Former High School Hoops Star Taylor King Took A Long Road Back From The Brink

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Taylor King was checking in from Miami, a stopover en route to Argentina, where he would join Atenas de Carmen de Patagones in Argentina’s second division. This was early January, a few weeks after he’d played his last game with the G-League’s Agua Caliente Clippers, and seven months after he’d come back to the U.S. from England, where he’d led the BBL’s Leicester Riders to the most successful season in club history.

Playing his first game with Atenas just six days later, King put up 21 points and nine boards in a loss to Platense. It was the sort of immediate impact you might expect from a guy who has played professionally in 10 countries; all the travel, the adjustment to new languages and cultures, none of it seems to faze him. The biggest challenges in King’s life have always had roots closer to home.

If you remember Taylor King at all, it’s most likely as the mid-2000s prep phenom who signed with Duke, transferred to Villanova, and then essentially dropped off the basketball map. I hadn’t thought much of him until last summer, when I stumbled across a profile in a small English newspaper with a headline that referenced his “road to redemption.” That story in the Chester Chronicle detailed a long, dark path—family estrangement, drug use, and derailed potential—from which King had finally emerged.

“From where I started to where I am now,” he says, “it’s been quite a wild ride.”

He’s 29 now, married and a father, and still playing professionally, even if it’s well out of the spotlight. His is a cautionary tale, but also an inspirational one: Yes, life is messy and people screw up. But mistakes can be corrected. Relationships can be fixed. For King, it’s not too late to get it right.

The 2007 high school class remains one of the most loaded in recent memory, talented enough that a team of its alumni would be a playoff lock today. Among recruiting analysts, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Eric Gordon, and Michael Beasley were all consensus top-10 picks, while Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Patrick Patterson, and James Harden featured in the top 25. High on any reputable ranking you chose to look at, Taylor King’s name would appear.

King first tasted fame in 2003, in the summer after eighth grade, when the Orange County kid announced he was accepting a scholarship offer from nearby UCLA. That verbal commitment lasted less than two years, and soon every major program in the country was making their pitch. King justified the attention, finishing his career at SoCal power Mater Dei as a McDonald’s All-American and the No. 2 scorer and No. 3 rebounder in state history.

I first saw him a few years earlier at ABCD Camp, the star-studded summer prep showcase held annually in northern New Jersey. Even then, the hype was easy to understand: At 6’7, with a pure stroke and obvious toughness, King looked like a college star and at least a decent NBA prospect. If his talent and potential were impossible to miss, so too was his family. You could always spot his parents and sister in the stands, having made the trip across the country to watch Taylor test himself against the best in the country. But his father, Steve, especially—loud, intense, and demonstrative in support or defense of his son—you could never, ever miss.

“Everybody always knew who my father was,” King says now. “He stuck out.”

From Marv Marinovich to LaVar Ball, Southern California has a history of fathers notorious for their handling of their sons’ sporting lives. Steve King never reached that level of fame (or infamy), but looking back, his son knows it wasn’t ideal.

“Clearly, my dad micromanaged my career from the get-go, and if you asked him now, he’d tell you he did,” King says. “He was a great provider, but was he hard on me? Absolutely. Did he live vicariously through me? Yes. Was I able to grow up like a regular kid? Probably not as much as other kids, because of how serious I took basketball, and how serious he took it.”

The phrasing of that last sentence is important: For all his father might have pushed him, King himself was a deadly serious competitor, and developed a reputation to match. Interviewed by the Los Angeles Times back in 2006, he felt compelled to clarify that his penchant for on-court scowling was all about his expectations for himself: “I’m my toughest critic,” he says. “When I make a mistake, miss a shot or something, I get mad at myself.” If his dad cared too much, it’s likely King’s perspective was warped by the game, as well.

College brought a new set of challenges. At Duke, a continent away from his family, King struggled with his newfound freedom.

“I made some decisions off the court that didn’t put me in position to be successful on the court,” he admits, “hanging around with the wrong people, indulging in marijuana like every athlete does.”

He had his moments off the bench, playing in every game for the Blue Devils and averaging 5.5 points per game, but it wasn’t enough to negate his off-court issues. It was clear his future lay elsewhere, and after his freshman year, he landed at Villanova.

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Keith Urgo was a young assistant on Jay Wright’s staff when King first joined the Wildcats. “His reputation was massive — larger than life,” says Urgo, now the top assistant at Penn State. “We knew there were mixed feelings about why he was leaving Duke, but when he came in, he was great. He was personable, he got along with everybody.”

Not that blending in with his new teammates didn’t prove challenging. As Urgo remembers it, King was “comfortable with everybody in the locker room, but a lot of the guys in our locker room weren’t comfortable with him. I’m not sure how many of them had played with a suburban white boy.

“He came in, he’s cocky, confident as hell, wild personality, both socially and on the basketball court,” Urgo continued. “But what they respected was that that kid, every day, performed on the court. And from a coach’s standpoint, he was tremendous—extremely coachable, worked on his game, loved the game of basketball.”

