by Matt Caputo
It’s just-under two hours until tip-off at Madison Square Garden and Mike Taylor is warming up for a game that he might not play in. He’s smiling though - an hour before his more senior Clipper teammates make it to the gym, Taylor is burying deep threes on both sides of the key. His swishes echo throughout the empty arena when the blaring sound system being tested goes mute. Taylor, who became the first player selected in the NBA Draft directly from the NBA D-League, knows that he once doubted he’d get the opportunity to be there at all.
“I looked at it as my second chance,” Taylor says in the vacant visiting dressing room in the World’s Most Famous Arena. “Being able to make all my dreams come true. At the time, the only thing I knew was going through college to make it to the NBA. Coming out of the D-League was my second chance.”
A quick glance around the empty locker room before the game and you might not recognize the skinny kid with seemingly endless body ink as a member of the team. He’s a little shorter than the 6’2 and a few pounds below the 165 pounds the team’s media material lists him as. His name is trivial at best to several beat writers and college coaches (who should have been recruiting him) and he’s only scored a total of ten points in the four previous games before meeting the Knicks. But while much of the gathering (SLAM included) was wondering where Baron Davis and Marcus Camby was before the game, as early as the second quarter they were wondering where Taylor had come from.
Although he was born in Chicago, Taylor attended John Marshall High School in Milwaukee and was All-State Honorable Mention his senior year. He’d come to the school at roughly 5-foot-4 and left really only 5-foot-10. After being named Milwaukee public school player of the year (averaging 25 points per game) he enrolled at Chipola College in Marianna, FL.
At the Junior College level, Taylor competed with one of the best teams in the country. During his time at Chipola, Taylor helped the Indians capture two Panhandle Conference Championships, a Region VIII Championship, and a NJCAA Final Four Appearance, racking up a 62-8 record along the way. Being named All-Conference and his team’s Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore, Taylor signed with Iowa State and things took a bad turn.
He was arrested in Wisconsin in August of 2006 for operating a vehicle while under the influence. The incident happened away from the ISU campus and it was never clear if the Cyclones ever penalized him for the infraction. It was ultimately ruled that it was not a criminal offense and resulted in only a fine and Taylor’s driver’s license was revoked for six months. It was the first of three brushes with the law that year.
On the court though, Taylor was starting to tap into the potential he always knew he had. Though he had to sit out an exhibition game due to academic concerns, he quickly became the Cyclones’ first offensive option. He averaged 16 points and 4.5 assists en route to earning All-Big 12 Honorable Mention props. Still, Taylor struggled with maturity and focus off the court.
In March of 2007, Taylor was busted for vandalizing an on-campus apartment building. The next month he was arrested for stealing a bottle of cold medicine from a convenience store and pleaded guilty to fifth-degree theft. After being suspended following the March incident, he received a vehicle registration violation and was ordered to pay a penalty of $69.80. After the series of legal setbacks, the Cyclones were forced to dismiss their leading scorer.
“I played against D.J. Augustine, I played against Mike Conley and Kevin Durant at Iowa state,” Taylor says before the game in New York. “To me, I always put up a tough fight. I was on the same level if not better than those guys, so, that was the thing that I kept in the back of my head.” At first, Taylor thought he would transfer and drop down a level in competition so that he could play right away. However, he wasn’t allowed back to Iowa State and had to make some kind of decision. He began considering turning pro.
“We had him on our prospect list, but we hadn’t anticipated seeing him for a couple of years,” says Chris Alpert, the NBA D-League’s VP of Basketball Operations. “He intended to go back to school and he never put his name in the draft of 2007. He decided in the fall that he didn’t want to go back to school and we were contacted by a representative who said that he wanted to begin his professional career. We met with him, decided to sign him, and we put him in our league.”
The Idaho Stampede signed Taylor in December of 2007. He found his role as the sixth man on a very good team that featured NBA sometimers like Luke Jackson and Randy Livingston. Taylor learned a lot about being a pro, he went to the D-League All-Star Game and was a finalist in the dunk contest and worked in the community with the “Read to Achieve” program in Idaho. The Stampede won the D-League Championship in 2007-2008, in a game in which Taylor dropped 27 points, including 4 consecutive three pointers.
