So… I was in attendance at one of Charles Monroe’s legendary All-City Classic Events a few years back. This was an 8th grade game and one of the kids jumped out at me.
He was relentless…
He seemed to grab every rebound and block half of the opponents shots. What I really liked was the honesty and purity of his effort. He did not care at all how he looked… He didn’t try to look pretty or smooth… He was very raw offensively, but he was, by far, the most impactful player on the court…
He played with reckless abandon and a singular focus, just get shit done and win the game.
After the game, I approached the young fella and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“My office is in Camden, I’m in Camden everyday. I’m gonna follow your high school career… You are a damn good basketball player.”
From that moment on, I’ve been extremely impressed with Woodley’s intellect and his development on and off the basketball court. But, it is worth noting it hasn’t been a smooth ride. There have been plenty of ups and downs along the way.
A couple months later, before the High School season starts, I’m in the fabled Neumann-Goretti gym talking to Saints Assistant Coach Pat “Socks” Sorrentino and Head Coach Carl Arrigale. I see Woodley running around and I say “you guys got the best freshman in the city.” Carl just smiles and lets me know that he is fully aware of the talent that Woodley possesses.
I made my way to several Neumann-Goretti games that year. Woodley doesn’t start for a typically loaded Neumann-Goretti club. But he is often the first player off the bench. Marcus Littles was the starting big for the Saints that year. Coming in at 6’9” and about 270 lbs, Littles was massive physical presence in the low post for Neumann-Goretti.
But when Arrigale inserted Woodley in the game… Shit changed! Every single time… Woodley is an explosive leaper with exceptional timing. He took great delight in punching the shots of opposing players all the way to the concession stand or trying to push them through the backboard. His blocks were the most humiliating type. Most of the time, kids chose not to test him for the rest of the game.
The only thing that seemed to give him as much pleasure as blocking shots was dunking extremely hard on, through and over opponents.
Woodley was, clearly, the best freshman in the Philadelphia Catholic League in my opinion. I assumed the Saints would have him patrolling the paint for three more seasons.
Then one of my Camden buddies pulled me to the side. Jerome Brewer let me know that he was bringing his son, Jerome Brewer, Jr. back to Camden for his sophomore season after spending his freshman year at West Catholic Prep. Brewer didn’t stop there, he was talking REAL heavy… He told me that he was working hard on some things to help bring Camden back to national prominence and told me to stand by. Like I said… Brew was talking heavy!
Next thing I know, Lance Ware transfers into Camden from Life Center Academy and Taquan Woodley leaves Neumann-Goretti to come home and play for the High.
Oh shit… Camden is Back! Ok… Brew, I see what you were saying…
The first year was a transition year… Led by then Head Coach and current Camden Mayor, Vic Carstarphen, Camden was a good team, but not a great team. The passion had returned… The community was once again in full support of the program… But they just couldn’t get over the hump.
After the season, Carstarphen decided to pursue a much larger calling and began his political career. This opened the door for Rick Brunson.
Brunson is a stern task master and he immediately imposed a great deal of structure and discipline within the Camden High program. An outstanding high school coach and a John Chaney disciple, Brunson’s arrival also coincided with that of DJ Wagner. Young Wagner is 3rd generation basketball royalty in Camden. His father, DeJuan, and his grandfather, Milt, were High School All-Americans at Camden. Both played High Major college basketball at Memphis and Louisville, respectively. Both also played in the National Basketball Association.
Under the direction of Brunson, with Woodley as the anchor of the defense, Camden High went 42-1 over the past 2 seasons. Ware would emerge as a top 50 player and earn a scholarship to play in the SEC for John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats. DJ Wagner is currently the consensus number 1 player in the class of 2023.
Those guys were the stars…
Woodley was the glue… He was the heart and soul of the program… His longtime AAU Coach, Harold Mackey Boswell understood what Woodley brought to the table… The Director of the WER1 basketball club, Terrell Myers understood Woodley’s value as a basketball player… Mackey and Myers were convinced early on that Woodley was a high major prospect.
However, casual basketball fans overly emphasizing scoring stats and mixtape highlights had no clue.
He never averaged more than 9 points per game. In an era where people think you have to shoot your way to a Division 1 scholarship, how did Woodley end up in the SEC with such low scoring output?
Then South Carolina Assistant Coach, Perry Clark came to Camden to evaluate Lance Ware in December 2018. I explained to Clark that Woodley, then a sophomore, was the toughest, nastiest big in the region and asked him to take a hard look at him as well. While observing practice, Clark took note of Woodley and also offered him a scholarship on the spot… South Carolina was the first to offer.
As he entered his junior season, Black Cager Sports had Woodley listed as one of the top 2 PF/C prospects in the Greater Philadelphia region. The clear cut number 1 big was Jalen Duren, then a sophomore at Roman Catholic High School and currently the number 1 HS player in the nation according to Rivals and 247Sports.
