Battling giants at 6-2
Anyone who saw Ollie Taylor play swears that he could fly but when he talks about himself he is, pardon the pun, very down to earth.
“I didn’t start and I only scored six points in my entire career,” Taylor says of his high school basketball days in New York. “I came out of DeWitt Clinton High School. We had seven guys off of that high school team who were drafted.”
One of those seven, Nate Archibald, is a Hall of Famer and one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history.
Taylor did not resent that his playing time was limited.
“We had a great high school team,” he says simply. “I have no problem with my school. I went to an all-boys high school. We had 10,000 boys in that high school, so you (the basketball coaches) could pretty much pick and choose.”
DeWitt Clinton once scrimmaged against Ben Franklin High School, which played in a different division. Ben Franklin’s star player was none other than Earl Manigault, the streetball legend who was famously profiled by Pete Axthelm in the book The City Game.
Asked what he recalls about playing against “The Goat,” Taylor candidly replies: “It was a short experience. Like I said, at that time I was not playing that much. I didn’t really get to play against him but I saw him play. They had a talented team and we had a talented team. Some of his exploits that people talk about I never got to see him do. I remember more about stories. I never got to see any of the stories (in person).”
“He was not a devastating shooter; he was not someone who you had to go guard (on the perimeter),” Taylor adds. “His damage was done around the basket, dunking.”
Are the stories about Manigault jumping up and taking a quarter off the top of the backboard really true?
“Well, there are stories about me taking quarters off the top of the backboard,” Taylor answers.
The next question is obvious: “Are those true stories?”
“No,” Taylor responds without hesitation. “You might make them think so, if you jump high enough.”
He says that the closest he ever got to touching the top of the backboard was about eight inches. Taylor played a lot at Rucker Park but he never saw anyone touch the top of the backboard (Wilt Chamberlain and Jackie Jackson are two other players who have been rumored to have done this) and he doubts that anyone ever has. He believes that such stories get started because “guys can get close enough. If you can get eight or 10 inches from there then people think that maybe you can.”
Taylor used his vertical leap, which he says “was in the 46-inch range,” not just to dunk on people but also to grab rebounds.
“The thing that made me different from a lot of other guys who could jump was that I was physically strong,” Taylor explains. “When you rebound, you have to be strong…You have to be able to jump in a crowd. If you can’t move people off of you it doesn’t matter how high you can jump. You have to be able to elevate with a body on you. I loved to rebound.”
When Taylor was young, he modeled his game after Elgin Baylor.
“Elgin was fluid,” Taylor says. “Elgin was in the army (during the 1961-62 season). I saw him play when he got out on weekends and I saw him play when he got a special pass to play in the Finals and things like that. I said, ‘Man!’ I wore #22, like he did. I wore #22 all through my career to emulate Elgin. He was a little bigger than I am but I did a lot of things that he could do – hanging in the air and floating and stuff like that. What became even more amazing to me is that he played several years without kneecaps. I followed all of that. He was the man who I emulated.
Although Taylor mainly sat on the bench during the high school basketball season, when spring rolled around he excelled as a shortstop.
“I was actually better at baseball than anything else,” Taylor says.
He never stopped working on his basketball game, though.
“I wore a weighted vest and ankle weights,” Taylor remembers. “Whether that contributed to my ability to jump or not, I can’t really say. I know that it did contribute to my physical strength. I jumped center every year that I was in college. I jumped center against Jabbar and had jump balls against Artis Gilmore. I probably won about 95 percent of my jump balls."
Considering the limited run that he received in high school, it is not surprising that Taylor did not get any scholarship offers to play basketball. He began his college career at San Jacinto Junior College, where he set National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) records for points in a season (1409 in 1967-68; 30.7 ppg) and a career (2456; 26.2 ppg). He led San Jacinto to a 44-2 record and a national title in 1967-68, setting the school’s single game scoring record that season with a 53 point outburst. Taylor was inducted in the NJCAA Hall of Fame in 1994 (other members include Bob McAdoo, Spencer Haywood, Artis Gilmore, Larry Johnson and Shawn Marion).
