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Former Nuggets guard stands tall in fight against breast cancer

Fatty Taylor doing his part as Race For The Cure approaches


Five days is hardly much time to accept the prospect of dying.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2000, Fatty Taylor began reflecting on his personal and professional accomplishments while awaiting the test results that would tell him how many days, months or years he had to live.

An eight-year pro basketball career in the ABA and NBA had allowed him to play alongside Julius Erving, George Gervin and David Thompson and visit places he never imagined while growing up in the ghettos of Washington, D.C.

“After the first day, I woke up and was feeling good,” Taylor said during a recent visit to the Pepsi Center. “I said, ‘You know what? You’ve got a lot to be thankful for. You played college ball. You played professional ball. You’ve been all over the world. You’ve got a college degree. I’ve dined in the finest restaurants. I’ve lived in nice houses. I’ve driven the nice cars. I’ve worn the nice clothes. If it’s my time, then I’m ready.’

“The next morning, I wake up thinking: I ain’t ready to die.”

The test results ultimately told Taylor the same thing. With four sessions of chemotherapy and daily medication, there was an excellent chance he would be cancer-free within five years.

A decade later, Taylor is one of thousands of breast cancer survivors whose inspirational stories are being told in advance of the annual Susan G. Komen Race For the Cure on Oct. 3. The Denver race is one of the largest in the world, regularly drawing more than 50,000 participants.

Now 64, Taylor remains in the driver’s seat in his fight against cancer, but the disease is still riding shotgun.

A hard-hat career

From the time he picked up a basketball, Roland “Fatty” Taylor was a hustler.

He liked to get in the opponent’s face on defense and took pride in never being outworked, whether it was during his college days at Edison Community College and La Salle University or as a pro with the Washington Caps, Virginia Squires and Denver Nuggets.

“I was an overachiever, a hard-working guy, a hard-hat guy,” he said. “Stayed in good shape, worked hard. No matter what the score was, I was a hard-working player. I didn’t meet too many guys that I played with that outworked me.”

Taylor appeared in the playoffs in seven of eight seasons and his blue-collar contributions didn’t go unnoticed. He was a two-time member of the ABA All-Defensive team (1973 and 1974) and he led the Nuggets in steals with 172 during the 1974-75 season.

“He was a very good defender, a very pesky guy, always kind of into you and always bothering you,” said Nuggets coach George Karl, who played against Taylor in the ABA and is a survivor of prostate cancer and throat cancer. “Not one of these high-skill guys but a high-motor guy. He’d cause you a lot of headaches because he was always around causing problems for you.”

Former Nuggets coach Doug Moe was always impressed with Taylor’s court awareness and indefatigable nature when they were teammates for two years in Virginia.

“He was just a terrific player,” Moe said. “He played hard 48 minutes, both ends. Terrific defensive player. Good offensive player – even though he couldn’t shoot a lick. He knew how to play. A good basketball sense. He was a fun guy to be around.”

During Taylor’s ABA career, Denver quickly became one of his favorite road-trip destinations because of its combination of clean air and friendly people. Raised on the East Coast, he embraced a return to Colorado when he was traded from Philadelphia shortly before the Nuggets joined the NBA in 1976.

“I fell in love with the town,” he said. “One day I got a call saying I got traded to Denver. I got here and the next day I bought a house. I said, ‘This is where I’m going to be.’ ”

Taylor retired from basketball in 1977 and enjoyed an idyllic life as Denver grew from a sleepy western town to a major international city. He dabbled in real estate, ventured into the restaurant and nightclub business and did some coaching in Denver, Aurora and Adams counties.

The serenity of everyday life was shattered by a routine doctor’s visit.

A life-changing appointment

According to the Susan G. Komen For the Cure, approximately 209,060 people in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. Just 1,970 of those people – less than 1 percent – will be men.

Fatty Taylor had no idea men could even get breast cancer until he took off his shirt for a physical in 2000. His regular physician wasn’t available, so he saw a woman doctor who immediately recognized that Taylor’s right nipple was inverted.

When he told her it had been like that for three or four years, she immediately took him to the emergency room, where four other doctors subsequently did their own test by inserted their thumb into the nipple.

“Everybody’s feeling my nipple and not telling me anything,” Taylor said. “The fourth doctor came in and said, ‘You have breast cancer. We operate tomorrow morning.’ I had been walking around with breast cancer for four years and not knowing it.

“I was in the recovery room the next morning and the doctor said they were sending out some tests. In five days when the tests get back, that will determine whether you have a short life or a long life – just like that.”

The tests showed that surgery effectively removed the cancer and follow-up treatment put Taylor on the path to being a survivor, but he still had trouble wrapping his brain around the fact that he could get breast cancer.

Because it is so rare in men, he had difficulty finding support groups during his initial recovery and he hopes to create a foundation that will provide more information and support for men going through the same experience.

“You couldn’t find no literature on it and it seemed like nobody cared,” he said. “A lot of people don’t think men can get breast cancer, still today.”

Part of the problem, Taylor believes, is a perceived stigma associated with breast cancer among men.

“What I’m finding out is that a lot of men are afraid to come forward to say they have breast cancer,” he said. “Why is that so? It may threaten their masculinity. I always knew my masculinity so I had no problem with having breast cancer and I never had a problem talking about it.”

The life coach

After being cancer-free for several years, Taylor's fight began anew in 2009 when he began having breathing problems following a busy summer traveling with his AAU basketball team. Doctors found blood clots in his lungs and he was diagnosed with cancer in his left breast.

"There's a state of shock and denial and disbelief that you can have cancer," he said. "It was a wake-up call as far as a person thinking that they’re healthy and then one day they tell you you have cancer."

Just as he passes along his basketball knowledge to young players, Taylor wants to help educate fellow breast-cancer patients, particularly men who might feel confused and isolated. He wants them to know they are not alone.

“Fatty’s willingness to publicly share his battle with breast cancer is critical to the health of our community,” said Michele Ostrander, executive director for the Denver afflilate of Susan G. Komen For The Cure. “Men need to know they can be diagnosed with breast cancer. Fatty brings this much-needed awareness to our community.”

Taylor is thankful that the cancer in his left breast is not as severe as it was in 2000, and he takes daily medication that should help him make a full recovery without surgery or chemotherapy. His energy level varies from day to day, but his perspective is much different than his first introduction to cancer 10 years ago.

He focuses on the days he has to live instead of worrying about the prospect of dying.


Contact Aaron J. Lopez at alopez@pepsicenter.com