GRINNELL, Iowa — The cornfields are barren now and the wind bites its way across the heartland. The satellite TV trucks have chugged back down Interstate 80 and the Court of Dreams is quiet now.
“I fell back to earth a bit,” said Jack Taylor, 22, after scoring a mere 21 points against a sky-high Division 2 William Penn University team Nov. 25. “I am mortal.”
Of course, there was zero chance that Taylor, a crew-cut sophomore guard at Division 3 Grinnell College, could match the NCAA single-game record of 138 points he set against Faith Baptist Bible College Nov. 20.
He didn’t even get to start against William Penn.
“Starters don’t matter in ‘The System,’ ” said Grinnell associate head coach David Arseneault Jr., referring to the 3-point run-and-gun offense and pressing defense that Grinnell lives and dies by.
There would be no 108 shots and 71 3-point attempts against William Penn. Taylor managed just 6 for 21 from the field and 3 for 13 from the 3-point arc. He had five assists and six turnovers in what was a physical game. He hit the hardwood several times.
“We had a game plan and he had a target on his back,” said William Penn’s Brandon Beasley, a 6-foot-5-inch senior from Indianapolis who had a double-double by halftime. “Jack Taylor is a good player. He can shoot the ball. He can definitely play. We kind of just smothered him. It just lit a fire under us.”
The Grinnell Pioneers have led the nation in scoring 17 of the last 19 years. Former Monmouth (Illinois) College coach Terry Glasgow aptly described “The System” as “five mice coming out of a shoebox.”
The man who installed “The System,” head coach David Arseneault Sr. — part genius, part basketball renegade — knows it is controversial. He and his son Dave Jr. don’t care. They don’t offer athletics scholarships, they offer a chance at basketball immortality.
“We like to have fun,” said Arseneault Sr. “We like to have moments.”
But no one expected 138 points from a kid who can’t dunk.
For the first home game of the year, against Faith Baptist, the Pioneers wanted to break the record for points scored in a half. They also wanted to get Taylor going, giving him 15 shots in the first 10 minutes.
Taylor, a 5-10 transfer from Wisconsin-La Crosse, had shot poorly in his first two games.
“He was really frustrated he had such a miserable first weekend shooting,” said Arseneault Sr. “If we could force-feed him, maybe we could get him going.”
Elizabeth Taylor knew her son was ready to take off like a cat on a hot tin roof. At their home in Black River Falls, Wis., he was always practicing in the old red barn with the plywood backboard. In the summer, he would shoot 300 times in 100-degree heat three times per week. His mother used to get up at 5:30 a.m. to rebound for him.
After the first two games this season, she sent a text message to the coach.
“Don’t give up on my kid,” she wrote. “By the end of the season, you’ll be one happy coach.”
Nov. 20 was an unseasonably warm day in Grinnell, and Darby Gymnasium was not full at game time. Not a lot happens in Grinnell, which is 55 miles east of Des Moines. There was a Page One story in the Grinnell Herald-Register that day about the Board of Supervisors opposing two new hog confinements because they would add manure to lands already receiving manure.
But inside Darby, the manure was about to hit the fan for Faith Baptist.
Before the game, Faith Baptist coach Brian Fincham knew very little about Jack Taylor.
“The only thing I knew was that he was a transfer,” said Fincham, whose team was young and inexperienced, with just one senior and two juniors.
In the locker room, Taylor and two of his teammates read from the Bible. Taylor found religion after tearing an ACL playing in prep school in Pennsylvania. “I realized then there was more to life than basketball,” he said.
He read from Matthew 25. “It was Jesus talking about multiplying your talents,” said Taylor. “His fingerprints are all over that game in terms of blessing me with the opportunity.”
He also benefited from the Christian principles of his opponents. They refused to intentionally foul him or cuff him up.
“They were really nice,” said Taylor. “When they would foul me, they would say, ‘Are you all right?’ ”
Faith Baptist would also see a scoring record for its program. David Larson scored 70 of the quietest points of all time, on 77 percent shooting (34 for 44), mostly layups.
“Basically, they put all five guys at the front of the press, and if you can break the press, they’ll give you the layup,” said Fincham.
After the game, Fincham was not angry about the lopsided score.
“We’ve never made the national news,” said Fincham, whose team plays in the National Christian College Athletic Association team. “Ever.”
‘I was in the zone’
Taylor started slowly. When he missed his first four shots, it looked like a 10th Avenue Freezeout.
“I was nervous,” said Taylor, who as a student of the game likes to wipe the bottom of his sneakers for traction, a la Larry Bird, and do a quick crossover dribble like Allen Iverson.
At one point, the Grinnell coaches thought of going to Plan B, but Taylor started to heat up.
“It was kind of a blur,” he said. “I’m not the Ray Allen type coming off screens and catch-and-shoot. I’m a guy who likes to play with the basketball and be creative and try to create my own shot.”
