clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

From climbing cabinets to a final shot at a national title: Celeste Taylor’s road to Ohio State

The natural born skills that have uniquely steered the guard, and the family that's laid the foundation

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Clare Grant/The Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

There’s something parents aren’t telling you. It’s not a secret, per se. It’s more of an unspoken truth; A truth understood by anyone who’s responsible for nurturing a little human brought into this world. Are you ready?

Parenting is made up and we have no idea what we’re doing.

Sure there are parenting books, podcasts, and seminars. Most of the time though, how someone's parents boils down to doing what your parents did for you or trying to do the exact opposite of that. The end goal of it all is raising up a person who can go out into the world and be something. All the while, trying to limit the damage to that person enough to have them still like you after they’ve gone out on their own.

New Ohio State women’s basketball guard Celeste Taylor has one of those rare relationships with her parents. A bond of any parent or guardian’s dreams. That they “call each other everyday” kind of connection, where it’s not just a mother-daughter relationship but where they call each other their best friend.

Over the past four years, those phone calls covered the spectrum. From the highs of an excited freshman working to make her mark to the toughest year of the future college star’s life through three head coaches, two schools, and one global pandemic. They tell a story of more than just a basketball player, but a human being with more wisdom than age suggests and the developing traits of a natural-born leader.


Growing up in Valley Stream, New York on Long Island, Taylor was the second of four kids. Within an eight-year range of each other, the kids were a tight-knit group. From a young age, she was already proving herself to be part of the glue that held the family so closely together. It materialized in all different forms but came back to taking care of her older brother and two younger sisters.

“Her brother Isaiah, he was hungry,” said Taylor’s dad Alex Navarro. “And they couldn’t reach to get the bowls of cereal. She climbed on top of the cabinet, pulled everything down and helped them. They made breakfast. We were sleeping in bed.”

Selene Navarro, Celeste Taylor and Alex Navarro at Taylor’s kindergarten graduation
Photo provided by Alex Navarro

That wasn’t something taught by her parents. It was the kind of thing Taylor did for her siblings all the time, and it didn’t stop at food. As they grew, Taylor did the small things like making sure kids were getting in the shower to the more important checklist items like getting them ready for school.

Often at night, Taylor, who’s three and six years older than her sisters, went into their room to not only hang out but to check in: “How’s school? How’s it going? You OK?”

This leadership trait was almost destined for Taylor, foreshadowing a needed skill for her days in college. That intense love that Taylor has for her siblings and parents though didn’t stop at her family. The love was clearly intertwined with the game of basketball.

“She Doesn’t Get Tired Even if She is Tired”

At the age of nine, one moment made the future National Defensive Player of the Year finalist distraught. Taylor and her youth basketball team, coached by her mom, lost their game that day in the outdoor league near the family home. Even though Taylor wasn’t even at a double-digit age, losing didn’t sit right.

Alex and Selene did what any good parents would do and consoled their daughter. After their attempts to help recover from the sting of defeat, a coach from a team of 14-year-old girls approached the family. Short one player, the coach needed a body, anybody, to get on the court to avoid a forfeit. The Navarros asked the nine-year-old and it was a definite yes.

“I watched this girl play the most tenacious D, because she was so angry after she lost,” said Alex. “On 14-year-old girls she didn’t give up a bucket and she might have had like 13 rebounds and she was nine. She was just beyond relentless.”

It was at that moment that the Navarros knew something was different about Taylor. Something that needed more attention.

The pursuit of tuning that ability found Taylor training at the gym of Jerry Powell, a trainer known for working with both NBA and WNBA players alike; also, the father of current Ohio State women’s basketball assistant coach Jalen Powell.

“She was in sixth or seventh grade, so she would like shoot it and it would like, break off the backboard,” said coach Jalen Powell. “But she was so freaking athletic that it was just, like, absolutely ridiculous. She has an incredible motor and incredible work ethic, she doesn’t really get tired even if she is tired. ”

Celeste Taylor playing youth basketball
Photo provided by Alex Navarro

The Navarros knew that Taylor wasn’t a top youth basketball product at the time. When Taylor began training in the gym, she was unknown to anyone but her own family. Working outside of the main group of prospects, Taylor improved her game through Jerry and coach Jalen, only four years the senior of Taylor, spoke into her life at the same time. It built a relationship that continued far beyond basketball and more as another sister.

