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In NCAA Tournament, Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor has a guardian angel

INDIANAPOLIS — The story begins with a small boy sitting in the darkness. Eventually, he grows into a young man stepping into the spotlight.

Amazing what a bit of help can do, isn't it?

It is a good time in the young life of Tyshawn Taylor, the freshman point guard of the University of Kansas. He is happy, he is talented, and he is well on his way to being accomplished. He chatters constantly and he smiles relentlessly.

Best of all, even at 18, Taylor seems mature enough to appreciate the large chunk of fortune that changed everything.

This is a story about guardian angels and, yes, Taylor will tell you he believes. After all, had it not been for the stranger with the good heart, none of his success might have happened. If not for the helping hand, he might never have heard the applause.

"I think about what my life might have been like all the time," Taylor said Thursday. "I thank God almost every day. I have friends who were in the same situation as I was in, and they're selling drugs or they're in jail. That could have been me."

A decade ago in Clearwater, it wasn't as if Taylor could see a lot of options. From the age of 7 through his freshman year in high school, he lived in Florida. Some days were harder than others.

Taylor was the oldest child of a single mother who seemed overwhelmed. Taylor remembers times when he would come home and find his mother and sister sitting in the dark. The electric bill had not been paid.

The struggle was constant. Jeanell Taylor went periods without work, and periods where she worked at three jobs, and there never seemed to be enough dollars to satisfy the demands. After a boyfriend struck her, the family lived for a while in a domestic violence center. Later, they moved to a homeless shelter. If the story sounds familiar, you have uncovered its true sadness.

For Taylor, the difference was named Tom Spencer, who would become his Big Brother, his mentor and, yes, his guardian angel.

"Without him, I have no idea where I would be," Taylor said.

It started out simply enough. All Taylor knew about the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization was that his cousin had a Big Brother, and he had gotten a trip to Busch Gardens out of it. That was enough.

As luck would have it, it came right about the time Spencer was signing up to be a Big Brother at Countryside Mall.

"I was looking for some things to do, to give back to the community and make myself useful," says Spencer, now 61, who had made enough money off the 1990s technology boom that he was retired.

When he began to receive photos and profiles of the children, Spencer says he was struck by Taylor's. "He had a great smile and bright eyes," Spencer said. "He looked like a sweet kid. He liked sports, and I liked sports."

It was Spencer who paid the fees for Taylor's first basketball team, a Clearwater rec team that didn't win a game. And for the fees to Taylor's first summer clinic. And so on.

Oh, Taylor will admit he was a chore at times. He didn't have the best attitude, and he struggled in school. He was, he said, "grumpy."

Spencer refused to give up on him. To improve his grades, he offered $10 for each A, $5 for each B, $50 for each time he made the honor roll. When Taylor wanted to go to St. Anthony High in New Jersey because the level of basketball was higher, Spencer helped pay those costs, too. And when Taylor's uncle and aunt threatened to send him back to Florida, Spencer flew to Jersey City to smooth things out.

Through it all, Taylor finally began to see the light. He led his St. Anthony team to a 32-0 record last year. At Kansas, he has started 32 of 34 games and is a third-team freshman All-American.

"I'm as proud of him as I am my own sons," Spencer said. "I know how hard he worked and what he overcame. He had some help, but he stayed with it. I'm convinced he's going to be a good person. That's the only thing I kept asking of him."

Yes, Taylor got a lot out of the relationship. So, too, did Spencer.

"I have the best reward," he said. "Just the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference. What else in life is more important? The real difference is if you can leave the world a better place than when you came in. It was worth every penny I invested."

Tonight, Taylor starts at the point against Michigan State. It's a fairly big test, considering the Spartans roughed him up in an earlier meeting between the two. This time, Taylor thinks he can be more help.

After all, Taylor knows a bit about help. And if you're considering giving it, he has a message for you.

"If anyone is considering being a Big Brother, I'd tell them to do it," Taylor said. "You definitely can make a difference. I'm proof of that. I know I'm planning to be a Big Brother myself. Tom always told me he wasn't doing this to brag about it; he expected me to do the same thing for someone else."

Besides, if there is anything a point guard knows, it's how important it is to give the proper assist.

For information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay go to bbbsfl.org

In NCAA Tournament, Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor has a guardian angel 03/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 27, 2009 6:31am]

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