Derrick Taylor, has always been, first and foremost, a Taft guy.
Even though he grew up in South Los Angeles — “89th and Central,” he said, recalling his roots — he played basketball for, and graduated from, Taft High. His first coaching opportunity came here, when then head coach Jim Woodard asked him in 1987 to cover for another assistant at a summer league game. He discovered coaching basketball was his passion. “I never left Taft, and never went back to playing again. That day I realized this is what I like to do.”
He coached the junior varsity for more than 10 years. He appreciated and sought athleticism. He also demanded his players play the game with their minds as well as their bodies.
“As a player I thought like [a coach],” Taylor said. “I always took the ball out of bounds, I was the guy we ran stuff through. A typical stat line for me — I wasn’t going to blow you away with athleticism or stuff like that, but it would be like 14 points, 6-8 rebounds, 4-5 assists. I played with my brain.”
His junior varsity teams were highly successful, winning 144 of 160 games and 10 consecutive league championships. And while Taylor was happy — he was at Taft, after all — he did wonder if he could coach at the varsity level.
So were other schools like Cleveland High, which offered him the boys’ team head coaching position. When Taylor told then boys’ head coach Mark Drucker of the opportunity, he got a surprise: Drucker wanted Taylor to coach the varsity here.
“Mark said he would step down for me because he didn’t want me to go. That’s how I got the job at Taft,” Taylor said. “And Mark was a younger man then; he’d been coaching the boys less than 10 years. And he was coming off a 20-win season.”
Drucker, now the Taft athletic director and varsity girls’ basketball coach, definitely did not want Taylor coaching at another school especially “in our league.” But elevating Taylor gave Drucker the chance to stabilize another situation.
“The girls’ basketball team had gone through four coaches in four years,” Drucker said. “So when I took over the girls that year, I told them ‘I’m not going to be the fifth coach for you in five years. I’m gonna continue on for you.’ Plus it was a natural progression for Derrick to take the boys’ job.”
Giving Taylor his first varsity coaching job turned out not to be a gamble, but more of a sure thing. From 2001-2 to 2010-11, they won 10 West Valley League titles and three City Section championships, and Taft became a respected Southland power. At the end of the 2010-11 season, another opportunity knocked: officials from St. John Bosco High of Bellflower offered a job, beginning in the 2011-12 academic year.
His time at St. John Bosco could hardly be considered a flop. In his first season, 2011-12, the Braves won 25 games, reached the Southern Section Division 3A semifinals and the state Division III regional finals, losing each game by a point. The next season, St. John Bosco won 24 games and the 2013 Southern Section 3A Division title. The next season the Braves didn’t win the section championship, but did claim the 2014 state Division II championship.
In 2014-15, St. John Bosco had its lowest win total under Taylor (18) and lost in the first round of the section’s Open Division playoffs to Sierra Canyon, and in the quarterfinals of the state Division I regional playoffs to Union High of Redondo Beach. Ironically, the Braves’ last victory of the season came against Taft in the playoffs.
No matter, the basketball world expected Taylor to have the Braves challenge again in 2015-16.
But, stunningly, a week after the Redondo Union loss — March 20, 2015 — Taylor left St. John Bosco.
Taylor will not speak broadly about what precipitated his departure. But he offers a couple of hints.
“It was not a good environment for me,” he said. “The administration changed. It was fun when I first started. The original principal who interviewed me I was motivated to work for. Then he left to take another job at a private school up north. A new principal came in — Casey Yeazel is his name.
“The very first year, we have the best year in school history, went to the regional finals — never previously advanced that far — and lost 33-2 to an Alemany team with 1.5 seconds on the clock. (Alemany won the state championship that season.) The second year we win a Southern Section championship and are nationally rated. The third year we win the state title. Last year, in state Division I, we were a quarterfinalist. But [Yeazel] told me anyone could do what I do. I was told I didn’t fit the culture.”
A coach with a 90-39 record in four years, plus a section and a state championship, suddenly “doesn’t fit?”
Taylor paused, making sure he measured his words carefully.
“I’ve been doing this 15 years. And not everybody — with the exception of a McKnight, an [Ed] Azzam (of Westchester), (David) Kleckner at Etiwanda, (Harvey) Kitani (of Fairfax) — there’s not a whole lot of us who have been at this level for this length of time. So, obviously I can do something. But he told me anybody can do this.”
Taylor emphasizes that most of his Bosco experience was positive. “I learned a lot at Bosco. I grew. And I met a lot of really, good friends at Bosco. That experience was the best thing for me. And they supported me.”
Taylor left Bosco without a new job waiting. But it wouldn’t be a long wait. He interviewed (again) at Cleveland, and also St. Francis of La Canada. He was a finalist for both head coaching positions.
Then he heard again from Drucker.
“Mark called and said they were thinking of making a change, and would I be interested in coming back and coaching at Taft,” Taylor said. “I said not at the cost of another man losing his job. He said no, the coach had some family issues and was leaving. I said I’d think about it. This was on a Saturday. He said he had to know by Monday or else they would go in another direction. I slept on it, and thought, if I was gonna return to basketball, I was gonna come back home.”
For his part, Drucker couldn’t believe Taylor had become available again.
“Derrick had partially filled me in on what was going on. He didn’t give me details. But I was stunned to find out he had been released. I don’t know where I found out; I must have seen it in the paper. That was in April.”
Taylor was hired back in July, but only as the boys’ basketball coach. His day job, if you will, is the director in charge of team athletic development. He hires the coaches and oversees every facet of the athletic program, from elementary to the high school. Pilgrim School is also building a $14 million sports complex, and Taylor is very hands-on of the project. “They want to raise the level of competitiveness on the campus,” he said.
He is also doing that with Taft. The Toreadors have gotten off to a 7-2 start, going into their game against Lancaster High in the Chaminade Christmas Classic on Saturday, Dec. 26. And they’re not a full team — four transfers who had to sit out at the beginning of the 2015-16 season could see their first game action here.
Two other transfers have already had an impact. Sophomore guard Kihei Clark, who was at Buckley High in Sherman Oaks last year, has quickly learned that Taylor has great expectations for whoever plays that position. “He demands a lot from his point guards, including leadership,” Clark said. “But he’s [coached] some very good ones here. I want to be one of them.”
Senior guard Marcel Addy attended league rival El Camino Real last year but said he was made to feel welcome. “I knew he was a great coach,” Addy said. “Now that I’m here, it’s what I thought it would be like.”
Taylor had a similar reaction about his return to Taft, even if it means grinding through freeway gridlock every day when he leaves Pilgrim.
“I leave my house at 6:30 every morning, and get home every night at 9:30. And I wouldn’t change a thing. What else would I do? I have the best of both worlds, and I really like it.”