Taylor clears mental hurdle on hoops odyssey

Feb. 28, 2012

Surrounded by oil derricks and cattle ranches on the flat, dusty landscape of eastern New Mexico and west Texas sits the town of Hobbs, N.M. It is 84 miles northwest of the closest interstate, I-20, and is the definition of off the beaten path.

With a population of 43,000 residents, Hobbs sits just two miles from the Texas border in the heart of the state's richest oil region. Like many towns in the region, the ebb and flow of the local economy is dependent on what is pulled from the oil fields. And in the last eight years, with the rise in oil prices, the economy has been booming

It is black gold that drives the finances of the city, but it is basketball that brings the people of Hobbs together.

Hobbs High School has won 16 state titles in basketball and its 3,600 seat gym is filled to capacity most every night. Games are so popular that the school even sells season tickets for best seats in the gym ... and there is even a waiting list.

The oil business is extremely volatile. There are good days and there are bad days in the industry, but no matter how the oil is flowing, there has always been basketball, and it is basketball that helps fortify this close-knit community, where the conversations inside restaurants and barbershops often center around hoops.

That's right, deep in the heart of a region known for football - think Friday Night Lights - there is a hoops hysteria in Hobbs that could be comparable in passion and fanfare to what was so famously described in Friday Night Lights, the famous book, turned movie, turned television drama that chronicled the 1988 Odessa Permian football team.

It just so happens that Odessa, Texas, the setting for the non-fiction book, is the closest large town to Hobbs. Odessa is located 88 miles southeast of Hobbs. High school sports play important roles in each town, it's just the sport of choice that differs for each.

It is here on the plains of eastern New Mexico - in an unconventional basketball hotbed that has produced 13 NBA draft picks - where Vanderbilt's coaching staff would discover senior forward Jeffery Taylor.


Jeffery is not a Hobbs native. Instead, he grew up in Norrköping Sweden before moving to Hobbs after his sophomore year of high school to bring his basketball career to America.

"I just wanted to try something different," Taylor said of his decision. "I was always interested in playing high school ball and potentially playing college ball, that was my main motivation."

Taylor's father, Jeff, played at Hobbs High School in the 1970s before going on to Texas Tech and eventually playing in the NBA and Europe before settling in Sweden, where Jeffery was born. In the tight-knit community of Hobbs, the name Jeffery Taylor struck a chord immediately.

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"Sometimes when you are an outsider so to speak, it is hard for the community, even the players to accept you," said Vince Taylor, an assistant coach at Hobbs and also Jeffery's uncle. "It was great because the only thing people saw was that it was Jeff Taylor's son. It was like he had grown up here his entire life in terms of the familiarity with the fans."

In Hobbs, Jeffery lived with his grandmother and began adjusting to the American culture as best he could. He was a teenager that grew up in a European city near the Baltic Sea and suddenly found himself halfway across the globe in a small town on the western plains.

"It was a little bit of a culture shock," Taylor recalled. "I'm from the city so going out to the country was a little different for me. School and people in the U.S. are a lot different too. Americans are a lot more open and talk a lot more than what I was used to."

The communication part was especially challenging. When Taylor arrived in the U.S., he did not speak English fluently. It wasn't until his senior year of high school that he really felt comfortable and considered himself fluent in the language.

"For me the hardest part was more of just understanding what people were saying and then just being able to communicate back what I wanted to say," said Taylor, who now speaks without a hint of an accent.

The language barrier and culture change took Taylor a while to adjust to, but nothing has been more difficult than being away from his immediate family, which all live still in Sweden.

"He loves his family, his brothers and sisters and his nephew so that was pretty tough for him," said senior forward Lance Goulbourne, who is also Taylor's roommate and one of his closest friends on the team. "He gets very homesick. Even though he has family in Hobbs, it is nothing like his immediate family and Jeff is really, really close to his family.

"It has been tough for him, but he's grown up in that way as well being able to be away from home for a long period of time. I know it is tough because he doesn't even know when he will go home again."

"He is such a family-oriented person and it didn't help the transition going from a bigger city to a small town," Vince said. "He is so close with his brothers and sisters and mom and dad that it was really tough for him. When basketball started, it helped because he had something to take his mind off of thinking about home."

