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Posted: December 7, 2013 8:22 p.m.

Mentee by chance, friends by choice

Matt Smith/

After more than a decade apart, former Big East basketball player, and current Rockdale County Sheriff's Deputy Oliver Taylor reunited with his mentor, David Gurwitz. The two have lived vastly different lives since Gurwitz first met Taylor in the ...

In an empty gym at Memorial Middle School Thursday morning, a familiar face was shooting baskets as students hurried to lunch.

In front of a few cameras and onlookers, Rockdale County Sheriff’s Deputy Oliver Taylor sank free throw after free throw, with an old friend by his side.

The unlikely pair formed a friendship over 20 years ago in New York City, but Thursday, Taylor and renowned pianist and composer David Gurwitz reunited after a decade apart.

“Look at him; he’s packing heat and he’s shooting,” Gurwitz joked. “Do the Hawks have anyone who can shoot as well as him?”

As Taylor squared up for his next shot, his 11th make in a row, he joked back with Gurwitz.

“The last thing you lose is shooting,” Taylor said.

“I never had it,” Gurwitz quipped.

Friendship begins
Taylor's basketball career had humble beginnings; he grew up in Queens, New York, with a dream just like thousands of others. But Taylor soon realized that he had a special skill on the court, and in high school, it made his name known throughout the country.

“I was just an inner-city kid from Far Rockaway, New York,” Taylor said. “I was a kid with a dream. I took a chance on something I loved. People felt that I was pretty good and I played in high school and became a ‘high-school star.’”

Taylor did star at the high-school level, averaging 38 points a game his senior year at Far Rockaway High School.

He wanted to continue his career at the collegiate level, but there was a roadblock.

Taylor didn’t do well on the SAT, the college entrance exam that most colleges and universities use to determine a student’s readiness for college work.

But a stroke of luck, and timing, changed Taylor’s life forever.

In another part of New York City, Gurwitz was celebrating the birth of his son, one of four, when he saw a New York Times article about a top area basketball player who was struggling to progress in his career.

Never one to turn down an opportunity to help another, Gurwitz took a liking to this prep basketball star he had never met.

Gurwitz' kindness
“I guess the timing was great,” Gurwitz said. “My son (was just born) … You’re just so amazed that all of his hands and feet are all there and you’re like, ‘God, you’ve given me a child; what can I do?’ I saw the article (on Oliver) and so the timing was a major part of it. Also, I come from a family that’s always been giving … you live from giving.”

For Gurwitz, kindness wasn’t taken lightly. He owed his own existence to the kindness of strangers.

During World War II, Gurwitz’s grandfather lost most of his money in Europe. He purchased a car that allowed him to help feed starving civilians, and during that time, Gurwitz’s father learned how to dismantle the car and fix scrap parts.

Gurwitz’s father eventually served in the Russian army, using his automotive know-how to save his life.

Gurwitz’s father had been given a chance to live, and now Gurwitz had the opportunity to help Taylor.

“It all hit me at once,” Gurwitz said. “If I could help him, maybe he could go places…”

First contact
So with this idea of helping Taylor, Gurwitz made first contact.

“David Gurwitz actually read the article (written about my struggle),” Taylor said. “He just wanted to give back. He contacted my school and talked to my coach. I came to school the following day and my coach said some guy named David Gurwitz wants to tutor you.”

Taylor and Gurwitz talked on the phone, and their relationship grew from there.

“It was great,” Taylor said. “You have to think, (this was) someone you knew nothing about. A different culture. A different background. A different mind frame. (David) shared a lot of stuff with me and made me see things differently, especially coming from the inner-city.

“Just knowing that I had to continue working hard (helped push me),” he said. “The standardized test said I wasn’t ready for college-material work. David told me that I was working hard, and they can’t tell (me) that. As long as you continue working hard, you can succeed.”

Gurwitz said that getting Taylor to buy into what he was trying to share was easy, and that the impact of his mentoring was not lost on his star shooting guard.

“I had been a teacher at Stanley Kaplan Educational Center … It was the biggest test preparation company in the world,” Gurwitz said. “So, I was a tutor. I knew how to teach math and writing and that’s what we did. I drilled him.

“You’re dealing with someone with so much self-respect and drive,” he said. “That makes it easier. He was willing to learn. He doesn’t have a big ego. He could have. He (wanted) the help.”

The basketball star from a single-parent home had never had a mentor show so much interest in his activities off the court.

“Being the leading scorer in high school, everybody wants you for something,” Taylor said. “(Gurwitz) was more concerned (about my career) from an educational standpoint. (He was concerned with) what I was going to do in life after basketball. If you don’t make it in basketball, what can you do in life?”

Gurwitz, an avid Celtics fan, saw greatness in Taylor apart from his basketball skill.

“(I wanted him to realize) that basketball stops,” Gurwitz said. “Even Larry Bird retired. You have to go on and anticipate in advance. You look at Magic (Johnson); what made him so great was the anticipation. That’s something people need (to learn). It was not difficult because his athletic training made it easier. A lot of athletics is about decision-making."

Gurwitz, is no stranger to the basketball court himself, having played basketball in Madrid after graduating from college. He used his experience with other coaches to help guide Taylor.

“I (knew Celtics’ legendary coach) Red Auerbach,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with him. (I’d pick his brain and find out) how’d you pick Larry Bird? How’d you pick Bill Russell? How’d you pick Dave Cowens? I learned from the master how he saw them before anybody else did. I think that way naturally. Oliver got it right away.”

Taylor remains appreciative of the guidance Gurwitz provided in his youth, allowing him to reach his dream of playing at the collegiate level.

