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Former Duluth East guard Stafford matures on and off the hardwood

After being sought out by 30 Division I coaches, former Duluth East guard Taylor Stafford chose to attend Evansville (Ind.) University for his final two years of eligibility. News Tribune / File

Before his sophomore season at Duluth East, Taylor Stafford resolved to quit the basketball team.

“I just didn’t like it anymore,” Stafford said earlier this week. “The practices were tough and I had a very bad attitude. I just wanted to play my way and not the team’s way.

“I think about those times when I was younger and about the things that I did, and I can’t believe I did that. I would go into my own world and do what I wanted to do on the court and would pout and whine all the time. But now I’ve grown up.”

Stafford stuck with the sport and his maturity level rose as much as his scoring average during his two years at Eastern Arizona College. That combination helped him recently earn a scholarship to play at Evansville (Ind.) University.

“I’m ready for my next chapter in Evansville,” said Stafford, who didn’t visit any other colleges because he felt he bonded right away with the players and the coaching staff during his campus visit two weekends ago. Evansville went 14-19 overall and 6-12 in the Missouri Valley Conference with a young team. “It felt like they really needed me and I would come in right away and make an impact, and that’s what I wanted when I was making a decision.”

More than 30 Division I coaches — including those from the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Pac-12 conferences — sought to land the 2012 East graduate for his two remaining years of eligibility.

“Taylor really matured as a person and that’s what helped him mature in his game as well,” sixth-year Eastern Arizona coach Maurice Leitzke said. “Taylor had over a 3.0 GPA and will graduate this spring with an associate’s degree. Every Division I coach who came through here was very impressed with who he was, not just as a player, but as a person.”

Stafford scored more than 1,300 points in two years — averaging 25 points per game on just 17 shots a game this season — and earned conference freshman of the year honors last season and player of the year honors this season while splitting time between point guard and shooting guard for the Gila Monsters (19-12).

“He had a great two years,” Leitzke said. “He has the ability to play on the ball as a point guard or play off the ball and be a scorer. He can play either spot and that’s what made him more marketable for the Division I level.”

 Stafford, who averaged 3.0 assists per game, says he doesn’t have a preference over which guard position to play. What was important was learning to play within the offense during his time at the Thatcher, Ariz.-based school, something that took him a while to learn at East. By the time he was a senior and averaging 23 points and 6.6 assists per game, Stafford finally grasped the team game.

“He’s really turned into a fine young man and a great floor leader; he’s very unselfish,” then-East coach Chuck Tolo said for a 2012 News Tribune article. “He knows what it takes to win. He doesn’t care about scoring points, but he’s more into making sure we get the ball where it needs to go and getting good shots. He’s turned into a great point guard.”

Leitzke says he wished Stafford had been even less unselfish with the Gila Monsters.

“When every Division I coach called me, they asked, ‘What is the biggest thing you want Taylor to work on?’ ” he recounted. “I said, ‘I wanted him to shoot the ball more.’ He was a very unselfish young man who wanted to get others involved, but there were times when we needed him to be more selfish and impose his will upon the game.”

Stafford has come a long way since as many as 20 members of his extended family uprooted from a particularly violent area on the South Side of Chicago — gunfire claimed the lives of at least two cousins — and moved to Duluth. Initially, he wasn’t very happy about the move.

“I didn’t like it much when we first moved and I was mad,” he said “Some other (family members) came up with us, but they didn’t like it and went back. I wanted to go back with them, but I’m glad I stayed.”

His father, Willie Woodfork, and Woodfork’s wife remain in Duluth along with Stafford’s five siblings and grandmother, Flora Woodfork.

Willie Woodfork showed up at his son’s dorm room and surprised him before the team’s final home game in February. He’ll be on campus again May 9 for the school’s commencement ceremony when Stafford will become the first member of his family to graduate from any college.

“They are proud of me,” Stafford said. “I told them I don’t have to walk across the stage — I can get my diploma and leave — but they want me to walk because nobody in our family has done what I’m doing. It’s special to them and it’s special to me.”