The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex's roots — including the vines of the Gingerbread City — stretch far and wide. The one that connects Waxahachie to San Antonio bears some of the sweetest fruit Texas as to offer.
The type that only shines gold.
After five consecutive wins in the grueling three-day adidas Uprising Gauntlet Finale on Thursday at the Upward Star Center, Yes II Success (YIIS) earned the right to raise a tournament championship in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Thirteen boys comprise the San Antonio-based team that will compete in Duncanville's Great American Shootout in less than 24 hours. Four — Mansfield Timberview's Chris Mullins and Waxahachie's Montre' Gipson, Mar'Qualen Grant and Larry Wise — represent the talent from high schools within UIL District 10-5A.
The four-boy core, which Head Coach Brandon Ray has coached together for almost a half decade, was the first Texas team to win the adidas Gauntlet in the history of the national tournament. Unlike some of the newer additions to the team, they also have spent more than 10,000 summer hours with each other, studying each's every move.
"Those four have been playing together since eighth grade. [Gipson, Grant and Wise] have been on the court together since they were in second grade," Ray said about the chemistry of the four.
In March, Mullins and fellow Amateur Athletic Union basketball player Isaac Likele and Gipson, Grant and Wise clashed in the regional quarterfinal round. Mansfield Timberview won the matchup and would eventually claim the state crown two rounds later in a 74-66 victory against Fort Bend Marshall High Schools.
Ray said it might have been kismet that Mullins and the Wolves won the title when Waxahachie looked like the type of high school basketball juggernaught capable of winning back-to-back 5A titles. They aren't solely powered by the four boys, though.
Two other players, 6-foot-10 junior San Antonio St. Anthony Catholic power forward Charles Bassey and 6-foot-4 senior Cypress Falls guard Nigel Hawkins, turn the quartet into a deadly sixsome.
Bassey, who garners comparisons to Dwight Howard by Dallas-area mediums, is a five-star athlete that is No. 1 in ESPN's 60 best basketball players in Texas. Hawkins, the son of former Boston Celtic, Charlotte Hornet and Cleveland Cavalier Michael Hawkins, is currently being courted by the Universities of Houston and Texas, as well as Stephen F. Austin and Texas A&M Universities.
Hawkins' Cypress Falls Eagles went on a 25-game win streak and won the University Interscholastic League 6A championship in March.
One of the core members of a team that's remained linked despite changes in team location and organization said those memories were pushed aside and to back of teenage minds in pursuit of something more immediately pressing — a basketball title on a nationally-viewed stage.
"It was all about winning one more while we're all still together," Mullins said. "At this point, it's almost automatic. With me, Larry, Qua and Tre' playing for so long, we have a sense of what we're best at and know how to compliment each other. When you add Charles and Nigel — who are some of the best players at their positions — where it's easy to bring them in and not miss a beat. Those battles in our district made better because when we played against each other, it brought out a more competitive edge and improved our chemistry for summer basketball the time. It's like they say, 'Iron sharpens iron, right?'"
Though he knew the quartet before, Ray didn't begin coaching them until 2013. That year, he noted, was when they began to whet the blade of their edge into a razor-sharp talent, hit their stride and create pure magic.
As eighth graders, they finished fifth out of 126 teams on the national level while playing with the Texas Select Organization. A week later, their team boarded a plane headed for Nevada. By the time they stepped foot on another one, they carried an adidas Select Series Las Vegas Summer Classic trophy with them.
A year later as budding ninth grade stars, they reached the final four out of 52 teams in the summer classic — the precursor to the Gauntlet because the sports juggernaut didn't have a tournament for players 15 years and younger at that time — with the Lone Star Elite Organization. Adidas didn't offer the Gauntlett ninth grade and younger athletes until the summer of 2016.
They won the Las Vegas Summer Classic last year but slipped in the standings in Spartanburg. Yes II Success, fueled by their bond, as well as game-high performances from Bassey and Hawkins, ensured the second time — not the third — was the charm.
Hoisting a title didn't just mean four years of success under the adidas umbrella or Texas basketball history for Ray and his boys, though. He said it also meant scratching the surface of their almost boundless potential.
"When you add that type of winning mentality to a player the caliber of a 6A state tournament MVP like Nigel Hawkins or a dominating big like Charles Bassey, that's the makeup of a winning team," Ray continued. "You have people that are brought up in a culture of winning playing with two state championships — Chris and Nigel — in their respective classes. More importantly, they're all bought into winning and have been since they've been together."
YIIS beat the Chauncy Billups Elite Team 68-60 on Thursday behind the strength of double-figure performances from four different players. Mullins (16 pts, 4 stls) led all scorers and Wise (14 pts, 7 reb) was a close second, nearly nabbing a double-double. Grant added 10 points on 3-for-7 shooting from the 3-point line and Gipson added five points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals.
The won three more games on Friday, beating the Compton Magic 69-57, the Brookwood Elite 82-67 and the New England Playaz 64-59. Grant (15 pts) and Wise (12 pts) led all scorers against the Magic and Bassey (22 pts, 8 rebs, 3 blk).
Mullins (17 pts) and Wise (14 pts, 3 reb, 2 ast) combined for 53 of the teams 82 points in game No. 2. Mullins led YIIS in the game three victory after scoring a game-high 12 points. Wise and Grant and Gipson added 11, 10 and nine points, respectively.
In the fourth game against Team Loaded NC, though, YIIS wouldn't have the cushion they enjoyed during the previous four matchups. But in a game that featured wild points shifts from one team to the other, it was Wise who drained a spot-up jumper with 1:51 that both gave YIIS a 69-66 lead and the eventual 69-68 win.
"It's just been a fun ride with those guys. We've been together for so long. I'm glad we could add another 'ship' to the collection before we go to college," Wise said. "There were a lot of teams that I'm sure we could have played for, but I never would've thought I'd be playing with those guys. I felt like it was only right that we stay together to compete against the best in the country after our results early in our AAU careers."
With the GASO on the horizon, Buffington said it's no shock to his system that his boys have steadily increased their play in anticipation of a tournament that can cause drastic stock rises. YIIS will play in the GASO's NCAA Division on Thursday and Friday.
On Saturday, assuming they win and move along in the tournament, they will vie for a tournament title. Ray said this year for YIIS is different, noting it's a point of personal pride to do well in the tournament after playing little to no summer games in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
"This year, it's a little personal for us just because we decided to play for a team that's based in San Antonio," Ray said. "Outside of Memorial Day weekend, which was a game up north, this will be the first time these kids get to play on the south side of the Metroplex in Duncanville. A lot of people think we left the city and took four kids to San Antonio, so it's pretty personal for us to do well and let everybody know we're still the team to beat and run the city and that they are the same kids they knew three and four years ago."
Marcus S. Marion, @MarcusMarionWNI