“At the end of the day, (going to college and getting a degree) is your own testimony,” Taylor said. “In your mind, you know what you’ve been through (in) your experience. That’s the best teacher. I can be successful in whatever I do.”

While Gurwitz's help allowed Taylor to get his collegiate career moving, it was Taylor himself who jump-started his legend on the court. After two seasons at Miami-Dade, he joined Seton Hall and head coach P.J. Carlesimo.

College success
Taylor spent two seasons as a little-known point guard, but in 1991, he made his splash on the national stage. Taylor averaged 10.9 points his senior year, helping the Seton Hall to a 19-8 regular season record.

He helped the Pirates to the Big East Championship that season, their first in 12 attempts, hitting a last-second layup in the quarterfinals against Pittsburgh before sending Villanova packing with a game-winning jumper in a 74-72 Pirates’ victory. In the championship final against Georgetown, Seton Hall routed the Hoyas 74-62, withTaylor earning the Big East’s Dave Gavitt Trophy as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

With the title, Taylor earned a spot in history alongside Big East greats like Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing.

“The Big East Tournament - that weekend was my shining moment,” Taylor said. “People perform at the highest level there. To be able to walk away with the MVP trophy in front of some of the top draft picks in the NBA draft (that year), it proved my hard work. (If) you work hard, you’re going to have your time.”

Even Taylor’s choice to attend Seton Hall had a bit of Gurwitz's influence. Taylor said that the two remained close during his time in college and that his decision to join the Pirates was in part due to the lessons that Gurwitz taught him early in his career. Taylor wanted to give back to others like his mentor.

“From the neighborhood I’m from, you see all these other players, but no one comes from where you come from,” Taylor said. “So you really can’t relate to them. So when you have someone from within your town or city, it’s easy to go back home and give inspiration to kids. I didn’t have that coming out of high school.”

Taylor finished his educational pursuit with two degrees – an associate’s degree in general studies and a bachelor’s degree in communication.

But as Taylor’s collegiate playing days came to a close, so did his relationship with his mentor.

Life in the way
After college, Taylor spent 11 successful years overseas playing professional basketball in Puerto Rico and Israel. While the competition was great, life got in the way of his relationship with Gurwitz.

Taylor was constantly on the move, changing numbers, playing ball and raising a family, and the two grew apart and lost contact.

Then in 2001, Taylor returned to the United States to visit his brother in Rockdale County, and fate forced him to stay. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened just two days into Taylor’s visit, and the point guard decided that his playing career was over.

Taylor liked Georgia, and Rockdale County especially, and decided to make it his home.

He settled in Rockdale County, working for a security company before joining the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office.

It was actually his brother, founder and CEO of HI ROC Records, who found Gurwitz.

“(My brother asked) me one day, ‘Have you seen David Gurwitz?’ Taylor said. “I said no.
“‘Well,’ his brother said, ‘he’s doing music.’”

Taylor was shocked, because while he was overseas playing basketball, Gurwitz was making a name for himself in music. Gurwitz’s love for music began in college, but Taylor’s former mentor had broken into the music industry, dazzling listeners with his compositions on the piano.

Taylor couldn’t believe it.

“I had to physically see that it was the same guy I knew,” he said.

Gurwitz’s musical talents weren’t just something he picked up. They were there all along, unbeknownst to him.
A conversation with his cousin one day revealed to Gurwitz that his mother had once played in Carnegie Hall, but it was a secret she kept to herself.

“My mother never told me,” Gurwitz said. “So I have this blood in me, of someone who was able to play in Carnegie Hall, and I have this basketball (skill), so I developed this musical talent.”

The former college disc jockey released his first cassette 10 years ago, and now, at the age of 54, his music is played throughout the world.

The concert pianists’ light jazz arrangements have been used to soothe children’s pain in hospitals, and he has performed at the Special Olympics, bringing music to thousands of athletes trying to chase their dreams, just like Taylor once did.

After gaining success in the music industry, Gurwitz set up a personal website, allowing Taylor to track him down.

Finding a brother
Through Gurwitz’s personal website, Taylor contacted his former mentor, almost sending Gurwitz off the road.

“When I got (his) email, I was driving down the Palisades Parkway in New York and almost had an accident,” Gurwitz said. “I contacted him right away, and we’ve been back in touch since then.”

Taylor said that reuniting with Gurwitz was like passing your brother on the street for the first time, and that the reunion was much needed after a decade apart.

With smiles from ear to ear, the two entered the gym, a sort of home away from home for the two unlikely friends, ready to share their story of hope and determination.

“People come into your life for a reason,” Taylor said. “As a member of the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office, we’re like a family; we’re considered one. To be able to be in the schools and affect some of the kids in any way, form or fashion, is a plus. I always reflect on where it started with me.

“He (David) didn’t know one thing about me,” he said. “Who takes a chance on that? You have to trust somebody and give them a chance. I’m proof of that. All you have to do to people is be fair.”

Taylor is now using his position to help mentor Rockdale County youths the same way Gurwitz mentored the former basketball standout.

“When you have a positive, young male…who can have the life he’s had and lead the life he is now leading, it’s very inspirational to an agency and it’s good to know that he can touch other’s (lives),” Rockdale County Sheriff Eric Levett said of Taylor. “As a mentor, you don’t know which way your mentee is going to go. You don’t know.

“He’s grabbed that (mentor) torch from David and he’s carried it on to other young men and women,” he said. “It’s good to see him in this role. Now he’s in a career where he’s … being an influence in someone’s life. I know having him … should inspire, and is inspiring, young people.”

With their bond renewed, Taylor and Gurwitz have both seen the fruits of their labors rewarded. But, both know that neither could have succeeded without the other when the seed of friendship was planted so many years ago in New York.

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