Lost and Found: Taj McDavid Today Is More Than an NBA Draft Punch LineJune 25, 2014
I don’t believe in ghosts.
But there is one standing before me.
He is big—6'6" or so. And eye-catching. He has a black bead pierced below his bottom lip and silver hoops in each ear. He is wearing a white tank top, red basketball shorts. His eyes are brown and sleepy. A dark goatee frames chubby fruit-punch lips.
Again, I don't buy ghosts. But here, lingering in front of a mobile home in the nowhere town of Williamston, South Carolina, I'm willing to suspend disbelief.
Moments earlier, an elderly woman in a white plastic lawn chair confirmed the apparition's existence. It was 9:27 on a Wednesday morning like any other Wednesday morning in rural Anderson County. Hot. Dusty. Quiet echoes of lingering nothingness. I spotted her from the road, staring into a bushel of green leaves positioned five feet above her head.
"Excuse me," I said. "Do you know Taj?"
"Taj McDavid? Some people call him 'Red'..."
She paused for a moment. Not for dramatic effect. Just because sometimes people pause. "Ohhhh, Red—the boy who used to dribble the basketball."
"He's inside his mama's house," she said, nodding toward the white rectangular structure at 9 Brown Street. "Just knock."
So, haltingly, I approached, climbed four crudely positioned wood steps and took a deep breath. The home featured white plastic paneling, many of the pieces accented with an unwelcome coat of gold rust. I could hear the faint noise of a TV coming from inside. In the rear, a dog barked.
I banged my fist against the frame. Softly at first. Then a bit harder. My hands were sweaty. My heart beat faster than normal. It's not often one knocks on the door of an apparition, but someone had suggested the address as a possibility. You might find him there, I was told. It's worth a shot.
Before long, a man answered—older, balding. He cracked open the screen and looked at me sideways, as if I were selling soap out of a suitcase. I smiled—the most I could manage in an odd circumstance.
"Who are you?" he said.
"Yeah," I replied. "So, um, I'm looking for Red."
"Red?" he said. "You're here to see Red?"
"Yup," I said. "I am."
"Hold on," the man said—then vanished for a second or two. Maybe three.
Suddenly, it appeared.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey," I said.
"I'm Red McDavid."
In the spring of 1996, nine years before the league deemed such action impossible, three high school seniors made themselves eligible for the NBA draft. The first was a kid from Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a 6'6" guard who led his school to the state Class AAAA title and graduated as the leading scorer in Southeastern Pennsylvania history. His name was Kobe Bryant.
The second was a kid from Eau Claire High in Columbia, South Carolina, a 6'11" center who averaged 22.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.2 blocks while being voted his state’s Mr. Basketball. His name was Jermaine O'Neal.
Both Bryant and O'Neal were projected to be first-round picks. They were heavily hyped and nationally known, and all 29 NBA franchises sent multiple scouts to watch them play.
"Those two were raw, but highly skilled," says Pete Babcock, the general manager of the Atlanta Hawks at the time. "I saw Kobe at a home game outside Philadelphia, and he scored at will. Nobody could stop him. I didn't see Jermaine, but our scouts said the same thing. He controlled games. And while I didn't like players going from high school to the NBA, those two were ready. Clearly, they were ready."
The third high schooler to declare for the June 26 event was, like, O'Neal, a South Carolina native and, like Bryant, 6'6". His statistics also jumped off the page—26.1 points per game, 12.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks for Palmetto High, a small (approximately 850 students) Class AA school in Williamston.
He was, unambiguously, one heck of a high school baller, and at season's end he took home the state's Player of the Year award in his class. On a rear page of the Palmetto High yearbook, where seniors listed their dreams, he wrote, simply: "I plan to play in the N.B.A."
"The kid could shoot the ball," says Fran Campbell, the head coach at rival Wren High School. "He had talent."
There was just one small problem: Nobody who mattered had ever heard of Taj (Red) McDavid.
This is no exaggeration. Literally, if in pre-May 1996 one were to poll every basketball expert in the world about high schoolers who could possibly make the leap to the NBA, none would have named McDavid.
Then, on the morning of May 17, 1996, the Anderson Independent-Mail, a regional daily newspaper covering the northwest portion of South Carolina, ran a story on its front sports page headlined, "Palmetto's McDavid Takes Shot at Draft."