Nonetheless, several of the top local programs were a little bit circumspect about recruiting Woodley. The rumors were rampant… He was a “head case” and he had “questionable grades.” Each and every time those issues were raised, I would ask the coaches to talk to the kid themselves… Get to know him… Some were put off by the rumors and just wouldn’t consider him as a potential recruit. It was their loss.
I knew one coach that would take the time to evaluate the young man for himself, then Penn State Head Coach Pat Chambers. Coach Chambers came to see Woodley go against Duren in the High School game of the year. We sat along the baseline and I provided narration and play by play each and every trip down the floor.
“Pat… Duren’s not gonna get to the rim against Quan…”
“Coach… Quan ain’t goin’ for that shit coach…”
“Pat… He don’t need no help down low…”
As usual, Woodley did an outstanding job defending the low post, rebounding and just executing the game plan for Coach Brunson. Before the final buzzer sounded, Chambers let me know what he thought…
“Will he be eligible?”
“Yes coach… I’ll stay on his ass to make sure he’ll be eligible.”
“Well… I’m gonna offer him.”
“Good shit coach! Thanks!”
A few weeks later, I take Woodley up to Penn State for an unofficial visit. Chambers and his Assistant Keith Urgo know how to do visits… I’m watching closely observing the body language and the interaction with the staff and the players… Woodley really liked Penn State. We leave at halftime of the football game to head back to Camden.
We weren’t in the car 3 minute before Woodley says, “Del, I wanna come back and do an official visit.”
To me, that was a strong indicator that he was leaning Penn State. We had spent over 8 hours on campus and all he could think about was coming back for a 3 day official visit.
Shortly thereafter, Woodley committed to Penn State and Coach Chambers. During this period, Woodley became especially close with Assistant Coach Urgo. Coach Urgo was constantly calling/texting to make sure Woodley was on the right track academically. Although, there was clear path toward meeting freshman eligibility requirements, it was not a given. If Woodley wanted to play Division 1 basketball, he would have to get much better grades than he had gotten up to that point.
It was a good marriage. The coaches were excited and supportive of Woodley and he truly looked forward to playing in the Big 10 for the Nittany Lions. It was all good.
Then it wasn’t…
Chambers was forced to resign in the aftermath of allegations made by a former player. All of a sudden everything that was settled was completely unsettled.
After rescinding his commitment to Penn State, Woodley asked me one day “Do you think I’ll get some offers.” Part of me wondered why this immensely talented young man, a kid that had been committed to a Big 10 program, would have such concerns. But then I recalled the issues raised and strong reservations several local coaches had regarding Woodley’s character.
Would he have a problem finding another suitor?
We needed to find a coach that could appreciate the nuance and subtlety of Woodley’s game. I needed a program that wasn’t focused solely on kids with big names and big reputations. We needed a school that would give Woodley a fair chance and a real opportunity.
One name immediately came to mind… Frank Martin, Head Coach at the University of South Carolina.
On Monday, October 26, 2020 at 10:16 PM, I texted Frank Martin and his Associate Head Coach, Chuck Martin and let them know that Woodley had just de-committed from Penn State.
Less than a month later on Wednesday, November 18, 2020, Woodley signed a Letter of Intent to attend the University of South Carolina.
The outbursts, the technical fouls, the skirmishes, the school suspensions… All those episodes from when he was 14 and 15 years old had scared off all of the local programs, except one. LaSalle University’s Ashley Howard recruited Woodley hard. He took the time to get to know the young man and he made an aggressive and persuasive pitch. Woodley really liked Coach Howard and La Salle, but in the end he wanted to get away from Camden, live in another part of the country and compete at the high major level.
After Camden sailed through an abbreviated COVID-19 season with an undefeated and unchallenged record of 15-0, Woodley’s focus turned to academics. He’s worked extremely hard, he had to overcome some poor performances in the 9th and 10th grades. Because, he was limited to distance learning, Woodley had to exercise a tremendous amount of self discipline. He had to log in everyday. He had to independently complete his assignments. It was all on him.
The Camden Ol’ heads, Mayor Carstarphen, Arthur Barclay and Denny Brown were always there encouraging and cheering him on. His mentor and surrogate parent, Tracey Hall, simultaneously stayed on his ass and loved him up. Ms. Hall did yeoman’s work ensuring that this day would come.
Eventually, with the love and support of his Camden village, Taquan Woodley cleared all the hurdles.
This morning, Woodley said good bye to his girlfriend Ameerah Lindsey and packed his belongings into an SUV. His proud adoptive parents, Willie and Mae Woodley were well-rested and eager to drop their son off to Frank Martin and the South Carolina Gamecocks. His new “Auntie”, Women’s Coach Dawn Staley will be busy the next month or so coaching the USA’s Olympic Womens basketball team. But, when she returns to campus she’ll have a new “supporter” from Camden at all of her games.
The energetic young boy they adopted when he was three years old will be on TV this winter going against Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Auburn.
The kid that so many declared “wouldn’t make it” is an SEC scholarship basketball player.
Taquan Woodley, I’m proud to call you my friend and a Black Cager Youngin… Let’s Go Gamecocks!!