The drive to win

(click the Play button for our narrated slideshow, produced by Jake Sherman and Sam Salkin with photos by Ben Solomon)

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.

Tony Taylor can score. He says he does not like to, but he has done it this season in many different ways. Three-pointers, daunting slashes to the basket and even, with his coach grimacing, one-handed dunks. Although he brands himself a pass-first guard, Taylor has averaged 30 points a game at Archbishop Stepinac High School because, frankly, he has to.

Taylor, the Crusaders’ 5-foot-11-superstar, could use the two-minute breaks Coach Tim Philip gives the team for rest and replenishment after grueling wind sprints. Instead, he grabs a ball and jogs to an open basket to shoot free throws.

He certainly has the right to be a little less humble. Many believe Taylor to be the only person to ever lead the county in total points and total assists at the end of the season. This year he is on track to do it again, even though teams completely alter their defense to try to stop him. But just as his father taught him, this game is all about hard work.

Tony Taylor is known by most as a gym rat. He spends countless hours working on his game in his Catholic school in the New York City suburbs. Whenever he is working, his coach said, he is doing something productive. When he is out of the gym, he is one of the varsity team’s three honor roll students.

Tony Taylor probably could have waited a little longer to commit to a college to play basketball. Every week, he said, he was getting a new offer. St. John’s, Seton Hall and Auburn universities all gave him consideration. Coaches came to his gym, where graduates’ college jerseys line the walls, and asked “where are you going, what are you thinking.” But when GW’s head men’s basketball coach Karl Hobbs saw him during an open gym here, he told him he wanted the Mount Vernon, N.Y., native in Foggy Bottom.

The next time Hobbs came to White Plains, he went to seal the deal on what he characterized as a “diamond in the rough.” For two hours, he sat down with Taylor, his father and Philip and explained his program. Like a salesman, Hobbs told him if he worked hard, he could make the Atlantic 10’s rookie of the year. Hobbs said if he had a burning desire to graduate, play on the next level and be a better person, GW was the right place for Tony Taylor.

Taylor called Hobbs only hours later and while the seventh-year coach was on his way back down to D.C., he had just nabbed his first recruit for the 2008-2009 season. A recruit who has an insatiable thirst for winning and whose biggest weakness is his drive to win. Hobbs won over one of the best players in Westchester County history.

With Taylor, Hobbs seems to have struck gold on many levels. GW got an 18-year-old who scored 54 points against Briarcliff Manor High School in a county-wide tournament a few weeks ago and was livid because his team lost.

He also got a player that represents the start of a renewed effort in the GW men’s basketball program. Hobbs said with this class, he wants to return to finding the “diamonds in the rough,” as Mike Hall and Pops Mensah-Bonsu were when they arrived in Foggy Bottom. He is also making a concerted effort to take a harder look at players’ behavior off the court.

“We’re trying to do a better job at evaluating kids before we sign them,” Hobbs said. “The character things become so important.”

* * *

Two nights after his team throttled Cardinal Spellman High School by 21 points, Coach Tim Philip started practice with a plea: if you are open, shoot the damn basketball.

“Other people have to score, it’s not rocket science,” Philip said, as Taylor contorted his body in stretches about five feet away. “At the end of the day, Tony scored 21 points and we won by 30. Now what does that tell you?”

It tells anyone who knows Taylor that he was, for once, probably satisfied. Spellman, a high school located minutes from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, played a box-and-one defense, which is designed to neutralize a team’s best player. One, and sometimes two, players were assigned to trail Taylor as he tried to score. While two men shadowed the pesky guard, one of his teammates was always left un-guarded.

“He tells guys, ‘shoot the ball! You’re open,'” Philip said. “We spend more time looking to get him the ball when there are all of his teammates open. He’s that good.”

Taylor is not bothered. He finds ways to pass, sometimes slinging a ball to the least expected player.

“Everybody sees me as a target,” Taylor said. “They all want to go after me. They want to know why I’m moving this way, or going that way. They grab my shirt.”

Taylor has an innate understanding of the game that basketball insiders logically call “basketball IQ.” He finds open spots on the floor, shakes trailing defenders loose and sees opportunities to create points.

This was never more evident than during a Jan. 9 game against Blessed Sacrament High School in Taylor’s home gym. In game time situations, the most spectacular thing about Taylor is how unspectacular he attempts to be. In the first four minutes of the game, he had eight of his team’s 10 points on a few three-pointers, a layup and some foul shots. He missed a dunk on a fast break, which led to Blessed Sacrament scoring. He looked at the ground and shook his head. He dished it off often, letting a freshman center maneuver in the paint for some impressive layups. Without any flash, he had 28 points 12 assists and eight rebounds as his team won 86-67.

In this game, he did not find the bench until late in the game. But sometimes, his drive to come out on top is to his detriment. He will do what he has to do to win – sometimes with often-unrealistic expectations.

“If he takes 15 foul shots, he wants to make 15,” Philip said. “If he takes 20 shots from the floor, he’ll want to make 20. I have to tell him after games, no one is perfect. Michael Jordan shot 45 percent from the field. He only made 18 of 40.”

Philip, who said he admires Hobbs’ coaching, said a guard like Taylor makes everyone better. Early on in his high school career, Taylor’s learning curve was nearly flat. He played on the varsity team as a sophomore and made an immediate impact. His character, Philip said, helped right the chemistry of a program long mired in mediocrity. In Taylor’s junior year, he and Melquan Bolding, a University of Louisville recruit currently in prep school, helped break five consecutive seasons of 7-17 records.

“The minute he moved up (to varsity) he never came out of a game,” Philip said. “Unless he needed a breather, which doesn’t happen. Or he was in foul trouble, which he doesn’t get in.”

* * *

Through a sports fan’s osmosis, Taylor has followed GW over the past few years. He remembers the 27-1 season and seeing the dunks on ESPN. The name Pops Mensah-Bonsu rings a bell and Hobbs’ success at the University of Connecticut is impressive.

“They have made like three (NCAA) Tournaments, and I know about Hobbs at U-Conn.,” he recalled, wiping sweat from his face after a final set of sprints.

He also knows the Colonials are struggling this season. With redshirt sophomore Travis King benched with a leg injury, the backcourt relies on a walk-on to aid senior Maureece Rice.

“I mean, it’s kind of disappointing, but I know that I’m going to be a factor next year,” Taylor said.

It is a bold prediction from a high school senior who has been to Foggy Bottom once, but one Hobbs will not refute. During GW’s summer session, Taylor will work on his biggest weakness: his physique. While he is fast, quick and agile, Taylor is not strong.

But that weakness seems to be an afterthought to Hobbs.

“That is his only weakness to me,” Hobbs said. “He can shoot the lights out. He’s quick, he’s fast. But the thing we love about him is that it goes back to the character. What we like about him is that drive to win.”

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