The piece, written by a staff writer named Nat Newell, began thusly:
After conquering Region 2-AA, Palmetto High School basketball star Taj "Red" McDavid has decided he's ready for the NBA. The 6-foot-6, 175-pounder has declared himself eligible for the National Basketball Association June 26 amateur draft. "(My parents, my uncle and I) were sitting around talking about it and decided we've got nothing to lose," said McDavid, who is one of 42 underclassmen or high school players to enter the draft. "We might as well try it."
Reaction to the article went viral—in the manner of an outbreak of particularly unpleasant warts. Outside the region, people shook their heads in bewilderment.
Taj McDavid? Who the hell was Taj McDavid? Experts were called in to officially declare him unworthy of attention—and they did. Closer to home, there was less confusion, more...ridicule.
Randy Beard, the Independent-Mail sports editor at the time, says his newspaper ran the piece because it made for interesting news, but that inside the office, McDavid's choice was deemed laughable. "We all knew he had no chance," says Beard. "It was a dumb move."
"He seemed absolutely convinced he would be drafted," says Josh Peter, who covered prep sports for the newspaper. "It was pretty scary, that level of delusion."
At the same time Bryant and O'Neal were being thrust into the national spotlight, their NBA futures debated by one writer and TV analyst after another, McDavid was turned into some sort of punch line.
The list of early entries in 1996 was both long and ludicrous—for every Ray Allen, Marcus Camby, Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury to throw a hat into the ring, there were three or four college underclassmen who had better chances piloting space shuttles to Pluto than reaching the league.
What ever became of Arkansas' Sunday Adebayo? How about Dut Mayar Madut of Frank Phillips College? Or Chris Nurse of Delaware State? Or Kevin Simpson of Dixie College? Coppin State's Terquin Mott, anyone?
Because those players attended college, however, they escaped the derision visited upon McDavid.
When the draft took place and the Palmetto product was ignored (Bryant went 13th to Charlotte, O'Neal 17th to Portland), it got even worse. Journalists deemed it their duty to sneer and snipe and needle. McDavid was delusional. McDavid was a fool. McDavid was a reason—the reason—high school kids should not be allowed to jump to the NBA.
"He can't play," Marty Blake, head of the NBA's scouting service, told the Boston Globe. "Who is filling these kids with these dreams?"
In the days and weeks that followed, McDavid agreed to a couple of interviews before realizing that, no matter what he said, the articles would be unflattering. He was the dummy who thought he was an NBA player, and now the media needed to drive that point home.
The ensuing summer, Sports Illustrated sent a writer named Tim Crothers to Williamston to track down McDavid and tell his side of the story. An experienced reporter, Crothers spent several days in town, following leads, hanging out in popular spots, doing all he could to locate his man.
"I talked to a bunch of people," says Crothers. "His high school coach, different people who knew him. But, in the end, I wound up with nothing. It was like chasing the ultimate mystery man..."
In other words, Taj McDavid did what came naturally to ghosts.
And now, standing before me in the entranceway to a mobile home, here he is.
Taj (Red) McDavid.
I had been told, repeatedly, that McDavid would never be found—that my trip to Williamston would likely be a wasted effort.
After the draft fiasco, old classmates failed to hear from him again. Lawton Williams, Palmetto High's varsity basketball coach for McDavid's senior season, wasn’t even sure whether Red was in South Carolina. Or, for that matter, alive.
"No idea," Williams said. "Probably haven’t spoken to him since high school graduation."
Did he even graduate? Toward the rear of the 1996 Palmetto High yearbook, McDavid's name can be found in a small box, wedged between Eric Martin and Vershan Morrison as seniors who opted not to be pictured. He failed to attend the 10-year reunion in 2006.
There were rumors, of course. Lives with his mother. Became depressed. Works a blue-collar job. Played a little ball at Anderson College. Stars in an industrial league. Fast-food employee. Construction. Tons of possibilities, nothing confirmed.
The big question—why he applied for the NBA draft—also repeatedly collided with silence.
"Yeah—about that," said Kevin Padgett, a Palmetto High teammate who considered McDavid a friend. "I've never really known the full answer."
"If you can find that out," says Crothers, "I'd love to know."
So, with all that as a backdrop, I stand on the top step and tell McDavid why I have come all the way from New York to knock on his door. "My name is Jeff Pearlman," I say, "and I've been fascinated by you for a long time."
