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The Loneliest Number
Justin Heckert
December 31, 2012
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December 31, 2012

The Loneliest Number


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His mother. He wanted the number because of her. She had never seen him play, so he decided that if he scored 100 points on the night she was in the stands, she might come to understand him, or at least never have any doubt about how good he was. Almost 59 years ago in the middle of February, Frank Selvy's mother rode the L&N Railroad from Corbin, Ky., to Greenville, S.C. She sat in a gym on the second floor of Furman's Textile Hall for a basketball game against Newberry College, the first and only one of his games she would ever see. Frank was a 6'3" senior center. His nickname was the Corbin Comet. He was so fast that it took only two seconds for him to score the first basket, off the opening tip. He looked for his mother in the crowd. Iva Selvy had raised 10 children in a wooden house with a coal stove while her husband went to work in a coal mine. As the game progressed, Frank scored so often that the fans rattled the bleachers each time he touched the ball, thumping the floor with their shoes. The P.A. announcer called out his increasing point total, as if in expectation. At one point his coach sat the other four starters and told everyone else to pass Frank the ball. He felt magical that night. He was hitting hook shots as though he were still practicing on the goal he had made out of wood and planted on top of a hill near his house. Frank took the last shot of the game too, a running one-hander, with Furman up by 52. He was just past midcourt, three players from Newberry around him. He had 98 points, the most anyone had ever scored in a Division I game. The ball left his fingers as the clock expired. He would be named first-team All-America, would be picked No. 1 in the 1954 NBA draft, would play nine seasons in the pros and then work 25 years in sales for the St. Joe Paper Company in Laurens, S.C. After the game he was carried around the court on the shoulders of a mob, oblivious to what the number would eventually mean. The ball had gone in. And he would live with 100 forever. His mother found him on the court. She asked, "Why did you do that?"

His coach. Another man wanted the number because of his coach. Bevo Francis would end up with the highest single-season scoring average in college basketball history, 46.5 points per game. His real name was Clarence; the nickname was from his father, who liked to drink Bevo, the nonalcoholic malt beverage made by Anheuser-Busch. Bevo was 6'9". He developed a beautiful jump shot from playing for hours on the hay floor of a barn near his house in Wellsville, Ohio, and shooting at a basket in the parking lot of a Methodist church. His coach's name was Newt Oliver. Newt was a foot shorter than Bevo and a former boxer, with blue eyes and a square jaw and a sharp tongue. He was a shrewd man and hated to lose. Bevo played for Newt at Division II Rio Grande (Ohio) College, which had 94 students. Newt wanted Bevo to score as many points as he could. And to get to one number in particular—100—to draw national attention to the school. And 100 seemed like a magical number that no one could ever achieve, a number that would immortalize a team that played in a gym called the Hog Pen with a black-tile court and three rows of folding chairs instead of stands. Bevo scored the points his coach wanted, with his beautiful jump shots, sometimes taking every shot after halftime. For two seasons, 1952--53 and '53--54, he was the most famous basketball player in the world. But neither Bevo nor his coach knew how hollow numbers could eventually become. Newt got fired in 1954 partly because the administration didn't like all the publicity drawn by that much scoring. Bevo dropped out of school, barnstormed for a while and later went to work in a steel mill and then for Goodyear tires in Akron. He tired of numbers. He raised a family, and grew old. Fed his hunting dogs. Tended vegetables in his garden. He was happy sitting in the quiet of a small boat on Lake Jackson, in the wooded black, listening to the frogs. Through the years, occasionally his phone would ring while he was asleep. The voices would ask, "Did you really score 113 points in a game?"

