He was alone in an airport that had once been a Middle Eastern military base, desperate to see one familiar face, just one, so he could get to his freaking ballgame.
In May 2013, a visa problem had kept Taylor King from traveling with his new team, the Iranian club Petrochimi Bandar Imam of the West Asia Basketball Association, when its members departed for a two-week tournament, called the Champions Cup, in Duhok, Iraq. No problem, they had told him. Just meet us there. No problem. Right. King settled the visa issue, then flew from Iran to Dubai to Erbil International Airport, in northern Iraq, where he was to rendezvous with his coaches and teammates.
Once he stepped off the plane, though, none of them was there. The airport was small, maybe 30 people inside. It had no Wi-Fi signal, and King’s phone had no cell service. His tenure with Petrochimi was to be just more than a month: three weeks of training, then the tournament, then a healthy paycheck, done. He didn’t need these complications. He had just spent a year playing in a professional league in Taiwan, where no one, including his coach, had spoken any English. Nothing like this had happened to him there. “I was upset, clearly,” he said.
Four years earlier, King had begun his first season on Villanova’s active roster, as a player who coach Jay Wright thought would help patch the program’s fissures after the Wildcats’ 2009 Final Four berth. That opportunity and promise – for a great college career, for a chance to play in the NBA – had dissolved away because of his own decisions, his own immaturity: drinking, drugs, spoils and freedom in helpings never available to him before. Now he was stranded – a 6-foot-8 white man; nearly 25 years old; long, tattooed arms swinging from his shoulders like climbing ropes; the hair on his head shaved down to a thin layer of brown fuzz – feeling as far from what he had lost and what he still loved as he could be.
“All I’ve known my entire life is playing basketball,” King said in a recent phone conversation, “and putting all my effort, all my concentration, all my hard work and dedication, blood, sweat, tears, whatever you want to call it, into the game. I wanted to see wherever it took me.”
It had taken him to a place that he didn’t know and that didn’t know him. He had three goals now: Get to the game. Get paid. Get home. He sat on a bench outside the airport and stared at the miles of sand stretching before him. One hour passed. Two. Basketball was supposed to have made Taylor King famous. It had made him a stranger.
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Don’t remember Taylor King? That’s understandable. Around here, it’s unlikely you would, unless you are a glutton for Villanova basketball minutia and trivia.
He appeared in 32 games for the Wildcats, all during the 2009-10 season, averaging 19 minutes, 7.4 points, and 5.3 rebounds a game for a team that lost in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32 to St. Mary’s – Villanova’s opponent Thursday in this year’s opening round.
King was here and gone, a supporting player on a team that becomes less memorable as time passes. Villanova has won two national championships and established itself as a powerhouse, arguably the preeminent program in college basketball, in the nine years since. That success makes it easy to forget who and what came before it. It makes it easy to forget Taylor King.
That’s the ironic part about King’s brief career at Villanova: He could have been the catalyst for that success, and Wright had believed he would be. Truth be told, the program had needed one. After a 20-1 start in ’09-10, the Wildcats lost seven of their final 12 games. They then went 34-31 over the next two seasons, posting a 13-19 record in 2011-12 that represented the nadir of Wright’s 18-year tenure at the school, and Wright noticed that he had allowed his philosophies and principles to fray.
The Wildcats’ ascendance before their 2009 Final Four appearance – they had advanced to or beyond the Sweet 16 three of the previous four seasons – had helped attract talented players who otherwise might not have considered Villanova, Wright said. But he was failing to integrate them properly into the culture of his program and the university as a whole. He simply assumed that they knew what was expected of them and would adjust accordingly. You will live on campus with the other students. You have to go to class every day. You have to trust that a team-first mindset and approach will get you where you want to go individually. “I wasn’t telling them any of that,” Wright said, “and then when they got here, I was dropping it on them. It wasn’t their fault. They’d look at me like, ‘We never talked about this.’ ”
Wright had talked about it, though, with King. In one sense, King fit the profile of this new kind of player who was drawn to Villanova. He had grown up in Huntington Beach, Calif., a prodigy pushed Marinovich-style by his father, Steve, into an existence in which he was blinkered to everything around him but basketball.
