LAWRENCE — Everywhere Tyshawn Taylor goes, it feels like people are watching him.
As his fellow students grab tables at the Burge Union cafeteria to eat lunch on a picturesque fall Monday, Taylor is seated among them wearing a blue Kansas fleece jacket. He assumes that each of them knows who he is and has a pre-formed opinion of him. Especially right now. Taylor is back in the news for the wrong type of reason, this time an offseason violation of team rules.
"How do I explain this?" Taylor says. "Because I just feel like when people see that, the first thing they say to themselves is, 'Again?' I don't know how to explain it."
Taylor is in an awkward situation. The incident that got him in trouble happened months ago, and he was scolded then by KU coach Bill Self, who decided to wait to announce the violation. Ever since, Taylor has been trying to do and say the right things. He and Self have found a common ground, just in time for a new season. But Taylor still knew this day was coming.
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And then Self told Taylor on Sunday that it was time. He was going to issue a statement that said Taylor and teammate Elijah Johnson would be suspended for two exhibition games. Self attempted to lessen the blow by saying his players had been "terrific" and "very responsible and disciplined the first few months of the school year," but with Tyshawn Taylor and Jayhawk Nation, there has been little room for understanding.
Text messages poured into Taylor's cell phone. His Twitter account filled up with mentions. Strangers and people he hardly knew said things like "Damn, bro, you did it again," and "You can't just leave it alone, can you?"
Taylor's long day was just beginning. On Monday morning, Thomas Robinson was looking at a message board while he and Taylor were at tutoring. A fan had posted a string of Taylor's messages on Twitter and concluded he was a bad seed.
Later, at lunch time in the Burge, Taylor looked around the room, imagining what his classmates must have been thinking about him.
"I'm actually a nice guy," Taylor said, "but maybe I don't come off that way. I don't know if people read my Facebook or my Twitter and just think I'm an idiot or not a nice person, but I just don't think that's the case. That's not the image I'm going for. I'm not going for the bad guy image, I'm just being me. That's really it. I only know how to be me."
Being Tyshawn has never been easy, and it's only gotten harder now that he's Tyshawn Taylor, No. 10, point guard for the Kansas Jayhawks. Taylor's family followed him to Lawrence, arriving before his sophomore season, when his off-the-court issues began. Those close to Taylor say he's a young man who's been pulled in too many directions with the impossible goal of pleasing everyone.
This senior season, fittingly begun with more questions, is one final chance for Taylor to leave a positive lasting impression.
"I'm not really a person that's walking around trying to be liked," he says.
It's a strong statement, and some aren't buying it.
"Usually," Self says, "the guys who say, 'People can think what they want to' are the ones that care the most about what people think."
* * *
Where do you start with Taylor? Maybe his need for acceptance began when his father abandoned him as a child. Maybe it began when he lived in a Florida domestic violence shelter and later a homeless shelter with his mom and his sisters. Tyshawn would cry himself to sleep during those nights.
Jeanell Taylor loved her little boy, but she knew she couldn't give him enough. She sought mentors who could do more. In Florida, it was a man named Tom Spencer, who became Tyshawn's friend through Big Brothers Big Sisters. When Taylor moved back to his native New Jersey for his sophomore year of high school to play for legendary coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony's High in Jersey City, it was Hurley and Rex Turso, who worked at the local department of recreation.
Under their watch, Taylor began to think big about basketball. He realized he could make money playing the game, which meant that he could help save his family playing it. That was the long-term goal, but in the short term, Taylor craved the structure that Hurley's program had brought his life.
"He needed it, and he wanted it," Turso says, "and that's two different things. There are kids out there who need it but don't want it."
That's why they thought Self would be such a good fit for Taylor at Kansas. Taylor burst onto the scene at KU with a big freshman year. He was a fan favorite, and even bigger things were expected of him the next year. What people didn't know was that Taylor's personal life was about to become more complicated.
Taylor didn't like the idea of his little sisters, Taquana and Ghariana, going to school in New Jersey. He worried they'd get caught up in a lot of the temptations he struggled to avoid living there. Jeanell feared for their safety, too, so they agreed they would move to Lawrence to save money for an eventual move back to Florida.
Taylor was glad to have them closer and out of harm's way, but their problems were now directly his. It could be something as small as Jeanell not having a car to drive to her job at HyVee and Tyshawn having to loan her his, or something as big as having to calm fights between Jeanell and high-school-aged Taquana.
"They always butt heads," Tyshawn says, "and I'm the middle man. I have to mediate. It's something that I've grown up doing, but I think it affects me more than I want it to."
