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Dante Taylor ready to step up to Panthers' starting job

| Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011

Dante Taylor walks swiftly from his green Dodge Intrepid parked in a university lot near Petersen Events Center. Each elongated stride in Taylor's size-14 basketball shoes equals three of an average-sized person as he hurries from his Cultural Anthropology class to Advanced Basketball 301, better known as Pitt hoops practice.

It's about 12:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28, when Taylor, who ate a light breakfast, slips into his practice gear stored in his locker. He will have barely enough time for athletic trainer Tony Salesi to tape his ankles, much less grab a quick bite before the 2 1/2-hour workout.

It's all in a day's work for Taylor, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound junior from Greenburg, N.Y.

A McDonald's All-American, among the highest honors awarded to a high school basketball player, Taylor is expected to start for the first time in his third college season after coming off the bench in 67 career games at center. But he enjoys attending class almost as much as he loves playing for one of the most prestigious programs in the country.

His daily routine, which includes being a full-time student as much as it does being a full-time basketball player, is a source and inspiration for Taylor, 21, even at the end of another long and tiring day.

"After a while, you get used to it,'' Taylor said later while sitting in the two-bedroom high-rise apartment located a stone's throw from Consol Energy Center he has shared with teammate and fellow New Yorker Tray Woodall the past two years. "It's the same routine almost every day.''

At Pitt, Taylor appears to have found his second home. He has bought totally into the program, respects his coaches, likes his teammates and enjoys college life.

"I think I made the right choice coming to Pitt," Taylor said in a deep baritone. "Good coaching staff. Great school academically. Good friends. Access to the gym all night. It's been pretty much everything I thought it was going to be."

A day in the life of Dante Taylor is a lot like a day in the life of many Pitt students. There are classes to attend, friends to see, good times to be had.

It's also a day atypical of most college students, one filled with physical demands and tight schedules and having your every move scrutinized.

• FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28, 9:30 A.M.: Past the friendly doorman and up the elevator takes you to the fifth floor in the Washington Plaza Apartments, a stylish 22-story building on Centre Avenue featuring a restaurant, swimming pool, sauna, weight room, volleyball courts and valet parking.

A sleepy Dante Taylor wearing a loose-fitting sweat suit answers a knock at his front door. To the left of the main entrance is an open closet filled with coats and jackets and suitcases. There are several pairs of sneakers strewn on the floor. To the right is a small kitchen befitting a couple of busy college students, as dishes are stacked in the sink. Boxes of Raisin Bran, Frosted Flakes and Cheerios line the top of the refrigerator and are wedged against several bottles containing adult beverages. The menu of a popular pizza parlor suggests take-out is a meal of choice.

"Sometimes I cook,'' Taylor said. "Sometimes Tray cooks. We take turns.''

The living room furniture includes two couches and a small dinette table with four chairs.

Folding chairs line the walls. A modest coffee table in the middle of the room is decorated with several copies of "Slam,'' a popular basketball magazine. A photo of Yankee Stadium dominates one wall that is otherwise bare -- Taylor and Woodall are longtime Yankees fans.

The prize jewel -- a big-screen HD television -- sitting in the opposite corner is turned to ESPN. "I tell everybody it's a 60-inch,'' Taylor said proudly.

Peering through the blinds, Taylor stares out a huge window. The first thing to catch your eye is Mellon Arena, which is in the process of being dismantled. To the left is Consol Energy Center. The Hill District is located to the right.

Taylor likes the view -- along with everything else about his apartment.

Taylor and Woodall each pay $791 a month for rent from their scholarship checks. Their cable bill is approximately $50 a month. "It definitely has to come from their scholarship check,'' said Pitt media relations director for basketball Greg Hotchkiss.

"We found this place through one of the former coaches who used to live in this building (Rasheen Davis, now an assistant at Xavier),'' Taylor said. "He recommended it to us when we were looking for a spot. We checked it out, and we liked it. Each of us has our own room, our own bathroom. We like the pool, the weight room, so we don't have to go all the way to the gym (on campus) at night. I definitely like having a bellman. Nobody can just come into my house. I've got to call downstairs to let them in.''

Taylor and Woodall are the only players on this year's Pitt basketball team who live in the Washington Plaza Apartments. It's their second year in a row being roommates in the building. Taylor lived on campus with teammate Lamar Patterson his freshman year.

"I didn't want to live on campus where you can hear everything through your door, through your window out on the street,'' Taylor said. "The guys (on the team) all come over. They all know. Some of them just choose not to live here. Some of them found other places closer to campus. We're spread out throughout campus, off campus.''