Before they could reunite in Columbus, Taylor needed to stand out on the youth level, and that’s exactly what she did.

Taylor’s work ethic and ability earned the guard local, state, and national attention. In high school, she made her high school basketball team in the seventh grade. In 2017, 2018, and 2019, it was the Long Island Player of the Year. During summers, Taylor suited up for the Red, White and Blue, winning three gold medals at the U19, U17 and U16 levels.

Celeste Taylor following the Team USA win at the 2018 U17 World Cup
Photo provided by Alex Navarro

It propelled Taylor into a No. 6 ranked prospect in the country, which came with accolades like a spot on the McDonald’s All-American team, playing in the Jordan Brand Classic, and winning the Gatorade New York Girls Basketball Player of the Year. After leaving a school legend, averaging 16.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game as a senior, Taylor and the Navarro family had their fair share of schools to choose from, including Ohio State.

“I Never Wanted to Leave”

Taylor and her parents loved Ohio State. The family, even on limited funds, paid to go to the university themselves. Twice. Simply because they wanted to see all the university had to offer.

“Ohio State was my dream school but it just wasn’t the right fit for me at the time,” said Taylor.

It’s no surprise that it was a relationship, something of big value to Taylor, that put the guard at the University of Texas. A relationship built through recruiting from University of Texas head coach Karen Aston.

Taylor had to do what any freshman has to do. She had to learn the coach’s system, and the team culture and adjust to college basketball. Taylor excelled, starting 26 games and making 30 appearances for the Longhorns, averaging 9.3 points and 4.8 rebounds, earning a spot on the All-Big 12 Freshman Team.

The daily phone calls home featured a beaming Taylor, loving her time in Austin, Texas. On the other side of the phone, back in Long Island, Alex and Selene heard the passion and through technology could even see how often Taylor was going to the gym to practice her craft. Taylor was in love with the game and the school. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the cancellation of NCAA postseason basketball, the Longhorns went in a new direction at head coach. Aston’s contract wasn’t renewed and in came Vic Schaefer, the former Mississippi State head coach and 2018 Naismith Women’s College Basketball Coach of the Year.

Taylor went from a freshman learning a new system and culture to a sophomore learning a new system and culture. However, it wasn’t a complete reset from the 19-20 season; because of transfers and graduations, Taylor was now one of the oldest players on the team and looked to as a leader for incoming freshmen and transfers.

It was a job made for the natural leader, except COVID-19 made everything infinitely more difficult.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Sweet Sixteen-Texas at Maryland Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Because of restrictions, Taylor was mostly confined to her dorm, the gym, and games. When there was free time, Texas-based students had family come into town. For the Navarros to come in it was hundreds of dollars, per person (one-way) or a 27-hour drive (without stops). That and having other kids in school and activities at home in Long Island. In other words, it couldn’t happen.

It wasn’t until the start of the NCAA Tournament, playing in a modified bubble across Texas, that Taylor could see a family member in person. It wasn’t a reunion to commit to long-term memory.

“When I saw her by the hotel, security walked up and said ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but if you touch your daughter, she has to go home,’” said Alex Navarro.

After nearly a year away from her close family, the reunion was limited to six feet of social distancing. A rule in place to protect the bubble-like environment the NCAA was striving for during a time when the virus was running high through the country.

It was an especially heartbreaking moment for Taylor, who was so detached from a world that gave her so much one year prior. It didn’t keep the basketball side of Taylor from performing. Taylor averaged 13.8 points and 7.5 rebounds through four games before the Longhorns lost to the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite Eight.

Following the end of the season, Taylor returned home, but things were different. Taylor was different.

That same passion for basketball was diminished. Alex and Selene could tell that she wasn’t the same person she was before returning to Texas in the fall of 2020. There needed to be a change, but sometimes the best thing for somebody is one of the most difficult things to do.

“It’s really hard,” said Taylor, recalling the decision to leave Texas. “For me, personally, I never wanted to leave my first institution. That was a big jump for me. That was its own hardship and difficulty.”