In the fourth and fifth grades, King trained with peers such as Tyson Childress and Josh Childress. In the seventh and eighth grades, he trained with pros and college players who aspired to enter the NBA. The King family lived a block from the beach, but Taylor never so much as glimpsed the shoreline. “I never went,” he said.
At Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana – an athlete factory that has 10 NFL players, including quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley, and nine NBA players among its alumni – King scored 3,214 points, the fourth-most in California high school history, and made 300 three-point shots. “He was shooting from 5 feet beyond NBA range,” said former USC center Keith Wilkinson, an AAU teammate of King’s. “He could play.”
Named to the 2007 McDonald’s All-American team, King chose to play his college ball at Duke. Within weeks of arriving on campus, he failed a drug test. He lasted one season, coming off the bench, playing less than 10 minutes a game, before deciding to transfer, and he had a ready-made, though fairly indirect, connection to Villanova: His godfather was the brother-in-law of Whitey Rigsby, the Wildcats’ radio analyst and the athletic department’s major-gift officer.
King and his parents visited ‘Nova. They met the coaches and players. They went to Mass on campus. They extolled the family atmosphere that Wright had cultivated. It was exactly the sort of environment they were seeking for King. “It was perfect,” Wright said. “Perfect.”
It didn’t stay that way. Sure, Steve King often attended Villanova’s practices and games to monitor his son’s progress, but Wright had no trouble with Taylor on the court. He worked hard, was an unselfish teammate and a dogged rebounder, and had that limitless shooting range. He scored 20 points in a 97-89 victory over St. Joseph’s at the Palestra in December 2009, hitting his fourth and final three-pointer of the game with 1:29 left in regulation to push Villanova’s lead to seven. ‘Nova was 9-0, ranked third in the country, and King led the team in three-pointers (21) and three-point percentage (.467).
The unraveling began gradually, then picked up speed. It was as if there were two Taylor Kings: one who adored basketball but was constricted by the pressures that accompanied it, one who struggled to control himself away from the court. During practices, King often glanced up toward the Pavilion bleachers, where his father sat, watching. To eliminate the distraction and the possibility that Steve King might undermine his authority, Wright told him not to come to practice anymore. Taylor had tried beer and marijuana while in high school, but at ‘Nova, on his own for really the first time in his life, he indulged in them.
He became a regular at campus fraternity parties. He’d drive to New Jersey to visit his girlfriend, wake up early, and fight predawn traffic back to Villanova for the team’s morning workouts. Time after time, Wright called King into his office, admonishing him over his robust social life, and time after time, King leaned back in his chair and looked to the ceiling and promised to do better – Aw, Coach, you’re right, I’ve got to get my act together, man – the kid so earnest and lovable that it seemed he would retrieve a Frisbee if Wright happened to fling one down the hallway.
The excesses spilled over into his play – his shooting percentage plummeted as the season went on – and the expectations became a burden he struggled to bear. On Feb. 8, 2010, at the West Virginia Coliseum, King was an important contributor in an 82-75 victory over WVU; though he missed all six of his shots from the field, he grabbed eight rebounds and blocked three shots.
“We were so proud of him,” Wright said, but when Wright boarded the team bus home, he found King slumped in his seat, crying into a cell phone, unable to satisfy a father who couldn’t abide a scoreless stat line, who demanded more from his son than hustle and solid defense. Later in the season, when he learned he was about to undergo a random drug test, King told Wright that he’d fail it. Wright suspended him for a game, then kept him on the bench for most of the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
After the season, Wright put what he called “severe restrictions” on King as a condition of his remaining in the program. King decided to transfer. “I’ve never had anyone like that,” Wright said. “Hardest-working kid, greatest competitor, incredible enthusiasm, respected, liked, but a problem – a major problem. He had high-level social issues.”