Woodall, a 5-11, 190-pound guard from Brooklyn who attended famed St. Anthony's High School in New Jersey, said he and Taylor are a perfect fit as roommates. He is wearing a USC shirt out of respect to his godbrother, Jiovanni Fontan, a senior basketball player at Southern Cal.

"I was living with Gilbert Brown and Jermaine Dixon. They were graduating, and I knew I had to have a roommate,'' Woodall said. "I already knew Dante was going to be my roommate. Every time I think of Dante, I think of a 6-9 version of me. We're exactly alike, as far as fashion, as far as both of us being chilled and not too wild. When I don't feel like cooking, he'll cook. If he doesn't feel like cooking, those are the days I feel like cooking. We've got our own rooms. We've got our own stuff. We pretty much stay out of each other's way when we need to. At the same time, we're both ready to do whatever for each other. I look at him like a little brother.''

Taylor feels the same.

"It's definitely a plus that we're on the same team,'' said Taylor, who is 13 months younger than Woodall. "We know when the other one doesn't want to be bothered. We want to live nice. We try to keep our place right. Me and Tray are like the same person. Everything we do is almost the same.''

• FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28, 11 A.M.: Navigating heavy traffic on Forbes Avenue, past stores and restaurants and countless students scurrying to and from on a sun-splashed morning, Taylor pulls into a parking space on a side street. A few minutes later, he eases into his chair as one of 20 students attending a Cultural Anthropology class in Room 209 of the David Lawrence building.

All of the students sit in the back of the room, as the professor who meets with the class every Friday dispenses information from the front. The primary professor lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Among the topics for discussion: What is the worldwide view of Taiji?

Some students listen to the review session while working on laptops. Taylor, despite towering over everyone, blends in easily with the rest of the class. He's the first student called on to answer a question. A few minutes after Taylor's arrival, Patterson, who's attending another class in the building, sticks his head in the door and smiles at Taylor before quickly departing.

"The class is very interesting,'' said Taylor, who is taking five classes this fall, including Human Behavior and Social Environment, his professed favorite. "You learn about different cultures, how people live, different beliefs. My major is social work. You definitely learn different cultures and different backgrounds because you're going to be faced with different types of people when you go into a case, when you go into a household.''

All of Taylor's classes this fall are related to his major. His goal is to play in the NBA. However, he covets the idea of obtaining a college degree in social work. Basketball opened doors for Taylor to attend Pitt. Now he's intent on taking advantage of the opportunity. He knows he can't play basketball forever. He learned that first hand last season when he suffered from tendinitis in his knees.

"I definitely enjoy college,'' Taylor said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Growing up, from my area, I never thought about college, I never thought about basketball, I never thought that I could go to college from basketball. I didn't start taking basketball serious until ninth grade, when I left New York and went to high school in Maryland (at National Christian Academy). Once that happened, I started taking pride in my academics.

"That's one thing my high school coach instilled in me after I got there my freshman year. I was always the type of person that didn't take class serious. I took class for granted, really didn't care about it. He told me the only way you're going to be able to play basketball (in college) is if you get good grades. My first year, I think my grade-point average was like zero-point-something. Each semester, each year, I progressively started getting better and better. When I left my senior year, I was on the honor roll twice. I had never been on the honor roll my whole life. Since I've been in college, I've been trying to do the same thing.''

Pitt started recruiting Taylor during his sophomore season, right about the time he was turning it around academically. As a college freshman, Taylor's most impressive statistic wasn't placing second on the team in blocked shots. It was his becoming a Big East Academic All Star (minimum 3.0 grade-point average) and winning the Academic Excellence award at the team banquet. As a sophomore, Taylor won the team's Jaron Brown Pursuit of Academic Excellence Award.

• FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28, 12:30 P.M.: Taylor's Cultural Anthropology class is scheduled for 50 minutes. That gives him just enough time to return to his car and park near Petersen Events Center. From there, a brisk walk down several flights of steps deposits him in the food court, where many appetizing choices tempt him, although he has no time to stop. An elevator ride takes him to the arena level, where he ducks into the locker room and emerges a few minutes later in his practice uniform.

On the court, coach Jamie Dixon is only too happy to discuss Taylor's academic achievements.

"I just got his grades,'' Dixon said cheerily. "He's got all A's.''

Dixon wishes that all his players were like Taylor in the classroom.

"He's so far ahead (in his classwork),'' Dixon said.

