Back Where It All Began
Neither Maarty Leunen nor Bryce Taylor has completely closed the door on playing another season of professional basketball overseas in 2021-22.
If that door is indeed closed for each, though, they could play the final competitive basketball of their careers this month in the green and yellow of Oregon. Leunen and Taylor are back in Eugene this week along with several other UO men's basketball alumni to train for The Basketball Tournament, a 64-team event culminating in a $1 million winner-take-all final on Aug. 3.
Leunen and Taylor were seniors on the 2007-08 team for the Ducks that reached the NCAA Tournament. Each still ranks among the top 25 scorers in program history, and each has enjoyed a lengthy career overseas in the years since, Leunen primarily in Italy and Taylor in Germany. Those playing careers made return trips to Eugene infrequent, but they're back this week, young families in tow, to prepare for what could be swan songs on the hardcourt.
"I have nothing but great memories from my time here; it's such a unique and beautiful place," said Taylor, now 34, who has a 1-year-old daughter with his wife. "And it's the opportunity to have that full-circle moment from my college athletic career."
Leunen and Taylor will play with Oregon's TBT entry called "Always Us," in a nod to current UO coach Dana Altman's team motto. Both played under former UO coach and player Ernie Kent, and they see TBT as a chance not only to enjoy one more competitive experience, but to serve as a bridge between generations of Oregon men's basketball. The roster includes older Ducks like Leunen, Taylor and Tajuan Porter, as well as more recent alumni such as Jalil Abdul-Bassit and Casey Benson.
Always Us begins TBT play this weekend in Peoria, Ill. Regional finalists advance to championship weekend the following week in Dayton, Ohio. Games will be televised by the ESPN family.
Team members began arriving in Eugene on Sunday, and had an orientation day as well as their first workout together Monday. On Monday in the dining hall of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, they had a chance to catch up over brunch.
"There's a lot of useful resources within these groups," said Leunen, 35, the father of three boys and a 1-year-old girl. "Me and Bryce are figuring out the next steps in life, so we can reconnect and find out about other potential opportunities. …
"Obviously I want to win (the TBT). But it's more about getting us guys together, being in Eugene, getting familiar with the program, what Dana has built over these last several years and just enjoying time together."
Leunen, who grew up in Central Oregon, has maintained an offseason home in Redmond, but trips back to Eugene have been rare. Taylor made Germany his home, meeting his wife and starting a family there, and also has returned to Eugene infrequently. He too is looking to strengthen ties among the program's alumni, now that the end of his playing career is in sight.
"It's such an ambitious program and I know there's a lot of moving parts, a lot of things going on," said Taylor, who crafted an unforgettable 11-of-11 shooting performance to help Oregon win the final of the 2007 Pac-10 Tournament. "Like I said, I have pride in my time here. And I would love the opportunity to just stay connected to the university in any way, stay connected to the program and get back in some capacity. So this is an opportunity to kind of break through to that."
Leunen and Taylor are two shining examples of where basketball can take players from Oregon. Each has crafted a long, lucrative career in the game, albeit not in the United States.
"When you're growing up in the States and you're playing at a level like Oregon, you're thinking 'NBA, NBA, NBA,' right?" Taylor said. "The reality is, a small percentage of those guys are going to go on to have that career that you may envision when you're 15, 16. So it's being able to show these guys, look, continue with that mindset, continue with your ambition — but also, there are other avenues out there for you to continue your playing career, and to earn a living and provide for your family."
Leunen, who is still No. 2 in career rebounds at Oregon, used that avenue to support not just himself but a young family that includes his wife and three boys, ages 12, 10 and 6, along with their young daughter.
"I could probably play another year or two, but it's tough," he said. "I've got a family and I'm missing out on their lives, and at some point I'm gonna have to stop."
For both Leunen and Taylor, the end of the road could come over the next couple of weeks in the TBT. Each is looking forward to one more playing experience with fellow Ducks, after professional careers that allowed them to live out their dreams.
"I'm getting paid to do what I love," Taylor said. "I'm doing what I've always done – I'm playing ball – and then at the end of the month you go and check your bank account and you're saying, 'OK.' That never got old. I just have a great sense of gratitude."