Sometimes you play basketball, sometimes it plays you. Maurice Taylor knows this. He remembers the airport a few years ago, waving good-bye to his mother, who was moving to Tennessee for a better job.

Taylor wanted to go, too. A self-described “mama’s boy,” he couldn’t imagine a day without her, even though he had been living with an aunt in Detroit for several years, because his mother’s east side neighborhood was not the place for a budding basketball star.

“I cried at the airport when she got on the plane,” Taylor recalls, “and I think I cried every day for two weeks. I really wanted to go with her.”

Taylor did not go with her — at his mother’s insistence — because he was a junior in high school, starting to get recruited. “If I transferred, that could have hurt my chances . . .”

He shrugs. It is the shrug you have seen many times, the semaphore of a kid who has surrendered part of his life to the raging current of the American sports flood, which sweeps high schoolers into college stars, sweeps college stars into NBA earning machines.

And makes kids do things they might not otherwise do.

So what does Mo Taylor want to do now?

That’s the question, isn’t it? Is tonight’s NIT second- round game — played in the shadow of perhaps the strangest, most controversial period in recent Wolverines basketball history — the final chapter in Taylor’s rocky Michigan career? Does he plan to go pro?

Before you answer, you should know that he calls his three years in Ann Arbor “the happiest years of my life.”

You should also remember that, back at that airport, he already once waved good-bye to something he loved to serve his hoop dream.

It would not be impossible for him to do it again.

“Right now, if I had to decide,” Taylor says, crossing his legs a few days ago in the lounge at Crisler Arena, “I would definitely return for another season at the University of Michigan.”

I remind him that he does not have to decide now. What will he say in a month or two, when he really does?

He smiles. “I’m human. I’m subject to changing my mind.”

Taylor is the proverbial enigma wrapped in a riddle. A smiling, soft-featured 6-foot-9 forward, he was part of Michigan’s highly touted recruiting class of 1994, five heralded freshmen, all arriving at once. Only a few observers thought Taylor was the pick of that litter.

But he had a stellar first year — was voted Big Ten freshman of the year
— and his bandwagon was quickly jammed. In his sophomore season, he led U-M in scoring and rebounding.

Then came this year.

“I started out great,” he says, holding his chin in his hands, looking out into the air, as if there’s an answer somewhere in it. “Up through the Hawaii tournament, things were going great. Then the Big Ten season started and everyone was double-teaming me. . . . People were expecting me to be the leader and I wasn’t . . .

He sighs. “If I could go back and do one thing differently, I’d be more vocal. I’d tell my coaches about getting me the ball differently. Or about using me as a decoy.”

Why didn’t you say these things, he is asked?

“I’ve never been that vocal of a person. I’ve never liked telling other people what to do.”

This is part of Taylor’s riddle. He has the body to dominate, but the spirit to evaporate. Too many times this year, he didn’t seem willing to grab the wheel and say, “This is my bus. I’m driving.” Consequently, other players stole the spotlight. Other players came up bigger. Often they were opposing players.

Taylor hung his head on the bench. Too many photos featured Taylor with his shoulders slumped and his eyes lowered, another should-have-been victory slipping away from his Wolverines.

And, more recently, the controversy surrounding the Michigan program — and its alleged involvement with a cash-giving booster — has made Taylor all the more camera shy. Questions abound about his car. About what he was doing with his teammates and a recruit that fateful night last winter.

And yet, with typical mystifying form, Taylor says he doesn’t take his frustration home with him.

“People have to remember, I’m more than a basketball player. I have a social life. I enjoy being a college student. I go to parties, I hang out . .
.”

You study, I try to add.

“Oh yeah,” he says, laughing, “I study, I hang out, I go to parties.”

An unknown future

So is 1997 bothering Taylor as much as it is bothering the fans — or even the media? Taylor was intrigued by a recent Detroit News column that suggested that he leave U-M for his own good and for the team’s own good. It also suggested that he was resentful of how Michigan followers scrutinized him and his family after last year’s infamous rollover accident of his Ford Explorer, which contained Taylor, several teammates and a high school recruit.

“I don’t know where (the writer) got that from,” Taylor says. “I’m not resentful at all. If I’m angry at anyone, it’s the NCAA. It wasn’t Michigan or its people who interrogated me.

“I could never resent Michigan or anybody who’s part of Michigan. I feel the coaches here love me, the players love me and the fans love me.”

He leans back in the couch, folds his hands on his lap.

“A lot of people are starting to psychoanalyze me now. Reporters want to say what I’m thinking.

“But I’ll tell you this. If I leave Michigan, it won’t be because I didn’t feel appreciated here. If I left for that reason, I wouldn’t be hurting Michigan, I’d only be hurting myself.”

Not Invited Tournament

On the bus ride home from Columbus, Ohio, following the regular-season finale, an overtime victory against the Buckeyes, the Wolverines gathered around a small TV as the NCAA tournament pairings were announced. They were hopeful. Nervous. When the final bracket was posted, and Michigan was not in the field, Taylor says, “I felt the most rejection I’ve ever felt in my life. It was like I was a kid again and nobody chose me for their pickup team . . .

“It was terrible.”

A short while later, as the team sat in the dark silence, the wheels of the bus churning in rhythm with the flapping windshield wipers, coach Steve Fisher came back and sat next to Taylor. Fisher asked Taylor’s thoughts about playing in the NIT.

“I told coach I wasn’t going to lie,” he says. “It was only a 50-50 thing with me. I didn’t want to play in the NIT, but I didn’t want to stop playing basketball this year, either. I told him, if we did play, I would play my best basketball of the season.”

And that is what Taylor promises. He already hung one nice game on the board (13 points in a solid performance against Miami, Fla.) and is generally considered to be playing his strongest basketball of the season the past two weeks. Tonight, it’s beat Oklahoma State or go home.

“I plan to make a statement in this tournament,” he says. “I’m going to play my best basketball of the season. I don’t want the embarrassment of losing in the NIT. And that’s what it would be — an embarrassment. For us to lose in the NIT would be unacceptable.”

He says this emphatically, and you want to believe him. And yet, he has had to accept the unacceptable already. Will tonight really be something better, an early crop planting for next year? Or will it be a grand cymbal crash on an up-and-down college career?

Who knows. Sometimes you play basketball, sometimes it plays you. Taylor gets up from the couch, his long legs lifting him to impressive heights as he uncurls. He is a big man, and with some weight work, you wonder what he might do in the NBA if they couldn’t put two men on him.

“Has anyone in your family graduated college?” I ask.

“Nope,” he says. “I’d be the first. That’s a big reason for me to stay.”

“Does your family need money that the NBA would offer?”

“They don’t need it to eat or anything,” he says, “but when I talk to them at the end of the day, they say how tired they are from working. My grandmother works on the line at Ford. My aunt works at JC Penney’s.”

His mother? He still calls her every day, before practice. Maybe they talk about that day at the airport, when basketball became a heavy sail, altering the direction of his life for good.

“You know, a lot of people say basketball is just a game,” Maurice Taylor says, “but it has a lot of side effects.”

He walks off, toward the courts, and anyone who claims to know what this kid is thinking is lying.

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