The language of basketball is international, and it didn't take any time at all for Taylor to realize he had made the right decision.

He led the team in scoring as a junior and senior and helped Hobbs to a state championship in 2008. He departed as the all-time leading scorer despite playing for only two seasons. Along the way Taylor not only found instant success on the court, but he also discovered the basketball-centric community he craved.

"Basketball is king there," Taylor said. "I wanted to go somewhere where basketball was the No. 1 sport and people really supported it. At Hobbs, basketball was a big part of life, so everyone supported it. Every night there were 3,000 people there for high school games. Basketball has always been the No. 1 sport there."

The school's state title in 2008 only reaffirmed Hobbs' place among the nation's winningest programs. The championship was its 16th - the most of any school in the state. Eleven of the titles came under legendary coach Ralph Tasker, who coached Hobbs from 1949-98. His teams were known for their full-court pressing defense from buzzer to buzzer. The style was adopted into the college game by Nolan Richardson and it is now referred to as "40 minutes of hell."

"Basketball is the driving force behind this community," said Vince, who also played at Hobbs before going on to play at Texas Tech. "You will have a down year here and there, but it is at the point now where before we even start the season out, we've sold about $30,000 in reserve tickets because people keep them in their family for 30, 40 years."

When Taylor arrived in Hobbs, his abilities on the court were well above that of a typical junior in high school. In Sweden he played against a higher level of competition, and was a man among boys for much of his high school career. His immediate impact as a high schooler did not surprise Vince, who recalled Jeffery putting on a clinic against local boys his age when he visited Hobbs the summer before his eight grade year. He was so advanced for his age group that Vince had him play in a night league with adults, and he held his own.

"From that time on, he was telling his mom that he wanted to come here and play basketball," Vince said. "I knew he would make the adjustment because it is something he always wanted to do."

Even though he burst onto the high school scene two years late, Taylor's name spread like a wild fire around recruiting circles as the accolades piled up. He was the New Mexico Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior and a was a two-time All-State selection. Taylor's next stop on his road less traveled brought him to Nashville and Vanderbilt University.


There is one surprising similarity between Hobbs and Vanderbilt. The benches on the court are on the baselines at both schools. Similar to his experience in high school, Taylor again found the transition to the college game easier than expected. He discovered instant success and started the first game of his freshman year. He has not missed a game in his four years, starting all but one.

Taylor has averaged double figures in scoring throughout his entire career and has hauled in at least five rebounds a game every season. Known for his freakish athleticism and elevator-like hops that allow him to snatch nickels off the top of a backboard, Taylor's game has always been explosive. Lost in the high-flying offensive act has been his defensive prowess. Each game Taylor is typically charged with guarding the opponent's top offensive scorer, and more times than not, that player has an "off night." But more realistically, it is just Taylor's doing.

However, despite an immense skill set that leaves onlookers with their jaw on the floor at times, there were games and periods that would also leave them scratching their head. He would follow 18-, 19-, 20-point games with games in the single digits. It wasn't a talent issue, it was mental.

"I think he is finally more at peace with himself," Vince said. "He had a tendency to beat himself up. As Coach (Kevin) Stallings will tell you, not very many people in college basketball can stop Jeff; Jeff stops himself. He wants to be a perfectionist and that really hurt him his first three years because if he missed two or three shots, he just shut down and stopped shooting. You can see the difference in that this year. He still keeps playing the game."

"He used to let a lot of things bother him," Goulbourne said. "If he missed a few shots, he would probably stop shooting or crawl into a hole, but he hasn't done that much this year if at all."

For Taylor the change began in the summer. Instead of going home to be with family like he had done in year's past, he stayed in Nashville. Each day, he would make his way inside Memorial Gym where he would fire off jump shot after jump shot, totaling hundreds each day.

Part of the motivation came from how the previous two seasons abruptly ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but also a realization that he had one season of college basketball left.

"Last year was a disappointment as a team in how we ended our season," Jeffery said. "I was disappointed by my overall season as a junior. I felt that with the work I put in, I should have done better. I had all that in the back of my mind and also going into my senior season, I wanted to do everything I could to make it special for myself and for my team, so I just stayed here and worked."

The extra work in the offseason helped him physically and also mentally. The change was evident to his teammates.