His slump. Jack Taylor wanted to break out of his slump. Jack was from a farm in Black River Falls, Wis. He was 22 years old. He had a good jumper that he never stopped working on. He was a dedicated student of basketball, something he loved as much as anything in the world. He read books about basketball. He watched instructional videos about basketball. As a teenager he once practiced for hours, then hid beneath the bleachers when the gym closed, waiting quietly in the dark after the janitor left to make sure no one would see him. He turned the lights on and started shooting again, until three in the morning. When he was recruited out of Black River Falls High, he was told he had the potential to be the best scorer ever at Division III Grinnell (Iowa) College, a place of prolific and often record-breaking scoring. He turned the school down twice, but he ended up there three years later, old enough to be a college graduate. Last month, in his first two games with Grinnell—a team that likes to run fast, press full-court and shoot lots of three-pointers—he had made only six treys, troubling his coaches. In his third game, against Faith Baptist College of Ankeny, Iowa, an opponent the Pioneers were going to beat anyway, his coaches wanted to see what he could do if they just let him keep shooting. So they designed the game plan around him. He was told it was his night to shine. To maybe even break a record. To get what his coaches describe as "a number." As the game wore on, all he wanted to do was score.

This is a story about really wanting something, and then living with it once it's yours. About a number that almost no one else will ever have. About how it feels, and how it happens.

The wind moans in the middle of Iowa. Gym lights glow into the darkness through the glass windows above the court. Jack Taylor is inside, practicing with his teammates. At 5'10", he is one of the smallest players on the floor. Back home on the farm, his mother calls him Little Jack, because his father is also named Jack, and he is 6'2". Little Jack's bedroom is covered with so many posters, mostly of Kobe Bryant, that the wall paint is barely visible. In his keepsake box there is a ticket stub his aunt gave him from the night Kobe scored 81 points, one of the most amazing nights in NBA history. Jack also has a tape of the game that he purchased on eBay. In fourth grade he would not sign his real name to homework assignments; he would sign Kobe in the blank space. So his teacher called him Kobe. The whole year.

Jack spent his childhood studying his favorite NBA players, such as Kobe and Ray Allen, trying to copy the way they played. He asked for ball-handling-drill videos for Christmas and wrote down notes about each of the videos' 150 moves. He practiced stationary dribbling next to a wood furnace in the basement of the farmhouse, then crossed out the move on a piece of paper with a pencil and went on to the next drill. On a gravel driveway Jack took the twine used to bind bales of hay, tied pieces together and measured them out to the three-point line.

In the Grinnell gym, Jack is wearing white Nikes and black socks. Perspiration glistens on his forehead beneath the lights. He is taking three-pointers, one after the other. One draws net, the next draws net, and then two more nudge the rim with a plunk. He keeps shooting. When he jumps and hits his release point, his left, off elbow kicks out slightly, and his left thumb flicks against the ball, like Reggie Miller's. After the game against Faith Baptist, Jack Taylor was trending worldwide on Twitter.

David Arsenault, the 58-year-old Grinnell coach, walks slowly and repeatedly around the court. His son, Dave, who used to play for his dad and got the NCAA assists record with 34 in 2007, is also on the court, watching the team. Dave is 26 and has been the de facto Grinnell coach the past two years. He makes the game-planning decisions. The players do not practice defense. They don't run sprints. They just practice five on zero, setting screens and shooting threes.

On Nov. 20, Jack Taylor scored 138 points against Faith Baptist, smashing the old NCAA record, 113, that Bevo Francis held for more than half a century. The number sounds impossible when spoken aloud, but it seemed probable midway through the second half, when Jack cleared 100, with the student section on its feet; and then it seemed arbitrary, when he finally got hot and left the old record in the dust. At one point in the game Jack was nearly blind with exhaustion, but he wanted to keep scoring.

"Maybe I'm shallow. Maybe I'm crazy," the elder Arsenault says, "but I believe in giving kids moments in sports where they can feel good about themselves. Getting our best players playing at a higher level, which is going to make us better. And the best way to do that is to let them shoot for records. We understand that there is silliness here, but seriously, what we want is just a competitive team. And in order to get that, you need good athletes and fan support, and a kind of gimmicky game like this, every once in a while, gives us a real boost. It's also a reward thing. We were just trying to break Jack out of his slump and give him a moment. And there was the possibility that it could lead to a little bit more attention."

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