Cook: Pitt center Taylor's tale one of strength, perseverance


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They excel in their sport for four years, often under extraordinary scrutiny from crowds of 12,000, 15,000, 18,000 and countless thousands of others watching on national television. They run, they jump, they shoot, they rebound, they defend. They do it all so effortlessly at times that it's easy to forget they are ...

"People?" Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said, finishing the sentence.

Yes, people.

We were reminded Sunday of how wonderful the humanity of competitive sports can be. There were incredible moments before and after Pitt's 73-64 win against Villanova at Petersen Events Center. It was senior day, which meant it was the final home game for Pitt guard Travon Woodall and big man Dante Taylor, roommates and best friends, who have played in 98 wins at Pitt.

"They joked all week about who would cry first," Pitt freshman guard James Robinson said.

Turned it out it was Taylor.

It isn't every day you see a bear of a man, 6 feet 9, 235 pounds with the strength to squeeze your head off, with tears rolling down his face. But Taylor couldn't help himself. When he started talking about what the game meant to his mother, who watched him play in Pittsburgh for the first time, he broke down.

Humanity?

You bet humanity.

"I saw my mom before the game and she was crying," Taylor said. "She's real proud of me. I've come a long way."

Most people know Taylor was one of Dixon's most prized recruits, a McDonald's All-American. But a lot fewer know Taylor's backstory. His mother sent him away from their Greenburgh, N.Y., home after he finished eighth grade because she feared what he was becoming in their neighborhood.

"He never caused me any problems until he was in seventh or eighth grade," Lisa Sharpe said. "Then, he started acting up a little."

"Just knucklehead things," Taylor said. "Cutting school. Running the streets. Just stuff I shouldn't have been doing."

"So I went to one of his mentors, Frankie Williams, God bless his soul, and asked if there was any way we could get him out of Greenburgh," Sharpe said.

You probably know it isn't easy for any mom to send away her baby. It's brutal, actually.

"It was the toughest decision our family ever had to make," Sharpe said. "But it turned out to be the best decision for Dante."

Taylor ended up at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Md. He lived with the team's coach, Trevor Brown, who treated him like his fourth child. "You stay in my house, you do what my kids do," Brown said after posing with Taylor for pictures after the game. "You wash dishes, you clean your room, you take the trash out, you baby-sit my grandson. I don't think Dante was used to any of that ...

"His grades were shaky at the time. His background was shaky. But I like working with kids like that because I want to see what their end story is. Dante bought into what we were trying to do, which was hard work and school and trying to get to college to get an education."

Sharpe said she noticed a difference in Taylor immediately. Brown said it took a little time, but he couldn't be happier about that end story he mentioned.

"When Dante went to Pitt, he talked about getting his degree," Brown said. "I remember that clearly. 'I'm going to get my degree.' There was nothing about doing this or doing that in basketball. That's kind of unusual. All of these kids think they're LeBron James."

Taylor will become the first college graduate in his family when he gets his Pitt degree in April in Social Sciences with a minor in Social Work. He talked about how differently things could have been for him. One of his best friends, Taylor Foster, was another great player, but he didn't escape the Greenburgh streets.

"He got caught up in the wrong things and ended up doing two years in jail on a gun charge," Taylor said.

What Foster must have been thinking when he came to see Taylor and Pitt play St. John's Feb. 24 at Madison Square Garden.

"He should be where I am right now," Taylor said.

Taylor's story at Pitt is one of great success even if he hasn't lived up to that McDonald's hype mostly because of injuries.

"He's given us everything he has," Dixon said. "He's working his tail off and the other guys respond to it. His unselfishness alone is big. You couldn't have a better teammate than Dante Taylor."

Taylor started against Villanova because 7-foot freshman Steven Adams was out with a sprained left ankle. He had 7 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 24 minutes. His final home moment couldn't have been scripted better. He took a breakaway pass from Woodall and slammed home a dunk for Pitt's final points. Somehow, the clock stopped with 0.9 seconds left. That enabled Dixon to sub out for Taylor and Woodall and gave the Petersen Events Center crowd one last chance to show their appreciation to the two seniors.

The only regret in Taylor's family was that his grandmother, Juanita Sharpe, didn't make it to the game. She died Dec. 29 of cancer.

"My mom fought a long time and wanted to hang on long enough to see Dante graduate," Lisa Sharpe said. "But I know she was watching today. She was his angel when he was flying through the air for that dunk."

Though Taylor's work at Petersen Events Center is done, he hopes there is plenty of basketball left. Pitt plays its final regular-season game Saturday at DePaul. The Big East Conference and NCAA tournaments follow.

Sharpe will try to make it to Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament. It really doesn't matter to her how Pitt does. What's important is that her baby has grown into a good man.

"I always told him to be humble," Sharpe said. "Being humble in this world carries you a long way."

That doesn't have anything to do with running or jumping or rebounding or defending.

It's just a good life lesson for all of us.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published March 4, 2013 5:00 AM


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