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Cager Leonard Taylor Goes From Where? to When? and Why Not?

June 29, 1989|ALAN DROOZ | Times Staff Writer

As National Basketball Assn. draft day dawned Tuesday, Leonard Taylor's horoscope said: "You're in your element now. Travel conditions are go . . . fate supports your good intentions."

But when the NBA's first nighttime draft was completed, Taylor found he was a not-ready-for-prime-time player.

The husky 6-foot-8 UC Berkeley graduate--who was all but assured he would be a late first-round or early second-round pick--sat in his Inglewood home Tuesday, growing more and more mystified as he was passed over for long shots, dark horses and unknown Yugoslavs. Finally, at nearly midnight, the draft was over and Taylor was still a free agent.

The outlook isn't exactly bleak. Before the draft had ended, Golden State Warriors Coach Don Nelson had called to invite him to camp, and the champion Detroit Pistons did the same minutes later.

Still, in a draft full of surprises, everyone in Taylor's corner was caught off guard. Taylor had done well in several postseason camps that the scouts rate heavily, and he had gone to Detroit for a personal workout and physical. Detroit had called earlier Tuesday to let him know the Pistons were interested. The Miami Heat had called several times, and Milwaukee had shown interest as well.

As the draft began, Taylor appeared loose, lounging in a Nike T-shirt and blue-and-white-checked shorts, joking with family members and friends.

Aaron Goodwin, a friend and agent representing California Diversified Enterprises, tried to handicap the draft and confidently felt Taylor would go somewhere in the draft, which was trimmed to two rounds this year.

Taylor's mother, Bernice, wasn't as calm. As the draft started, she said: "This is worse than waiting for one of your games." Goodwin grinned and said: "She's been a nervous wreck for two weeks."

Taylor, the former South Bay Player of the Year out of St. Bernard High, had a career at Cal akin to his checkered shorts. When he was on the court, he was one of the best players on the West Coast--Freshman of the Year in the Pacific 10 Conference, third-leading scorer in Cal history with 1,608 points and All-Pac 10 this past season, averaging 19.7 points and 8.2 rebounds. Scouts liked his big body and soft perimeter touch. For draft purposes he was listed with the power forwards; Taylor preferred to think of himself as a shooting forward.

But Taylor missed a season and a half in his career because of injuries, including a neck problem in his junior year that threatened to end his career.

Taylor believed his strong showing as a senior and in the all-star games, as well as an injury-free season, had vastly improved his draft standing. "I'm fine. I had three good camps. No problems," he said as the draft started. Sacramento, headed by Kings vice president and NBA legend Bill Russell, had the first pick. The phone rang in Inglewood. Taylor answered and announced: "It's Bill."

It wasn't. In fact, the first surprise was about to unfold. The Kings took Louisville's Pervis Ellison. Goodwin, the agent, shook his head. "Bill (Russell) is sick," he said.

In quick succession, Duke's Danny Ferry, North Carolina's J. R. Reid, Oklahoma's Stacey King, Louisiana Tech's Randy White and Georgia Tech's Tom Hammonds were among the first nine picks. "The power forwards are going quick. That's good," Goodwin noted.

Taylor spent much of his time perusing the draft predictions in a newspaper and said he wasn't nervous. "This is exciting. Whatever happens, happens," he said. The only signs of anxiety were in gently chiding his mother for tying up the phone and in expressing frustration with the TV banter and commercials between picks. He talked to the television: "Cut . . . cut. Push fast forward."

As the first round went into its second hour, Goodwin announced: "We're getting to LT (Leonard Taylor) time."

At 6 p.m.--about an hour and a half into the draft--there was a commercial for the NBA with the message, "Be there." Taylor answered, "I'll be there." Shortly after, Boston College guard Dana Barros was a surprise No. 16 pick. The two had become friendly at a postseason camp. "Dana was right," Taylor said. "He said he'd go first round."

By now, Taylor's mother was pacing and attending to grandchildren. Taylor remained cool. "This is fun," he said. "You gotta enjoy it. I don't have pressure. I just start packing."

But a few minutes later, with the 20th pick, the Chicago Bulls drafted an unknown forward, Jeff Sanders out of Georgia Southern. For the first time, Taylor began to sense things were not sticking to the script. "Oh my goodness," he said, "Jeff Sanders? That was a surprise."

Goodwin was shocked: "(Sanders) played terrible at the camps. Sanders is a second-round draft choice." Goodwin's confidence was being shaken. "We're down where we should be, but it's all screwed up."

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