By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
It wasn't exactly love at first sight when Dante Taylor traveled from his home in White Plains, N.Y., to visit a potential new school and meet a new coach. Taylor, then a 6-foot-5 ninth-grader, had yet to play high school basketball. It was an understatement to say his game was unpolished. And National Christian Academy in Fort Washington sure seemed different than the hustle and bustle to which Taylor was accustomed.
National Christian Coach Trevor Brown, overseeing one of the area's top independent teams, was used to bringing in older, more talented players, not a self-described "chubby" freshman who sometimes needed an attitude adjustment.
But Brown liked Taylor's work ethic, believing then that it set the player apart. Tonight, after four years of dedication and improvement on the court, in the classroom (Taylor repeated ninth grade) and in the weight room, Taylor will suit up in Coral Gables, Fla., for the East team in the McDonald's all-American game, a showcase of top-tier Division I basketball recruits from across the country.
"He's changed an awful lot," Brown said one recent afternoon as he prepared to put Taylor and several other players through a workout. "There are a lot of different ways where he has changed -- personality, social skills, academically, being more conscious of being a good student. The basketball part of it is what everybody can see. But the other stuff is what we notice around the school, who the real Dante Taylor is."
The basketball stuff is pretty impressive. Taylor averaged 23.8 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks this past season and has signed scholarship papers to play for Pittsburgh. He has grown to 6-9 and a muscular 235 pounds. According to Brown, Taylor has gone from being perceived as a bully to being considered humble as he walks the halls at National Christian. And Taylor is proud of his development in the classroom, where he has steadily improved and made the honor roll twice.
"It used to be if I got a 'C' or a 'D,' I used to be happy that I passed," Taylor said. "Now, I see that's not acceptable."
It is quite a turnaround, but not one that is unexpected, Brown said. He has coached other top players -- Kevin Durant spent one season at National Christian, while former Virginia Tech standout Deron Washington and Georgetown senior Jessie Sapp are National Christian graduates -- and said what sets the elite apart is their drive.
"That's academically," Brown said. "A lot of times, with the ones that are really good, people are always telling them, 'You've got to get your academics in order.' A lot of times, once the light bulb does come on, those kids excel in the academic field also.
"He wants to be the best [player] he can be at his age. It's not something every kid has."
Of course, it takes a bit of natural ability, too. Taylor has always been tall -- because of his height, classmates naturally expected him to play basketball. "I expected me to play basketball, too, because I was tall," he said. "I didn't pay no mind to it." But until coming to National Christian, he never took basketball seriously.
After being academically ineligible to play basketball as a freshman at Woodlands High in Hartsdale, N.Y., a friend's father got Taylor started playing on a New York City offseason travel team. He later joined a teammate on a visit to National Christian.
Taylor said he was seeking a new start in a different environment. Raised by a single mother, Taylor moved to the Washington area and lived with one of National Christian's assistant coaches for two years before moving in with Brown for the past two years.
And while he hadn't played much organized basketball -- he wasn't part of the summer-long tournament circuit that has teenagers traversing the country and playing against top competition before college coaches -- Taylor immediately bought into Brown's rigorous workout schedule that included strength training four days a week and on-court workouts, overcoming an initial bout of homesickness.
"He was a kid that had no skills. It looked like nobody had taught him the basics of playing basketball," Brown said. "The first thing that grabbed me was that he was a really hard worker."
Where other players complained about the offseason workouts, Brown said, Taylor wanted more. He gradually got better. And when Pittsburgh's coaches came to recruit older National Christian players such as Washington and current Cincinnati center Anthony McClain, they made sure to chat up Taylor.
"The things that jumped out at you early on was his motor, how hard he played, his ability to rebound and how hard he played defense," said Pittsburgh assistant Tom Herrion, who knew Brown from his days as a Virginia assistant and as the head coach at the College of Charleston. "Now, he's adding the offensive components. That's been the biggest change, his offensive skill package. Now, he can make 16- and 17-footers and some threes. He's expanded his game and become more versatile."
While he knows how much he has improved -- nearly tripling his 8.6-point scoring average from his sophomore year -- Taylor insists his development was simple.
"Just working hard, practicing my game and paying attention to what Coach Brown told me and doing every little thing he told me to improve," he said. "Ain't nothing hard about that. Those are the key steps right there: work hard, listen.
"I see how long I came and where I came from. When I first came down here, I wasn't that good. Nobody knew me. Now, when I walk around, people know me. I try to stay humble and appreciate what I have right now."