It remains to be seen whether or not Xzavier Taylor will help the Fort Wayne men’s basketball program to a Summit League Tournament championship in the next few days. But to view the redshirt junior center as a success or failure, regardless of what happens on the court, is ignorant.How Taylor has persevered through unfathomable situations – admittedly, some of his own doing – but continued to work and never losing focus on self-improvement makes him an immense success that will never be measured on a scoreboard.
Through Taylor’s childhood, he enjoyed a stable and safe upbringing.His mother (Dawn Smith) and grandparents (James and Martha Smith) raised him and his younger twin siblings in one of the most dangerous environments (West Englewood, Illinois on the south side of Chicago) in the country, but they did everything that they could to protect the children.
Through the fifth grade, the Taylor kids attended a Christian school, where they learned right from wrong and were safe from the everyday horror occurring just outside their front door.
But that is where this urban fairy tale took a stroll down the wrong street at the wrong time.
Taylor’s mother lost her job at the school and her kids had to enroll at the Altgelt Elementary School, a public school that gave Xzavier and his siblings an education that no child in this country should ever seek out.
"That’s when everything went wrong," Taylor said.
Taylor’s daily existence was filled with not just lessons in American history or mathematical fractions, but also how to survive.
"I was getting picked on because I was talking different," Taylor explained, "more like coming from a Christian school. I was getting picked on and my little brother and sister were getting picked on. That is when I started going with the wrong crowd."
Taylor was an adolescent in search of… everything.
His father has never been a presence in his life, and Taylor desperately sought that type of acceptance from anyone who would offer it, including peers that didn’t always have the best motives. He was a kid that needed respect, acceptance, and some degree of comfort in his life.
"I was going with the wrong crowd and I was trying to do things to show that I was a part of them," Taylor said.
The Chicago way
It is easy for some to pass judgment on a guy like Taylor. Many Americans sit in their suburban subdivisions with their two-car garages and watch the evening news touting stories of homicides taking place in neighborhoods far, far away from the world in which they comfortably exist.
But West Englewood is a bad neighborhood in a bad city.
There were nearly 4,400 shootings in the city of Chicago last year, and just in the past two months, there have been 39 shootings in Taylor’s neighborhood, alone.
"We’re talking about a level of violence you or I can’t comprehend," HBO’s Bryant Gumbel, a Chicago native, said in a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune. "Then you wonder why kids, not only in Chicago, perform so poorly academically. Well, when your preoccupation is trying to stay alive and not get shot on the street on the way to and from school, it’s very difficult to prioritize studying for a history exam.
"This is mind-numbing. Stunning. Frightening."
Survive and advance. That is a famous mantra that was used by the late North Carolina State basketball coach Jimmy Valvano, but it applied to Taylor’s daily life.
"I don’t care if you have glasses, a book-bag, what side of the street you come from," Taylor said, "you are going to get tested in Chicago."
A good core
Whether it was his mother and grandparents’ upbringing, the early influence of the Christian educators that taught him, or a little of both, Taylor harbored a strong desire to lead a good life. An educated life. And he knew that even as a young boy.
"I have always wanted to learn," Taylor said. "I cared about school. I have always cared about school. The bigger picture is, I wanted to be in school. I wanted to be a good kid, but I didn’t want to get picked on.
"I literally had to live two lives."
A brother’s influence
Taylor found himself in yet another fight for respect (literally and figuratively) one day with a classmate before the school principal broke it up and hauled the two hooligans into his office and called their parents.
He could’ve saved some time and called just one guardian, though, because both set of parents knew far more about the other than their son’s did.
It tuned out, Taylor was about to get into a fight with a step-brother that he had never known existed.
"Next thing you know," Taylor recalled, "we were hanging out every day."
Which had its positives and negatives.
Taylor’s step-brother, as well as his father (who Taylor still does not know), carried a level of "respect" in the neighborhood that allowed Taylor to enjoy a certain degree of protection.
"There were several times where I got into trouble on my own," Taylor said, "and I had to call him. He would come by himself and there could have been 10 people there, and they backed off."
Though vicariously, his brother was a seeming connection to his father for Taylor, and he clung to that through a less than noble adolescence.
Taylor began playing basketball in high school, but he was straddling two worlds that didn’t co-exist successfully.
"I was just bouncing back and forth from the streets to basketball," Taylor said. "Finally, I stuck to basketball. I was tired of getting in trouble."
Well, the decision didn’t quite come that easily.
"My AAU coach tried to get me to make a decision," Taylor said. "Either you are going to be a basketball player or you’re going to be a 6-9 person working at Dominick’s (a Chicago grocery chain)."
Taylor wasn’t exemplary as a student at Morgan Park High School, but he had done enough to keep his head above water early on before getting serious as a senior, and he earned a scholarship to Bradley University.
"I finally got it together and told myself ‘I’m going to go to college,’" Taylor said. "I didn’t want to be another statistic."
Can’t let go
As much as Taylor sought a better life at Bradley, he couldn’t discard his old one. After all, he had been through life - and many deaths - with "his guys."
As a sophomore in high school, he was walking down the street when his own mother had to hit the pavement to avoid gunfire, and he had one friend killed right in front of him.
There are only a select few groups of people that have witnessed death with the frequency of, and proximity to, that law enforcement or military personnel have, but young, African-American males on the south side of Chicago are among them.
"I don’t know how many times I have called (the Fort Wayne coaches) and told them that a friend of mine had died," Taylor said.
When his friends would call him at Bradley, he’d run home at every opportunity.
"It was a bad idea," Taylor said. "I shouldn’t have been going home. My mind was still back in Chicago. I needed somebody, basically, to tell me that is not who you are."
Enter Fort Wayne men’s basketball coach Jon Coffman.
A new start
When Bradley fired coach Geno Ford following the 2014-15 season, Taylor transferred to Fort Wayne for his final two seasons of eligibility (he has one remaining with the Mastodon program). But he hadn’t quite cut ties with his past like he admittedly needed to.
At one point, he was having a heart-to-heart conversation with Coffman, who told Taylor not what he wanted to hear, but what he needed to.
Coffman told Taylor that "No, that’s not you. That is not what you are about. We are here to do something bigger than that. You represent something (at Fort Wayne) more than yourself."
The message stuck.
As painful as it remains, Taylor knew what path he needed to walk for the rest of his life.
He admits that he’ll "never be numb" to the trouble that swallows up his friends in the neighborhood. He aches for them when problems arise and his father’s absence in his life is excruciating to this day.
"For whatever reason that he left, that was his (reason)," Taylor said of his father. "Everybody makes mistakes. Look at me, I’ve made mistakes. I just want to get to know him and see how much a part of me is him."
Taylor said that he’ll "never go back" to Chicago. In fact, he stays in Fort Wayne with his teammates and friends (and his Schitzu-Yorkie mix "Cocoa") on holidays, as opposed to going back home.
"I’m not going back," Taylor said.
A different kind of "respect"
As a young person, Taylor always sought acceptance and respect, perhaps not in the proper ways, but he has both immeasurably today.
"Xzavier is a great guy," Fort Wayne men’s basketball assistant coach Ben Botts said. "He’s very responsible."
Taylor earned academic honors at Bradley and has been a tremendous student-athlete for Coffman’s program in his two seasons in Fort Wayne. He is majoring in social work so that one day he can be there for a young person in all of the ways that he needed when he walked that path.
"I want to help kids get out of what I was going through," Taylor said. "I don’t want anybody to go through what I was going through."
However, everybody should hope to one day end up exactly where Taylor is today as a teammate, a student, but most importantly, as a man.