Nathan Taphorn loves Northwestern.
That love is what led him to originally commit to a program entrenched in a 72-year NCAA Tournament drought back in July 2012. It is what helped him maintain his commitment despite the firing of the coach that had originally recruited him. It’s what made it easy for him to embrace a reserve role as a freshman all the way to his senior season.
Taphorn, a native of Pekin, Illinois, came to Northwestern in 2013 as the No. 8 player in the state (per 247 Sports) in a class highlighted by Jabari Parker. He and Jaren Sina were Northwestern’s two commitments, and their respective college careers have been polar opposites. Taphorn is playing his final home game at Welsh-Ryan on Sunday while Sina de-committed from Northwestern, spent a tumultuous two years at Seton Hall and is currently playing over 30 minutes a night for George Washington. On the other end of the spectrum, Taphorn’s commitment never wavered after Bill Carmody was released. He would be a Wildcat for life.
“I didn’t say anything, and I kind of kept my mouth shut to see what would happen,” Taphorn reflected on when Northwestern parted ways with Carmody. “And then the best AD in the world came to my house in Pekin, Illinois — Jim Phillips and Mike Polisky sat down with me and my parents. We talked and he pitched me on Coach Collins, and just kind of sold me on that.”
For Taphorn, it came with little surprise that an in-home visit proved to be effective. The senior is confident that he could count the number of games his parents, Pat and Lisa, have missed together on one hand. “It’s incredible having those two here. They’re my rocks,” Taphorn said.
His parents, Pat and Lisa Taphorn, have been Nate’s and Northwestern’s biggest fan since he arrived to Evanston four years ago.
“It has been a wonderful experience.” Lisa Taphorn told Inside NU. “Our mindset has always been that these years are going to go by fast and we don't want to miss a minute of it with any of our children. My hope is that they will all look back and know that we were with them the entire journey.”
The Taphorn parents have traveled to Mexico, Las Vegas, Kansas City, Missouri, Spain and Brooklyn, as well as nearly every Big Ten game, throughout the past four years. As Nate transformed from the freshman who shot just a tick above 30-percent from the field amidst a 14-19 season, to the sharpshooting senior who threw “The Pass” that perhaps sealed Northwestern’s fate in its first ever NCAA Tournament berth, the Taphorn family has been there though the ups and downs. This season, despite its obvious success, has not been without its trying times.
The loss to Notre Dame, including a fatal inbounds pass that left the same hands that put him in Northwestern lore against Michigan, still resonates with Taphorn. So does Northwestern’s final game of the 2015-16 season.
“When we lost to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament last year, I went under a screen and then Duncan Robinson hit a three,” the ever-thoughtful Taphorn recalled. “Those two games [Notre Dame and Michigan] will always resonate with me.”
Now, of course, Taphorn has another play he will never forget, and one that should fill him with pride and happiness forever. With Senior Day on Sunday, the Big Ten Tournament quickly approaching and Northwestern hurtling toward the postseason, Taphorn will have at least a few more opportunities to make some lifetime memories. He’ll get to do so alongside his best friend, teammate of four years and roommate of three years, Sanjay Lumpkin.
“We’re practically like brothers. I think that we have a bond that is very hard to describe and we just function with each other very well,” Taphorn said. “Going out with that guy will be very emotional but it’s kind of been a long time coming for us.”
Lisa Taphorn can hardly believe it’s been four years since Nathan first played in Welsh-Ryan. On Sunday, Taphorn will be playing his final home game. Fittingly, it will also be the final game before the renovation of Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“Of all of the four years, this year has gone the fastest and this year has been my favorite,” Lisa Taphorn said. “With each year, we have watched Nathan mature and grow not only physically but also mentally. He has a mental toughness that neither Pat or I possess. He has such tenacity, and perseverance. His attitude both on and off the court has been one of leadership and optimism despite whatever he might be feeling inside.”
“This four years have not been the easiest, and I knew that coming in. But grinding it out to this point has been awesome,” the senior forward added.
Entering the season, Taphorn was expecting to battle for minutes until sophomore wing Aaron Falzon opted for season-ending knee surgery. Taphorn has made the most of his opportunity, becoming more reliable and playing crucial minutes that he used to spend watching from the bench. And of course he has now earned a starring role as Northwestern’s trigger man on every full-court inbounds heave that the team attempts.
As for what the future holds, the senior isn’t ruling anything out. Ever the opportunist, he has an eye on basketball. “If there are opportunities I’m going to take them.” And perhaps after “The Pass,” basketball may not be Taphorn’s only option. In the press-conference following the win on Wednesday, Coach Collins asked the media, “Don’t the Bears need a quarterback?”
For now, Taphorn has to get through this season first, and the emotional weight of Sunday presents a challenge in itself.
“I’m going to be pretty emotional,” he told me. “I love all these guys. I love this arena. I love this school. It’s going to be hard leaving. I think seeing myself leaving this place is going to be tough, but I’ve been blessed with a great group of guys this year and the years past.”
Nathan Taphorn has given four years of everything he has to the guys, arena and school that he loves so much.