“Sometimes It’s Hard Waiting”

In the portal for the first time, Taylor chose the Duke Blue Devils and with it new NCAA head coach Kara Lawson. Although Lawson did technically start at the beginning of Taylor’s sophomore year, Duke University opted out of the COVID-19-impacted season after four games.

Now an upperclassman, Taylor had to learn a new system and new team culture for the third time in three seasons. On top of that, it was the second season in a row Taylor was looked at as a leader to a new coach still trying to implement their way into the program.

Taylor’s endless work rate and ability helped the new-look Duke team get off to a 13-2 record before an upper-body injury took Taylor off the court for almost a month. In the seven games recovering, Duke lost five games and ended the season with a 17-13 record and no postseason play outside of a second-round defeat in the ACC Tournament.

With Taylor’s senior season ahead of her, the guard’s goal was clear.

“‘I’m going to the league.’ That was the goal, getting drafted and going to a (WNBA) team,” said Taylor. “I had mentally prepared myself to go out and face the real world, just see what life throws at me.”

Before any talk of a draft, the 22-23 season had to be played, and Taylor played and then some. In the guard’s first full season not impacted by COVID-19 or injury, Taylor went off. The natural defender reverted back to her nine-year-old, anger-induced, defensive prowess. Taylor caused fits for opponents.

In Duke’s full-court press, opponents on offense couldn’t get away from Taylor. The Long Island kid had a defensive rating of 72.7, meaning every 100 possessions for the offense led to only 72.7 points scored on average when Taylor was on the court. It was the best in the ACC and eighth best in the nation, earning Taylor a spot on the shortlist for Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year.

Although Taylor lost out to South Carolina Gamecock center Aliyah Boston, she still picked up the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, alongside All-Defensive and All-ACC First Team honors. Unfortunately for Duke, a jump in performance didn’t end with a long NCAA Tournament run. The 26-6 Blue Devils fell to the Colorado Buffaloes in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, on Duke’s home court.

One thing is sure about that game: It wasn’t Taylor’s fault. The guard had 10 steals and 10 rebounds for the Blue Devils in the 61-53 defeat. Plus an unbelievable defensive rating of 49, 13 points fewer than anyone else on the court.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - First Round - North Carolina Photo by Peyton Williams/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Following the disappointing end to the season, Taylor decided against entering her name into the WNBA Draft pool, for two reasons.

“Going back to school, getting that degree, and finishing off in a better place. I feel like I put so much in, not that it's expected or required, but I had to give myself a better chance,” said Taylor. “Just having a better season than I did last year. An extra year of skill work and an extra year of playing at the highest level will help me at the next level.”

On March 27, 2023, a week after Duke fell to Colorado, Taylor surprised Blue Devil fans on social media, announcing her return to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a final season.

Duke fans were even more surprised, and likely confused, 17 days later on April 12, 2023, when Taylor put her name back into the transfer portal following a career season.

Transferring is difficult business, but the perception of transferring might be even worse when everyone feels like an opinion should be shared on someone else's personal decision. The choice brought controversy because of the connotations put on giving college students the freedom to make adult decisions.

For Taylor, the reason was Duke assistant coach Winston Gandy. Within two days of Taylor’s return to the portal, Gandy moved from an assistant coach on Duke’s bench to the same role with Dawn Staley and the South Carolina Gamecocks.

“He was always working with me, helping me get ready for the draft,” said Taylor. “So, I had a really strong relationship and bond with him and once he went on and decided, you know, what was better for him, a better fit for him as any other person would do, I had to sit back with my family and like ‘listen, he was the one who was always there for me.’ Sometimes it's hard waiting. I’ve done the whole ‘stay and wait for a new coach and see how that works out for me.’”

It wasn’t simply a preference of the coach. Gandy became part of the Navarro family.

“When she was moving apartment to apartment at Duke, it was like probably like 100 degrees was so hot and my wife and I, we went down to do to help her move,” said Alex. “And who showed up was Winston Gandy.”

With only one season remaining of eligibility, Taylor wanted to make it count.

