Center Chris Taft is a superstar in the making, and he has the Panthers poised to strike
When Chris Taft bought his first cellphone as a high school junior in 2001, he recorded a voice-mail greeting that began, "You know who this is: Chris Taft, the superstar."
Brash, perhaps, but there were reasons for his bravado. Then a highly touted center at Xaverian High in Brooklyn, Taft had been dubbed the Big Ticket by one recruiting magazine, a nickname also used by Taft's favorite NBA player, Kevin Garnett. "I wanted to be a superstar like Garnett, so I decided to start calling myself one," he says.
Three years later, as a sophomore at Pitt, the 6'10", 260-pound Taft is on the verge of achieving his goal. In a conference with a bumper crop of big men -- Hakim Warrick of Syracuse, Ryan Gomes of Providence and Charlie Villanueva of UConn, to name three -- Taft is the one NBA teams covet most. Whether he can become the first NBA lottery pick from Pitt since Charles Smith in 1988 hinges on his continuing the rapid progress he made in 2003-04, when he was named the Big East freshman of the year.
"I've never seen a player develop more in one season than Chris did," says Panthers coach Jamie Dixon, who waited until the Panthers' 13th game to make Taft a starter. Taft averaged 13.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in Big East play as Pitt won its third straight regular-season title. Look for Taft and junior guard Carl Krauser to take expanded leadership roles this season, with one goal in mind: "It may be early, but I'm saying it now -- we're winning a national championship," Taft says, "and don't forget who told you that."
Toward that end, Taft spent his summer studying game tapes of Garnett ("He does everything") and Hakeem Olajuwon ("For all those beautiful shake moves") in an effort to expand his low-post arsenal, which was heavy on jump hooks last season. "Everybody knew about the hook and couldn't stop it, so I just kept on shooting it," Taft says. "But I know my game needs something more."
His game tapes needed upgrading, too, so Pitt's video coordinator converted Taft's library of cassettes, which had been provided to him by Xaverian coach Jack Alesi, to DVDs. Using a PlayStation2, Taft intends to make viewing the videos a pregame ritual -- and use what he learns to take another step toward superstardom.
-- Luke Winn