"I don't know if there was one turning point, but maybe it was in the summer," said Goulbourne, his mind drifting back. "He was here alone a lot in May and June especially. We had some guys here, but no one he was close with. He was here alone a lot and had a lot of time to himself and a lot of time to realize what he needed to focus on to improve on; not just basketball wise, but in life."

The results have been better than anticipated. He is having far and away the best and most consistent season of his career. He's scored in double figures in all but one game and ranks second in the league in scoring. The most visible improvement has been with his shooting stroke. He ranks fourth in the league in field-goal percentage and has become a prolific threat from beyond the arc, something that was not the case his first three seasons when defenders would play off him, hoping to lure him into taking a long jumper.

"I improved my shooting junior year as well but this year everything kind of came together for me," Jeffery said. "I think it is just a lot of repetition. You see the ball go in enough times, it is hard not to get confident. That's probably the main thing."

Old scouting reports on Taylor are now being shredded in coaches' offices throughout the country. The development of his shot has made Taylor nearly impossible to guard, and has turned him into as complete of a player as Vanderbilt has had in a number of seasons.


But there was a time it looked like Taylor was reverting to his old self. In an overtime loss at Louisville in November, Taylor scored 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting and appeared hesitant to shoot down the stretch. Eight of his points came in the second half and his last field goal - a three-pointer - came with 17:25 to play in regulation. He would miss his final four shots and two free throws.

"Against Louisville, he didn't score for the last 13 minutes and after that Coach got on him a little bit to not go into a hole and fall back into the habits he had last year," Goulbourne said.

Taylor took Stallings' message to heart. In the team's next game at Davidson, Taylor had arguably his best game yet as a Commodore. He poured in a career-high 30 points on 12-of-17 shooting to lead the Commodores to a much-needed victory.

"After the Davidson game, even though he had a good game, I yelled at him," Goulbourne said. "I said, 'that is what you need to do the entire game. Keep on attacking because people can't stop you out here. You are not an easy person to guard and when you are playing aggressively, it is not going to be fun to guard you.' "

Since that Louisville game, Taylor has been a man possessed. He's averaged 18.3 points per game in the time since. He's no longer hesitant to pull the trigger on a shot that has been infused with confidence, and the mental part of the game is not holding him back.

"It's really been pretty cool," Head Coach Kevin Stallings grinned. "It's been a real fun thing to watch. He's been able to channel his competitiveness and his intensity and take full advantage of it. He's always had the competitiveness and intensity, but as I've said many times, he would get in his own way. Now he is out of his own way and that talent and that intensity and that competitive nature is showing up."

As his confidence has grown, Taylor has also become more of a vocal leader. Very soft-spoken by nature, Taylor would much rather lead by example than by his voice. Slowly, he has become more vocal, but he still lets his actions speak for themselves. "It's been a natural progression," he says.

"He's always led by example, especially on the court," Goulbourne said. "This year, he has been more vocal. He leads more than just by example. He speaks up in practice and on the court. He makes tough plays, big plays and overall he has become a solid leader and a lot of people look up to him, especially young guys."


Buoyed by his breakout senior season, Taylor is quietly moving up Vanderbilt's record charts in a number of career categories. He currently ranks third all-time in scoring, eighth in steals and seventh in rebounds. He will depart Vanderbilt as the only player in school history to rank in the top 10 in steals and rebounds. Add it all together and Taylor is one of the all-time greats ever to don the Black and Gold.

Everything has come together for Taylor this season. It is the type of season you don't want to see come to an end. It's been an unusual road to stardom in college basketball, but the trials and tribulations are finally paying off.

Taylor doesn't make it back to Hobbs very often. He's only been back twice since he graduated high school, but in the town it is as though he never left. Each time the locals turn on the television and see Taylor soaring in for a dunk, it takes them back to his days at Hobbs. Not surprisingly, the basketball team at Hobbs is good again this season. The town is buzzing over a possible return trip to the state tournament, but it also has its collective eyes on the Commodores and Jeffery Taylor - a person who made an indelible impact on the community in just two short years.

"We have adults and kids here running around with their No. 44 Vanderbilt jerseys on," Vince said. "It is neat because they are still following him. That excitement that he has brought to Vanderbilt was something the people of Hobbs got to experience for two years. They are still in love with him."

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