Twelve years ago, Princeton basketball star Brian Taylor ’73 was offered an opportunity that millions of kids, from the schoolyards of New York to the suburbs of Los Angeles, only dream about: to play in the pros. At the age of 20, he had to choose between finishing college and signing a lucrative contract. The decision did not come quickly or easily, but in the end he left school and signed with the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association.
His career in the ABA and NBA had its peaks and valleys. He won the ABA’s Rookie of the Year award, as well as three all-star and all-defensive team citations. He had a part in two league championships with the Nets. He distinguished himself as a team leader. But he also had a few heated contract disputes and personality clashes. After tearing his Achilles’ tendon during the 1981-82 season, he had to quit the game.
Through it all, Taylor never quite felt fulfilled. A part of him wondered how his life might have been different had he completed his stay at Princeton. Last spring he returned to the university as a second-semester junior, to take care of “unfinished business,” as he puts it. “The name of the game is to get the job done,” he says, “and I haven’t gotten it done yet. I prided myself on being a scholar-athlete. I’ve reached my athletic goals. Now I want to reach my academic goals. I took a great deal of pride in being announced [during pre-game introductions in the pros] as ‘Brian Taylor, Princeton,’ but I didn’t feel right about it. Getting a Princeton degree will help me in whatever I want to get into.”
Taylor would like to get into community development, with a special emphasis on helping minority businesses. All signs point in that direction. Last semester he worked for the New Jersey Department of Commerce on a new program designed to encourage the growth of small minority businesses. A politics major, he is writing his thesis on governmental involvement in minority business.
The change in lifestyle for Taylor has been dramatic. That he is no longer earning a generous NBA salary doesn’t bother him. “My portfolio has me well taken care of,” he says. “I obviously can afford to come back and pay for my education.” The campus atmosphere, however, caught him off guard. “It was a difficult adjustment, being around all these young people and trying to feel a part of the community. And I was definitely not used to the work. I needed a dictionary near me when I started reading these types of books again. I asked myself, ‘How did 1 do this 12 years ago?’
“But getting used to change comes with age and maturity,” he adds. “For me, the eternal-youth syndrome has passed. I feel a responsibility to contribute to the community and to get things done. This year I’ve had to prepare myself for the thesis, which, at about one hundred pages in politics, is no easy task.”
Taylor spends his time studying and visiting with friends in 1901 Hall, where he has a small room. He also works out with the basketball team, a regimen he enjoys.
Players on the varsity and JV value his comments, even as they kid him about his age. During one practice, he jumped for a rebound, landed on someone’s foot, and went to the floor with a sprained ankle. “Guess B.T.’s getting old,” the players joked.
According to Stan Adelson, however, Taylor’s age is not so apparent. An assistant director of personnel for the university and secretary of the Friends of Basketball, Adelson watched Taylor play for Princeton in the early ’70s. “Brian’s still got the magic,” he says. “In the varsity alumni game last fall, he tore the varsity apart. He was fantastic.”
In high school at Perth Amboy, Taylor had enough magic to score 84 points in one game and draw offers from four hundred schools, including UCLA and Notre Dame. But he wanted an academic challenge. “I had no say in the matter,” notes Maude Taylor, Brian’s mother. “I had to go along with him. I just wanted him to graduate because we’ve never had a college graduation in our family.”
At Princeton, Taylor sparkled on the basketball court. His scoring average for two years on the varsity was 24.3 points per game. During the summer before his junior year, he played on the U.S. team in the Pan American Games with current NBA stars Bob McAdoo and Paul Westphal. Taylor also led Princeton into the NIT and was chosen a first-team all-American by NBA coaches his junior year.
“Without a doubt, from the standpoint of pure talent, he was by far the best Princeton’s had,” Adelson says. “When Brian was a freshman, [coach Pete] Carril was watching him and said to me, ‘That kid’s a winner.’ If you know Carril, you know that’s quite a statement.” Adelson also remembers when the freshmen team traveled to New Brunswick for a game against the Rutgers frosh-and the crowd that turned out to see Princeton’s new talent set an attendance record for the Rutgers gym.
While his basketball career at Princeton was rich, his life off the court was less than blissful. He felt the campus was cold, that students here were not outgoing, and he felt awkward from a racial standpoint. “Sure, the doors of the clubs were open to us,” he recalls, “but it was questionable whether you were really going to be accepted.” When he made the decision to leave school, many Princetonians resented it. He received letters from kids eight years old and men of 65. Most of the comments were hostile. “They said things like I ‘shouldn’t have been here in the first place’ and ‘Princeton doesn’t need niggers like you.’ ”
Off campus, too, Taylor had to put up with racism. After a typically tiring Carril practice during his junior year, he boarded a train for New York intending to see the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden. He put his feet up on the seat in front of him. The conductor told him to put his legs down, and Taylor asked why. At the Newark stop, police boarded the train and arrested him. After spending the night and most of the next day in jail, Taylor went before a judge who promptly dismissed Penn Central’s charges of disorderly conduct and the use of obscenity. “I filed a countersuit for physical and reputational damages,” Taylor says, “but when the trial came up I was in the ABA, so the jury wouldn’t award me anything. The whole thing was getting so old I didn’t want to pursue it anymore. “
It was that spring that Taylor decided to go pro. His coach understood. “When Brian was here,” Carril recalls, “he was a perfect gentleman, not the wise guy some people thought. Losing him hurt, but Brian had no obligation to play four years for me. He had an obligation to his family.”
