Warrior Taft can go home again
By Geoff Lepper, STAFF WRITER
Jeff O'Brien, the athletic director at Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, expects 75 newcomers to apply this month when tryouts begin for the Clippers' freshman boys basketball team.
Regardless of background or size, they share one common item, according to O'Brien: "They all want to be Chris Taft."
Right now, so would plenty of other NBA rookies.
With starting center Adonal Foyle nursing a painful left knee and highly touted backup Andris Biedrins sidelined by a sprained ankle, there are minutes in the middle to be had with the Warriors right now. And Taft, Xaverian Class of 2003, is gobbling them up.
The second-round pick is making it clear that his selection wasn't some payback on the part of Warriors executive Chris Mullin, himself a 1981 grad of Xaverian. In 31 high-energy minutes over the team's first two games, the 6-foot-10, 261-pound Taft has grabbed eight rebounds, scored six points and endeared himself to the Arena faithful, who gave him a loud cheer upon his entry Friday night.
"We've been trying to encourage him and bring him out," Foyle said. "He has such an amazing body for such a young player. We now know we can go to him and get some production, and that's great. ... I think that's going to be good for us."
The Warriors' first road trip of the season, which opens this afternoon in Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks, should be good for Taft. After all, this is a guy who said before the season opener that he was "more excited about going home."
In fact, Taft's return has threatened to overshadow Xaverian's actual homecoming. The Clippers football team will kick off against Fordham Prep at 1:30 this afternoon, a half-hour after the Warriors are slated to tip off against the Knicks.
"There's a bunch of kids going over. We're really excited for him," said O'Brien, and that enthusiasm is not limited to the student body. "I don't want to sound dopey, but Chris was one of the nicest kids here. If you saw Chris in the halls, he always went out of his way to say hello."
Taft, whose freshman physical education teacher was Terence Mullin, younger brother of Chris, is trying to cobble together 80 tickets on behalf of his personal cheering section, which will be led by his aunt, Sakina Simpson.
It will undoubtedly be a happier moment than draft day was. Having left the University of Pittsburgh after two seasons as the school's sixth-leading shot blocker and an All-Big East honorable mention player, Taft could only watch as the first round came and went without his name being called.
Finally the Warriors, who had brought Taft in for a pre-draft workout, picked him at No. 42 overall.
"When we saw he was there, we were really happy," Chris Mullin said.
Taft admitted he wasn't quite so pleased with being someone's diamond in the rough, even if it was on behalf of the Warriors, who were one of three teams he wanted most to play for (the others being his hometown Knicks and the Suns) because of the presence of superlative point guard Baron Davis.
"I was upset, but it's all in the past," Taft said. "It doesn't matter where you were picked. It's how you perform."
So far, so good. Taft has given the Warriors a solid body inside (his three blocks rank third on the team, behind Foyle and Jason Richardson) when they've badly needed it.
"The preseason's over. There's no room for mistakes no more," Taft said. "We've got so many guys that can score that if I come in, I've got to be that guy who defends and rebounds."
As coach Mike Montgomery put it: "Going up and getting a block, getting a rebound, being a physical presence, he just seemed to energize us."
If he keeps it up, this time next year there might be some kids in the Bay Area who want to be Chris Taft.
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