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CROWE'S NEST

The story arc of his life has some real hooks to it

December 04, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

As coming-out parties go, it was blindingly, breathtakingly brilliant, a startling example of execution exceeding expectation.

Ron Taylor, though, had another word for it: "Deflating."

Forty years ago Sunday, on Dec. 3, 1966, a 7-foot-2 sophomore center from New York City named Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor made his varsity debut with the UCLA basketball team, scoring 56 points in a 105-90 nonconference victory over USC in front of a sellout crowd of 12,689 in Pauley Pavilion.

"For years to come," wrote The Times' Jeff Prugh, "they'll always remember [it] as the night when the 'Magnificent Seven-Footer' rode through Westwood."

Lew Alcindor, who later converted to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had wasted no time in announcing himself as The Next Big Thing, if a 21-0 run with the Brubabes freshman team hadn't already done the trick. Afterward, UCLA Coach John Wooden called it "the most impressive performance by a sophomore I've ever seen," and USC Coach Bob Boyd said, "There's no question Lew is going to be the greatest college basketball player in history."

Though he would play 87 more games at UCLA and 20 seasons with the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks, retiring in 1989 as the NBA's all-time scoring leader, the "Magnificent Seven-Footer" would score as many as 56 points only once more -- 2 1/2 months later, on Feb. 25, 1967, when he scored a school-record 61 against Washington State.

For Taylor, USC's 7-foot sophomore from North Torrance High, it was enough to make him wonder whether maybe the skeptics had been right all along.

Maybe he really did have no chance against this guy.

"I didn't run that well, but I was a big-boned ballplayer," says Taylor, a classic, back-to-the-basket center who scored 16 points on that long-ago December night and was outrebounded by his counterpart, 21-5. "I could play the game, and I could influence a game quite a lot just by being under the basket.

"But he was in another sphere. He was quite a human specimen in terms of athletic ability. Once he started to move, he was hard to contain."

Today, Taylor is an actor and property manager. Divorced since 1985 and recently turned 59, he lives and works in West Los Angeles, where last month he realized a longtime dream by opening an acting and directing workshop.

And he is now known as Tiny Ron, having changed his name when he joined the Screen Actors Guild and discovered another Ron Taylor already registered.

"I figured if Kareem could do it, I could do it," he says of the name change, which combines an acting axiom -- "Keep it tiny" -- with an ironic twist on his mammoth size. "I know that sounds silly, but I really did think that."

Tiny Ron, whose screen credits include roles in Bruce Willis' "Last Man Standing" and Jim Carrey's "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," was 1-9 against UCLA, including two losses when he and his nemesis played on freshman teams.

But he was a winner in their last meeting, a 46-44 USC upset on March 8, 1969, in which the Trojans ignored Pauley pundits -- "Stalls Are For Horses," read one sign -- and held the ball for long stretches. In handing the Bruins their first loss in 52 games at Pauley Pavilion, the Trojans also ended several other UCLA winning streaks: 41 in a row overall, 45 in a row in conference play, 17 in a row over USC.

And in his final collegiate game, Taylor made two free throws with 1:27 to play, giving the Trojans a 44-43 lead.

"It's been a long four years of frustration for Taylor against Alcindor," Boyd said, "but those were the two most clutch free throws I have ever seen."

Tiny Ron, whose younger brother Bill also played at USC and whose niece Lindsay Taylor plays for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, left basketball after playing two seasons in the American Basketball Assn. and five in Europe.

Returning to the United States, he opened a wallpaper-hanging business in Escondido, later relocating it to Beverly Hills after his divorce.

"Of course, working in Bel-Air and such, I'd work for actors, I'd work for directors, I'd work for somebody whose daughter was a producer," he says. "And everybody would say, 'You should be an actor.'

"When I was younger, with my height, it was always, 'Are you a basketball player?' And when I was older, it was, 'Are you an actor?' And finally I decided, I'm going to just go for it."

He took an acting class, joined a workshop, changed his name and started auditioning for roles, where he sometimes encountered Abdul-Jabbar, whose memorable role in "Airplane!" left an impression on Tiny Ron.

"Hilarious," he says.

They rarely spoke, however.

"He never talked to me on the court and I never talked to him," Tiny Ron says. "And during the auditions, we didn't talk that much. Each time he'd say, 'Oh, you're around. You're trying to do the same thing I'm doing.' "

Tiny Ron, who weighed about 280 pounds in college, has weighed as much as 400 pounds since, he says, "but I got tired of that." Years ago, he says, he improved his diet and started exercising regularly. Today, he says, he weighs about 320.

His knees have held up surprisingly well, he says, but he suffers from arthritis in his left hip, the result of countless hook shots.

"I didn't call it a skyhook," he says of his signature shot.

Somebody else, it seems, already had designs on the name.

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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