He thought he had 30 points at the half.
“When they heard I had 58, they were excited,” he said of his teammates. “They told me they were going to get me the ball every time.
“In the second half when I was missing shots, my team would come up to me and say, ‘Keep shooting.’ ”
He does not remember the moment when he broke the record of 113 points by Bevo Francis of Rio Grande College in 1954.
But students in the stands realized that something was going on. They were tweeting each other and chanting his name, and soon the gym was full.
“I think I realized that something was really special when I looked into the crowd and people were having their phones out, recording me,” said Taylor.
When the 179-104 trouncing was complete, Taylor had set NCAA records for points (138), field goals (52), and 3-pointers (27).
In a span of less than two minutes late in the game, he hit seven consecutive 3-point attempts while scoring 28 straight points for Grinnell. Finally, Taylor was pulled with 1:33 left. Arseneault Jr. conceded it was late but “he was too hot.”
Taylor did not mind.
“I was in the zone, and it felt like anything I tossed up was going in,” he said.
Teammate Aaron Levin was ecstatic.
“It was unreal the last stretch,” said Levin. “It just felt like a dream. I just felt happy for Jack, he works hard and he deserves it. He’s super humble and one of the nicest guys in the world.”
Splash and backlash
By the next morning, Taylor was an international star. Grinnell had 300 requests for interviews from around the world, from outlets such as “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “The Dan Patrick Show,” “The Jimmy Kimmel Show,” and the Wall Street Journal.
Too excited to sleep, Taylor watched himself on “SportsCenter” with some of his teammates.
“It was really weird, knowing the whole world was watching the same thing I was watching,” he said.
He awoke after 1½ hours sleep and went to his classes, calculus and “Intro to Christianity.”
“It felt like I woke up in a different world the next morning,” said Taylor. “Walking around campus, I got ‘the stare.’ ”
Already Grinnell is Taylortown. Lonnski’s Pub and Deli on Main Street has a new special: “The Jack Taylor Burger — it’s on fire.” The burger is topped with habanero jack cheese, grilled jalapenos, and cayenne pepper mayonnaise. The local Pizza Hut offered a $1.38 mini-pizza. The Grinnell Christian Church Sunday sermon told the story of Jack as David, in David vs. Goliath.
NBA stars chimed in, too.
Carmelo Anthony said it was “like a video game.” Kevin Durant tweeted, “Jack Taylor you deserve a shot of Jack Daniels after that performance . . . wow.” And Kobe Bryant said, “That’s crazy, man.” LeBron James anointed Taylor “Sir Jack” and asked to see the tape.
That was hard to arrange, because Grinnell, stung by a backlash of negativity, pulled the tape. A hardwood feel-good story was becoming a national debate: Is this basketball?
The main issues: Taylor had zero assists and took 108 shots. His defense was questioned. So was his playing time. Faith Baptist isn’t even an NCAA team.
“I got some Facebook messages that said I was a really selfish player,” said Taylor. “They just don’t understand that it was a team effort for this record, that I wasn’t trying to be selfish to get my stats up. The whole team was behind me, so it was a total team effort.
“It felt like during the game they wanted me to get the record so bad, I would pass it off and they’d give it right back. Lots of the time when they got an offensive rebound off my miss, they could put it right back up; instead they looked back at me for another three, which shows their unselfishness.”
Some critics said that if they had 108 shots, they could break the record, too.
“My legs hurt a lot,” said Taylor. “My wrist was a little sore. I was tired, but then every time I got the ball back, I wasn’t tired.”
As to the claims that he didn’t play defense? Not so, said Taylor.
“We forced a record number of turnovers,” he said.
To Taylor, the record is not tarnished.
“I don’t think I’m going to remember this game for how others see it,” he said. “I think I’m going to see it as what an amazing game it was. How unselfish my teammates were. I don’t think I’m going to remember how the critics viewed the game.’’
What a difference a half-century makes. Virtually all that exists from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game against the Knicks on March 2, 1962, is a cheesy locker room picture of him holding up a sign that reads “100.”
But within minutes of the Grinnell-Faith Baptist game, there were clips of “Mister 138” on YouTube.
“It still hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said.
Bevo Francis never played in the NBA. He never bragged about his record. He worked in a steel mill and was more content to be in the Ohio woods hunting. He issued a statement congratulating Taylor.
The NBA may be out of Taylor’s reach, too.
“I definitely want to play professionally,” he said. “More realistically I’m thinking about playing overseas. I’ll keep working hard and see where the dice falls.”
He wonders if President Obama knows about his new record. He’d love to play in the White House basketball game. Asked what he would do if he had a wide-open three but Obama was screaming for the ball, Taylor smiled.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I think I’d probably have to give him the rock, unless the game was on the line. If the game was on the line, I’d probably take the shot.”