Just as at Duke, there were occasional glimpses of his potential—after sitting out a season, he played in 32 games and averaged 7.4 points per game for the Wildcats in 2009-10. But just as at Duke, there were issues. He started missing bed checks, and Urgo says the staff soon realized that King’s partying “got to the point where he couldn’t control it. You started to see it affect his personality, his energy, his school work, and his relationships within the team.”

Having worn out his welcome at another elite program, King transferred again, this time to NAIA Concordia in Irvine, CA, not far from where he grew up. A man among boys at that level, he put up numbers but soon realized he was “fed up with school.” Passing on his final year of college eligibility, King came out for the draft—just in time for the 2011 NBA lockout. “I came out at the worst time,” he says. “It was very difficult to get a job playing overseas.”

He tried his luck with Canada’s NBL, signing first with the London (Ontario) Lighting and then with the Quebec Kebs. King says the latter stint ended when Quebec, unable to pay him, sent him home during the NBL playoffs. “I went through all this just to try to play professionally. I just wanted to stick,” he says. “I pretty much hit rock bottom when I came home.”

Back in Southern California in the spring of 2012, just five years removed from one of the most decorated prep careers in state history, Taylor King was essentially out of the game. His drug use had advanced to cocaine and pills, he was barely in touch with his family, and he’d lost his love of the game.

“I was doing stupid things, hanging with the wrong people … it got to the point where I couldn’t even afford to put gas in my car,” he says now. “I was searching for myself, and I wasn’t finding anything.”

A peek at a calendar drove home how far he’d fallen. “It was March Madness, the NBA was at its peak. I was a McDonald’s All-American going into college. And now I’m here.”

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Somewhere around this time, a phone call with his father helped lift King out of the depths. His parents had split up by this point, a move that King says was ultimately best for the family. “My dad had completely changed,” he says. “He didn’t care anymore if I was going to be an NBA player. He just wanted to be supportive, wanted me to be well.”

Father and son talked, hashing out their shared history, and addressing Taylor’s substance abuse; his father was a recovering alcoholic, sober some 30 years, and while King says his own drug use didn’t rise to the level of addiction, he knew he needed to stop. “My dad and I have that same addictive personality,” he says.

Taylor ended up going to work for his father’s company, “driving around Southern California picking up boxes.” It wasn’t glamorous, but it was steady work. “In retrospect,” King says now, “he saved my life.” Still in his early 20s, he had reconnected with his family and cleaned himself up. That’s when it occurred to him that basketball still mattered to him. He wasn’t ready to be done.

That summer, he linked up with guys like Josh Childress, Ryan Forehan-Kelly, and Jamal Sampson, fellow SoCal ballers he considers personal and professional mentors. He got into shape and started looking into his options. What followed was a globetrotting adventure full of stories that King hopes to one day compile in a book.

It started in Taiwan, where he traveled with a touring team of American players and dominated the competition. He ended up signing with a team in the Taiwanese league, making “ridiculous money” for a season, then returned home briefly before heading to Iran for a short stint, followed by short-term contracts in Japan, China, and Mexico. He moved to England in 2014, spending a solid season with the Cheshire Phoenix of the BBL, then played for a year with Nevezis Kedainiai in Lithuania before returning to the UK in 2016.

His second stint in England was his best as a professional, and not just on the court, where he led the Leicester Riders on a historic run that included a 16-game winning streak and a trio of titles: the regular-season BBL championship, the BBL playoffs, and the BBL Trophy Final. For his efforts, King was named Trophy Final MVP and earned a spot on the BBL Team of the Year.

More important, he’d met a girl during that season in Cheshire, and they had since cemented their relationship. Married last summer, they now have a young son, and it was his family situation that drew him home to try out for the Clippers’ G-League team. He was impressive enough at the team’s open tryouts to earn a roster spot, the Clippers’ G-League coach, Casey Hill, knew exactly what King could bring to his roster.

“In this league, you run into guys who’ve had some stuff in their past, and they’re trying to get things sorted out,” Hill said in December. “With Taylor, he’s got a really clean perspective on his career. He’s got a ridiculously high basketball IQ, and you can see some of the residue from his status in the way that he plays—you can tell he was a high-level guy.”

Still, in a league focused on developing young talent, King—the oldest player on the Clippers’ roster—found it difficult to get on the floor. By the end of the calendar year, eager for playing time, he was ready to move on. And so it was in January that he and his well-worn passport were back on a plane, this time to Argentina. Once there, he wasted no time in showing another league, and another country, that he could still play.

Whatever happens, he’ll have people all over the basketball map rooting for him, even at spots where he left on less than ideal terms. “You could always see that deep down, he was a great kid,” says Urgo, the former Villanova assistant. “He’s someone I could see becoming a coach himself, because of his IQ, and his experience. I think he’d be an unbelievable mentor.”

Today, King says he’s at peace with not knowing what might come next. His wife and child are settled in Orange County, and he’s on good terms with his own family, calling his relationship with his father “the best it’s ever been.” He knows he might soon have to choose between continuing his nomadic playing career or settling into the next phase of his life.

“I’m 29 years old,” he says. “I’m ready for either.”