Before he was a beloved pediatrician, a 20-year veteran of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, Dan Taylor was a Philly kid.
And part of being a Philly kid—at least when Taylor was growing up in West Mt. Airy—meant playing basketball.
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“When I was younger, we cut the bottom out of milk crates, put them on telephone poles, and shot through those,” he says, describing a scene that sounds as though it could have been lifted from Hoosiers. He’s stuck with the game his whole life: playing—adequately, as he says, and not even on varsity—during his high school days at Germantown Friends School (GFS), then socially throughout college, and on until today: Two mornings a week at 6am, he meets up with men from all walks of life in Philly to play at the GFS gym.
“Basketball has led me to some of the best friendships I’ve ever had. I’ve gone to other countries and communities and when you go to a pickup game, you’re instantly accepted and only judged by your game, not by your skin color, not by your wealth, not by anything,” he says. “It’s the great equalizer. It’s your game and how you play, and your generosity on the court.”
Saving the nets—“It’s really a dignity thing”
So it’s not surprising that, on his daily drives to St. Chris this winter and while playing one-on-one with his 16-year-old son, Will, Taylor couldn’t help but notice how many basketball rims on public courts were lacking nets. Last April, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley shut down many of the city’s approximately 190 public courts in an effort to discourage large gatherings and slow the spread of Covid-19; but now that courts have been reopened, they’ve just looked…unfinished. Not right.
“A net is actually really vital for basketball, in many different ways. Without a net, it’s much more difficult to aim a basketball. If there’s no net, there are more vibrations, so you’re less likely to actually make the basket. Plus, you don’t really get that incredible swish sound, which is just a delight, “ he says. “But the most important part for me, seeing these courts, mostly in underserved areas, it’s really a dignity thing.”
“I just feel deeply that all kids should be safe, all kids should have the ability to have joy, all kids should have the ability to have the same opportunities as anybody else’s kid,” Taylor says.
Research on “the broken window theory” has shown a correlation between vandalized neighborhoods and crime; and while there’s no data on the effect of neglected basketball rims, it could follow that a community would naturally take pride in facilities that are shown some love, no?
Also, Taylor says: Basketball players don’t play on rims that don’t have nets. And as pediatricians have watched childhood obesity and mental health issues rise during the pandemic, Taylor longed to simply get kids playing, moving, socializing (safely, hopefully; we are still in a pandemic, he realizes).
And so rather than reach out to the Department of Parks and Recreation, Taylor and his son decided to use their own money to buy a ladder, a few nets, and a few rolls of duct tape. Then, they headed out to Mr. Airy Playground, and put up two nets.
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The effect was almost instantaneous. “As I was wheeling the ladder away and going back to my car, all of a sudden, this father and son came down the steps to the court and took a shot on our new net. The father was showing his son how to shoot a basket into the net like my father did with me and his father did with him,” he says. “We kind of knew that potentially would happen, but to see it happen on our first court was so heartwarming and special and made us know that this was something that really needed to be done at all courts around the city that didn’t have nets.”
Taylor and his son vowed to go out every weekend putting up nets. Then, Taylor told some of the residents at St. Chris about the effort—and they jumped in too. Resident Jordan Chu started a Venmo account (@needanetphilly) that’s raised $2,200; Chu and Will created social media accounts on Instagram and Facebook, to spread the word about the effort and encourage people to reach out if their court needed a net.
With nets—the nice ones—costing only about $12 each, Taylor estimates that it would take about $5,000 to replace each net in the city between now and the fall, when the weather starts to get cold again. He’s contemplating holding a “Need-a-Net Philly Day,” wherein volunteers would go around the city replacing nets. And a friend at the Sixers is interested in potentially getting involved in the effort, as is pretty much everyone else he tells about it.
Opening new doors
In less than a month, Taylor and his fellow net-putter-uppers, as he calls them, have installed about 20 nets—and each time they’ve done so, they’ve opened a new door.
After putting up three nets at Happy Hollow Playground, for example, children there challenged Taylor and his son to a game. “We played for an hour with these kids, just playing and talking to them about what I do, where I’m from. They’re asking me questions about how to become a doctor, and I asked them how they’re doing in school.
Jordan Chu put up nets in Francisville, and the same thing happened—you have these organic conversations with children and teens that are really powerful conversations,” he says, meaningful bridges between people whose paths might not have ever otherwise crossed. “To be clear, this is not charity work. This is about the power of listening and the power of relationships and the power of Philadelphians all being in this together. This is about understanding that our children have value to us. We value every child in Philadelphia.”
A history of putting kids first
This isn’t Taylor’s first go at supporting patients and their families outside of the exam room. In 2014, he created Cap4Kids, a free online directory of more than 600 services for families in Philadelphia—from information about art programs like Art-Reach to templates parents can use to request an IEP evaluation; the Cap4Kids model has been replicated in 14 other U.S. cities.
Taylor is also St. Christopher’s co-director of the Reach out And Read (ROAR) program, which provides books to children from age 0 to their teenage years at every well-child visit. And he’s the medical director of St. Chris’ medical-legal partnership, which screens families for legal issues that could affect their health—housing insecurity, landlord-tenant issues, and so on—and provides them free legal advice on-site.
And, oh yeah, he’s the director of the outpatient medical clinic, which sees 21,000 children each year, 91 percent of whom rely on Medicaid and 93 percent of whom are people of color.
So how did “Dr. Dan,” as the kids on the basketball court call him, go from a ball-playing Philly kid to, well, Dr. Dan? “Maybe I’m childish myself,” he says. “I think I think like a kid. And I just feel deeply that all kids should be safe, all kids should have the ability to have joy, all kids should have the ability to have the same opportunities as anybody else’s kid,” he says.
“Health in my opinion has 100 percent to do with hope, and nothing to do with what I learned in medical school,” Taylor says.
“I’m not naive—I know we’re up against the highest poverty rates in the nation for our kids. St. Chris is in the 19134 zip code, which has the highest murder rates right now in Philadelphia. And Philadelphia has the highest opioid death rates. These are the kids we’re taking care of. But when you look at kids’ eyes, you can’t just remain stagnant. You have to do what you can.”
He believes that small acts of kindness make a huge difference. “Health in my opinion has 100 percent to do with hope, and nothing to do with what I learned in medical school,” he says. “If a child has a little bit of hope, they’re more likely to listen to what their parent says or the doctor says about their health or more likely to not take risky activities if they have hope in their future.”
One of Taylor’s longtime friends happens to be Kenny Holdsman, founder of Philadelphia Youth Basketball (PYB), the nonprofit that uses basketball to mentor and change the lives of boys in Philadelphia. He’s known Taylor for decades, still plays with him at those early-morning GFS games, and has been in conversations with him about how best to make the forthcoming Sixth Man Center, powered and operated by PYB, of value and impact for Taylor’s patients and children and families throughout Philadelphia.
“Dan has poured himself professionally, civically and personally into improving the health and overall quality of life of lower-income kids of color in our city,” Holdsman says. “He knows that we as a citizenry can and must do better to give young people who need it most a real shot to succeed.”
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