Rejection shouldn’t have hit so hard. David Arsenault Sr. was prepared for it. He was used to it. He was a Division III basketball coach, tasked with selling non-scholarship student-athletes on the appeal of central Iowa.
Jack Taylor hit different. The standout shooting guard from Wisconsin had spurned him twice. Only after Taylor — who attracted interest from multiple Division I programs — suffered a devastating knee injury and then spent two unfulfilling years at a D-III school (Wisconsin-La Crosse) near his home did Grinnell College — and its unorthodox, fast-paced, high-scoring system — attract his attention again.
“I said to my son [then-assistant David Jr.], ‘You can recruit him if you want, but I’m done. I already got him admitted two times,’” Arsenault said. “He broke my heart a couple times. I didn’t want to go down that path a third time.”
This time, Taylor committed. The coaches were thrilled. The players were not. The senior-laden group went 18-5 the previous season, and didn’t see the benefit of adding a ball-dominant guard who would steal shots and minutes.
“We tried to prepare them for Jack’s arrival, letting them know things were gonna be a little bit different, that we’re gonna be a lot better offensively,” Arsenault Sr. said. “But I’d have people come by my office and say, ‘He’s not that good, coach.’”
In Taylor’s Grinnell debut against Rockford College, he made 5 of 21 shots, including 3 of 18 3-pointers. The next day, Taylor went 6 of 23, hitting 3 of 19 3-pointers. The Pioneers won both games, but the coaches were concerned after watching Taylor take a slew of questionable shots and struggle in his first meaningful minutes in three years.
The third game presented a mismatch against Faith Baptist Bible. Arsenault determined the best way to break Taylor’s shooting slump was giving the sophomore as many shots as possible, giving him a chance to break the D-III single-game scoring record set by teammate Griffin Lentsch (89 points) one year earlier.
“It was a tough sell on the seniors,” Arsenault Sr. said. “As I was saying it, I could tell that they weren’t buying in. Part of the problem was they didn’t think Jack was that good, and part of the problem was we were looking to break the record of a current player. Part of it was Jack was only in the third game of his Grinnell career. But we stuck with it. We thought it was important for the team to recognize how good he was.”
On the ride back from the season-opening tournament, the coach called Taylor to the front of the bus and asked if he could make the tough shots he’d been taking. Taylor said he could. Arsenault then revealed his plan.
“I do remember this look of bewilderment on Jack’s face,” said Arsenault Jr., now Grinnell’s head coach. “He really didn’t know how to respond to us. He’s in his third game, he’s shot the ball really terribly and now my dad is saying you’re gonna get the ball every time down the floor. It was like he thought my dad was pranking him and playing this joke on him.”
It has been 10 years since Taylor first played at Darby Gymnasium, since 951 people came to Grinnell’s home court for a seemingly trivial Tuesday night tip-off on Nov. 20, 2012.
It has been 10 years since they all left in disbelief — unlikely witnesses to the most prolific scoring effort in NCAA history — and word sprinted out of Iowa, introducing the nation to the 22-year-old who scored 138 points and made 52 of 108 field goals — including 27 of 71 3-pointers — in a 179-104 win.
“It’s sometimes fun to take one player and shoot with him all game in a video game, like Kobe [Bryant], and I was able to do that in a real-life college basketball game,” Taylor told The Post recently. “I don’t know how many players can say they’ve had that opportunity. It was so much fun.”
Taylor’s 36 minutes on the floor produced an unfathomable 15 minutes of fame. He received recognition from Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. He appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and the “Today” show. He was a topic for talking heads, who vilified Taylor and threw him into the center of debates regarding several issues in athletics (i.e. sportsmanship, individualism, purity).
One hundred thirty-eight? It remains amazing and absurd, stunning and sublime, confounding and surreal.
“It absolutely sounds insane, and it sounds even crazier when someone will ask leading up to a season, ‘Is some gonna break Jack’s record?’” said Arsenault Jr., who once held the single-game NCAA record with 34 assists. “I look at them, like, ‘Are you kidding?’ That was the perfect storm. I don’t think it’s possible. There were a lot of things that had to go right on that night.
“We still talk about it on a recruiting front, the different way we play the game, the possibilities that anything can happen on any given night.”
Arsenault arrived in 1989. He inherited a program which hadn’t had a winning season in a quarter-century. He couldn’t promise more wins. But he could guarantee the games would be more interesting.
Arsenault installed an unconventional system which emphasizes endless full-court pressure defense and frequent hockey-like substitutions, stressing a lightning pace and a barrage of 3-pointers, with indifference to the parade of layups allowed within the mad structure.
“It rankled some purists,” Arsenault Sr. said. “They don’t understand the concept of giving up easy baskets in exchange for creating pace of play, maybe having an early deficit and then taking advantage of their bench [being] tired in the last 10 minutes of play.
“I felt I was at a disadvantage recruiting-wise in the middle of Iowa, and it made it a lot easier when I was making recruiting calls to get people to want to talk to me.”
It was easy for the team to put up big numbers. Grinnell led the nation in scoring 20 times from 1994 to 2015. Records were always within reach. Some nights were easier than others.
