By Greg Bach
Maria Taylor has never forgotten the words delivered by her basketball coach during her freshman season at Centennial High School in Georgia.
They were positive and powerful.
And helped fuel a journey that took her to the University of Georgia where she wound up playing not one, but two sports.
It’s one of those conversations that serves as an all-important reminder for today’s youth coaches in all sports that their words matter – and they can change young lives.
“She told me that she saw something in me and that I was special, and that she wanted to nurture that,” says Taylor, the versatile ESPN broadcaster who hosts NBA Countdown, appears on the widely popular College GameDay program on Saturday mornings, and reports from the sidelines on the biggest college football and basketball games. “She was kind of the first person that made me feel like, ‘ok, maybe my talent is different and maybe I can do some things that even I don’t know I can do yet.'”
Taylor’s coach just happened to be Cindy Brogdon, who starred at Tennessee and is a Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.
Brogdon was right.
Taylor was special.
She was named All-State in basketball and volleyball. On the basketball court she racked up points in bunches, setting the all-time school record with 1,184 points. She was equally lethal in volleyball, where she was named the school’s Offensive MVP three times and was a member of the USA Volleyball Junior National A2 team.
During those early years in volleyball Taylor has fond memories of another influential coach whose impact still resonates all these years later.
“I actually played with an inner-city volleyball team in Atlanta so we were the only all African-American team and our coach, Del Hughes, was just very big on being proud of who you are and what you look like and where you’re from, and knowing that you could do anything,” she says. “He was big on building our confidence and not letting us get down on ourselves. He was tough on us and pushed us, and he made me fall in love with volleyball.”
LIFE LESSONS FOR YOUNG ATHLETES
Dealing with disappointment: “Failure is inevitable,” Taylor says. “So it doesn’t matter how hard you practice or how great you feel, you can still lose that game. It could come down to one shot, or it can come down to one player being better than you in that moment. So being able to accept it, learn from it and move forward is important.”
Taylor leaned on those lessons early in her broadcasting career when she was turned down for jobs on several occasions but never quit or doubted her abilities. “For me that was going and auditioning at MLB Network, and NBA TV and even ESPN for the first time and being told no,” she says. “It’s how you deal with that failure when you thought you were prepared, and you thought you were getting better. So that is something that I learned through sports. If you miss a lay-up in basketball you’ve got to run down the court and play defense and then try to hit another one.”
Helping hand: Despite a calendar-packed schedule, Taylor has a huge heart for helping others. Several years ago she co-founded The Winning Edge Leadership Academy, which is focused on developing the next generation of diverse leaders in the sports and entertainment business by providing an influential network, work force training and financial resources.
“I have been blessed in so many ways that I just want to give back,” Taylor says.
While handling the high-pressure demands of live television, she often has students alongside. “I love having students shadow me,” Taylor says. “I’ve had them at College GameDay, I’ve had them on the sidelines of college football games, and I’ve had them with me at NBA Countdown. It’s important to allow people to see themselves in those roles and actually interact with people who they would be interacting with in those roles. If you see it then I really do believe that you can achieve it.”
A LOVE OF SPORTS
When Taylor was entering the sixth grade a neighbor asked if she wanted to play in a church basketball league.
And she loved every glorious minute of it – including sinking a three-pointer.
“I’m 6-foot-2 now, and my dad is 6-foot-7, so growing up we always knew I would be tall, but we weren’t sure how tall,” Taylor says of those teen years. “So for a young girl growing up it’s important to be around like-minded individuals, and also for a girl I was around people who had the same body type as me: we were long and we were tall and we had broad shoulders. So it was cool to be around people that I felt looked like me and it was a good thing to have these long arms and legs. When I went to school I was called the Jolly Green Giant, but then you go to AAU practice and you can jump out of the gym and you can get rebounds and that was something that changed the game for me. I feel that sports gave me a home early to let me build my confidence and really to not just be deciding how I feel about myself based on the way that I looked.”
The sport grabbed her heart and she had a basketball in her hands every chance she could.
“We had a hoop in our driveway that I was always shooting on,” she says. “I would always be asking my mom to take me to the park, and I would go play with the guys. There were two different parks that I went to that were right by my house and I just loved it. I could spend all day there.”
She embraced the challenges that the game presented.
She loved the competition.
And she cherished the pursuit of improvement.
“I was someone who, even in college, I loved practice,” she says. “I liked to go to practice and I liked to get better because I’m a perfectionist. So I want that time to tinker with my approach or to tinker with my shot, and to see it go in and see the results of that hard work.”
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