King’s next stop was Concordia University Irvine (Calif.), which was an NAIA school at the time. Unmotivated, he didn’t bother to keep his grades up and dropped out of school, and a particular narrative thread was unspooling for King, one familiar to athletic wunderkinds and the cautionary tales they can become. Todd Marinovich, Jennifer Capriati, Tiger Woods: They cling to their sports to save them, because their sports are all they know. King kept playing basketball. What else was he going to do? He signed with a team in the National Basketball League of Canada, was released, then signed with another – the Quebec Kebs. The Kebs couldn’t afford to pay him during the playoffs, so they sent him home. He sank deeper.
“I was immature,” King said. “Jay Wright’s absolutely right. I didn’t grow up at the time I needed to grow up. I was young and stupid.”
It took a talk in 2012 with his father, of all people, for King to pull himself up. He and Steve made peace with each other and their pasts, admitting to and apologizing for their mistakes and warped perspectives, the wet blankets of pressure at last lifted from King’s back. He got himself in better physical shape and reconciled himself to accepting whatever opportunity to play pro ball that happened to present itself. Taiwan was it. He loved it there, made great money, saw that he could make more with just a brief stay in Iran. So what if the country’s theocratic dress code required men to wear long pants outdoors? He could go a few weeks without wearing shorts, right? Even today, it was the first thing he mentioned when asked about Iran. Big deal. He was there to play ball. What was the worst thing that might happen to him?
No one from the Petrochimi basketball club ever came to Erbil Airport to pick up King. To this day, he doesn’t really know why. “Miscommunication, I guess,” he said. Instead, he caught a break.
He was still sitting on the same bench when the planes carrying Lebanon’s and Jordan’s teams landed. As a seventh-grader, King had met Fadi El Khatib, regarded as Lebanon’s greatest basketball player, while El Khatib was training near Los Angeles. Now the two recognized each other in the airport, and Khatib acted as an Arabic interpreter for King once they noticed a member of the Jordanian team holding a sign that said “TAILLOR.” King assumed that Petrochimi had reached out to the other clubs with a Hey, if you happen to see our guy at the airport … message, but he’s not certain about that, either. No matter. He hitched a ride with Jordan for the three-hour bus ride to Duhok for the Champions Cup.
Petrochimi went 5-1 in the tournament, and King’s global tour rolled on. He played in Japan. He played in Sinaloa, Mexico, where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s drug cartel had been headquartered; Guzman was arrested in February 2014, just weeks before King’s arrival. He played in China and Argentina and Lithuania. He played in England – he met his wife, Holly, there – for the Cheshire Phoenix and the Leicester Riders, and he was playing for the Agua Caliente Clippers of the G League when he decided in July to retire.
“It was wild, man, wild,” he said. “But there’s a time where you’ve got to stop, sit back, and say, ‘What more do I want to do?’”
What he wanted to do was coach. He could remember himself in that airport all those miles and years ago, when he was alone and angry and somehow never happier, because he still had the game and he had realized that the game mattered to him like nothing else did. He could see himself there again.
He and Holly settled in Irvine, not far from where King grew up, and he started his own business as a private basketball instructor and trainer. When JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano hired Keith Wilkinson, King’s old AAU buddy, as its head boys’ basketball coach last April, King contacted him to pick his brain about the profession. “We felt like he was at a good stage of his life,” Wilkinson said. So he hired King as an assistant coach, hoping that JSerra’s players could glean something from King’s vagabond career and the choices that had led to it, that they could learn to love the game as he now does – on his own terms.
“If I stayed on the straight and narrow path, like I should have, I probably would have been in the NBA at some point,” he said. “Do I regret it? I wanted to go wherever I could to play basketball. I saw the world. I saw places that no one would even think twice about going to. I had some great experiences, some not so great. But that’s life, right?”