Arsenault circled certain games on the schedule when his team would be a big favorite and offered different players chances to create unforgettable nights. Grinnell set the record for the most players to score in a game (20) and the most players to make a 3-pointer in a game (19). Taylor’s teammate, Patrick Maher, set the NCAA single-game record with 37 assists.
The D-III single-game scoring record has belonged to Grinnell since 1994, when Steve Diekmann scored 69. In 1998, Jeff Clement had 77. In 2011, Lentsch put up 89.
“[One thirty-eight] was not even in my wildest dreams,” Arsenault Sr. said. “[Lentsch] had a 10-minute slow start before he really got going, so in my head, if someone was featured for 40 minutes, 100 seemed doable.”
Lentsch’s effort caught the attention of Taylor, who had drawn interest from Columbia and other D-I teams, but lost those suitors when he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus at a Pennsylvania prep school. He landed at Wisconsin-La Crosse, but barely got off the bench.
At Grinnell, he knew he’d get playing time. He knew he’d get shots. He never could have imagined how many.
On Nov. 20, the script called for Taylor to take at least 15 shots in the first 10 minutes. If he had 20 points, the next 10 minutes would be the same. If he got hot, he’d see more touches. In case Taylor went cold, teammate Aaron Levin told his parents to make the four-hour drive from Illinois.
“Coach A alerted me that if it wasn’t going to plan for Jack that I was next in line to be the one who was gunning,” Levin said. “I called my dad that morning and said, ‘I don’t know if you can make it out to the game tonight, but I’d hate for you to be at home if this happens.’ He drove out. And we know I wasn’t the one to put up 100 points.”
A former Grinnell player sat in the first row. His job was to track Taylor’s shots and points. After 10 minutes, he flashed a thumbs up to Arsenault, as instructed, that Taylor was on pace.
Still, the halftime stat sheet surprised everyone in the locker room. Taylor guessed he had 37.
“When coach said it was 58 points, the whole team went nuts,” Taylor said. “He said, ‘Do you guys want to go for this record?’ And the whole team was fired up. That was such a good feeling to have the team behind you. No one’s rolling their eyes, no one’s complaining. It was a complete team effort. I remember shaking all their hands and saying thank you. I don’t think people realize what a team effort it was.”
The plan was altered. No one would shoot until Taylor got a touch. In the final 10 minutes, passes from Taylor were instructed to be sent right back.
“I really did learn what it means to be a superstar in your role,” Levin said. “Jack’s not getting all those shots up without someone whose goal on the floor is to set screens and free him up. I know it’s an individual record, but in my mind, it’s a team accomplishment. We all sacrificed so that he could have a big night.”
Taylor averaged one shot every 20 seconds and four points per minute in the second half. During the most sensational stretch in the final minutes, he hit seven consecutive 3-pointers, finishing with 80 second-half points and 18 3-point makes.
Taylor, whose previous high scoring mark came in a 48-point outing in high school, left the floor as the third player in NCAA history to hit triple digits, smashing the 1953 record set by Rio Grande’s Clarence “Bevo” Francis (116 points).
“I remember being super, super tired,” Taylor said. “I didn’t know how many points I had. I wasn’t keeping track, and no one was telling me. In the last couple minutes of the game, I looked up in the stands and everyone had their phones up, recording, and I realized something special is probably going on right now.”
Grinnell scored a school-record 179 points that night, but no other player took more than six shots, including Lentsch, who finished with seven points.
The opponent’s decision to match Grinnell’s pace created extra possessions and allowed Faith Baptist’s David Larson to score 70 points. It is fairly clear how members of the Faith Baptist program feel about what transpired because numerous calls and messages left with coaches and former players were not returned.
“As the game was winding down, my one concern was how the opposing coach was feeling about it,” Arsenault Sr. said. “From the 10-minute mark to the end of the game, I did a lot of quick scans of his bench to see if he was mad at me. He never made eye contact with me and told me, ‘Hey, time to shut this down.’ After the game, I immediately went to him and said, ‘Are you OK with what just happened?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely. It was a great game. Nicely done.’
“I took him at his word except for the fact that he would never schedule us again. Maybe he was just being nice in the moment.”
The moment wasn’t yet understood. After the game, Taylor stood on the court with his parents, set to make the 245-mile drive back to Wisconsin with them to celebrate Thanksgiving.
He wasn’t going anywhere. “SportsCenter” was on the phone.
“I gave my family the deer-in-the-headlights look,” Taylor said. “As a Division III player in Iowa, there’s no way you’re ever getting that kind of attention.”
James referred to him as “Sir Jack.” Durant toasted him. Bryant praised him (“That’s impressive….I don’t care what level you’re at, scoring 138 points is pretty insane.”)
“Some of the most special stuff was seeing NBA players’ reactions,” Taylor said. “It really reached the worldwide basketball community. I had friends studying abroad in Spain, and they were on a court and they heard them talking about Jack Taylor. That’s just nuts.”
