When Tony Taylor imagined his future as a pro basketball player, the vision probably never included stepping through the door and into a foreign world each morning.
Three years removed from college, the former Archbishop Stepinac High School star now lives and works in Zgorzelec, Poland, a town near the German border. English speakers include Taylor, a few American-born teammates and, well … that’s about it.
Taylor spent 10 months thousands of miles from the courts in his dreams. He was the starting point guard for Turow Zgorzelec, which won the Polish league championship. Because of that success, and despite the relative isolation, he returned.
“Being here for months at a time by yourself, and with the six-hour time change, it gets pretty lonely,” Taylor wrote in an email. “Thank God for the Internet.”
Taylor and fellow pros Kevin Jones, Sean Kilpatrick and Ra’Shad James consider themselves blessed. All were members of the area basketball Class of 2008, and they continue to chase dreams of playing in the NBA, pulling in five-digit paychecks or, they hope, both. All four have followed different paths.
They consider it a testament to the talent of their graduating class that they play basketball for a living. Even separated by thousands of miles, it’s a bond they share.
“I knew since high school that the ’08 class was definitely a special class,” said Jones, a Mount Vernon High School product. “It wasn’t only that all those guys went Division I, but all the stuff guys accomplished in college. It’s crazy. Everybody is just playing big-time basketball. It’s good to see Westchester County has so much talent.”
Time to move on
Of the four, Kevin Jones is the one who has truly made it.
Jones was shocked when he went undrafted after an All-American career at West Virginia, but he quickly reached the NBA nonetheless. He played 32 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012-13, fueling his promotion with a string of double-doubles in the NBA’s Development League.
The Cavs waived the 6-foot-8 forward the following summer, beginning the next stage of his odyssey. He returned to their D-League affiliate in Canton, Ohio, and was named an All-Star, but he was bought out of his contract last March. He signed a lucrative deal to finish the season in the Philippines with the San Miguel Beermen. Their slogan? “Fear the Beer.”
Jones then had a strong stint playing for the Indiana Pacers at the NBA Summer League in Orlando, Florida. He led the league in rebounding and earned an invitation to camp with the New Orleans Pelicans, who waived him in October. Jones and his camp have since pivoted; he’s in search of a job overseas, one that agent Bill Neff said could land him a six-figure salary playing in a top European league such as those in Italy or Turkey.
Jones has spurned offers to return to the D-League, which pays players between $19,000 and 25,000 a season.
“It provided a great opportunity for me to showcase my talent to NBA scouts,” Jones said. “I feel like my talent is out there. Teams know what I can do, so I feel like the next step is to go overseas. If my dream of making the NBA doesn’t happen, I can go out there and get a great job.”
Jones has spent the last six weeks in Morgantown, West Virginia, working out at his alma mater’s practice facility. He and his advisers remain selective with regard to potential offers.
“I want to be very picky with any job that comes up and do my research,” Jones said. “I don’t want to just take anything. That would diminish what I’ve done in the past.”
Sean Kilpatrick acquired his patience the hard way.
After a four-year career at Cincinnati, the 2014 All-American left as the program’s second leading scorer, behind only Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. Still, Kilpatrick went undrafted last June before joining the Philadelphia 76ers’ summer-league team in Las Vegas.
During his stint in Las Vegas, the former White Plains star felt pain in his right knee, an injury that first surfaced at Cincinnati. He underwent surgery to repair a meniscus tear in late August. It cost him precious time at the very moment he could afford it least.
“It was kind of tough. That was my first injury I ever really had, with me having to go through the whole surgery process,” he said. “I just wanted to keep a strong mind about things and stay positive.”
Still not close to 100 percent, Kilpatrick joined the Golden State Warriors’ training camp. The team waived him four days later but added him to its D-League team in Santa Cruz, California.
Kilpatrick, a 6-4 guard, has averaged 12.0 points and 3.4 rebounds in 11 games. He believes his knee is 85 percent-to-90 percent healed, and he has faith an NBA team will eventually call.
“My dream was always to play in the NBA,” he said. “I don’t think I could see myself playing anywhere and going overseas to play. I have to make sure everything is in perspective. Everybody knows I deserve (to) and can play in the NBA. Right now, I’m just worried about getting healthy and getting better every day.”
Tony Taylor had a moment when he joined the NBA conversation. He, too, had gone undrafted after starting 117 of 121 games at point guard during a four-year stay at George Washington. Taylor’s play-making skills earned him a spot on the D-League’s Tulsa 66ers in Oklahoma. He dressed for 55 games that season, then spent the following summer league playing played summer-league ball for the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I thought I was pretty close at that point, but it also comes down to time and opportunity,” Taylor said via email from Poland. “I didn’t do enough or make enough of an impact to get that opportunity, or the timing wasn’t right, unfortunately.”
Taylor signed with Turow Zgorzelec that summer and started in 46 of 53 games last season. His team won the Polish league and earned its first invitation to the Euroleague, the top league in the world outside of the NBA. Turow recently completed the Euroleague 1-9 playing against Europe’s beset.
Taylor’s teammates include former Knicks guard Mardy Collins and former University of Dayton star Chris Wright. The remaining 13 players on Turow’s roster are Europeans, nine of them Polish.
“It’s been a big adjustment. It’s unlike anything in America,” said Taylor, who is earning roughly five times his D-League salary. “The style of play is different, and there are a couple different rules on and off the court that you have to quickly get used to and understand.”
The experience has been equally enlightening away from the court. Taylor had never been outside of the U.S. Now, the 6-1 guard is piling up stamps on his passport like assists. He’s learned enough Polish to shop for groceries and order food, but his social life revolves around his teammates.
Despite the strain of living so far from home, Taylor considers his job a long-term one.
“I plan on playing until the wheels fall off,” he said. “However long that may be.”
Few people jump as high as Ra’Shad James,Kilpatrick’s former White Plains teammate. The 6-foot-1 guard estimates his vertical leap as somewhere around 47 or 48 inches.
In the past, James’ athleticism defined him. He spent one season as a reserve at Iona after two seasons at Division II St. Thomas Aquinas. Finally, James found an opportunity to showcase his development at Florida’s Northwood University under former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino.
James finished his senior season second in the nation in scoring and was the NAIA Division II National Player of the Year. He is now in the middle of a second season with the Sacramento Kings’ D-League affiliate in Reno, Nevada.
“I’m pretty satisfied with where I’m at and where I’m still going,” said James, who has transitioned to the point. “I’ve been to a few different schools. A lot of people wouldn’t expect me to be in the position I’m in right now. I always thought I was a Division I player, and I’m a hard worker. At the end of the day, the whole thing was about me getting my opportunity.”
As something of an experiment for Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, James’ team in Reno has played at a breakneck pace. He has averaged 17.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists in nine games.
With one eye peeled toward a more lucrative future overseas and the other focused on an NBA call-up, James envisions a bright future.
“I feel like I’m close,” James said. “I wouldn’t have come back for a second year if I didn’t feel like I have a shot at making a roster at some point this season. The Kings told me it’s in my best interest to stick around. It’s a new system, a fast pace. I feel like I’m knocking on the door.”
Mount Vernon’s Kevin Jones, center, and New Rochelle’s Rakeem Callands right, vie for a rebound during the Mount Vernon vs. New Rochelle boys basketball game at Mount Vernon High School Jan. 31, 2008.