Back from the depths, ex-phenom Taylor King finding himself, looking for his game

by | College Basketball Insider
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King washed out at Duke, then Villanova, before landing at NAIA Concordia. (US Presswire)  
King washed out at Duke, then Villanova, before landing at NAIA Concordia. (US Presswire)  

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- It began when Taylor King was young, as he recalls sometime back in middle school. His father, Steve, was living vicariously through his son in a toned-down Marv Marinovich sort of manner -- and after a subpar showing on the court, King jumped in his car and drove home from San Diego. Without his kid.

"I was crying," Taylor King said. "I had to find someone and get a ride from them. My dad was out of his mind."

Steve King isn't in denial anymore. He has come to the realization of what he was -- and the pain he inflicted to his talented son and his career. The days when he and Taylor were wined and dined by shoe companies and college coaches are long gone. Now King is struggling to make it, trying to hook on with the Dacin Tigers of the SBL (Super Basketball League) in Taiwan after faring well on a 10-day travel-team tour in the country.

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"It's been quite an adventure," Steve King said.

It was five years ago when King arrived on campus in Durham, a McDonald's All-American with lofty expectations, a picturesque and effortless perimeter shot, a blooming marijuana issue and a meddling, overbearing father. King had been on the national radar for years. Steve King admittedly pushed him to commit to the local school, UCLA, as an eighth-grader. He started at national high school power Mater Dei as a freshman and played on arguably the most talented AAU outfit in the past decade, the Southern Cal All-Stars -- along with Kevin Love, Brandon Jennings, Chase Budinger and Renardo Sidney.

"He was very talented," longtime Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight said King. "One of the best I've ever had."

King cruised through his high school career, winning more than 120 games and capping it off with a state title as a senior. He de-committed from UCLA as a sophomore and later pledged to Duke, but the circus atmosphere took hold before he arrived in Durham.

King said the summer after his freshman year in high school was the first time he tried marijuana. It wasn't a major issue at that point in his life, though. It was occasional, and King had it under control. However, he began using weed regularly his senior year of high school, even doing it with three other players following the McDonald's All-American Game in Louisville at a deserted local park in the wee hours of the morning.

"I started using it in high school to cope with my dad and how he acted," Taylor said. "It made me feel good."

Steve King knew his son was partying his senior season, and was even aware that Taylor was frequently smoking weed. He had played this game before, back when he was in junior college and became heavily involved with drugs and alcohol. Steve King wound up in Alcoholics Anonymous in 1981, when his oldest daughter was an infant, and has been sober ever since.

Now he was watching his prized possession, the youngest of his four children, deal with the same issues. Just a couple weeks after arriving at Duke, he received a call from his son and Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski. Taylor had failed a drug test.

"It was still in my system from California," King said. "But that put me in the doghouse."

King still found a way to make an immediate impression when the season began. He went for 19 points and was 5-of-12 from long range in the Blue-White intrasquad game and led the team with 20 points in only 19 minutes in the opener against North Carolina Central.

That was exactly five years ago (Nov. 9, 2007) Friday.

It went downhill from there, and King left Duke after one uneventful campaign, averaging only 5.5 points in less than 10 minutes per game. He saw he'd wind up stuck behind Kyle Singler for his entire four-year career. So he bid adieu to Durham.

"I was bitter and it pissed me off," King said of his lack of playing time at Duke. "I had a bad attitude and was sour on the bench, but I put on a good face and I was the guy who hyped up the crowd. I enjoyed my time at Duke; I just wish I would have played."

So did Steve King, who had rented an apartment in Durham and had difficulty coming to grips with the fact that his son, who had enjoyed so much success over the previous four or five years, was struggling just to get onto the court.

"It was brutal," the elder King said. "He wasn't playing the way I knew he knew how to play. It was tough on all of us, and really affected our relationship."

"He was a really good player who helped us," Krzyzewski told CBSSports.com of King. "But because he was such a highly-rated player at such an early age, the level of expectations that he and his family had were a little unrealistic. ... But he was a hard worker and a good teammate."