Dixon believes that living in a high-rise apartment is good for Taylor.

"I joke with him all the time about having a doorman,'' Dixon said. "He and Tray use their Pell Grant money, and it works out fine.''

Playing basketball just might be the easiest part of Taylor's day.

He's driven on the court knowing he's finally expected to start at center. It's the moment he's been waiting for.

"It's exciting,'' Taylor said. "Being a starter, there's going to be more opportunities for me to step up and help the team win. Every kid that goes to college wants to start, wants to hear their name called during introductions.''

During practice, Taylor works diligently on low-post moves. He pivots, head fakes and goes up strong to the basket -- over and over again. He catches lob passes high above the rim before flushing them through.

There's also shooting drills and scrimmaging and defensive work and plenty of rebounding to help players break a sweat. It's grueling work that lasts more than two hours, and it's only the start.

Another 30 minutes in the weight room -- lifting, stretching, straining and performing sit-ups on medicine balls under the direction of strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Beltz. It goes even longer on days when the Panthers don't practice.

"The things we're continuing trying to improve upon for Dante is decrease his body fat, increase his lean muscle mass,'' Beltz said. "His strength numbers have improved exponentially. He's done a phenomenal job from a developmental standpoint.''

Taylor has reduced his body fat level to around 12 percent. He wants to get that number down to nine or 10 percent.

"It shows I care about my body, care about my team, what my coach tells me,'' Taylor said.

• FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28, 4:15 p.m.: Taylor enters the makeshift dining area not far from the locker room on the ground floor of Petersen Events Center. He walks softly to the table loaded down with food. Some days the players are served gourmet meals with lobster as the main course. Bypassing steaming trays of chicken and beef complemented by mashed potatoes, Taylor opts for a deli sandwich and grabs a carton of milk. It's a small meal for a big man.

Taylor sits at a table with seniors Nasir Robinson and Nick Rivers, sophomore J.J. Moore and, of course, Woodall, his shadow. They are later joined by Khem Birch -- the only freshman at their table. Taylor eats slowly, listening to various conversations around the room, sometimes nodding in agreement or adding his own take. The players tease each other as they trade stories and spin basketball versions of campfire tales. They talk about everything -- and nothing. For 30 minutes, they are content to happily unwind in each other's company.

"Sometimes we'll lose track of time and sit in there and talk,'' Taylor said. "About the game. About life. Reminiscing about old times, high school, joking on each other. That's one of the good things about this team. We don't take stuff personal. I think that's what brings us closer. You go to a lot of schools, you'll see dudes that won't talk to other dudes on their team. You'll have talented guys on the team that won't talk to each other, so they won't pass each other the ball. They'll start taking bad shots, looking people off. That guy will get mad, so he'll start doing his own thing, and that makes the team look bad.''

• FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28, 5:04 P.M.: Taylor squeezes his Intrepid into a parking space across the street from Big Tom's Full Service Barber Shop at Erin Street and Centre Avenue located in the heart of the Hill District. It's about a two-minute drive from the Washington Plaza Apartments. Taylor's overdue for a haircut, what with Pitt playing its first exhibition game the next day and Taylor's girlfriend, Jocelyn Ball, visiting him from Clarion University later that night.

Taylor sits in the barber's chair nearest to the door almost as soon as he enters, one of five chairs available to customers. Prices range from $12 for kids to $20 for adults.

"What you doing with it, brother?'' asks the barber, Sam Thompson. Taylor requests a close-cropped haircut and reminds Thompson to trim the small patch of hair under his chin. Taylor is in and out of the chair in 20 minutes.

Back in his apartment as daylight changes into dusk, Taylor emphasizes how much the Hill District reminds him and Woodall of their native New York.

"Back home, the environment, the aspect of being in the city, of being in New York, an urban area, it definitely makes me more comfortable here,'' Taylor said. "First time I went to the barber shop, it wasn't nothing. I wasn't scared. It was like an area I grew up in back home. I'm used to that environment.''

Adds Woodall, "Neither one of us wanted to get our haircuts in Oakland. Not saying that they're bad in Oakland, but we're both from the inner city. We knew we had to come to the 'hood to get a haircut because they already know the way we want it. A lot of people say how bad the Hill (District) is. Me and Dante, we walk up and down the street. We say what's up to everybody. Both of us even hand out posters and media guides. Everybody here is a fan. They appreciate us, and we appreciate them. So it's like being back home.''

For Taylor and Woodall, home is where they give the best haircuts.

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