Poised, confident and even-keeled, Jeril Taylor has the rare duality of offensive creativity and a relentless commitment to defending.
In the classrooms and hallways of PRP, the six-foot-three senior guard is a popular student with an endearing smile and close, positive relationships with teachers and administrators. Last trimester he earned all A’s and B’s.
Thirty one year veteran coach Dale Mabrey has called him one of the best leaders in the history of the Panthers’ storied program.
Only three years ago, however, the hands that Taylor now uses to dribble through defenders were cuffed behind his back as he was shuttled out of Atherton High School and into a police cruiser.
Then a 14-year-old freshman at the school, Taylor had been involved in an altercation with another student and was charged with, and later convicted of, assault and robbery. A sentence of nine weeks at the Louisville Metro Youth Detention Center followed.
It was rock bottom for the troubled kid who had been to four schools in seven years and earned a reputation as an aggressive reprobate.
He didn’t know it at the time, but Taylor’s life was about to enter a new chapter.
Between his release in May 2009 and his emergence this season as a focused and respectful student-athlete, a drastic change occurred in Taylor that is a testament to both the power of self-reinvention and the influence of a transformational school culture.
“I had to make a different me,” said Taylor. “I had to change.”
Growing up in Louisville’s infamous Sheppard Square government housing complex, Taylor played countless hours of pickup in Lampton Park.
He learned the finer points of the game from his father, Charlie Taylor, a former PRP star who graduated in 1995 and went on to play a season for Denny Crum at the University of Louisville.
Tempestuous from an early age, Jeril Taylor spent grades four through seven in an alternative program at Waller-Williams Environmental School. He entered Atherton as a freshman with an “I-don’t-care-attitude,” often staying out past 3 a.m. and then sleeping through classes the next day.
Fighting was common on weekends and it didn’t take much for Taylor to get agitated.
“It was either you say something I like or you don’t say something at all,” he explained. “(Getting upset) was like a habit.”
Atherton coach Thomas Wilson remembered a talented player who struggled off the court.
“As soon as basketball season was over with, that’s when things went the other way … He started to venture off,” said Wilson.
After his arrest and incarceration, Taylor’s family moved to southwestern Jefferson County to give him a fresh start as a sophomore at PRP.
“I came in thinking it was going to be a horrible year for me,” Taylor said. “But, I got to know more people, got to know more teachers, more friends.”
Among those he met was special education instructor Bernadette Kok.
“You could see frustration,” Kok said. “He came into my room the first day and scooted that desk all the way back against the wall.”
Kok, a former basketball standout at PRP and Eastern Kentucky University, slowly began equipping Taylor with tools and strategies to deal with his anger and frustration.
“When he walked in that room it just clicked and I said ‘I’m going to help this child,’” Kok recalled.
It didn’t happen immediately, but over time Kok became a trusted mentor and Taylor’s outlook started to change.
His scowl softened into an occasional smile and grades began improving.
Others noticed the changes.
“When he first came here, he never smiled and had this hard look about him,” said Larry Kihnley, an assistant athletic director and longtime assistant basketball coach, who has known Taylor since he was born. “It took over a year, but you could see it coming and it was like he just flipped.”
Kok and Kihnley held Taylor accountable on a daily basis and provided him an outlet for his thoughts. “They told me, ‘We care about you and we’re trying to help you.’ It just hit me that I’ve got people that are trying to help me succeed,” Taylor said.
Principal David Johnson said Taylor’s improvement has been dramatic.
“We’ve seen him grow academically, socially, emotionally and athletically,” he said. “He’s had a lot of supporting cast members push, push, push, and luckily he did because he’s not only helped himself, but he’s helped us too.”
Basketball has been an important factor as well.
After sitting out his sophomore season due to transfer rules, Taylor averaged 11 points and five rebounds as a junior.
This season he notched 14 points and six rebounds a game while shooting 54 percent from the field.
The Panthers, ranked No. 6 in the state AP coaches’ poll, entered district play this week with a record of 22-6 and were favored to win a loaded Sixth Region.
“When he first came to PRP, he was just lost,” said Mabrey. “He didn’t trust adults at all and he didn’t believe anybody really cared about him. Every student is reachable and it just took a little while with Jeril.”
“It was a joy to watch this whole process take place,” Mabrey added.
Regardless of how the season pans out, Taylor wants to continue driving forward in life, secure in the knowledge that he now has a network of supporters to lean on.
“(I want) to be a successful man,” said Taylor. “I’m still climbing … and it means a lot, coming where I come from, to have a family here and know that I’ve got help whenever I need it.”
Contact columnist Chris Cahill at firstname.lastname@example.org.