I break out my best Willy Loman: You're an amazing story; I've heard you were a helluva basketball player; it seems as if you were unfairly ridiculed. McDavid listens without speaking, and I fully expect him to once again fade into the mist, to say thanks, but no thanks; to slam the door in my face.
Instead, in the quietest of Southern drawls, he asks whether I'd be OK talking now, inside his mother's mobile home.
With that, the ghost opens the door. I enter. And Taj McDavid comes alive.
"When Red was born, he was this little red baby..."
The man talking—the one who first answered the door—is Jerry Rutledge, McDavid's uncle. The three of us are sitting inside the mobile home on a couple of dark couches. Rutledge is 58, with weathered features and a sizable gut. He stares toward his nephew, who he helped raise with his sister, Brenda.
"We've never really called him Taj," Rutledge says, smiling. "He's Red. Just Red. Teachers, friends, coaches—they all called him that. Still do."
Red was brought up here, in the mobile home, first by Brenda and her husband, David McDavid, who works in an auto parts plant. Then, after the couple divorced when the boy was young, by Brenda and Jerry.
"He was the apple of his mom's eye from the very first day," says Rutledge, who recently retired from making auto parts, a common profession in these parts. "He's an only child, so everybody protected him and coddled him."
Brenda and Jerry installed a hoop behind the home, and from the time he was four, McDavid would dribble a basketball nonstop—up, down, left, right. His bedroom walls were covered with posters of his heroes—Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson. Basketball awards were neatly framed.
Because he was tall for his age, he was always one of the better players. "But nothing special," McDavid says. "Just good."
Then, toward the end of his seventh-grade year at Palmetto Middle School, McDavid agreed to participate on a team at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville. "That's when I started getting the hang of it," he says. “Dribbling, getting to the lane, lay-ins. That was the age when I understood the game."
The next year, playing guard for the middle school team, McDavid routinely scored 30 points per game, catching the eye of Palmetto High coaches. He was tall and thin and quick and agile, and he developed an unstoppable turnaround jumper.
As a ninth-grader he tried for—and made—the varsity. "It was obvious he could play," says Kenyon Matthews, a power forward for the Mustangs who was two years ahead of McDavid. "He's always been a great shooter."
The summer following his freshman year, McDavid played for an AAU club based out of Greenville. One of his teammates was Shammond Williams, who would go on to star at North Carolina before embarking on a journeyman NBA career. Another was some kid from nearby Mauldin, South Carolina, named Kevin—Kevin Garnett.
In a moment that would forever stick with McDavid, Garnett—one year older and clearly the AAU's superior talent—told his teammate that he was a fine guard with a bright future. "That meant a lot," McDavid says. "He was so good, and I was finding my way."
By the time his senior year rolled around, McDavid was a local star. One of nine players from South Carolina to earn preseason All-American honorable mention by Street & Smith, he was also a member of the Independent-Mail's all-area first team.
"We'd put him under the rim and have him protect the basket," says Padgett. "And on offense, he'd create his shots."
The recruiting pitches had begun to arrive at 9 Brown Street when he was a junior: Auburn and Alabama, Syracuse and Villanova, Southern Cal and South Carolina. "He got lots of letters," says Rutledge. "Way over 100. We used to keep them in stacks."
The plan was to use college as a means to reach his ultimate dream of NBA stardom. He wanted to play two or three seasons before entering the league.
However, prior to the 1995-96 school year, the NCAA changed its academic standards for Division I athletic scholarships. In the past, students needed only a 2.0 GPA in 11 core courses, coupled with a minimum of 700 on the SAT. Those figures were altered drastically, so now a student with a 2.0 had to score an equivalent of 900 on the SATs.
"All through high school I'd been shooting for the GPA and scores I needed, and I was there," says McDavid. "Then it all changed, and I was no longer eligible for a scholarship."
This, McDavid insists, is why he and his family decided a straight-to-the-NBA route was the best choice. The big push came from Rutledge, who admits he has never had any particular knowledge of the inner workings of professional basketball.
Months before the draft, he did an Internet search, learned how one makes himself eligible and then took proper steps on McDavid's behalf. A signed letter was sent to the league, and a confirmation was returned to Williamston.
"As of receipt of this notice, you are officially enrolled in the 1996 NBA Draft." So what if nary a single NBA team called the McDavids? So what if he wasn’t listed in the league's 168-page draft guide? So what if no agents took interest?
