Starkey: Whatever happened to Chris Taft'
If you find yourself on Pitt's campus anytime soon, you might run into a very tall black man who reminds you of Chris Taft.
Good reason for that: It is Chris Taft, the one-time basketball standout who left school after his sophomore season four years ago.
Or was it 40 years ago?
"Man, a lot has happened to me," Taft says on his way to class, a book bag slung over his shoulder. "It's good to be back. I know I keep saying that, but it's true. I feel like I've been a secret agent these past few years."
Taft projects a hugely different vibe these days. By his estimation, he was "silly" when he played at Pitt, immature in the manner of many teenagers.
He seems quite serious now.
Paradoxically, he also seems much more relaxed. Much more at ease with himself. His head is shaved. His basketball future is unclear.
This is nothing like the first time Taft hit campus, in the summer of 2003, though a familiar feeling swirled up when he walked into his first class a month ago.
"I had butterflies," he says.
Back in '03, the 6-foot-10 Taft was a celebrated recruit from the big city (New York), eager to pursue his NBA dream.
Now, he is a husband and father, eager to pursue an accounting degree, though his current course load includes classes in civil rights, computers and psychology, plus what sounds like a doozy: "Sex, Law and Marriage."
"I always liked accounting, believe it or not," Taft says. "I know it's going to be hard, but I'm up for it."
Hard• This might be a layup compared to what the 24-year-old Taft has endured over the past four basketball seasons.
Swept away in Broomfield
"Don't look at your foot."
That was the advice Taft heard as he lay writhing in pain on a basketball court in Broomfield, Colo., in January of 2008.
Nowhere in his dreams had he envisioned playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, but the uniform didn't lie. Taft was a Viper, playing against the Colorado 14ers, trying to resuscitate his career in the NBA Development League.
"He was a pretty quiet guy, just trying to make a name for himself again," recalls Alex Del Barrio, Rio Grande Valley's director of basketball operations.
The Golden State Warriors had drafted lottery hopeful Taft in the second round (42nd overall) in 2005, after a somewhat disappointing sophomore year at Pitt. Then-Warriors coach Mike Montgomery, now the coach at Cal, recalls how thrilled the Warriors were to get Taft and Monta Ellis — now an NBA star — in the second round.
Montgomery also recalls Taft making an immediate impact. Despite a summer-league back injury, Taft earned a spot in Montgomery's eight-man rotation. He had four points, four rebounds and four blocks in a 17-minute debut against Atlanta.
Three games later, the Coney Island Kid experienced the thrill of a lifetime, suiting up against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. He had six points and two blocks in 14 minutes, helping the Warriors win.
"He came in that year and was pretty doggone good," Montgomery recalls. "He could really board. He was physical, and he was a nice kid."
Pretty soon, though, Taft's back worsened. Pain shot down his right leg, prompting surgery for disc damage. Soon after that, something worse: Taft was diagnosed with a condition called polymyositis, an inflammatory muscle disease that causes weakness and pain, often in the trunk area.
He spent much of his summer of 2006 in the hospital, as doctors tried to pinpoint the condition and administer a recovery program. His chiseled body softened.
"I had trouble walking at times," Taft says.
Taft sat out the 2006-07 season. The Warriors did not exercise their option for his third year.
He has played only 17 NBA games.
"I remember seeing him (in 2006), and he looked nothing like Chris Taft," Montgomery says. "He'd changed drastically. My heart went out to him. I remember thinking: 'Here's a kid who had a real bright future, and now what's he got• He's maybe never going to play again, he doesn't have his education. What's he going to do?' "
Medication and workouts helped Taft's muscle condition, putting him in position to take a flier with Rio Grande Valley, which plays in Hidalgo, Texas, on the Mexican border.
"The only black people I saw," Taft says, laughing, "were the guys on my team."
In his eighth game, Taft dislocated his right foot when he landed on an opponent.
"My whole foot was turned around," he says. "I was laid out, yelling and screaming. They popped it back, but the cast was put on wrong, and I wound up with a bone infection.
"I'm like, man, how does this stuff keep happening to me• What did I do to deserve this?"
A tryout with a Philippine team last winter did not go well. Taft's muscle condition still has not allowed him to regain his old form, though he has begun treatment with Dr. Chester Oddis, a UPMC rheumatologist who specializes in polymyositis.
All the hard knocks got Taft thinking beyond basketball.
Taft rejects the notion that he didn't always play hard at Pitt. He admits, however, that he slacked in conditioning.
He seems to have made the right choice in leaving when he did. As he says, his misfortunes easily could have occurred while still in college. And that likely would have cost him the $1 million-plus he made with Golden State.
Taxes and agents' fees took a nice chunk of that, but Taft says he is able to support his wife, Dana, and two children — stepdaughter Kayla, 6, and son David, 19 months.
"I would do anything for them," he says.
That was evident in Taft's willingness to return to school. He is living out of a hotel at the moment. Once he finds an apartment, his wife and kids will leave his old residence in Atlanta and join him.
Before he could re-enroll as part of the "Panther Game Plan Degree Completion Program," Taft had to convince key people of his commitment. Those included Jamie Dixon, his former coach; Donna Sanft, Pitt's executive associate athletic director; and Donna Sloan, director of financial services for student-athletes.
They immediately sensed Taft's resoluteness.
"I could see he had given this a lot of thought," Sanft says. "Looking at his life long-term, he knows education is the key to his success."
The Game Plan program, established in 1997, is for former student-athletes who want to resume pursuit of an undergraduate degree. It covers a significant chunk of their educational expenses, in exchange for work hours in the athletic department.
Taft logs 25 hours a week, some of it assisting strength and conditioning coach Tim Beltz. He is following in the Game Plan footsteps of other ex-Pitt basketball players, including Sam Clancy — who returned two decades after his career — Brandin Knight, Julius Page, Antonio Graves and Isaac Hawkins.
Dixon is known to hound his ex-players into finishing their education.
"Any kid who plays basketball dreams of the NBA," Dixon says. "But even if you get that opportunity, the average career is 3-4 years. Chris was just about in that range."
Montgomery was pleased to hear that Taft has returned to college.
"I always liked Chris," he said.
Taft vows that he will play in the NBA again, but even if he gets a call to play pro ball of any kind, he says he will take classes on-line, during summers or both. Two weeks ago, he helped set up and break down a life-skills seminar that Sanft conducted for Pitt athletes.
Such work is humbling, but Taft handles it well. And he remains a recognizable face. As he rode an escalator at The Pete, a student yelled from the food court above: "Hey Chris, come back to school! We need you!"
Little did the student know that Taft already was back in school — and that this time around, he plans to finish what he starts.
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