So were the numerous national TV appearances, including a segment during which Kimmel asked whether Taylor was also keeping pace with Wilt Chamberlain’s prolific bedroom tally. Taylor threw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers game, and was featured in international basketball publications. His 138-point performance made the school website crash — leading to a record number of Grinnell applications — and the highlights have since been viewed on YouTube more than 1.4 million times.
“He was the perfect person because of the humility with which he handled it,” Arsenault Jr. said. “He was so gracious about it, so thankful to his teammates.”
Sometimes it was portrayed like he’d never met his teammates. Because it took 108 shots to produce 138 points. Because he finished with no assists.
Criticism mounted against the coach whose system might as well have been portrayed as the work of Satan, against the player who did what his coaches encouraged him to do, whose teammates supported him, whose fans cheered him.
“I tried to see it from their perspective — and in some ways I can — but if they knew the context that it was a complete team effort, I don’t think people knew that,” Taylor said. “If you look at whose record I broke, they fed him the ball, too. If you look at Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, it was a game where they fed him the ball all game, too. That, and some of the top players in the world praising the performance, helped ease some of the tensions from people criticizing my performance.”
Taylor became a 5-foot-10 rock star on the D-III circuit, making routinely barren Midwestern games into standing-room-only affairs. None stood out more than a game at St. Norbert College less than three weeks later, in which Taylor had 36 points and shot 9-of-18 from the field in the win.
“They were lined up seven deep on the end line to see Jack, and he played maybe the best game he ever did, but the crowd went home unsatisfied,” Arsenault Sr. said. “They wanted more. The expectations were enormous.”
Taylor’s season was cut short after 12 games when he broke his right wrist. The next season, he opened with a 71-point game. In the second game, Taylor shot 35-of-70 — hitting 24 of 48 3-pointers — while scoring 109 points.
“You hear the criticism, this kid probably isn’t any good, people just attacking your ability to play the game, and for me to follow it up with a performance that’s No. 3 all-time in NCAA history made me feel good in quieting some of that criticism,” Taylor said.
His coach has no memory of it.
“Imagine being the coach of someone who scored over 100 points in a game and you can’t remember one thing about it,” Arsenault Sr. said. “Because everything from 138 is so imprinted in my mind.”
In the third game of the season, Wartburg College held Taylor to three points on five missed shots — 87 points below his previous season average.
“They made a conscious decision that no matter what, Jack was not gonna shoot,” Arsenault Sr. said. “It was hilarious. Every time he touched the ball two people ran at him and then the third and fourth were ready to help. He just had to pass the ball.”
The coaching staff was concerned Taylor might want to transfer up, but he says he never considered it. He wouldn’t dare leave the system that made him a star, led to more wins than losses and allowed him to finish with a career scoring average of 30.1 points despite averaging less than 20 minutes per game.
“After playing in the system, I am a convert,” Taylor said. “When my daughter gets to the high school level, if I’m their coach, I would have them play a version of the system. Not because I think we’ll win with it, but because it was so stinking fun.”
He tried to keep the dream alive.
After college, Taylor had tryouts with the NBA G-League and a European league — “both of which didn’t go too well,” Taylor admits.
“Partly, I was a product of the system,” Taylor said. “I can play in the system and thrive in the system, but it could also hide some of my deficiencies as a player. Once I got out of that system at the next level, I struggled a little bit.”
Taylor, a biochemistry major at Grinnell, planned on becoming a doctor until feeling his calling was as a pastor. He worked at a church in Iowa, then returned to his small hometown of Black River Falls, Wisc. (population 3,504). It is where, growing up, he learned to butcher cows and pigs, drive tractors and shoot hoops in a barn. It is where he met and married his high school sweetheart, Christina. It is where they raise their two daughters, Abigail, 6, and infant Hazel.
It is where Taylor spent a year and a half as a marketing coordinator and found his career in a hobby.
“I started making some videos, and fell in love with the way it made me feel and other people feel, similar to basketball,” Taylor said. “In my hometown, I used to be known as the basketball guy. Now I’m more recognized as the video guy.”
Taylor has been self-employed for four years. He is the owner of a video production company called Taylor Media. Taylor shoots weddings and makes videos for business clients. It gives him enough free time to host a podcast about his community and serve as a part-time TV host for the travel show “Discover Wisconsin” and build a 40-foot snowman, which he believes to be the tallest in state history.
“Minnesota had a 50-foot tall one, so I’m ready whenever we get enough snow,” Taylor said. “It would be fun to try to break more records.”
There hasn’t been much time for basketball in recent years, but he’s starting to feel the itch again. Last month, Taylor returned to Grinnell for the first time in five years to make a video as an undercover recruit. He played alongside an anonymous group of D-III students, who would call him a “national legend” and an “inspiration.”
“I think it still pushes me,” Taylor said of his 138-point performance. “I look back on that night, and I kind of put pressure on myself to make the rest of my life as special. I don’t want to be defined by scoring 138 points, even though I probably will be. It’s a fun challenge not to be.
“I might go to the grave with [the record]. If it does get broken, it’s probably gonna come from Grinnell, Iowa.”