"Look, Red was unstoppable," Rutledge says. "He was the No. 1 scorer in the state of South Carolina. We heard a lot of people say he didn't play against good competition. What does that have to do with anything? We live in a small town, so Red didn't get the exposure.
"People said he was playing against undergrads and people who weren’t good. But he didn’t make the schedules. He just played against who he played against. And if they were 5'6", they were 5'6". So what? If you watched him, you knew he could play in the NBA and be a star. It was obvious.
"The year Red was coming out, everybody was going to the NBA. You had Jermaine O'Neal, you had Kobe Bryant. Jermaine O'Neal played in South Carolina, but he was given a chance because he had the public and the media backing him. Red didn't, even though he was just as good. So now you have cats running articles, saying going into the draft was a dumb move. Hey, it's only dumb when it doesn’t work."
As his uncle speaks, McDavid sits quietly, nodding along to many of the words. He remains quite certain that he could have been an NBA star and wonders why no one gave him a real chance.
"I'm not bitter," he says. "But I know—I know—I could have played in the NBA for a long time. There aren't many guys my height who shot like I did. I just..."
His voice fades. On the night of June 26, as his mother and uncle sat before a television, watching every pick from No. 1 (Allen Iverson to the Philadelphia 76ers) to No. 58 (Darnell Robinson to the Dallas Mavericks), McDavid went out with some friends to a club in nearby Spartanburg.
"I didn't know whether or not I'd be drafted," he says. "But I didn't want to spend that time in front of the TV."
There is a moment, however brief, when Red McDavid leaves the room, and I am sitting alone with his uncle. I ask, softly, whether he has any regrets. He turns to make sure no one else is within earshot, then nods.
"If I could do it again," he says, before his voice trails off. "If I could..."
Hindsight can be a heavy beast. So can hype and excitement and ignorance. Truth be told, most Division I colleges send recruiting letters to hundreds upon hundreds of prep athletes—the majority of whom they have little to no interest in. It's a matter of a school covering its bases, just in case someone special emerges.
"Back in the 1990s most schools had an automatic mailer system, so they could send as many letters as they want," says Derek Kellogg, the head men's basketball coach at UMass and a man who has never heard of McDavid. "It means very little. You'd send out 2,000 letters to every name on a database, just in case someone is good enough. Then the school can say, 'We recruited him.'"
The byproduct for many young athletes is an enlarged ego and an unrealistic expectation for playing at the next level. Oh, and a stack of colorful letters.
According to McDavid and Rutledge, Bobby Cremins, Georgia Tech's legendary coach, came to the Palmetto High gymnasium to watch McDavid in action, as did Larry Shyatt, Clemson's associate head coach. "Those are the two schools I wanted to play for," McDavid says. "I think I'd have ended up at one or the other."
There is no reason to think McDavid is lying, or even exaggerating. He comes off as earnest, as does his uncle. Yet according to Williams, the former Palmetto coach, the idea of Georgia Tech and Clemson recruiting Red McDavid is, in his words, "laughable."
"Bobby Cremins was one of my heroes," says Williams. "Believe me, if he came to our school, I'd remember it."
When Williams inherited the Mustangs varsity coaching job from Bobby Tripp after the 1994-95 season, he was excited to land a player with so much talent. Yet according to Williams, McDavid was a prima donna who put in little work, played minimal defense and worried more about shooting than winning.
"I took the team to a summer camp before his senior year," says Williams of a week-long journey to Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. "He got his shot blocked a couple of times, then wouldn't put any effort into getting back on defense. I benched him, and he started to undress on the bench. I told him to go back in, and he left camp."
Williams says he and McDavid didn't speak again until high school tryouts and that while Red was far too talented for the Class AA level, his statistics and output were largely mirages.
"He was 6'6" playing against almost all smaller guys," Williams says. "If he shot and missed, he got his own rebound and scored. He was a good player—I want to make that clear. And a good kid overall. But was he a great player? No."
Shortly after McDavid signed himself up for the draft, Williams says he took him to Spartanburg Methodist, a junior college, for a tryout. "He showed little interest, didn't play well and they didn't want him," Williams says. "I also called USC Aiken on his behalf. They had no real desire to have him."
Williams is on a roll. He says he loved McDavid's ability, hated his attitude. "He could have probably played at a small Division I school—maybe. A Furman or a Citadel," he says. "But had he gone to an NBA camp, he would have been embarrassed. It would have been ugly. I promise you, I wasn't hiding LeBron James under a rock down here. Nobody missed anything."
