Tyshawn: Senior success has been a battle
By Jayson Jenks
LAWRENCE — Everywhere Tyshawn Taylor turns, he is surrounded by pressure. It comes from fans telling him how great he played, how fun it was to watch, how he needs to keep it up. And it comes from fans who use social media to say how Kansas can’t win with him, how he’s a headache and how he makes too many mistakes.
Pressure is the bubble in which Taylor lives, a bubble that exploded Feb. 25 in one of the biggest games in Allen Fieldhouse history, at the spot where he had faced demons before.
The free-throw line.
On his shoulders that day rested the weight of a dying rivalry. Exactly 8.3 seconds showed on the clock. KU trailed Missouri by a point. An overflow crowd inside Allen Fieldhouse fell silent. Some couldn’t watch. On television screens across the country, thousands more focused their eyes on No. 10.
The pressure, in that moment, was real. No TV announcer had to set the drama. No father had to lean down and tell his son, ‘This is it.’ It was there, hanging.
Tyshawn Taylor stepped to the line. Pressure.
If there’s one thing Taylor knows, it’s the weight of pressure.
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To understand Tyshawn Taylor today is to understand Tyshawn Taylor of yesterday.
“He’s got a side to him that nobody knows about,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Sometimes, while living in Florida, utilities went unpaid. At one point, he moved into a homeless shelter. Jeanell Taylor, Tyshawn’s mother, battled her own demons. One time, Tyshawn had to leave his mom’s side while she remained in an abusive relationship.
“He said, ‘You’re either (leaving) this man or I’m leaving,’ ” Jeanell said. “And he left.”
Through it all, Tyshawn received support from others who looked out for him. Tom Spencer, who met Tyshawn through Big Brothers Big Sisters, made sure Tyshawn kept his grades up and helped pay for his education and basketball camps. Stephanie Crawford, a youth coach, let Tyshawn move in with her. Bob Hurley, his high school coach, provided him the discipline he needed.
The struggle never left Tyshawn and his family, though. Tyshawn once said he didn’t know what kind of man he wanted to be, but he knew he didn’t want to be like some of the men in his life.
When he has a family of his own, he wants to provide for them in a way he never knew.
“This year I feel like if I do my job and I focus on what I need to do, everything will work out,” Tyshawn said. “My family will be taken well care of and people will love me, and they do. I think I changed a lot of people’s opinions.”
Taylor, according to those who know him, is a people pleaser, quick to want to make those around him — including fans — happy. This is one of his strengths. It is also one of his weaknesses.
Sometimes he worries too much about others, including his family.
“What I tell him is, ‘You’re not doing this for the family,’ ” Jeanell said. “‘You may feel as though you’re doing this for the family, and you may feel the pressure is on you because you have so many people in your family.’ ”
The pressure is real. It is there. Jeanell says she tries to tell Tyshawn he doesn’t have to make it for her or his two sisters, but she also admits the family is counting on him to be successful.
“We have no men with the last name Taylor,” Jeanell said. “We have nothing. (Tyshawn is) the only child that’s really doing something with (his) life, and we don’t want him to fail.”
Some have said Jeanell is looking to Tyshawn as her payday. Spencer, Tyshawn’s Big Brother, disagrees.
Jeanell does too.
“Excuse me, I’m not just some ordinary groupie,” she said. “I’m a mother. I’m his mother. So what other parent you know isn’t there for their kids to support them and be successful?”
What’s undeniable is this: Tyshawn Taylor faces the sort of pressure few college seniors can understand. He faces a pressure he has carried for years, a pressure that has, at times, kept him from reaching the very goals that could make it all go away.
“Sometimes I think we want the end result before we go through the process,” Self said, “and the best way Tyshawn can help them is to help himself.”
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Not long after the fight that defined his sophomore season ended, maybe 10 or 15 minutes later, Tyshawn Taylor picked up his phone and called one of his best friends, Jio Fontan.
“Man,” Taylor said, “I just made a mistake. I just did something stupid.”
The now infamous fight between football and basketball players rippled nationwide. That another fight broke out in the middle of campus a day later only added to the scrutiny. On that first day, when members of the football team clashed with members of the basketball team outside the Burge Union, Taylor threw a punch that dislocated his thumb.
That became the story that burned across the country: Kansas starter injured in fight with football team. It spread quickly and added another layer to his reputation.
But what was missed in the aftermath of the fight was something that was repeated by four people, including a former football player: It wasn’t Taylor’s fight.
According to multiple sources, including the football player, one of the Morris twins started exchanging words with members of the football team when those words turned physical. First shoving, then punches. Taylor rushed to the side of his teammate and friend.
He reacted without thinking. He threw a punch. He dislocated his thumb. He made matters worse when he posted those facts on Facebook, then added lyrics that were either offensive or inappropriate.
“When you’re friends with Tyshawn,” said Fontan, who plays at Southern Cal, “you understand right away that whenever you’re in something or whenever you need him, whether it’s the right thing or the wrong thing, he’s pretty much always thinking, ‘I’m looking out for a friend.’ ”
Taylor’s problems also extended to the court. During his sophomore season, Taylor drew more criticism for admitting that he didn’t know how he fit on a team with Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry and the Morris twins.
After a freshman season in which he averaged 9.7 points, Taylor played with the U-19 national team in the summer. He was one of the team’s best players and returned to Lawrence with that attitude.
