Twenty five years ago, the big unknown star in college basketball was a little known kid from NYC. Seton Hall had never won the Big East tournament, and out of the blue, Oliver Taylor dazzled the Garden and helped Seton Hall hoist the trophy, while winning his own trophy, as MVP.
It all was possible thanks to a relationship that started years earlier, two New York City boys, from different backgrounds, from different boroughs, brought together by basketball. The amazing thing, is that was just the beginning of a life long journey and friendship that continues to this day.
I am that boy from the Bronx, who played ball relentlessly, until it got dark every night, at PS 70 and Bronx Science. My name is David Gurwitz. Before I tell you more about my story, let me first introduce you to Oliver Taylor, the real star on and off the court and our connection then – and now.
Mark Kriegel, the famous sports writer, first told our story in 1991 in the NY Post. He wrote:
Gurwitz teaches Monster (Oliver’s nickname from a week after being discharged from the maternity ward) about congruent triangles and parallelograms. They work into the night with algebra and analogies. Gurwitz introduces him to a new world, shows him how to open a bank account. For Monster, menus replace McDonald’s wrappers.
Gurwitz has him read newspapers articles aloud. Fight the shyness with discipline. “I never,” says Gurwitz, “had a kid brother.” “He let me be a person, and not just a ballplayer,” says Monster.
Kriegel had an incredible way with words, but after reading the story 25 years later, I understand that our relationship was more than just basketball – it was a mentoring relationship that changed my life as well.
Steve Poiliti, who covers all things sports in New Jersey, wrote a story last week, just after Seton Hall won this year’s Big East Tournament, and it really fills in some of the details:
Oliver Taylor (20) was carried off the floor after sinking the winning lay-up with one second left giving No. 21 Seton Hall a 70-69 victory over Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, Friday, March 8, 1991, New York.
When they talk about that Big East Tournament now, the hero and his mentor can’t help but reflect on the victories on the court. They will remember how an unheralded player named Oliver Taylor helped Seton Hall stun Georgetown and Villanova and the rest to win the title.
Taylor was the MVP in Madison Square Garden exactly 25 years ago today, and now that he is long retired from the sport he loves, he knows that stands as the signature accomplishment of his athletic career. He’ll be forever linked with the likes of Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Sherman Douglas.
“For me,” he said, “it was my career.”
But that is rarely the focus of the conversations when the hero and his mentor touch base. They are far more likely to reflect on the unique nature of their relationship, and how their special bond has helped impact the lives of countless young people in the years that followed.
That is the legacy of one phone call almost 30 years ago. David Gurwitz, a well-to-do businessman who grew up a basketball junkie himself in the South Bronx, had read a newspaper story about how Taylor had all the talent in the world but couldn’t get the basic score on his SATs.
He called Far Rockaway High School, where Taylor was a hoops star averaging 35 points a game, and made an offer: Let me mentor the kid. Let me tutor him and spend some time with him away from the court.
“For me, I don’t think back 25 years ago and remember how he shot over Alonzo Mourning,” said Gurwitz, who is also a concert pianist. “Okay, that was awesome. But it wasn’t so much that he won the MVP, because I knew he had talent. I just knew what kind of person he was becoming.”
Oliver Taylor is now a deputy sheriff in the Atlanta suburbs, spending most of his days at Salem High School as a presence to deter gangs and crime, but really, as a positive role model who uses his own experiences to shape the lives of the young people he encounter.
The hero has become the mentor, a twist that makes the story even more gratifying for Gurwitz.
“I’m around kids all day, from middle school to high school, and it’s almost like I was being trained to be in that position,” Taylor said.
“It was difficult for me because where I grew up, there wasn’t anybody in front of me from my neighborhood who went to a big college. I challenge these kids now: When you got off to college, come back and tell you story to the kids behind you. Make an impact on your community.” Now we can get back to the Bronx – my story!
Actually, one of the best things that came from my relationship with Oliver, besides having a new younger brother whom I have been able to help mentor – is my appreciation from where I grew up.
I was an avid athlete growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up right where the Grand Concourse and the Cross Bronx expressway meet. I attended PS 70, JHS 117, and Bronx HS of Science. Kareem Jabbar’s point guard in high school at Power Memorial was a Polish kid named Richie Lovis, and he ran our school yard and taught us all – white, black, Puerto Rican – it did not matter – baseball, basketball, and football. We were all friends. I used to walk down the concourse to the old Yankee Stadium to watch Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
I worked summers as a bellhop at a hotel in the Catskills where Wilt Chamberlain has once been a bellhop, and spent summers learning from Red Auerbach about talent recognition and development. I played basketball in Madrid after graduating Brandeis University. I also studied mathematics and taught math and writing at the Stanley Kaplan Educational Center, the largest standardized test prep firm in the world.
Deputy Oliver provides some of his background before he met me:
“I am just an inner city kid from Far Rockaway NY, in Queens! Just a kid with a dream and took a chance on something I loved. People felt that I was pretty good. I wound up playing on my high school team and wound up becoming a “high school star”. (BTW, he was the leading scorer in the country – with no 3 point shots).
I didn’t end up doing well on the SAT’s and they ended up doing an article on me in the New York Times. David ended up reading the article and wanted to give back. He contacted my school and my coach and told them that he wanted to tutor me. We got on the phone and started talking and it just went from there.”
I have often asked myself the following: there were probably thousands of kids in the same position, why did Oliver stand out to me? I guess the timing was great, my oldest who is now 29 at the time was a baby. I saw the article and wanted to give back. I also come from a family that is very giving. We didn’t come from money, my grandfather had money, but he lost it in the war. He brought a car to try and feed the hungry in Poland. My father wound up fixing the car and wound up driving a truck for the Russian army. No one knew how to drive then – it was the act of giving that my grandfather did that led to my father surviving – and me being here today. The article about him was really a beautiful article. Lou Carneseca who was a top coach at St Johns who really wanted him to come. It all hit me at once that maybe I could help him and he could go to a place like that.
When our relationship started, we did school and personal learning. As mentioned, I had been a teacher at Stanley Kaplan Educational Center. So I had been a tutor and I knew how to teach math and reading and that’s what we did. I drilled him. I knew he could handle the drilling and he did it all.
Oliver told an interviewer what it was like to have this guy – me – come and help him realize his dream:
“It was great. You have to think: this is somebody you don’t know anything about, different culture, different background, different mind frame. He shared a lot of things with me and made me start to see things differently. Especially coming from the inner city, he just let me know that I had to keep working hard. My mind was saying that I was a C+ or B student, but the standardized testing was saying that you’re not ready for college material work. Knowing David, he said “they can’t tell you that. As long as you keep working hard, you can succeed.” I now have an Associate Degree in General Studies and a Bachelors Degree in Communications.”
I would like to conclude that I am so proud of Oliver who is influencing so many lives. I guess I had a small role in that, so I am grateful.
Oliver said the following about a message to leave for kids from this story of mentoring and friendship: and helping kids:
“One the most important thing is about working hard. People come through your life for reasons, and just try to identify it. Now being in the Rockdale sheriff and working in schools, to be able to effect the kids and any form or fashion is a plus. I always reflect on how it happened for me. David didn’t know one thing about me. He just knew being inner city kid himself, maybe stereotypes, and was willing to takes a chance on me. He taught me trust. You have to trust somebody and you have to give them a chance. You can’t tell me I can’t succeed because of standardized tests. I’m proof of that. David inspired me.”