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Holding a Different Ticket

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The Broomfield Event Center lights glare down on Chris Taft. They burn bright, like his promising basketball career once did. What little fans are left of the sparse crowd are hushed in sympathetic silence.

This is basketball purgatory.

Taft reflects on how hard he worked just to get here; just to get to the NBA Development League. Another comeback has fallen short. His spirit is as broken as his body. His reputation as a dud is cemented.

You’ve heard this story before. It is a tale of adversity that far too frequently accompanies the lives of inner-city youth. Taft was raised by his mom in a single-parent, low-income Brooklyn home.

His absent father didn’t show him how to play basketball. In fact, nobody taught him the game. Taft learned—not only basketball, but life—by observing. He observed the consequences of the streets; he observed the choices of neighborhood peers; and, most indelibly, he observed local legends play the game he grew to love. Nothing called to 11-year-old Taft like the basketball court.

“Basketball was a way to stay out of the streets and stay out of trouble,” Taft recalled. “I started growing and I had more and more love and passion for it.”

The sport not only served as an immediate escape from the city’s criminal element, but also as a future getaway from the projects of Coney Island. It wasn’t until his first dunk two years later that the towering teen discovered the sport’s potential. Playing for Brooklyn USA, the eighth grader flushed a slam that gave him more than a technical foul; it gave him hope.

“I realized growing up in the projects that for most of the people in my family, college was not an option,” he said. “So I looked at basketball like it was the best way for me to get to college and help take care of my family.”

The Lou Carnesecca Summer Camp followed before Taft enrolled at high school powerhouse Xaverian, but even an eight-inch growth spurt the summer before high school wasn’t enough to land Taft a spot on Xaverian’s varsity squad. That changed his sophomore year.

“Like a lot of great players, the game came naturally to him. He had a lot of success on varsity the next season,” Xaverian head coach Jack Alesi said. “The reason he went from raw to a top-50 recruit was because of his IQ. His growth as a player was phenomenal in four years.”

As Taft matured, so did his relationship with Alesi. The coach was not only his teacher, but also his mentor. Phone calls between the two frequented as their coach-player mold morphed into a father-son form. The love was evident; the rearing just as much. When Taft was a junior, he was benched during a championship game for tardiness – proof that Alesi was more invested in him as a person than as a player.

Alesi was also there when the college offers came rolling in. Every major program from Syracuse to North Carolina wanted a shot at the country’s fourth-ranked power forward. In the end, it was Xaverian alumnus and then-Pitt assistant coach Barry Rohrssen, and a burgeoning New York City-to-Pittsburgh pipeline, that sold the standout on Pitt.

Taft came to Pitt was brimming with youthful athleticism. He can’t help but think back to those times now, as he lay immobilized on the Colorado 14’ers court. The trainers are rushing out to him. This routine is sadly familiar. His banishment to the NBADL is not the result of controlled variables, but rather of an incomprehensible parade of misfortune.

Billed as Pitt’s most ballyhooed recruit in a decade, the 6’10” freshman lived up to hype. He was the catalyst behind a Panthers squad that recorded the most wins in school history. Averaging 10 points and 7.5 rebounds, the star forward rejuvenated a program faced with uncertainty after head coach Ben Howland bolted for UCLA.

Photo courtesy University of Pittsburgh“He wasn’t just a scorer. He passed and understood the game. People wanted a mean streak out of him. You saw that his freshman year at Pitt,” Alesi analyzed.

Taft’s new found intensity helped Pittsburgh capture the Big East regular season championship and a No. 3 national ranking on their way to the NCAA Sweet 16. Following the season, rumors surfaced of the Big East’s Rookie of the Year declaring for the NBA Draft. Taft didn’t wait long to address the issue. He was coming back.

Word of the forward’s return spread quickly. Expectations heightened and Pitt’s Final Four dream was suddenly a prophetic vision – or so many thought. What followed was an underwhelming 20-9 finish with a first round exit in both the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Further disappointing the Panthers was Taft’s decision – this time authentic – to turn professional.

Golden State Warriors Vice President of Basketball Operations Chris Mullin, also a Xaverian High School graduate, scouted the 2005 Big East tournament. The Hall of Famer liked what he saw in Taft and made the Panthers big the Warriors second-round pick.

Doubts of Taft’s fit in the NBA were quickly quelled. He was the first player off the bench for head coach Mike Montgomery. Fellow second-rounder and future 25-point-per-game scorer Monta Ellis watched as the Pitt product earned time ahead of him. Almost immediately, Taft carved a role for himself in the exclusive eight man rotation.

“Everyone wants to go in the first round, so that upset me a little bit, but I went to a team that was high on my list,” Taft said. “I got drafted and I had a great opportunity. I’m doing what I love to do. I’m playing, we are winning and things are going well.”

He stuffed the stat sheet in his first appearance, scoring four points, grabbing four rebounds and blocking three shots in less than 20 minutes of play. Stardom was in his future, and everyone knew it according to Alesi.

“I watched him play with Golden State. He was playing well,” Alesi recalls. “The conversations I had with people in the organization indicated that they were high on him.”