In America, college is supposed to be a selfish period for a kid. Go live, learn, be free and figure yourself out. While Taylor has had plenty of experiences most students could only dream of, he has not had the luxury of living in a bubble.
"The situations that a 20-year-old college kid can escape, I usually can't," Taylor says. "Because my family is right here. I haven't really ever just been worried about myself since I've been here."
Thing is, when Taylor has gotten in trouble with Self, it has been construed as selfish behavior. His sophomore year, there was the infamous fight with the football players, which landed Taylor in the hospital with an injured finger from throwing a punch. He informed his friends of the incident on Facebook, which put him in the public light more than any other player involved.
His junior year, there was the two-game suspension for a violation of team rules in late February that could have cost his team a seventh straight Big 12 regular season title if his teammates didn't pick up the slack.
In those cases, Taylor's need for others' approval manifested itself negatively.
"He also cares about how he's perceived to the people that he runs with, to his friends," Self says, "and I think that's led to some poor decisions on Facebook or whatever."
It is still unclear what Taylor actually did to violate team rules in February and the offseason. The Star asked Taylor, who was accompanied by a KU official during an interview, if the violations were actions that a normal college student could take without punishment.
"Oh, for sure," Taylor said. "Definitely. The only reason it's bad is because of the situation I'm in and who I am to people. I'm not just Tyshawn. I'm Tyshawn Taylor, KU basketball player. There's a magnifying glass on me."
Taylor may not know how to explain his bad decisions, but his mentors do: He's simply been too distracted.
"For someone to be his age and feel the responsibility of being some type of leader in a household," Hurley says, "that's asking an awful lot. He's just emotionally and physically maturing right now. It's a difficult thing, because he's among two sisters and his mother who rely on him. He's more like a confidant or a mentor than he is a sibling or a child in that household. It's unfortunate."
Yet, Hurley knows Taylor is stronger now because of all he's had to manage. Hurley is proud of his former player.
"I salute him for still wanting to see his family members be successful even though sometimes it doesn't look like it's going to happen," Hurley says. "He's never given up on his family, nor should he."
There's an old saying that, "When you chop the head off a giant, the rest of the body goes with it." Tyshawn Taylor is now the face of this Kansas team, the player that teammates are looking to for leadership, and if he loses his head during games as he's done in the past, the Jayhawks will quickly crash and burn.
It hasn't just been Taylor's off-the-court issues that have drawn the ire of fans. He has had spectacular stretches during games and seasons, but has left his teammates, coaches and fans wondering where that Tyshawn went at other times. Taylor acknowledges that too often his public gaffes away from basketball have spilled onto the floor.
"When a coach is frustrated with you or had it up to here with you," Taylor says, "it makes it a little bit harder to play the way you can. Off-the-court issues have definitely held me back from being the player that I can be."
KU fans saw that side of Taylor down the stretch last season, after he came back from his suspension. Taylor says he was playing with a free mind because nothing, not even being pulled from the game because of a mistake, could be worse than sitting on the bench in street clothes. After six games out of the starting lineup, Self put Taylor back in against Texas in the Big 12 Tournament championship, and Taylor torched the Longhorns for 20 points and five assists in an 85-73 KU win.
"The way he played against Texas would probably be as impressive as any elite guard in the country played in one particular game," Self says. "That showed us where his ceiling is, and his ceiling is very, very high."
Self has told Taylor that one of his favorite things about him is his stubbornness. Self wants Taylor to be himself this season, but not at the expense of the team.
"Sometimes, he lets personal things take precedent over team things," Self says. "He's matured so much. He's very competitive, and I think he's learned that he doesn't have to get the last word in."
Taylor believes his personal life will be simpler this year. His older sister is back in Jersey for her last year of high school, leaving just Jeanell and his 9-year-old sister in Lawrence. Taylor says he's spending more time with them and enjoying watching Ghariana grow up.
As for his detractors, Taylor would like to tell them about the three Big 12 regular-season titles he's helped KU win, the two Big 12 Tournament championships and the fact he's going to become a 1,000-point scorer this year.
"I've been on such good teams with such great players," Taylor says, "a lot of the stuff I've done is minimized."
Despite the rocky beginning to the season, Taylor knows that everything is in his control more than ever. This No. 13 KU team is not loaded with future NBA players. Taylor will not have to look over his shoulder at a player like Xavier Henry or Josh Selby. Self has handed Taylor the keys out of necessity, and Taylor pushing the pedal toward victories and championships will change everything.
"I don't know what my legacy is gonna be," Taylor says. "I hope that this year can clear that up for me."