“No, I got you and I’ll guide you”

When it came time to choose a school, Ohio State was an obvious frontrunner. The obvious reason is the past relationships connected to the university. After all, Buckeyes’ head coach Kevin McGuff tried twice to recruit the guard. Plus the 13-year relationship with assistant coach Jalen Powell, whose contact with Taylor was limited while at other schools due to recruiting rules, but on the court the decision made even more sense.

“I’m such a defensively-minded kid. I love how they press the whole game,” said Taylor. “Just seeing them play and how competitive they were and how much they fought.”

Taylor watched as the Buckeyes got past Duke’s bitter rivals, the North Carolina Tar Heels, and an attention-grabbing victory over favored UConn in the Sweet Sixteen. Each game featuring Ohio State putting that aggressive press to clamp down on its opponents. The decision to go scarlet and gray went further than who Taylor knew and who Taylor saw on the court. It was something the guard hadn’t had since her freshman year.

“It just makes it so much easier for me to come into a program where they already have a set foundation and a set culture,” said Taylor. “I’ve really enjoyed not being that person who’s always set that foundation and set that culture.”

No longer is Taylor walking into a situation where the majority of the work to create the team culture is on her shoulders. Instead, Taylor joins a team with an already established personality all of its own. Giving the guard a break from having to lead.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Remember that Taylor is a natural-born leader. The same kid who climbed the cabinets to help get her siblings' cereal is feeding her new teammates too. Like in August, when the Buckeyes took a team trip to Brazil. A small moment at dinner shows the ripple effect of Celeste Taylor, the person.

“We were in Brazil and I just started crying,” said fellow 2023 transfer guard Kennedy Cambridge. “Celeste is sitting to the right of me and I just start laughing and turn my head and tears start coming. My head is just on Celeste’s chest. She was like ‘Let’s walk outside.’ She just held me until I stopped crying and at that point, I was like ‘these people actually love me and care for me.’”

For the Navarro family, it is family. It’s a group that still meets with former Texas coach Aston whenever she comes to New York and calls former Duke assistant Gandy a family member.

Taylor was there for Cambridge only a few weeks after the New Yorker joined the team, coming into summer practice late because of Team USA 3x3 basketball duty. It was Taylor being a big sister to a younger player.

That is the mentality every day in practice too. At media availability Tuesday, coach McGuff mentioned not only her ability to play but her leadership to the team. Within practice, Taylor’s not trying to establish what she can do on the court in her final season, she’s bringing teammates alongside her.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Clare Grant/The Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Take Cambridge for instance. The Kentucky transfer came to Ohio State but hasn’t been able to train this summer until soon after the early August Brazil trip. Cambridge is a sophomore who’s in the same place Taylor was three years ago, trying to adapt to a new coach and system. Once Cambridge got on the court, Taylor and her teammates were right there to get her into it.

“We did another drill and I was like ‘Celeste, go’ and she was like ‘No, you’ve got to throw yourself out there, so you know how to do it,’” said Cambridge.“‘No, I’ve got to watch one more time.’” Taylor replied: “No, I got you and I’ll guide you.”

“Everything Else Will Fall Into Place”

Now, Taylor works on guiding Ohio State in her last season of college basketball. On the list of things to do, the biggest is leaving a national champion. Supporting her every step of that journey will be the Navarros. Although they’re still a good eight hours of driving away, there are plans to come to see the Buckeyes play, and Alex, a big football fan, wants to see Ohio State play in the Horseshoe.

Regardless of what happens with the trips, there are still daily phone calls. Taylor’s best friend, and mom, can hear the difference.

“You can see the happiness. You can see how she’s enjoying it and it’s what she was looking for,” said Selene Navarro. “To know that she’s in a good place, especially mentally, to be in such a good place, that’s all you want for your kids. Everything else will fall into place.”

From left to right: Alex, Celeste, Alexis (sister), Isaiah (brother), Selene and Ariel (sister)

As hard as Taylor has worked, from the day she picked up a basketball in New York, it’s not a solo project. Those phone calls, those transfers, and through the good and bad, it goes back to her family. A family who was there before the game and will withstand the game’s part in Taylor’s life.

“From my parents to my siblings, they’re tremendous, tremendous support,” said Taylor. “They mean the world to me. They’re my best friends. I call them every single day.”

After sports, the Navarros need to offer parenting lessons.