Taylor spent the last two seasons of his college career at the University of Houston. In 1969-70, his senior season, Taylor averaged 24.4 ppg and 11.5 ppg as the Cougars went 25-5 and made it to the Sweet 16. He was selected as a Helms Foundation All-American. Overall, Taylor averaged 22.0 ppg and 10.3 rpg in 56 games at Houston.
Coach Guy Lewis later told the Sporting News, “Ollie Taylor out-jumped Alcindor (UCLA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) at the start of the game. He was 6-2 and played the post for me. One of the best post players I ever had.”
That is high praise when one considers that Lewis coached Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler (a college forward who shifted to guard in the NBA).
Taylor was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers but elected to sign with his hometown New York Nets of the ABA. Taylor averaged 8.7 ppg and 3.8 rpg as a rookie in 1970-71. He posted similar numbers in his second season (8.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and increased his production in that year’s playoffs (11.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) as the Nets made it all the way to the ABA Finals before losing to the Indiana Pacers in six games.
Taylor was traded to the San Diego Conquistadors and he had the best season of his ABA career in 1972-73, averaging 13.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 4.0 apg. It seemed like his career was on the upswing but the next season turned out to be his last as he was only able to play in 31 games for two different teams; the downside of constantly battling in the paint against bigger players is the toll that this exacts on one’s body.
Taylor is proud of the time that he spent in the ABA; the memories of his experiences will last a lifetime.
“The biggest thing for me is that I played against so many guys who became megastars,” he says. “I played with some of them – I played with Rick Barry, I played with Billy Cunningham, I played with Julius (Erving) – so those are the memories I have. I played with and against them, so I saw both sides of the fence. That was a major thing for me personally. Rick was a terrific shooter. Billy Cunningham was probably a little past his prime when I played with him but he was a complete player. Of course, Julius had all of those qualities. He played above the rim, which was something that the NBA did not have at that time. He was one of the guys who initiated that. I played with him and against him, so it became a real point of pride for me to say that I did that.”
In addition to starring in college and playing several years of pro ball, Taylor also played in the Rucker League in its heyday, when NBA and ABA All-Stars came to Rucker Park in the summer to compete with and against top streetball players.
One year, Taylor was on a team with fellow pros Julius Erving, Bob Love, Charlie Scott, Billy Paultz, Manny Leaks, and Joe DePre. They beat a team led by Nate Archibald to win the championship but along the way they faced a team that had streetball legends Joe Hammond and Pee Wee Kirkland.
“What I remember most about it was the matchup of Charlie Scott and Pee Wee Kirkland, who I think at that time was the second leading scorer at an NCAA (lower division) school,” Taylor says. “He (Kirkland) had quite a reputation. He was only about 6-feet tall and Charlie was about 6-6. They got into it and they started playing one on one in a full court game. We kind of stood to the side and let them go one on one. Charlie was as quick as any six footer, so it wasn’t much fun for Pee Wee. It was kind of funny.”
Of course, those great Rucker League showdowns only exist now in the memories of those who played in or witnessed them. Sadly, much of the ABA’s history also lacks video documentation but Taylor believes that it is important for people to understand how much the upstart league shaped basketball history.
“The real history of the ABA starts with Spencer Haywood,” Taylor declares. “The ABA existed before Spencer Haywood, but the storyline really begins with him because he was the first one to challenge the undergraduate rule, paving the way for all these guys who are high school players or undergraduates to come into the NBA and make the kind of money that they are making. Spencer went through a lot of stuff that people don’t realize – being escorted off of the court, being locked out of the arenas and stuff like that (while his case was making its way through the courts and various injunctions restricted him from playing). Spencer was only 19-20 years old and going through a real trauma in his life and questioning whether or not he should continue to battle. He’s not a guy who’s going to toot his own horn but, when you see the story of ‘Glory Road,’ that’s one story but there is another story and it is a very important story because eventually the ABA became the cornerstone for the NBA. The dominant players after the merger were ABA players – George Gervin, Dr. J, Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone. Those guys became the cornerstone of the NBA. There is a real, untold story there and I don’t think that many people realize that.”
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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