Nov. 16, 2004 – If kids in the Virgin Islands have hoop dreams, their best bet at getting the exposure they need comes from one man. Cardell Taylor is the master behind Master's Touch, a travel basketball league created two years ago. Master's Touch makes it possible for the best players from the islands to show their talent to college coaches and scouts.
Taylor was born and raised in the Bronx in New York City. His tie to St. Thomas comes from this mother. She grew up on the island and graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School, and Taylor has many relatives still living here in the Virgin Islands.
"I have roots here. Being involved in these schools is very special for me," he says. Seven years ago, Taylor decided to get in touch with those roots, and came to St. Thomas to coach basketball and teach. He went back to New York four years ago when his mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. After she died, Taylor moved back to St. Thomas.
Two and a half years ago, he started coaching girls basketball at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School. Then, about six months later, created the Master's Touch. It's a team of the most talented players from all the high schools on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. Taylor's goal when he started Master's Touch was to give kids a hand up. By making it possible for them to play in front of the right people, they would have a better chance at scholarship money to go to college.
The response from players was immediate; 112 kids tried out for the first team. By last summer, 165 players were at the tryouts. Taylor narrows the final number down to just 72 players on three teams. This year there is a junior varsity boy's team, varsity boys and varsity girls, each with 24 players.
"When I first started coaching, I recognized a lot of talent here," Taylor says. He cultivated that talent and took the players on the road. The first year the Master's Touch team participated in the Main Event Tournament in Las Vegas, where the young Virgin Islanders found themselves in the company of 400 teams from across the country.
That year the girls won the championship in the Silver division in Las Vegas, and the boys went to the semifinals in the Silver division. In July of this year, the girls did even better, taking second place in the Gold division.
Taylor pushes grades first, knowing that college recruiters will rarely take a second look at a player who doesn't carry at least a C average.
"You have to have certain conduct on or off the court. We've made strides in the tournaments so they look for us coming," says Taylor. "When we get off the plane, scouts are watching. How do you act, how do you dress, do you take care of yourself? If you can't follow these rules, you can't be on the team. Yes, we want them to get scholarships, and, yes, we want them to be successful, but it starts with these things."
And the method seems to be working. After the most recent tournament in Las Vegas, Taylor was negotiating college scholarships for some of the girls at the airport. By the time the plane landed in St. Thomas, two deals had been inked for colleges in Kentucky and Florida.
"It's about reaching my hand out to help someone else. I want my life to be worth something, to make a difference. Giving these kids a chance to travel, that is an education for them. They learn to open their eyes," he says.
When the students have had success on the court, it translates into other areas of their lives. "I see myself in these kids," he says. "I'm using that same life to bless others, and hopefully, they'll see the talent they have came from God."
The mantra for Master's Touch players is "dedication, determination, desire and discipline." Taylor also puts that to use when finding funding for the team. The first year he pulled $11,000 out of his own pocket to fund the team's trip to Las Vegas. Last summer, he gave his credit card a break and raised $26,000 on his own by "talking to everyone I know. I went out and started knocking on doors, talking to senators and EDC companies. Every senator knows me on a first-name basis," says Taylor. The players raise some of their own money as well, but rarely come up with the $1,500 it takes to get them to the tournament.
Two coaches from St. Croix help Taylor with the team: Lenny Redwine from Country Day School who played college ball, ("He's my right hand," Taylor says) and David Paugh who played in the NBA for a year. "They understand what we're doing. They came on asking how they could help. They didn't ask for anything. When we're at tournaments, they go in their pockets just like I do to help the kids."
In addition to figuring out transportation, eating, hotels and uniforms when the team is traveling, there's practice. A lot of practice. During the summer, they practice every day. "I have a lot of faith. My coaches have a lot of faith. They know how hard it is. I should get paid for it but I don't."
So far the only payment for Taylor is when one of his players gets what he or she deserves the chance to play college ball that maybe wasnt there before they played on the road with Master's Touch.
"It's very hard doing what I'm doing. I'm not doing it alone. There's a god who helps me. This is home. I want to make a difference here."
Even though Master's Touch was created two years ago, the seed for it was planted when Taylor, now 43 years old, was in high school.
"All my vision and dreams and things that I have, the credit goes to Mr. Handwork, my high school teacher and coach in 11th grade," he says.
"I came up in the Bronx. There was nothing positive there, just a lot of gangs and a lot of drugs." But a basketball tournament in Lakewood, N.J., was the turning point for Taylor. He impressed the right people by scoring 33 points that night. His basketball talent garnered the invitation to attend a high school there. Once he was set up with a host family in Lakewood, Taylor realized he was a long way from the Bronx.
"After school, people would go home to study. I didn't know what that was about. There was no studying in the Bronx," he remembers. Taylor tried to keep up with his schoolmates, but didn't even know where to begin. "This coach, Handwork, took me home one day. He pulled over next to a golf course. He said, 'I've coached basketball for 21 years. I have never seen anyone work so hard. What is going on with you?'"
With tears in his eyes, Taylor told his coach he wanted to go to college and the only thing he knew was basketball. "He said, 'I'll help you.' Nobody ever said they want to help me in my life," says Taylor. "If he told me to run a million miles a day I would have done it."
Handwork started by giving Taylor note cards with positive messages on them. Then, every morning, Taylor would read the words before school. "Something happened to me. I studied and worked hard. A couple of weeks later I got an A on a test."
He worked hard in the classroom and on the court, and by his senior year he made the All American and All City teams. He was also entertaining more than 50 scholarship offers to play college ball. "Handwork made me believe in myself. One person can make a difference," says Taylor. Now he seeks to make that kind of impression on the students he coaches. "When I see some of my kids in school hurting and I talk to them, they're straight with me."
Taylor ended up playing at Long Beach State University under coach Tex Winters, a Hall of Fame coach. After college, Taylor spent three years with Athletes in Action, a team of eight NBA players who used exhibition games as a platform for talking about more important issues drug abuse, child abuse and believing in God.
And now, back in St. Thomas, i
t's back to basketball, and back to his roots. "It's a game, but it's a lot more than a sport to me," he says. "I take a very serious issue with young men. A lot of kids don't have fathers. I try to fulfill that role with different kids. I see red eyes; I take them to the side and say let's talk. A lot of them need encouragement."
Basketball was Taylor's ticket out of the Bronx and into a better life. He's hoping he can make that kind of difference for the kids of the Virgin Islands.
If you want to help the young men and women of Master's Touch, you may contact Taylor at 340-998-2312.
Master's Touch players will be playing at the Paradise Showcase at the Mark C. Marin Center at Antilles School. Junior varsity will play at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 17., and varsity will play at 7:45 p.m. The showcase is open to the public. A taped version of the games will also air on WTJX at a later date.
The girls of Master's Touch will be playing at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 23.
Michael Ford, 17, of St. Thomas, is ranked number five in Florida. He planned to play in the tournament, but broke his ankle over the weekend.
Others to watch include Teh'ron Christian, 17, who used to go to Antilles, and is now ranked 16 in Florida; Conroy Hosier of St. Croix; and Jamari Modur and Racio Aquenda, both of St. Thomas.
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