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. --L.W.
2003-04 RECORD: 31-5 (13-3, 1st in Big East)
TOURNAMENT: Lost to Oklahoma State in Sweet 16
Krauser aside, the power-packed Panthers would rather be in a boxing match than a track meet.
ENEMY LINES an opposing coach's view
"Their mind-set is to try to break your spirit; they don't care if they beat you 50--48. They play a half-court, slug-it-out style on offense, and they don't give you an inch in half-court defense.... Chevon Troutman is as physical a low-post player as there is in the country; he knows how to engage in hand-to-hand combat.... The team's success depends on the maturity of Carl Krauser and Chris Taft. Krauser doesn't have to score 20 a game for them to be good. In fact, if he tries to score too much, it could hurt the team. Taft has great hands and is as good a low-post scoring option as there is in the country."