Drafted in the second round by the Seattle Supersonics of the NBA and the Carolina Cougars (who quickly traded him to the New York Nets) of the ABA, Taylor chose the ABA, so he could play close to home. Upon signing a contract with the Nets, he bought his family a house in Edison, New Jersey. “I wanted to improve my family’s living situation immediately,” he explains. “We grew up in the projects, and with the opportunity in front of me to better our life, I just couldn’t resist it. With the chance to be a pro, I just couldn’t give up a childhood dream.
Since his return to Princeton, he has been living in that house with his mother, his brother Blake, and Blake’s wife, and using his room in 1901 as a daytime office. His wife, Terri, has stayed in San Diego, where the Taylors have a condominium. Last month she gave birth to their first child, Terbrie Amara. The new father would like to watch his baby grow, but for the time being unfinished business keeps him at Princeton.
Taylor starred for the Nets until the ABA folded in 1976, whereupon he found himself with the Kansas City Kings. In the NBA he continued to shine, making a name for himself as a point guard and defensive standout. Later he played for Denver and San Diego until the injury to his Achilles’ tendon abruptly ended his career, after 10 years as a professional.
His last year, in San Diego, left him with bitter memories. “The season was a drag. We had gotten a new owner, Don Sterling, who promoted himself and not the team. We had a losing season, so they worked us twice as hard, even if we didn’t need it. Doctors said I tore my Achilles’ tendon because I was overworked. Sterling said he would spend whatever it took to make the team a winner, but he never carried his promises out.” Things got so bad, Taylor adds, that the team was once refused accommodation at a hotel because Sterling hadn’t paid his back bills there.
Even Sterling’s poor leadership didn’t diminish Taylor’s pride at being a professional basketball player. “I gave a hell of a lot of myself in basketball,” he says. “Every time the ball was tipped off, it was showtime, and I tried to give people their money’s worth. I’m thankful and proud of having an exciting career.” Taylor wishes he could give something back to the sport’s fans, and to the man he says made him the player he was: Pete Carril.
“He taught me at a critical stage in my life. He improved me, by staying on my case to improve every aspect of my game. He’s devoted to making you a better player and a better person. Best of all, he’s made me able to deal with criticism and to give one hundred percent on and off the court.”
Now off the court and able to look back on the business of professional basketball, Taylor sees the sport from a different perspective. “I wish the NBA would have more feeling, more emotion. The NBA is the NBA hiding behind the abstraction. Look at me, for instance. Here’s Brian Taylor, captain of the team: tears his Achilles’ tendon, now he’s gone. No more contact. It’s difficult for me. I put in ten good years, and all I got was a clean break. It was like, ‘Okay, it’s over, goodbye, we don’t need you anymore.’ The league has no concern for its athletes after they’re gone.
“I can hear people saying, ‘Oh, B.T., sour grapes.’ Well, I gave the game my heart and soul. But the way my career ended gave me more incentive to succeed after basketball. It’s a cold business. I was lucky: I was prepared to do other things. Unfortunately, too many athletes aren’t.”
Taylor sees the prevalence of drug use among NBA players as another major problem. The handful of people who run the league, he feels, must work with the players to develop a program that shows an understanding for those dependent on drugs. “Drugs are coping mechanisms which help you deal with the stress of life. Athletes are put on a pedestal, they’re under more pressure, there’s just more to cope with. The problem is a lot of athletes aren’t strong enough to cope with stress, so they need a mechanism to combat it. Some of them become addicted to drugs. I can sympathize with them because I know the burden that is placed on their shoulders. It’s hard to cope with the unrealness athletes feel.” To address the problem of idolatry, Taylor believes, the league and the players must do more to reduce the players’ isolation, to make them more real and get them in touch with their fans. This, he recognizes, could take a long time.
Taylor has found the departure from pro ball to be “just another step in life.” Last summer Taylor’ ‘found out how to get things done in a community” by working for a real estate developer in San Diego. Then working for the state last semester put him in touch with influential people in New Jersey. “I’ve established linkages,” he says. ‘‘I’ve had job offers on the East and West coasts in the field of business development.” In Trenton he has been asked to work as a financial consultant in the Office of Minority Business, a branch of the Department of Commerce. He may head a new Equal Opportunity office in San Diego. Or, he says with a smile, he may want to form a public relations and marketing firm. He has no plans for graduate school-not yet, anyway.
Taylor had a remarkable career in professional basketball, but he thinks he can make more of a contribution outside the game. “By the nature of sports,” he says, “you can’t get involved in a community. There’s just no time. You’re always traveling. It was nice being a leader in the sport” — he captained three of his four pro teams — “but I think I can touch more people’s lives as a community developer. I want to have the same feeling as a leader in the community that I had as a player.
“I appreciate Princeton more now. I see all the outstanding citizens who came from here, who have done so much for people. I really want to be one of those outstanding citizens.”