First-year forward Chris Taft didn’t show up for Golden State’s second game though; eighth-grade Chris Taft did. Basketball gave him hope as a teenager in the Coney Island projects. His family’s ticket out of poverty depended on him reaching the potential he discovered on that first dunk seven years earlier. But it wasn’t until now, at Madison Square Garden, in the NBA with his family in the crowd, that he achieved his goal.

These were the glory days. Over before he knew it.

The sweat drenched red and white Vipers jersey he dons now is a far cry from the Warriors threads he sported that night in the Garden. Taft is instructed by the trainer not to look at his injury. Arena staff begin searching for a wheelchair in the bowels of the building. His ankle is so badly dislocated that his foot no longer points forward. Pained physically, drained emotionally, he wonders why he is going through this again.

Taft played just 15 more games with the Warriors after his hometown appearance. As 2005 faded into 2006, the rookie started experiencing chronic back pain. He overcame summer league back spasms in time to dress for Golden State’s opener, but the Warriors opted to shut down the promising forward when it was determined he needed surgery.

Reluctant, Taft met with several doctors before he agreed to the operation. His condition, however, worsened after the relatively routine procedure.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images“I started feeling pain in different places that had nothing to do with my back,” Taft recalls. “So, they ran some tests on me and told me I had polymyositis.”

An incurable disease, polymyositis is a constant inflammation that weakens skeletal muscle mass – otherwise known as the muscles most vital to mobility. The diagnosis was a basketball death sentence. Worse yet, it was a life sentence in regards to Taft’s everyday routine. Doctors told him he would struggle to function normally.

Simple tasks like dressing, walking and eating became difficult. Critics pounded the once-lauded forward as a bust. He was ticketed as soft and tabbed as apathetic - all while his condition escaped the publications.

Among those alienating the fallen star were two of his closest allies. The sport, naturally animalistic, was now cannibalistic. Serving as prey was the former Warrior – far from the picture of strength alluded to in his team’s nickname.

Injuries weakened Taft; disloyalty broke him.

His agent vanished and his accountant abandoned him. Disappearing with the two was his fortune, stolen by those he trusted most. With no job, no health, no education and no money, Taft was alone in utter despair.

He battled the disease for two years, working toward a comeback everyone said wasn’t possible. The circumstances may have been new, but the challenge wasn’t. He had escaped the prison of hopelessness before. This was no different.

“I was always confident. I told the doctor I’d prove him wrong, but there were moments when I thought, ‘why am I going through this?’” he remembers. “I had never missed a high school, AAU, or college game, but then I get on the biggest stage of my life and I get hurt.”

After spending 2006 and 2007 in free agency, Taft was afforded the opportunity to make good on his promise.

The Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBADL claimed Taft off waivers on January 7, 2008.

That was two weeks ago, he realized while he lay prone on the hardwood. As a burning sensation surged through his ankle like smoldering lava, he reflected on his short comeback.

Sitting in a wheelchair on a worn court in Denver suburbia, he knows there is a tough road ahead. There is something much different about this injury though. The despondency that accompanied his polymyositis diagnosis is noticeably absent.

“The most important decision I ever made was on June 24, 2007. I gave my life to God that day. No matter what I’m going through, I have God on my side,” Taft preaches to me from his Atlanta home.

It has been a lifetime since he mangled his ankle in Colorado. Rio Grande Valley cut the former second round pick only three days after his injury. A bone infection and three years sans basketball ensued, all while the Brooklyn native earnestly worked toward yet another return.

“Everyone has to go through tests before they can have a testimony. I was going through a lot of them.”

That testimony, Taft decided, was powerful enough to share with others. He began speaking at churches, schools and camps. As word of his remarkable story spread, so did his ministry. It wasn’t long before he started his own basketball camp.

Half of a career ago his recovery from a devastating injury broke him. Not this time; not with God behind him. He was thriving and thankful.

“I met my wife when I was going through the polymyositis," he said. "She showed me church and I felt in my gut that the Lord was talking to me. I made that decision. No matter what is going on, the Lord has my back.”

He is quick to credit his wife and three kids as added motivation, saying he “appreciates all they do to help me fight and push.” They are the reason Taft eventually returned to Pitt in order to earn his accounting degree.

But, his homecoming is so much more. Even with the speaking engagements, basketball camps and training, he doesn’t forget where he came from. It’s a point not lost on the man that once helped mold the athlete.

“He stays in touch and he knows where his roots are,” Alesi emotionally boasted. “He developed a strong faith and he is loyal to his family. He is a quality person with tremendous integrity.”

Opportunities aside, Taft never wavered from his goal. A successful outreach program and camp couldn’t derail his third comeback to the court. After flirting with the NBADL, he found his current basketball home with Korihait of the Finnish league.

Now, four years later, he looks back on that night he spent reminiscing in Colorado. He remembers the smattering of cheers that consoled him as he was wheeled off the court. It didn’t compare with the ovations he used to receive at Pitt. He was discouraged, distraught and disfigured; but he was not defeated.

How could he be? He had the two things most important in this life: faith and family.

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