Taylor King should have been easy to spot this weekend.
He could have heard almost 20,000 Villanova fans roaring as he camped under the backboard and grabbed a clutch rebound or buried a 3-pointer against Georgetown in a packed NBA arena. Those kind of cheers would have rattled throughout Madison Square Garden where faithful Duke fans flocked to New York’s famous arena to root for the Blue Devils against St. John’s.
He could still be playing for the Bruins, or for the Blue Devils or Wildcats, where national TV, national rankings and national championships are the standard. He could still be enjoying the first-class perks this sport has to offer.
But he’s not. In fact, all King wanted, at the end of last season, was to quit.
“It was not fun at all for me,” King said. “As a matter of fact, I hated it.”
He was burned out by the sport he once ruled as a junior high sensation. And he was distracted while dealing with family strife and some dubious decisions that wrecked his second season at Villanova. He wanted to return home to California and find a school where he could disappear from basketball and simply study and work.
But if you look closely _ real closely _ you’ll find that King is still around and shooting. He may be 3,000 miles away from the Big East battles Villanova is now engaged in, but he’s playing, and that makes it a comeback worth watching.
NAIA powerhouse, Concordia, a tiny Christian college in Irvine, Calif., is his new home. And he’s making the most of it. King scored 21 points for the Eagles Friday night in front of an announced crowd of 2,747 at Azusa Pacific University.
Not exactly a Big Monday matchup. But you won’t hear King complain, either.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” King said. “Not the ride I thought I was going to be on.”
Who could have guessed this career path when King was a can’t-miss kid at Santa Ana’s Mater Dei. He had committed to play for UCLA and Ben Howland in 2003 before his freshman year, then would reverse course two years later for Duke.
He sat out a season and was in the uncomfortable situation of watching his new team beat the Blue Devils in the 2009 NCAA tournament. King made a quick impact the next year on the Big East power as a reliable rebounder and double-double threat. He had a 19-12 game, dropped 20 points on Saint Joseph’s, and had a three-game stretch where he made 11 of 22 3s.
His fun was cut short, though. As the Wildcats raced to a 20-1 start, King’s minutes and production dipped to the point that, for a player with his skill level, it was clear something was amiss.
When coach Jay Wright benched him for the regular-season finale against West Virginia, it was feared that long-rumored speculation about King’s marijuana use was the cause. Asked if he used the drug at Villanova, King didn’t say no.
“Let’s put it this way. I clearly enjoyed myself at Villanova in the sense that the things I was doing off the court were not putting myself in the best position to be successful on the floor,” he said. “I needed to take a step back.”
He wasn’t alone in feeling that way. Wright worked with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski last summer for USA basketball and recalled a lengthy dinner conversation about King with Krzyzewski’s wife, Mickie. They analyzed King’s missteps and wondered why a talented player like King bounced around college programs as if he were signing NBA 10-day contracts.
“He’s a good kid and, the whole situation, the exact same thing happened at both schools where you love him, you care about him, you want him to be successful and you feel bad you couldn’t help him,” Wright said. “I think both of us came to the exact same conclusion that we tried everything.”
Ultimately, Wright and others failed because King was his worst enemy.
“Every time he’d do the right thing and have a chance at great success, he’d self-implode,” Wright said. “He would do something that would force you to discipline him.”
King first announced he had voluntarily withdrawn from the Wildcats and planned to stay at Villanova to complete his degree requirements. Realizing the Main Line scene wasn’t healthy for him, he left.
For the third time, King needed a place to play.
“In some ways,” Concordia coach Ken Ammann said, “it’s a curse to be so good so young.”
King, who turns 23 in May, was convinced he was finished until pick-up games at Mater Dei rekindled his love for the game. He found his new basketball spot only 10 minutes away from his mother’s house.
King flirted with USC. But without a scholarship to offer for a year, and, faced with having to redshirt another season, he balked. Enter Ammann, who led the Eagles to a national championship in 2003.
Ammann played for King’s high school coach, Gary McKnight, and the pair had maintained their friendship. When McKnight put out feelers, Ammann jumped at the rare opportunity to add a McDonald’s All-American at an NAIA program.
Before any scholarship was offered, they had to talk.
“I sat down with him and I told him everything that happened,” King said. “I didn’t beat around the bush, I didn’t lie to him.”
Seven months later, Ammann says King has been a team leader and a model citizen.
“He’s really cleaned up. He’s staying out of trouble off the court,” Ammann said. “All the mistakes he was making at Villanova, he’s not making anymore. Let’s put it that way.”
King insists he has sworn off his old vices. His off-hours bad habits are no more. He’s no longer withdrawn from his teammates or considers practice a chore. His bad choices were scrapped instead of his promising career.
“Those are all gone now, I’m happy to say that,” King said. “I don’t want to say I’m a new man, but my mind is far more clearer than it has been. And my relationship with my family is as strong as it ever has been.”
The hard knocks only toughened King.
King sounded delighted over the phone as he gushed at how the relationships he has with players and coaches at Concordia are the best of his career. He’s not exactly playing the caliber of competition of North Carolina or Syracuse, but he leads the Eagles in points (14.2) and rebounds (6.0), and has helped them to a 12-0 conference record.
“He knows that he, obviously, is still a really good player and can really shoot the ball,” Smith said. “He has great size, and at the end of the day, he’s going to make some money playing this game somewhere.”
For the first time since he enrolled at Concordia, King says he’s thinking about the NBA. But that, of course, won’t come until after he graduates next year. He’s a communications major, studying broadcasting and sports journalism.
He emotionally capable to brush off taunts and putdowns he hears on the road for his disastrous UCLA-Duke-Villanova triple-play. He understands it’s part of the game, and a part of his past he won’t run away from.
“I don’t want to have to make another decision,” King said, “until after I graduate.”
Not for this comeback king _ at last.