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 Fondé 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 Fondé."
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 Fondé'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 Fondé 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 Fondé, then you haven't made a name for yourself." Gibson did so much at Fondé 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 Fondé'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 Fondé'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 Fondé 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 Fondé'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.
If Gibson enters the 2006 NBA draft, one Eastern Conference scout says, "I have him as the Number 1 point guard on the board."
DANIEL WAS not the first member of his family to grace the courts at Fondé. His father, Byron, a 6'5" point guard with a lethal shot ("He could hit from a few steps inside half-court," Daniel says), is about as old school as it gets on the Houston basketball scene. Byron starred for Jones High in the '70s--with Cheryl, a cheerleader, supporting him from the sideline--and played for the University of Houston before the Phi Slamma Jamma era. When Drexler and Michael Young made their official recruiting visit to the school, Byron was their host. At 23 he signed up for the inaugural season of the Fondé Pro-Am league and went on to play for three of the rec center's title teams. (NBA veterans Sam Cassell and Rashard Lewis played in the league last summer.) "[Back home] everybody knows my pops," Daniel says, "and if we walk around together, I'm 'Little Gib.'"
Little Gib emulated his father in every way, from Byron's humble demeanor (Byron calls Daniel the Quiet Assassin because his son shuns trash talk) to his choice of high schools (Daniel led Jones to its first state title since 1965) to his jersey number (Daniel wore 22 through high school) to his shooting ability. When Byron saw that his son relied too much on crossover drives, he forced Daniel to develop his outside game. "I told him, 'As you get older, you won't be able to get to the basket that easy, so we need to find you a shot from the perimeter that nobody can stop,'" Byron said. "And lo and behold, it was from 30 feet."
On a cool evening last month Byron, 48, stood in the backyard of the Gibsons' one-story house in Houston's tough Southpark neighborhood, gazing at the portable hoop he had put up years ago for Daniel, the youngest of his and Cheryl's four children. Daniel used to pound the ground around the basket for hours most nights, evading the family's ball-hawking dogs, Ice and Blue, as he perfected his trick shots--banking the ball off the roof, bouncing it off the chain-link fence and arcing it over the tree--and turned the grassy area into a dirt patch.
"Ever since Daniel went to Texas," Byron says, "we've got grass again."
EARLY ONE morning last December, Byron was awakened by a phone call from Daniel, who sounded desperate. "Get me out," the son said. Daniel had suffered through a sleepless night following a 1-for-7 shooting performance in an 85--70 win over Texas-Arlington, after which his coach, Rick Barnes, told his 7--1 team, "We know for a fact that every time Kenton Paulino"--Gibson's backup--"steps on the court, the Texas Longhorns get better." Gibson had started in every one of the first eight games, and those words hit him like a punch in the gut. "My eyes got all watery," Gibson says. "I was like, Man, why am I here?"
The quiet confidence Gibson exuded on the court began to waver. In Houston he had always been the golden child--at Fondé, at Dowling Middle School, with the Hoops, at Jones High--and he finished as the city's alltime leading high school scorer, then graduated sixth in his class. Ever since the seventh game of his freshman year, in which Gibson outscored Willowridge High senior Ford 23--21 (prompting then Texas assistant Rob Lanier to tell Barnes, "I've found your next great point guard after T.J."), Gibson was destined to follow Ford to Austin.
Barnes, however, was not about to turn over his team to the freshman point guard without first testing him. "I knew I had to get him ready quickly," Barnes says. "I challenged him every day"--sometimes when Gibson turned the ball over in practice, Barnes made the entire team run wind sprints--"but it was because I saw greatness in him."
Byron knew his son was being pushed as never before, but he would not allow Daniel to buckle. "You're going to stay there," Byron said in response to Daniel's crack-of-dawn plea. "And you're going to suck it up."
Two days later, in an 89--88 loss at sixth-ranked Wake Forest, Gibson scored 10 second-half points to keep the game close. He realized, "I'm no punk--I can play out here. Coach was trying to get me to that point." His coming of age came just in time. After the Horns improved to 14--3, they were suddenly stripped of two starters. Freshman forward LaMarcus Aldridge suffered a hip injury, and sophomore swingman P.J. Tucker was declared academically ineligible. Barnes says he was forced "to put more on Daniel than on any other freshman we've coached at Texas." The Longhorns finished the season 20--11 after losing to Nevada in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That early exit, says Gibson, "is not the legacy I want to leave."
ON A DAY off from practice the week before Texas's first exhibition game of this season, Gibson is relaxing in his dorm room, content with the prospects for his sophomore year. Aldridge is healed and Tucker is eligible, and the Longhorns have an opportunity to reach their first Final Four since Ford led them there in 2003. Gibson has outgrown the Little Gib moniker; now he's D-Gib, which is spelled out in diamond baguettes on the medallion hanging from his neck. But he remains close to his Houston roots. The black cap he wears backward with his burnt-orange warmups reads, screwston, tx., in homage to the Houston-based Chopped and Screwed hip-hop boom, which has coincided with the rise of the city's basketball rep.
As he punches buttons on his stereo remote, Gibson asks his guest, "You actually want to hear this?" Following an affirmative reply, the intro to Game Over by Houstonite Lil' Flip shakes Daniel's minispeakers, and he is smirking, because he knows what's coming next is not Flip. Instead the voices of Gibson and his cousin Isreal Chandler, a University of Houston freshman, are rapping over the beat. The track, Gibson says, was cut in the backyard studio of a family friend before Daniel first left for college.
As the lyric The name's D-Gib/you heard about me/a cute n---- from Houston headed to UT fills the room, Daniel is doubled over in his chair, laughing. There'll be no frantic, early morning calls home this season.
Though the city's emergence as a hotbed didn't begin with Gibson, he "put Houston basketball ON THE MAP," says Pastner.