Commentary

Houston's basketball profile on the rise

Once a football-only town, Houston has grown into one of America's top basketball cities, writes Christopher Lawlor.

Originally Published: July 17, 2008
By Christopher Lawlor | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- John Lucas was born, raised and played basketball in the heart of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Durham, N.C. native was an All-American guard at the University of Maryland before getting selected by the Houston Rockets in the first round of the 1976 draft.

When he arrived in Texas, he found a faceless basketball community.

"It was a football town," said Lucas, who had three stints with the Rockets, including the 1985-86 season when they lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. "Moses Malone and I came here the same year and couldn't believe it."

Basketball took a backseat.

Here's how woeful the Rockets were: they played home games at a college arena (University of Houston's Hofheinz Pavilion) and designated home games in San Antonio, Waco and Albuquerque before they moved into The Summit for Lucas' rookie season in 1975.

The only previous basketball excitement this town had seen was on Jan. 20, 1968, when the Houston Cougars and Elvin Hayes beat the top-ranked UCLA Bruins, 71-69. That win, in front of 52,629 at the Astrodome, ended a 47-game winning streak by the Bruins and would be named "The Game of the Century."

On an athletic level, that game might have introduced Houston to mainstream America, but the city, considered an oil town, gained popularity.

Mason Griffin
Jason O. WatsonTommy Mason-Griffin (right) is the fifth-rated point guard in the Class of 2009.
Once the calendar flipped to the 1980s, the Houston Metropolitan Area -- which includes the cities of Baytown and Sugar Land -- started to grow. According to U.S. Census figures, Houston's population went up nearly 1.6 million to the current estimates of nearly four million since 1980.

"There are new high schools opening, with new facilities popping up every year," said Tommy Mason-Griffin, a top player in the 2009 high school class, who attends Houston's Madison High.

The exploding population in Harris County, the state's most populous county, was stimulated by a healthy economy and high tech industries moving there to be close to NASA.

There are 23 independent school districts (ISDs) within Harris County and more than 70 public high schools, including 11 in Houston ISD.

Houston is also home to a myriad of talented athletes.

During the past 10 years, Houston's claim might be the arrival onto the grassroots basketball scene. Houston has become a destination for AAU club teams, high school squads and college recruiters, who eagerly look to unearth prep gems such as T.J. Ford, Daniel Ewing, John Lucas Jr., Jai Lucas, Alton Ford, Desmond Mason, Jake Voskuhl, Emeka Okafor, Ndudi Ebi, Stephen Jackson, Rashard Lewis, Kendrick Perkins and Gerald Green.

"There are tons and tons of basketball talent in Houston, both boys and girls," said Memphis assistant Josh Pastner, who grew up locally. "This is now considered a real hotbed."

Pastner, who was a walk-on for Arizona's 1997 championship team and later was an assistant for the Wildcats, successfully recruited four Houston area players to Tucson. Ebi bypassed college for the NBA in 2003, but Jawann McClellan, Nic Wise and Fendi Onobun are still on the roster.

Kendrick Perkins
Garrett Ellwood/Getty ImagesKendrick Perkins went straight from playing his high school ball in the Houston area to the NBA.
"There's new crop of young players every year now," said Jai Lucas, the Florida point guard who attended Bellaire High. "Teams like the Houston Hoops host big events keeping the Houston name out there."

Thirty-seven area players signed with Division I programs during the 2007-08 school year. "That's better than most states," John Lucas said.

The cities recent basketball success is not restricted to the boys. Stanford-bound forward Nneka Ogwumike of Cy-Fair High led her school to the Class 5A state championship in March and was named Gatorade's National Girls' Player of the Year. It's also home to slam-dunking phenom Brittney Griner.

Lucas said that Houston had been an unrecognized hoops hotbed for years.

"It's not like there wasn't any talent in the Houston area, but the rest of the country didn't know about it," John Lucas said.

The Houston hoops scene took a new look in 1982 when Hal Pastner, a shrewd businessman from Philadelphia relocated his family to suburban Kingwood, Texas from the East Coast.

Pastner, a self-proclaimed "basketball junkie," grew up as a ball boy for the Philadelphia 76ers. Pastner was tapped for the job when he was 9 and held the position until he was in high school. That experience on the professional level -- rubbing elbows with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, and attending the Big Five games at the Palestra -- hooked him.

A trip to the city convinced him Houston was good enough for his manufacturing business and a place to raise a family, but grassroots basketball was still lacking.

After successfully building men's recreation leagues, Pastner shifted his focus to fielding an elite grassroots travel team known as the Houston Hoops. In the nascent stages of that team, which has grown into one of the nation's premier club programs, Pastner focused on educating coaches and exposing Houston's youth to top national showcases.

His friend, John Lucas, agreed that teaching coaches through clinics and demonstrations gave club programs a leg up, while also promoting healthy competition amongst the area's travel teams.

The formula worked.

"Instead of kids opting for football first, some of the better athletes decided to play basketball," Lucas said.

"We got [the kids] at a younger age; they now had options," Pastner said.

Once the Houston Hoops gained popularity, coaches and players in droves flocked to Pastner's Kingwood Classic, a springtime event during the NCAA live period, which annually attracted more than 700 teams from as far as Australia. In late December, Pastner also hosts the Academy National tournament for elite national high school teams playing against Houston's best. In 2007, Houston area schools went 9-2 against out-of-state competition, which included the likes of St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.) and Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.).

Greg Wise, a veteran coach of the AAU summer circuit and Yates High in Houston, knocked off both nationally ranked teams at the event.

"The Houston players are as good as any from around the country," Wise said. "Our top teams reach the finals or semifinals of top tournaments each year. Everyone thinks of Texas as a football state, but we play good ball down here."

"Not only are there great AAU and high school teams here, but you can get good workouts against pro and college players," Mason-Griffin said. "The talent keeps getting better and better; there's no lack for competition anymore. Come watch a district or regional playoff game here; the place is usually packed; it's crazy. Houston is a great basketball town."

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade National Player of the Year program for nine years. A New Jersey resident, he grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.

Christopher Lawlor

High School Basketball
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years.