GALESBURG, Ill. -- Jack Taylor’s number is 138. It’s ludicrous. A pizza place out there in Iowa celebrated by selling medium pies for $1.38 beginning at 1:38 p.m. This kind of thing, along with defenders assigned to him and to him alone, causes Taylor to laugh: “I’m going to be a marked man.” To score the 138 points, he took 108 shots. He was 27-for-71 on three-pointers. He had one assist and sometimes didn’t bother crossing mid-court to play defense. It’s what you can do when you’re part of a high-octane college basketball team, even in Division 3, and you’re playing against a Bible school team stocked with Christians of the lead-footed persuasion. But you know what? It doesn’t matter if Grinnell College played a nunnery. It’s still 138 and it’s 27 and some people, if you locked them in the gym alone, would need a week to get those numbers.
Jack Taylor is a little guy with a dark buzz cut and bright eyes. He looks like everyone’s idea of a second baseman, maybe 5-foot-10 and 175. He wears a brace on his left knee because he blew out the knee in prep school, after which D1 schools backed off. The kid’s a player. Strong, smart, finds the open man, can get his shot from anywhere anytime. Probably not a star in D1 -- too small -- but a hundred D1 teams could use a point guard who can score inside and out and get to the free-throw line off a crossover move that breaks ankles.
“Maybe not a great shooter,” his coach, David Arseneault Jr., said. “But a great scorer.”
On this night, it was Grinnell against Knox College. Most anyone who pays attention to the college game has had only a long-distance relationship with Grinnell because, for one thing, who ever goes to Grinnell, Iowa? It’s not just flyover country, it’s drive-past country, secreted between cornfields on the flatlands of central Iowa. So we’ve heard about, without ever seeing, Grinnell’s unique run-and-gun play. They call it “The System.”
It is a game with which Dr. Naismith would not be familiar. Created by the elder David Arseneault (still on the team’s bench, though he has ceded control to his son), the System is chaos organized at breakneck speed. Grinnell double-teams the ball everywhere and cuts off passing angles, inducing frenzy and panic so extreme that no one wants the ball in his hands lest he have a nervous breakdown at mid-court. Grinnell’s offense is three-pointers from downtown Des Moines. It runs in five new substitutes every minute.
You may have seen all this in the You Tube videos of Jack Taylor’s 138. If so, you’ve seen him embarrass Faith Baptist Bible College. You may have heard the Grinnell student play-by-play broadcaster call him “Jack the Ripper” and advise viewers that in Grinnell’s gym, as Taylor neared 100 points, a person could “feel the energy pulsating.” The night’s plan, the broadcaster said, was to set records. Taylor might get a crack at the D3 single-game record of 89 points, set by a teammate, Griffin Lentsch. Also, Grinnell might chase the record of 104 for points in a half.
Such thinking may be insensitive to the tender feelings of Bible schoolers. David Arseneault Jr. didn’t much care. A non-conference opponent such Faith Baptist appears on Grinnell’s schedule for the same reason that Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina schedule cupcakes -- for the greater good of their programs. Yes, Arseneault Jr. told me before Grinnell’s game against Knox College, he went into the Faith Baptist game with a plan.
“We wanted to set a record for points in a half,” he said. And, yes, he planned to leave Taylor in for the first 10 minutes. “We wanted to give him a chance to get out of a shooting slump,” the coach said. Taylor had gone 11-for-41 in Grinnell’s first two games. At halftime, Grinnell had missed the team scoring record -- it led, 85-46. But Arseneault was astonished when he learned that Taylor had scored 58 himself.
“It was the quietest 58 I’d ever seen,” the coach said. It happened quietly because Taylor had done nothing sensationally. He’d simply done what a good guard does, only he did those things every time he touched the ball, which was every time Grinnell had the ball. He’d once scored 48 in high school at Black River Falls, Wis. He figured he might have had 30 in the half against Faith Baptist.
“When I told the team at halftime that Jack had 58 points, everybody went nuts,” Arseneault said.
“Disbelief,” said Griffin Lentsch, who’d scored his 89 only last season.
Arseneault said, “I told them, ‘Let’s see how many points he can score.’” A transfer from Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Taylor is a sophomore. After only three weeks of practice and two games with Grinnell, he hadn’t learned the intricacies of the System’s offense. Arseneault said, “Everybody started scheming about how they could get the ball to Jack every time down.”
Even Griffin Lentsch was all in. “I’d had my chance,” he said. “It was time to let somebody else have theirs.”
When Taylor reached 100 points, the student broadcaster, Rob Storrick, shouted, “One hundred! Wilt Chamberlain, whattaya got to say?” Fifty years ago, playing for the Philadelphia Warriors, the late, great Chamberlain set the NBA single-game scoring record with 100 against the New York Knicks. I called one of Wilt’s teammates with the broadcaster’s question. “Wilt was all class, and he’d have handled it kindly,” Joe Ruklick said. “He’d have sat down, touched your knee, and said, ‘It was an unsportsmanlike act.’”
Grinnell has done record-setting acts before. Arseneault himself had 34 assists in a game. The Pioneers once had 19 players make three-pointers in a game. Of people who called Taylor’s 138-point night meaningless, Arseneault said, “They’re certainly entitled to their opinions. But most people don’t know what we’re doing on offense. Even some of our guys don’t know what we’re doing. I have to watch film to know who played well. But we’re always making decisions in the best interests of the team. We have our reasons for doing what we do.”
The coach said he has been told that the publicity growing from Taylor's 138 “was worth $2.5 million to the school.” (Not that Grinnell needs financial help. It’s an elite academic school of only 1,700 students and an endowment of $1.5 billion. Grinnell gives full financial aid to every student.) Also, it raises Grinnell's national profile, helping Arseneault's recruiting, which is done primarily at academic-showcase camps in California, Illinois and Massachusetts. (Only two of his 20 players are from Iowa; the rest from 14 other states.) At the team level, the 138 was good for Taylor: “Anytime you can get your best player playing at his highest level, that builds confidence.”
On this night in this little town -- famous as Carl Sandburg’s birthplace and the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate -- Jack Taylor played with confidence and within the confines of the System. He was in and out of the game 17 times, never on the court for more than 89 seconds. He was one of 13 Pioneers who played 11 to 15 minutes. He led Grinnell with 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting (3 of 8 on three-pointers). Grinnell won, 113-76. It’s 4-1, Knox 0-3. On successive games of 19 points, 28, 138, 21 and 18, Taylor is averaging 44.8 a game.
He first played basketball in the third grade. Then high school, prep school, UW-LaCrosse, now Grinnell. “The biggest difference here is the enthusiasm in the program and the unselfishness of the team,” he said. “In practice, at games, everybody is always cheering for each other.”
He stood outside the visitor’s locker room. It was time for the two-hour bus ride back to Grinnell.
That 138 number, Jack. Did you ever imagine?
A smile. “I thought I might eclipse 50 sometime.”
Now a laugh. "And I get 58 in a half.”
And shortly after Jack Taylor reached 138, here came righteous wailing about the sham of playing Faith Baptist and the emptiness of any record set that night. Terrible, terrible it was, Grinnell's bastardization of the game. But you know what? I saw Jack Taylor and he was good. I saw Grinnell going end to end in its red jerseys turning the air a scarlet blurrrrrrrr. And here is a scribbling from my notebook: “Breathless + it’s fun.”