to keep the ICEF schools performing at a high level.

Taylor’s motivation is intensely personal. His two youngest children attend ICEF schools (an older child, Bryce, was a standout player at the University of Oregon and, after playing a year in Italy, is looking to sign with an NBA team), the symbolism of which is not lost on anyone. “It does send an important message, because it tells you he has faith in us and the system,” says Sanders. “That says a lot about what he’s building and what his belief is in our system.” In fact, Taylor says he got into education after 10 years as a successful businessman in large part to emphasize to his kids how important it is.

Even if his kids weren’t here, it seems clear that Taylor would be. He says he sees himself in the children who attend ICEF schools, growing up in the inner city where bad influences are all too common. What he wants them to understand is that academics lead to a better life and that it’s within their grasp. But the job gives him plenty in return, including an opportunity to coach his son, Brendan, who is developing into an excellent player himself. It might not match the immediate thrill of a roaring crowd, but it can be far more gratifying, he says.

“What can you do that is going to give you the thrills that you had as a ballplayer? Probably nothing, but what is my purpose thereafter?” he says. “I feel coming here I found my purpose in life. And my purpose in life is to give back.”