EARLY IN THE summer of 1997 James Clayton got a call from a woman whose 11-year-old son wanted to join a team. Clayton--a youth basketball coach at Houston's Fond� Recreation Center, the indoor facility with a rep as the Rucker Park of the South--doesn't give a spot on his AAU squad, the Houstonians, to every playground pest who comes along. So he had to ask, "Is he good?"
"I'm biased," the woman replied, "but I think he's very good." To see for himself, Clayton made a scouting trip to the outdoor court at Windsor Village Community Center in southwest Houston. The boy, a point guard named Daniel Gibson, played with such poise, Clayton recalls, "I couldn't believe how young he was."
When he met Daniel's mother, Cheryl, Clayton told her, "You underestimated him. Get him off the concrete and bring him to Fond�."
Eight years later Gibson, who became the headband-and-high-socks-wearing leader of the Houstonians and then a McDonald's All-American at Jesse H. Jones High, is a sophomore starting point guard for Texas, the No. 2 team in SI's preseason Top 20. "We never looked back," Clayton says, reflecting on that first day he saw Gibson.
It's appropriate that church and state collide in the proverb mounted over Fond�'s entryway, which reads, recreation, like religion, should permeate all of life.
The hardwood inside may be municipally owned, but it is easily the holiest in Houston. Starting in the '70s, future Hall of Famers such as Calvin Murphy, Moses Malone and Clyde Drexler of the NBA Rockets turned Fond� into a premier venue for off-season pickup games. Malone used the gym in '81 to school Akeem Olajuwon, then a University of Houston freshman, in the art of post play.
As Clayton says, "If you haven't done it at Fond�, then you haven't made a name for yourself." Gibson did so much at Fond� that the spoils of his four-year run with the Houstonians, from '97 through 2000, nearly fill a trophy case at the rec center. During those summers he was Fond�'s gym rat in residence, often working on his game, he says, "from 9 a.m. till they shut the lights off." It's also where, in a real-life version of the film Love & Basketball, he courted Tye Jackson, who was the star of Fond�'s top girls' team. A Westfield High 2003 homecoming photo of Gibson and Jackson, now a sophomore guard at Houston, still hangs in the center's youth-basketball office.
Houston's emergence as a hoops hotbed did not begin with Gibson--the city has produced, among others, Connecticut center Emeka Okafor, an All-America in 2003--04 now with the Charlotte Bobcats, and Texas guard T.J. Ford, the national player of the year in 2002--03 who's now with the Milwaukee Bucks--but Gibson's incubation at the 45-year-old basketball landmark on Sabine Street helped him develop into one of the city's best-known players. Though he first attracted national attention on the AAU circuit with the Houston Hoops (coach Hal Pastner claims that Gibson, more than any other of the program's alums, "put Houston basketball on the map"), Gibson can point to that initial summer at Fond� as the first time he believed his dream of playing in the pros could become a reality.
Gibson has vivid memories of NBA royalty--including Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway--convening for Fond�'s midday pickup games. Youngsters like himself would cede the court and watch, awestruck, from the bleachers. "Just seeing those dudes out there like regular people, laughing and joking--you don't get that on TV," Gibson says. "It opened my eyes."
Following a freshman season in which he led the Longhorns in scoring (14.2 points per game), assists (121), steals (55) and minutes played (1,018), the 6'2", 190-pound Gibson may prove this year that he's ready for the pros. Unlike Ford, who was a distributor extraordinaire, Gibson is part playmaker, part gunner. He balances his explosiveness off the dribble with a long-range threat: In a win over Texas Tech on Jan. 25 he hit six of six threes en route to a 20-point, four-assist, four-steal performance.