Commentary

All part of growing up for MU's Taylor

Originally Published: March 27, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Monte Ross' phone jingled last spring and when the person on the other end said hello the Delaware coach nearly dropped the phone.

[+] EnlargeZaire Taylor
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesZaire Taylor is starting to reach his potential at Missouri under coach Mike Anderson.
Fifteen months earlier Ross and Zaire Taylor had parted ways when Taylor walked into Ross' office and said he was leaving school, said he wanted to be a point guard and Ross wouldn't let him so he was out. Ross didn't do anything to stop him.

They didn't part badly, more of an agree-to-disagree on the concepts of discipline and hard work.

Fast-forward to April 2008 and there's Taylor on the other end of the phone saying simply, "Hey Coach."

"He gave me one of the biggest highlights of my short head-coaching career," Ross said. "Called me out of the clear blue sky and says, 'Coach I just wanted to call and say thank you. I appreciate everything you were trying to do for me. I've really matured and I understand.' I could tell in his voice, it wasn't the same Zaire that I had coached for a year."

Some people go their whole lives without learning how to say the hardest five words in the English language: "I'm sorry" and "You are forgiven."

In 22 short but hard-worn years, Taylor has mastered both.

He was evicted from his apartment because his roommate bolted and left him with back rent, forced to sleep four days in a computer lab. Forgave him.

He and his fiancée broke up, giving him a taste of heartbreak. Forgave her.

He ditched Ross, convinced the coach didn't know what he was talking about, and later learned he was wrong. Apologized.

As he stands on the precipice of the Final Four, his Missouri Tigers tantalizingly close to the one step their program has never taken, Taylor averages 6.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists but leads the team in perspective.

"What he was trying to do, I wasn't ready for," Taylor said. "I've grown so much here. Some of the credit goes to Coach [Mike] Anderson but it's also because I was willing to grow."

There is an introspective side to Taylor, a rare commodity among the usually surface-scraping college set. He is disarmingly honest, occasionally self-deprecating, a poet, songwriter and a man assistant coach Melvin Watkins says fancies himself a philosopher.

His best case study so far has been himself. Taylor's circuitous path from his Staten Island home to Delaware to house-less -- if not altogether homeless -- to starter on a team 40 minutes from the Final Four reads like something out of a screenplay.

Taylor argues it's far less sexy than that.

"Everybody goes through it," he said. "As a person, in order to experience the pleasures of life you have to experience some pain. I've just had some of mine already."

[+] EnlargeMonte Ross
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesMonte Ross and Zaire Taylor didn't see eye-to-eye while the two were together at Delaware.
Taylor played one full season and half of another at Delaware, starting 29 games, appearing in 15 more. He wasn't a bad kid, stayed late to work on his game, went to class and did what he needed to do there to get by.

But Ross was new to the program and new to the head-coaching ranks and wanted to set his standards early. He rode Taylor hard, probably harder than anyone else because while Taylor did well, Ross thought he could do so much more.

Ross' desire for discipline and Taylor's response didn't exactly mesh. In January 2007 coach and player parted ways. Ross wasn't angry, more hopeful that eventually somewhere Taylor would hear his message.

"People will say, 'Shoot, you won how many games and you let a kid go who's in the Elite Eight?'" Ross said. "But it wouldn't have worked here. He needed to get away from our program to realize his full potential."

Through his friendship with Keon Lawrence, a Missouri recruit and AAU teammate, Taylor decided to check out Missouri.

He arrived on campus straight out of New York attitude central casting, wearing a polo shirt, tight jeans, scruffy beard and a belt Anderson cannot forget.

With a big buckle in the middle, it was made to look as if there was money spilling out of his waistband and was realistic enough that people sometimes stopped Taylor to tell him he was losing his cash.

"I said, boy you get rid of that belt if you're coming back here," Anderson said.

Getting rid of the belt was the easy part.

Getting to Missouri was trickier. Recognizing that his entire transcript wouldn't transfer, Taylor decided to remain at Delaware and take extra classes. He and his mom pooled their money and Taylor found an apartment with a roommate. But when the roommate skipped out, leaving some unpaid rent behind, Taylor couldn't foot the bill and he was evicted.

He spent two or three weeks without a permanent place to put his head, crashing with friends when he could and curling up on a chair in the 24-hour computer lab for a handful of nights.

"It wasn't that bad," Taylor said. "I still had my car. I didn't sleep in my car, though. I figured the computer lab was more comfortable."

Eventually Taylor finished the course work and headed to Missouri.

His first pickup game was a gasser disaster. Taylor had spent the spring and summer playing in the rec leagues, where his high-flying dunks and killer crossovers gave him a rather inflated sense of worth.

"I felt like I was Jordan all the time in the rec league," he said. "Then we went up and down the court maybe four times I couldn't move. I think everyone was thinking, 'Can the kid play?' But Coach took a chance on me."

And with that leap of faith from Anderson, Taylor grew a mile.

He lost his grandfather while he sat out due to the NCAA transfer rule. Lawrence, his buddy from back home, transferred to Seton Hall. He and his fiancée split up, a laundry list of things that might have set another kid packing.

[+] EnlargeZaire Taylor
Brian Losness/US PresswireTaylor is averaging just under nine points a game for the Tigers in the NCAA tournament.
But Taylor was another kid, a changed one.

"We basically told him we're not going to change. This is who we are," said Watkins, the assistant coach who helped bring him to Missouri. "Maybe it was because it was his last chance, I don't know. But he got it."

Taylor speaks to his roommate, the one who left him high and dry, every now and again. Given the chance to out him by offering his name, he declined.

His fiancée has a new boyfriend, but she talks to Taylor, too, wished him luck in the NCAA tournament.

And then there is Ross. The phone calls didn't stop after the first one. Taylor calls his former coach almost once a month, dialing him up after the Blue Hens' big wins over VCU and George Mason, or calling every now and then just to say hello.

In an attempt to explain his almost masochistic willingness to turn the other cheek, the underage philosopher used an analogy. Taylor loves Swedish Fish, usually has a stash hidden in his locker. Once a friend asked for a handful and Taylor said no.

A few days later, Taylor asked for something of his and the friend declined, reminding Taylor of his refusal to share the gummy candy.

"So what are you going to do? One time in like a million I say no but every other time I say yes and you remember the no?" Taylor said. "All the things we've been through, the experiences can outweigh the pain. You have to be willing to assess the situation as a whole."

And say the hardest five words.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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