“We’re a league of opportunity,” says Alpert, who has been with the D-League since it’s inception in 2001. “In terms of what happened in Mike’s background, ‘yes,’ we were aware of it, but as we discussed it, he was a bright young prospect who needed to mature a little bit. We felt as though he did so admirably. He was a model player in our league, there were no issues off the court with Mike.”
After a year in the D-League, Taylor was still eligible to be drafted into the NBA. His agent got him into the Orlando pre-draft camp and competed against the top college players in the country. It was there that Taylor earned attention as seriously being a draft worthy prospect. The Nets, Heat, Kings, Clippers, and Bulls all worked out the scoring strong combo guard, but it would be a while before anybody picked him.
“What I was hearing was I could go anywhere from the last five picks of the first round to the first five picks of the second round,” Taylor says thinking back. “I started tuning in around the 25th pick. The Clippers had the 35th pick and when I didn’t hear my name called I just went into my room and wasn’t even watching it anymore.”
A little while later, Taylor’s little brother rushed into his room to announce the Trailblazers had taken him with the 55th overall pick in the 2nd round. Quickly after, Portland traded him to the Clippers, where Taylor says he had big best pre-draft workout. In a talent heavy class, most of which was taken about 45 picks before him, Taylor’s story as the first player from the D-League selected in the NBA draft went more or less unnoticed.
Running with the Clippers in the Vegas Summer League, Taylor averaged a promising 10 points and just-under 5 assists. Despite the presence of a few guards, he found himself a spot on the roster. Taylor scored 20 points in his first preseason game and scored in double figures seven times during their exhibition tour. Still, he had time to bide.
In L.A., he became tight with Tim Thomas before he was sent to the Knicks and ultimately to Chicago and now spends a lot of time absorbing knowledge dropped on him by Baron Davis, whose playoff performances he says he’s inspired by. Despite the fact that “everything hella expensive,” he likens L.A.’s hot and sunny winters to Wisconsin’s frigid temperatures. When he did get in the game, he showed he was race car quick and that he could score. Over time, his teammates already knew what he could do.
“He’s non-stop, he’s non-stop! Imagine trying to guard him every day in practice,” says the Clippers veteran leader Baron Davis. “Imagine him picking you up full and running you all around the court.”
Even on a team that came to New York with a record of 17-54, Taylor had only seen action in 40 games before he came to the Garden. He was averaging less than four points per game and played a total of 31 minutes in the last three games. But, in a building sometimes called “The Garden of Dreams,” Taylor got his chance to run the team.
After a pretty toneless performance by the Clippers in the first quarter, Coach Mike Dunleav sent Taylor into the game and he went into attack mode. He drove to the basket with a fearless sense of urgency and quarterbacked a comeback from a 16-point deficit. It was as if he began using the most rugged tactics to score, defining the term “instant offense.”
In 36 minutes, including one overtime period, Taylor hit 14 of 20 shots from the floor and all seven of his foul shots. He scored 17 points in the second quarter alone, eclipsing his previous career high by two points. Taylor said he found the zone that had made him the MVP of the D-League finals. More than that, he found himself out there.
He finished with 35 points off the bench in a game that essentially killed the Knicks playoff dreams. He had the single best scoring game by a rookie in the Garden since Allen Iverson dropped 35 in ‘96, who he mentioned once before the game and once after the game. The Clippers earned a five point OT win over the Knicks and it’s because of Mike Taylor.
“I thought he carried the team,” Davis says, walking out of the locker room. “He didn’t want to let us lose this basketball game. He got into a good groove and hit some jumpers and I thought that really got his confidence going. He’s tough getting to the basketball because he dribbles the ball so well.”
Taylor felt comfortable, he says, for the first time this season. He provided the spark that closed out a rare Clippers victory. More so, he got his chance on the world’s biggest stage and didn’t buckle. Still, people might not know where Mike Taylor came from, but he’s likely to stay where he is for a while to come.
“To me, I want to be a franchise player one day,” Taylor said before the game. “I want a GM or a Head Coach to build a team around me. I know I have a long way to go, but every chance I get I’m going to get better.”