King still was highly sought when word leaked out that he was searching for a new home. Gonzaga, which had recruited him out of high school, was still extremely interested. USC and UCLA were both in the mix -- and Villanova was also involved. King chose to play for Jay Wright and remain on the east coast, 3,000 or so miles away from his family.

"It seemed like the perfect fit," Steve King said. "Jay had recruited him out of high school and we had a family friend, Whitey [Rigsby], who was a broadcaster at Villanova. But Taylor was totally out of his element people-wise. It was a bunch of inner-city guys from New York and Philadelphia, and he didn't hang out with any of the guys on the team."

Instead, King was drawn to a different crowd. He was sitting out the entire 2008-09 season due to transfer rules, and said he was smoking marijuana on a regular basis. When given advance notice of an upcoming drug test, King, at the suggestion of one of the team managers, took Q-Carbo, a drink that was obtained from a GNC store. He beat the test.

"It worked that time," he said.

His relationship with his father, which had been up and down through the years, had become almost non-existent. Steve King was frustrated watching his son -- who was supposed to be on the fast track to the NBA -- throw it all away. He knew that King was smoking, and could relate from experience.

"Instead of dealing with him as a parent, I cut him off," Steve King admitted.

King became eligible the next season and it appeared as though his career was finally on track. He had a double-double in early December against Delaware and scored 20 points later in the month in a huge win over Philly rival St. Joe's. But his playing time started to deteriorate and he became a role player during Big East play. Off the court, he'd fallen hard for a former Villanova student who was living in New Jersey.

"I fell in love. We had a curfew at 11:30 because the coaches thought we were partying too much," King recalled. "They'd do bed-check and right after they left, I'd drive an hour and fifteen minutes to see her, stay until five or six in the morning, wake up and drive back for workouts."

King said he did that three times a week throughout the entire season.

Three weeks before the Big East tournament, King and his teammates were lifting weights when they are informed there is a random drug test in 15 minutes. King said he'd used marijuana the previous night with Corey Stokes, so he went up to Wright's office and told him there was no way he was going to pass. King was suspended for the regular-season finale against West Virginia. Stokes came off the bench and played 28 minutes. Wright did not specifically comment to CBSSports.com, saying only that there are varying lengths of suspension based on the number of failed drug tests.

"I was pissed. Livid," King said of watching Stokes play in the final regular-season contest.

King's season concluded with a nine-minute, three-point stint against Saint Mary's in a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament. A few days later, Wright and King had a meeting. King said that Wright told him he'd need to go to a 30-day rehabilitation in order to play the next season. King refused.

"I'm not an addict," King said he told the coach. "No."

That's when he went back to California, walked in and all his father's belongings were gone. His mother and father were getting a divorce and Steve King had packed up his stuff only weeks prior. He remained home for a while before returning to Villanova with the mindset that he'd finish summer school, quit the basketball team, take out student loans, finish school and receive his degree from Villanova. However, King flunked one final drug test in June.

The headline of the news release read: King Voluntarily Withdraws From Men's Basketball Team.

"The truth was that I got dismissed from the team," he said.

"He had some personal issues that overcame all the great qualities he had," Wright said. "He had great passion, work ethic, heart, toughness and skill. He's got it all, but the unique combination of the pressure to live up to those expectations and the personal issues. Take those away and this kid is an NBA player."

But those NBA dreams were a distant memory as he returned home. His career was over. Basketball wasn't fun anymore.

"I was done," he said.

Then one day he decided to go over and play pickup at Mater Dei. The plan was just to get some shots up, but NBA player Landry Fields was there. The Wear twins (David and Travis), who had transferred from North Carolina to UCLA, were in the gym. So was Bruin Tyler Lamb. King said he dominated, triggering a conversation between he and McKnight that centered around the fact he needed to continue his career. Somewhere.

