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Recovery Longest Season for Leonard Taylor

February 21, 1988|DAN KNAPP

This is the winter of Leonard Taylor's discontent.

Make that the second winter, and his coach at UC Berkeley, Lou Campenelli, isn't too happy either.

The reason: For the second basketball season in a row, the gifted 6-8 power forward from Inglewood and St. Bernard High School is unable to do battle on the hardwood for the battered Golden Bears.

Cal's record--8-13 overall, 5-8 in Pac 10--indicates how badly the 21-year-old Taylor is missed by coaches and teammates.

"With Leonard in the lineup," said Campenelli, "I have no doubt we'd be playing at least .500 ball. We probably would have beaten USC and USF, and we might even have had a flip-flop of what the record is."

Would Cal be maybe 13-8, 8-5?

"Absolutely," says Campenelli, obviously uncomfortable, not wanting to dwell on what might have been. "You have to remember that Leonard is one of our premier players. He was scoring almost 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds a game when we lost him last year. Just having him on the court would have given our younger players more confidence this season."

Behind Taylor's absence is a medical nightmare that lasted a year.

It started when Taylor, an All-American at St. Bernard's in Playa Del Rey, collided with UCLA's Reggie Miller in Pauley Pavilion a year ago Jan. 4. He landed in a heap under the basket after suffering a head-snapping blow between the shoulder blades.

Says Taylor, who will play as a fifth-year redshirt senior next season: "I never saw Reggie. And when I got up, I had this numbness, this tingling sensation up and down my body."

The symptoms lasted only a few seconds, Taylor recalls. "But my left arm was numb for two or three hours."

Nothing seemed broken, but as a precaution Taylor was sent for treatment and it was discovered that he suffered from congenital cervical stenosis.

The condition, characterized by a narrow spinal canal and often a flattened spinal cord, allows little or no room for compression in the event of trauma to the area. Thus, with less space around the body's central nerve cord, severe damage and paralysis looms as a possibility from a blow.

The prognosis for Taylor's basketball career, his high hope for making the NBA, suddenly turned terminal. He was told he should never play again.

"I got down when they told me that," Taylor says, "but somehow, down deep, I knew what they said was wrong."

Taylor and his mother, Bernice, have always been extremely close, so he called her during the darkest moment he'd ever faced.

"He got very emotional," Bernice Taylor recalls. "He cried. All I could do was tell him to ask God to help him. I told Leonard not to give up hope. In situations like this the Lord is the only one you can turn to. If you do, he'll help you."

Armed with his family's religious faith and his feeling that the initial medical finding was inaccurate, Taylor became determined to play again. He had no idea how long and difficult the road would be.

After seeing several orthopedists and neurosurgeons in the Bay Area, Taylor decided he had to find an expert in spinal stenosis. More than a month had passed, and he'd found no definitive guidance, he said. It was postulated that he might have to have surgery if the tingling and numbness recurred. That would have entailed lopping off part of several vertebrae in his upper spine to give his spinal cord more room. All that would have been left to protect a portion of Taylor's spinal cord would be muscle and scar tissue. Obviously, his playing days would be over.

With the help of Cal Athletic Director Dave Maggard and the team physician, Dr. Jerome Patmont, Taylor located a specialist. And last March he flew to Philadelphia where he was examined by Dr. Joseph Torg at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. Taylor's frustrating wait continued for another week, but then suddenly a ray of hope appeared. Torg OKd him to play again.

Taylor was ecstatic. But when he got back to the Berkeley campus, he discovered that one opinion, even from someone as highly regarded as Torg, wasn't enough to satisfy legal and medical insurance requirements at the university. And there was another important consideration: University officials wanted to be sure that Taylor would not be exposing himself to a lifetime in a wheelchair.

"Leonard wanted to play," Maggard said. "And we wanted him to be able to play. But we also wanted to make sure it was safe for him."

It took time and it was frustrating, but subsequent medical opinions indicated, according to a Cal administrator, that Taylor was no more at risk than the average athlete who did not have cervical stenosis.

By then, the fall semester had started. On his own, Taylor had played--without ill effect or signs of potential problems--in a pro-am league in Marin County during the summer.

Taylor says the long wait for official approval to play got to him. "If I'm OKd to play, why can't I be treated like a normal athlete?" he asked.

But Taylor was back in school last fall and soon got approval from the university to play.

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