TAMPA — As they do before every home game, the starters for the Freedom High School girls basketball team took their seats on the bench as tipoff of a district game against Wiregrass Ranch approached.
One by one, as the announcer called their names, the Patriots (16-2) ran through a tunnel created by teammates to greet a raucous crowd, throwing bags of candy into the stands.
The cheers grew exponentially when, finally, it was Taylor Emery’s turn. The 5-foot-9 guard stood at midcourt, scanning the crowd before throwing a bag of treats to her father, Emmett Emery.
After the gift he gave her, it was the least she could do.
Taylor, who at one point led the nation in scoring with more than 40 points per game, has staked her claim as one of the best players in Tampa Bay. Next season she’ll suit up for Tulane, picking the Green Wave over the handful of Division I offers she received.
The commanding style of play that got her there was developed in the city parks of Chicago, and she was molded by a father who taught Taylor that her gender didn’t have to be a limitation.
“He just got it into me that it’s not about being a female basketball player or a male basketball player,” she said. “It’s about being a ball player.”
And for the next 90 minutes, she put that identity on full display.
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If Taylor doesn’t appear to be your average girls basketball player, that’s by design.
Her father played at the prep level in Chicago before moving on to Allen Community College in Iola, Kan., then Western Illinois University. For two years, while being stationed in Europe with the Navy, he played for a Reykjavik, Iceland, team that competed throughout Europe. Despite his experiences, Emmett did not want to force basketball on his children.
He didn’t have to.
Taylor’s first memories of basketball are the trips she’d take with her brother Emmett Jr., six years her senior, to the city parks in Chicago. There, the 7-year-old would join forces with her brother to take on anybody and everybody they met. One time, she almost started a blacktop brawl after giving a high school kid a bloody nose during a game of pickup.
“It gave me a sort of, ‘You can hit me, but I’m still going to make the shot,’ kind of mentality,” Taylor said of learning to play in Chicago. “I’m not scared of anyone trying to come up and hit me.”
Once she decided to become serious about excelling in the sport, Taylor approached her dad for help. By then, Emmett was already training his son to play the sport he loved, so he began including Taylor in the workouts, not making a single change to accommodate his daughter.
“I worked with her not as if she were a female, but if she were a boy. I made her tough,” Emmett said. “I wanted her to be different than your average female, so it would be difficult for them to defend or play with her.”
Is it ever.
Taylor moved to the Tampa area in 2010. The following year her dad received full custody, then it was all basketball, all the time. The summer before her eighth-grade year she began playing with the club team Tampa Bay Inferno, where she first met future Freedom teammate Bianca Igwe.
“She was fast, she could get up and down the court, she could shoot the ball. And she was so young,” Igwe said. “She was just a little pot of gold.”
A year later, Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke knew after Taylor’s very first high school practice just what a treasure she would be to the Patriots. Taylor started as a freshman, then again as a sophomore, helping the Patriots advance to their first region title in nearly a decade.
And she only got better.
After averaging 20.5 points as a sophomore, her nearly 26 points per game last season made her Hillsborough County’s leading scorer. Still, she wanted to improve.
Pacholke has coached high school basketball 10 years, guiding players who went on to careers at women’s basketball powerhouses like Baylor and UConn. The drive Taylor possesses, Pacholke said, sets her apart.
That, and the fact that she still finds herself in awe of the things Taylor can do on the court.
“We kind of say out there, ‘She’s a woman against girls.’ Just her physical makeup. She’s so strong,” Pacholke said, citing Taylor’s go-to move, the pull-up jumpshot. “She does things that most females can’t do.”
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The Patriots beat Wiregrass Ranch 62-52 to remain undefeated in the district. Taylor scored 30 points, a bit under her current season average of 35.
But Pacholke most admires that no matter what she does on the court, Taylor is always searching for more.
“We have a saying, ‘Good is the enemy of a great.’ I think you see a lot of kids who are good their freshman year, sophomore year, and they become a victim of ‘good is the enemy of great,’ ” Pacholke said. “She didn’t allow that to happen.”
So on her next off day — as if such a thing exists — Taylor still plans to throw up shots at the park, run miles through her neighborhood. The desire to be even better never stops.
And neither does Taylor Emery.
Contact Kelly Parsons at [email protected] Follow @_kellyparsons