USC was interested again, but athletic director Pat Haden wasn't willing to roll the dice on a kid who had failed multiple drug tests in the wake of the Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo fiascos. King didn't want to sit out another year, so he wound up going to NAIA Concordia University down the street from where he grew up. He averaged 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, was a first-team All-American and helped lead the team to a 32-4 record and an Elite Eight appearance. But once the season ended in March, King checked out academically, stopped going to class and blew off his final exams. He flunked out.

King still had one more year of eligibility left, but the academic component -- which had never been an issue previously, despite King being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) -- wore on him. He contemplated returning to school, but he knew he wasn't disciplined enough to finish school. His father never graduated from college and owns his business, his older sister didn't get her degree and is successful.

"I have mixed feelings about getting my degree," said King, who went through three majors in four years and still has more than a year left to earn his degree. "But I want to go back at some point and finish up."

King was then hopeful of getting into the D-League or earning a contract overseas, but it wasn't easy. His name no longer carried much weight and the NBA lockout didn't help. King was desperate and admits he didn't do a good job researching the right agent. There were bites from teams in Italy, Serbia and Croatia. King said he was told by agent Slavko Duric that there was an offer for about $4,000 per month to play for a team in Serbia, but that fell through. Then Duric called in September about a job for a team in Canada -- where he wound up having to sell himself and his game to the coach, Micheal Ray Richardson.

King ended up joining the team, which is in the National Basketball League of Canada (NBLC) in the middle of the preseason and most of the players are in their 30s. He was making $3,500 per month for a seven-month contract. King got 20 points in the first couple games of the season, but his playing time dwindled -- and eventually he wound up getting released. A couple weeks later, he wound up signing with another team in the league, Quebec City -- where he spent the majority of his time on the bench.

"We made the playoffs and they couldn't afford to pay me," King said. "I wasn't playing, anyway, so they sent me home at the end of March."

King was beyond depressed. It didn't work out at Duke, Villanova, Concordia -- and now he had failed in his first two attempts at professional basketball. He came home and was hanging out with the wrong people in nearby Mission Viejo, regularly smoking marijuana, doing cocaine and worrying now about how he was going to survive and make his car payment. His relationship with his father had become so bad that they weren't even talking.

Finally, King called his father on May 30, his birthday. He apologized.

"He knew exactly what I was doing," King said. "And he said he was willing to help me if I was willing to help myself."

Steve King wound up giving his son some work, driving around Southern California basically as a delivery driver. He'd do it part-time, earning $12.50 per hour. The father-son relationship began to alter. No longer was Steve King preaching advice on Taylor. Instead, he just listened. They talk consistently now, and frequently go out to dinner together.

"It's completely different now," Steve King said. "It's a father-son relationship. Does he confide everything in me? No, but I think he does have respect for me now -- and I have respect for him as a person."

"It's been tough over the years," Taylor added. "But we're in a good place now. He made some mistakes -- and so did I."

Steve King said it was never about the money, but more about the fame and prestige and, as a frustrated athlete back in the day, being able to live vicariously through his son.

"It caused a lot of issues in our family," Steve King said. "Me being the way I was probably cost me my marriage. I lost perspective, but sometimes that's hard when you put yourself in that world. Now I've got that perspective back, of what's important. In a lot of ways, it's been a great lesson for me."

King said he'd eventually like to pen a book. His title: How Not to be a Parent of an Elite Athlete.

King is now in Taiwan, just another name trying to hook on and make a living playing the game that he, once again, loves. No one cares what he once was, all those hangers-on trying to get a piece of him are long gone now. It's just King, his father and the rest of his family these days.

"Did he make some mistakes -- and make some judgment in errors?" Steve King asked. "Absolutely. We all did, but it's not like he's a criminal."

Taylor King still dreams of joining Love, Jennings and Budinger in the NBA one day, but for now he's just worried about earning a paycheck to play the game that nearly tore him and his entire family apart.

"It is what it is. I was good at a young age and was put in a position to be seen and have my talent showcased," King said. "But at this point in my life, I don't want to make excuses. I don't want to say it was my dad or the weed. I made choices off the court and surrounded myself with people that didn't put me in a position to succeed."

That group included his own father at times.

"I never let him be a kid," King said.

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