It was around 1:00 a.m. when the explosion shook Jerri Taylor out of her sleep and into a state of confusion. She was supposed to be alone in the house, but as she sat there trying to process the noise, it became clear she wasn’t. Men were screaming, dogs were barking. And the sounds kept getting louder. And closer. Someone was in her house, and they were coming up the stairs. Fast.
Scared, she jumped from her bed and into the closet, only to have the door ripped open behind her. Four men grabbed her, threw her on the ground and pointed their guns at her head.
“Don’t move,” they screamed. “FBI.”
For months, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been staking out the South Bend, Ind., house Taylor was living in with her father, Tony, whom they suspected of dealing drugs. Taylor found herself caught in the middle of their midnight raid.
For Taylor, who was just 14 years old, the event was traumatic and life-changing. Unfortunately, the change was for the worse.
It sparked a downward spiral into a world of trouble. She adopted an “I don’t care” attitude as a defense mechanism, changed schools four times in one year and either hid within herself or stood up and fought. “I was always on the edge about everything,” she says.
By the end of her sophomore year, her grades dropped and the colleges that began recruiting her for her basketball skills as a freshman disappeared. Her chances in life were slipping away. And she really didn’t care.
Fortunately, though, others did. A convergence of forces came into her life and not only helped her turn her life around but also land at Xavier where she’s the starting shooting guard on this year’s women’s basketball team—a team that is expected to be among the elite in the Atlantic 10 Conference and, possibly, the nation.
And if the team is to excel this year, a lot will depend on Taylor, a junior and the most experienced player on a team with 10 freshmen and sophomores. Teams will be closely guarding Xavier’s two inside powerhouses—6-foot-5-inch sophomore Amber Harris and 6-foot-6-inch freshman Ta’Shia Phillips—and force Xavier to score from the perimeter, which is Taylor’s strength.
“Her ability to score from the outside will be vital to our success,” says coach Kevin McGuff. But the team will also be looking for her to take on another new role: leader. Always playing behind seniors, she’s never had to fill that role, although it’s one she’s played before. In the midst of her spiral, she started hanging out at a gym called Heroes Camp—a church-based safe haven to keep kids off the streets. She would hang out there for 12 hours a day during the summer, playing ball, attending Bible studies, eating meals. She learned a lot about herself, and then began mentoring the younger kids.
“I saw a lot of myself in those kids,” she says. “They weren’t bad kids, but for whatever reason they didn’t have any guidance and were growing up too fast. Here were these 9-year-old kids staying out on the streets until midnight.”
She was introduced to the camp after going there one day with her AAU coach, Jamal Keys, the man she credits with teaching her the game of basketball—and humility. “I thought I was good, but I really stunk. He was this little dude, about 5-foot-5 inches, and he would beat me in games of one-on-one and talk trash. He broke me down, made me start crying and then built me up into the player I am today.” Proud of his accomplishment, Keys told Heroes Camp owner Pat Magley two of his girls could beat any two boys in a game. “Clear the court,” Magley said. The girls won.
Having found direction for basketball through Keys and life through Magley’s Heroes Camp, Taylor finally found academic direction at Washington High School. The school’s basketball coach, Marilyn Coddens, told her time was running out and she couldn’t even afford a B if she wanted to play college basketball. “She believed in me more than I believed in myself,” says Taylor. “Anything she told me, I believed and I did.” At Coddens’ suggestion, she stayed after school and studied, took honors classes and committed herself to academics.
“When I focus, I can do anything,” she says. “Before, I committed myself to getting in trouble.”
By her senior year, her GPA was 2.8—and McGuff offered her a scholarship. “Knowing a lot of people in South Bend,” says McGuff, who previously coached at the University of Notre Dame, “I was familiar with the situation. I thought if she was put in an environment such as Xavier and put around the right people, she could flourish.”
“I’ve become a completely different person,” she says. “That’s why I stay here every summer. Don’t get me wrong—I wouldn’t take anything back; all of that molded me and shaped me into who I am. But I don’t want to go back to where I was before.”