After the NBA draft came and went, and after the Continental Basketball Association draft also came and went (seven rounds, not one pick used on a kid from Palmetto High), and after the ridicule (largely) came and went (in a particularly painful dagger, O'Neal told the Boston Globe that he’d never heard of McDavid), Red and his family found themselves...lost.
In the June 27, 1996 Independent-Mail, Brenda McDavid complained about her son's lack of opportunity, noting, "I feel that the only reason he did not get drafted was he did not get to go to any of the tryouts and shootouts."
Rutledge—who memorably told The Globe, "There's no one in the NBA who can stop Red, one on one"—says he learned a year later that the Denver Nuggets had called the school with the intent of inviting McDavid in for a tryout.
According to Williams, this did not happen. "They wanted his statistics," he says. "That's all."
"When the draft passed, I wanted to see if I'd get any calls," McDavid says. "I did not."
With no professional basketball opportunities and no educational opportunities, McDavid went to work at Footaction, a sporting goods store in Anderson, where he peddled the signature shoes of men he had hoped to play against. He continued to partake in pickup basketball with hopes of future greatness and spent a large chunk of time in front of a television, consumed by Sega games.
According to NCAA rules, high school students who applied for the draft surrendered their eligibility to play for an NCAA member institution.
Meaning, bluntly, Red McDavid's basketball career was over.
And suddenly, it wasn't. In a surprising victory for a guy who experienced very few triumphs, McDavid petitioned the NCAA to restore his college eligibility—and the organization did so. Although he would be forced to sit out as a freshman, McDavid was granted three years to play.
At the behest of Steve Lytton, the head coach at Anderson College, McDavid enrolled in the Division II school in 1997. He began taking courses, immersing himself in student life, even working out and scrimmaging with members of the basketball team.
"He wasn't dominant, but he was very good," says Gary Bailey, an Anderson forward at the time. "With his skills, I'm pretty sure he could have started for us. It was a good fit."
Then, in a moment of dreadful luck, McDavid woke up one morning, tried rolling out of bed and found that the entire right side of his body was numb. "I could barely walk," he says. "It was scary."
He was diagnosed with a pair of herniated discs in his lower back but was told by multiple doctors that little could be done. "Physical therapy, that was it," he says. "I had epidural shots and all that. But they said I was too young to have surgery. They'd have to cut into me, and a doctor said there was a 50 percent chance I'd be good for the rest of my life and a 50 percent chance I'd have to have the surgery every two years for the rest of my life. I was 20."
McDavid was crushed. But, even worse, he was in pain. For the next seven or eight years, he says the leg bothered him so much that he rarely played basketball. When he did take the court, he was a shell of his former self.
"I was lost," he says. "Without basketball, I was just lost."
You know how this story ends, don't you?
It's a familiar narrative, one you've read 1,000 times before. The faded athlete, down on his luck, winds up either addicted to drugs, living on the streets or dead. At best, he works as a casino greeter in Atlantic City. Perhaps as one of those guys who collects the carts in the supermarket parking lot. It's an ugly yet riveting narrative.
And it's not the case here.
Not with the ghost.
The mobile home we met in? It still belongs to his mother and uncle, though Taj (Red) McDavid hasn’t lived there for years.
The NBA dreams? Faded long ago, almost as if they never existed. "I barely think about it," he says. "It doesn't consume me even slightly."
The bad back? Feels much better.
Anderson College? McDavid attended the school for two years, never playing basketball for the Trojans. He eventually transferred to Greenville Technical College, enrolled in the paralegal degree program and graduated. He has worked for an attorney's office for years and recently returned to school to enhance his qualifications.
"I'm becoming an investigator," he says. "I have to take a year's worth of courses for that. It's great."
McDavid lives in a house in Simpsonville, South Carolina, and shares custody of Natalia, his five-year-old daughter, with his ex-wife. Every now and then, when the desire strikes, he laces up his Nikes and heads over to the nearby basketball court.
Like most 36-year-olds nearly two decades removed from high school, he's gained some weight, but he looks comfortable in his own skin. Though he's no longer the sharpshooting gunner who lit up opposing defenses and believed himself the next NBA superstar, McDavid insists he can still get to the rim from time to time.
"People ask me if I'm gonna dunk today," he says with a smile. "I say, 'Sure—if you've got NBA 2K and a TV out here. Otherwise, I'll just stay on the ground. I'm perfectly happy here.'"