Support from the sidelines

Friday, January 11, 2008 | 2:56 a.m. CST; updated 8:32 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008
Zaire Taylor, center, must sit out this year because of NCAA transfer rules.

COLUMBIA — Seven seconds left. MU forward Darryl Butterfield grabs a rebound off a missed free throw on Dec. 22 in St. Louis against Illinois. He passes to Keon Lawrence.

Five seconds. Lawrence dribbles past the center circle, heading toward the basket.

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Three. Lawrence approaches the 3-point line on the left wing. He hesitates to make a move. The ball slips from his grip. It hits his leg and rolls toward the boundary. He tries to regain control.

Buzzer. Illinois 59, Missouri 58.

Lawrence lies on the court with his arms over his face. Photographers and the ESPN camera crew rush him, snapping pictures and capturing images for the highlight reel. It’s a crushing moment for a young man. And that young man’s friend will not allow it to continue for long.

Zaire Taylor strides across the court from his seat at the end of the MU bench and picks up his future best man. He embraces Lawrence and guides him to MU’s locker room at the Scottrade Center. Lawrence has his head buried in Taylor’s arm.

Sometimes, a guy just needs a friend.

Lawrence and Taylor are roommates, and, according to Lawrence, that term is quite literal.

“It’s like he lives with me, like in my room with me,” Lawrence said. “He don’t even be in his room, he lives in my room. All his stuff and shoes are in my room.”

Lawrence spoke in a joking tone, and it is easy to imagine the comedy that could exist from observing Taylor and Lawrence on a daily basis. The two have a back-and-forth way about them, one is always jabbering at the other.

“It’s fun,” Taylor said of the living arrangements. “We could have our own reality show.”

With the current writer’s strike, television networks are most certainly looking for ways to fill air time. But these two have a bond that goes much deeper than a weekly half-hour episode on cable TV could detail.

They are guards on the Missouri men’s basketball team, but they didn’t meet in Columbia. Their friendship goes back to their high school days on the East Coast.

Lawrence is from Newark, N.J., and Taylor is from Staten Island, N.Y. They met at the Jersey Shore Summer League about five years ago. At the time, Taylor was attending Charis Prep in North Carolina, but was back at home to work on his skills. Lawrence was at Weequahic High School in New Jersey.

“When I first met him, they was just throwing at me, saying they got this prep school guy that can guard you and all of this,” Lawrence said of his first encounter with Taylor. “I was like ‘he can’t guard me,’ and it was Zaire. He made me work for every bucket. I had to really pull some tricks out my hat.”

Their friendship grew from there. Taylor said it works just like picking out clothes from a closet. Some articles of clothing just work well together.

“We just clicked,” Taylor said. “We go together. We match. We blend together good.”

And that has made them important to each other. Lawrence has never been to a wedding, but he knows he will make a splash at his first. No, he is not getting married. Taylor is, and Lawrence will be standing beside him as the best man.

“We’re going to have some fun,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said that his friend didn’t ask him if he wanted the honor, instead Taylor told Lawrence he was going be the best man. All Lawrence had to do was say, “all right.”

“That shows me how close he is to me,” Lawrence said. “How much love he’s got for me, to have me as his best man.”

Taylor getting married at an early age fits the personality he has displayed in the short time he has been at MU. Taylor transferred to MU this year from the University of Delaware. He has only been on campus since August, but in the five months since arriving, teammates and coaches have given him the nickname “Old Man.”

“I think I’ve got more of an older mind-set,” Taylor said. “I’ve matured a lot since I’ve been here. I’ve just got a more mature style on life, I think.”

Part of that older mind-set is how Taylor has presented himself during MU’s games this season. He cannot play this year because of NCAA rules that say a player must sit out a full year after transferring, something Taylor admits wears on him at times.

“During the games it’s real hard,” Taylor said of sitting out. “But just knowing the fact that I’m going to be here for two more years after that, and I have the ability to get better, and understand the game more. I think it is a big benefit, a plus. But at the same time I got that side of me that just wants to get on the court and play.”

If you are ever watching a game and find yourself wondering who the sharply dressed gentleman at the end of the bench is, it’s Taylor. For every game he wears either a suit and tie or a sweater pulled over a dress shirt that also has a tie clinging to it.

“Basketball is what I do, what I love to do, so I think you’ve got to treat it seriously,” Taylor said. “It’s just like dressing up for church or any serious occasion. When it’s a serious occasion, you dress up. So I feel like every game is a special occasion, no matter who we are playing.”

Taylor said he feels like basketball is his profession right now. His abilities are paying for his college education, so he said the least he can do is look good while he is forced to sit on the bench and wait for next season.

For Lawrence, Taylor’s appearance isn’t nearly as important as his presence on the team.

“It’s real good,” Lawrence said of having Taylor around this season. “It’s having somebody like a brother. He’s the closet thing to my brother now, being that he’s from up on the East Coast where I’m at. It’s a real good thing for me to have somebody that I can really hang around.”

On last season’s team, Lawrence was the only player from the East Coast. Being the lone guy from an area can cause a bit of a problem when trying to talk about life before MU basketball. None of the other players knew the places or stories that Lawrence was telling.

Now, Taylor can help fill in the gaps.

“I feel like he feels like he’s got somebody who can relate to him more,” Taylor said of Lawrence this season. “Because he references me a lot and when he talks about home he’s got somebody who can co-sign and agree with what he talking about. It’s just a nice feeling.”

Guard Matt Lawrence said that he has seen Keon Lawrence become a little more comfortable this year. Part of that comfort is that he is in his second year in the program, and part of it is that he has an established friend around him all the time.

“I think he’s got someone more to relate to with where he is from,” Matt Lawrence said. “Sometimes when he talks I don’t even know what he’s saying. Zaire understands him so I think that’s good. It’s good to have someone that knows where you’re from.”

Keon Lawrence has been one of the most accessible players on the team this year. There is seldom a game when he does not come strolling out of the Tiger locker room, holding two Gatorades, to greet the waiting press for interviews.

He is open, honest and unafraid to show his emotions. In St. Louis he answered reporter’s questions with tears in his eyes after the loss, and accepted blame for losing the ball as the game’s final seconds ticked away.

He is also usually at the forefront of pumping up teammates in a close game, urging them to give just a little more effort. According to Taylor, this is all typical of his friend.

“What you see is what you get with Keon, he’s the same person everywhere that he is at,” Taylor said. “He will not change. That’s one thing, Keon’s not changing no matter what.”

Taylor and Lawrence both have two years of eligibility remaining once this season concludes. From the way things look right now, those might be two of the more fun years of their lives.

“We love seeing each other every day,” Keon Lawrence said. “We just be having fun.”

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