Black socks with white shoes and shorts is never a good look. Just check out your uncle Ed. However, UCLA volleyball setter Brandon Taliaferro discovered a package of black socks in his locker two years ago and fearlessly began wearing them with his white sneakers and blue shorts. He stuck with the black all season, and the Bruins won the national championship. As a junior last season Taliaferro wanted to prove to himself that it wasn't the socks, so he wore white, and UCLA had its worst postseason in 11 years, losing in the first round of the regional NCAA qualifying tournament. So not surprisingly he was back in black this season as the Bruins drove toward their 18th national title in 31 years, which they clinched with a 15-8, 15-10, 17-15 sweep of Ohio State in last Saturday's NCAA final in Fort Wayne, Ind.
In the light and cheery world of volleyball, Taliaferro can often be found roaming the dark side. A self-described "stereo-typically mellow California kid" off the court, Taliaferro is a hypertense type A between the lines. Two weeks ago, against Pepperdine, he drew a yellow card for running under the net to protest an out call—on his opening serve of the match. "I play like the devil with my hair on fire," Taliaferro says. "A couple of years ago I played with an uncontrolled rage. I've matured since then into a more controlled rage."
Taliaferro used to stress out so much during matches that he suffered headaches from grinding his teeth, which prompted him to start chewing gum. He says that he was dunking of quitting the game during his sophomore season in order to retain his sanity. To reduce his anxiety during his junior season he took up yoga and began studying Taoism, a Chinese philosophy that advocates simplicity and selflessness. He regularly consults a book called The Tao of Pooh, which has taught him how to not sweat the small stuff in the manner of noted Taoist Winnie the Pooh. When that doesn't work, the dude goes surfing.
With 211 pounds filling out his 6'5" frame, Taliaferro doesn't have the prototypical volleyball body, and he concedes that he's among the Bruins' least gifted athletes. Yet he's considered the best setter in the college game and is UCLA's career leader in assists and aces. Legendary Bruins coach Al Scates says that in his 38 years at UCLA he has never had a smarter or more instinctive setter than Taliaferro. "Brandon's a throwback to our 1980s guys, like Karch Kiraly," Scates says. "He's unhappy if he doesn't set a perfect game, and he'll never accept that that's impossible."
Last summer Taliaferro thought about taking a year off from school to train with the U.S. team in preparation for the Olympics, but he returned to Westwood, saying that his decision hinged in part on the dearth of beaches in Colorado Springs. Quarterbacking a relatively average UCLA team that was ranked an unsightly No. 7 in the preseason, Taliaferro pushed the Bruins to a 9-0 start. Then in early February he began to suffer from debilitating back spasms, and an MRI revealed a pinched nerve and four degenerative disks. UCLA lost three of its next five matches, and Bruins trainer Tony Spino informed Taliaferro that there was a chance his college career was over. Taliaferro sat out for 20 days, repeatedly reassuring his teammates, "I'm not going out this way" Scates nursed Taliaferro through the rest of the season by forbidding weightlifting and limiting his jump serves. In deference to his balky back, a mortified Taliaferro sat in first class on the flight to Indiana while his teammates rode in coach.
After UCLA defeated Penn State in one of last Thursday's semifinals, Taliaferro explained his motivation for winning a second NCAA title. Turns out that on Christmas Day in 1998 he gave his championship ring from the previous spring to his mother, Karen, with a note that concluded, "P.S. I will get another one." Last Saturday, Taliaferro's masterly setting produced an extraordinary .459 team hitting percentage, and with UCLA trailing 13-11 in the third game, he produced a pair of critical aces and then a dig on match point. "Those plays are what you expect from the great ones," Buckeyes coach Pete Hanson said afterward. "With the game on the line, Brandon threw his team on his back and took it home."
After me match it wasn't long before Taliaferro had morphed back into that mellow California kid, talking wistfully about surfing as soon as he arrived home, maybe getting into the pro beach volleyball scene. His haft-was extinguished. His battered gum was in the trash. His black socks were replaced by flip-flops. His tao was pure Pooh.