As Gaston built the program, he immediately attracted Division I talent. Gaston’s first team included Valentine Izundu, a center who would play at the University of Houston and San Diego State. One of Gaston’s mentors, Tony Harvey—who coached at Texas Southern University at the time—asked Gaston to quit his teaching job and become a graduate assistant on his bench. It would be a pay cut for a job with much less stability. After thinking it over, Gaston decided to take the leap. “You’re destined to be a college coach,” Gaston recalls Harvey telling him.
Then, on Gaston’s first day at Texas Southern, the athletic director called everyone together. Harvey was being fired, and everyone he’d brought in would be let go too.
“So now I’m stuck in the matrix,” Gaston recalls. “I’m like, what do I do now? Those were some rough years. But that’s what made me a man.”
Gaston had no choice but to double down on coaching and training high school players. The basketball scene had taken notice of his work with Izundu, a player who, despite standing 6-foot-10, had never played varsity basketball before pairing up with Gaston. Through that experience, Gaston became tight with Izundu’s high school coach, Emmanuel Olatunbosun, known throughout Houston as Coach O. Coach O trusted Gaston and began sending his players to Gaston’s AAU program.
One day, Coach O called and told Gaston he had an eighth grader in his high school’s pipeline that he wanted Gaston to see. Gaston thought, An eighth grader? Houston Preps had a team that included under-17 players, but the youngest athletes on those teams were 15 or 16. Coach O’s player was 13.
“There was a buzz around this kid,” Olatunbosun tells me over the phone from the Las Vegas airport. “Someone said, ‘There’s a kid down at the junior high who’s already dunking it.’” Olatunbosun knew he had to go see for himself. It didn’t take long for Coach O to know something special was going on.
“His dad was actually coaching the team, which is just not the norm. That doesn’t happen in our school district,” Olatunbosun says. “I thought, If they’re somehow letting this dad sit on the bench, this kid must be pretty damn good.”
Coach O was sold, but he still had to convince Gaston, who was feeling somewhat self-conscious about Houston Preps’ scrappy reputation in a landscape full of blue-blood Nike- and Adidas-funded AAU programs. Eventually, Gaston finally gave in. “What did I have to lose?” Gaston remembers thinking.
Gaston had a team in a tournament at The Gym in Humble, Texas, a sprawling suburban hoops complex. His new charge peeled himself out of his parents’ car, revealing his scrawny, skinny frame. This can’t be the kid, Gaston thought.
That kid’s name was De’Aaron Fox.
In Fox’s first game, Gaston put the eighth grader on the wing, thinking that would be a good way to assess his game. It didn’t work. Fox kept getting his shots blocked by the bigger, stronger, older players.
Before the team’s second game, Coach O told Gaston, “Put the kid at the point. Put the ball in his hands.”
What happened next changed Fox, Gaston and Olatunbosun’s lives.
“It was special,” Gaston says. “He was 13 years old, out there dominating juniors and seniors in high school.” This scene brings to mind the decades-old legends of Stephon Marbury and LeBron James schooling older players at Adidas ABCD Camp. “It was like something I had never seen,” Gaston adds. “I thought, This kid is probably the best player I’ve ever had the chance to work with.”
“He got to all the spots he wanted to,” Coach O says. “He was a man amongst boys out there, but he didn’t look like a man.”
Coach O remembers how the crowd reacted to Fox’s play, in particular one AAU dad in the crowd.
“I remember the guy next to me said out loud, ‘Who the hell is that?’ referring to De’Aaron. And the dad said, ‘That’s Duke! That’s North Carolina! That’s what a Kentucky kid looks like!’”
“And I thought to myself, Is it?” says Olatunbosun. “I had never coached a kid like that before.”
And that’s just the beginning.