“In his mind, he had been anointed a bigger role than what he had,” Self said. “And I think that’s why he struggled his sophomore year in large part.”
Then there are the suspensions. Taylor has been suspended twice, forced to miss a handful of games for disciplinary reasons.
Before this season started, Self released a statement saying Taylor and Elijah Johnson were suspended from KU’s two exhibition games.
“I’ve got to be careful,” Hurley said, “but I’m defending this guy from things that I think are wrong. As soon as he’s home, he comes over and sees everybody. He’s a thoughtful kid. We’re so proud of where he’s come.”
Taylor’s reputation with fans is one people who know him say is undeserved. Those who know him paint him as caring, kind and funny. They say he is a good kid with a complex story. They say people don’t really know Tyshawn, that everyone made their judgments without the full picture.
After the fight that day, Fontan said Taylor quickly thought of the stain it would leave moving forward. “It isn’t just, ‘I got myself in trouble,’ ” Fontan said. “It’s, ‘I got myself in trouble, and it’s holding me back from taking care of my family.’
“You’re talking about a guy that in the back of his mind isn’t thinking, ‘I want to go out there and make money one day so I can be crazy with it.’ He’s thinking, ‘I want to do it so my sister doesn’t have to play basketball just so she can go to college.’”
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Sometimes Tyshawn Taylor worried so much about taking care of his family, it started wearing on him.
“To be 100 percent honest,” Fontan said, “I think it’s something that might have got the best of him early on in his career at Kansas, just because he put so much pressure on himself.”
Playing at Kansas is a different beast. Fran Fraschilla, the former coach and current ESPN analyst, said that is something he talks about with high school players. “If you can’t handle the spotlight at a place like KU,” Fraschilla says, “go to Missouri-Kansas City or Northern Iowa.”
Taylor has worn that pressure. It’s part of what makes him endearing. He doesn’t hide what he’s feeling, which makes watching him play feel almost personal.
In an era of sports when toughness is measured more and more by shoulder bumps, flexing and staredowns, Taylor engages in little of that. He isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, once admitting after a game that he was rattled by the crowd.
He isn’t afraid to accept responsibility, admitting after a loss at K-State last year, “I’ve played a lot of bad games in my career here, but I think that’s probably one of the worst.”
Or, after a couple of late turnovers and two missed free throws that helped KU blow a lead at Missouri this year, he stood in a hallway and said, “I feel like I cost us the game.”
Part of Taylor’s success this year can be traced to the way he has handled the pressure not only from fans, but also from his family. He had to wait and watch as the Morris twins, Aldrich, Henry and Josh Selby all left school early to make money in the NBA.
He had to bury that this year, had to learn that the best way to deal with all the pressure is to focus on himself.
“His mom and sisters also need to be productive on their own,” Hurley said. “His whole responsibility in life can’t be raising up his mom and sisters. There’s got to be a quality in his own life right now.”
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After Kansas’ game against Texas on Saturday, Taylor will walk to center court, microphone in hand, and attempt to deliver the closing words on his home career.
He will have a time limit, which is a good thing because he probably could carry on all night.
Taylor is the face of what four years in college can do. He had a surprisingly good freshman year, then struggled as a sophomore. He had a so-so season as a junior, but that old evil, his inconsistency, kept haunting him.
This is the one complaint Kansas fans use time and again when evaluating Taylor. Yes, he might show why Self thinks so highly of his ability to change games one minute. But the next minute he carelessly throws the ball out of bounds.
“He makes plays you can’t coach,” Self said, “and then he makes plays that look like he’s never been coached.”
Then conference play started. Suddenly, the guard described as a roller coaster leveled off. Suddenly, he played like Sherron Collins. But even Collins didn’t have a stretch like this.
He has played so well in Kansas’ 17 Big 12 games, he’s made the Big 12 player of the year race debatable. He’s had 10 games of at least 20 points, same as teammate Thomas Robinson. He’s had eight of those games in league play, three more than Robinson.
Robinson gets the double-teams, gets the opposing team’s best shot defensively, but Taylor’s speed creates openings and space in a way few players can duplicate.
“I wrestled long and hard with the idea that he’s the Big 12 player of the year,” ESPN’s Fraschilla said. “Ultimately, I think Thomas edges him out in my mind. But I’ve talked to a number of coaching staffs who feel while Thomas may be the league’s best player, Tyshawn is the most important player to the best team in the league.”
All of which gets magnified when looking where Taylor started.
“I usually don’t get emotional about certain things,” Self said, “but I could see myself getting emotional about him because of how far he’s come and some obstacles he’s had to deal with.”
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Taylor said he can’t decide if it has been a long or short four years. Probably, it’s been both. He’s already thinking of what he’ll say and who he’ll thank on senior night.
He’s going to try not to cry, but one look at his mom crying, and he’ll probably lose it, too.
It’s funny, isn’t it? The player who many Kansas fans had written off, who many wanted to just move on, will give his senior speech in good graces.
“He’s felt the weight of all the Kansas fans on his back, and maybe rightfully so,” Self said. “But I think he’s turned everybody with his play and his actions this year.”
Who knows, he may get drafted come June. He may have a long pro career. He may, finally, answer all the questions he’s ever had, all the questions that have hounded him during his life.
He leaves now with his legacy secure because they won’t soon forget what he did against Missouri, standing at that line where he once came up short.
This time, though, he delivered, hitting both free throws to give KU an 87-86 win.
This time, they all left happy.