— National sports writer Rick Reilly, from his column inESPN The Magazine
about the Yates High School basketball team
Brandon Peters wanted out of the tunnel.
He stood in the back of a line of Yates Lions basketball players, his teammates, teenagers in crimson-and-gold-colored warm-up suits waiting to run from beneath the stands onto the court. The players slapped basketballs, clapped their hands and chanted in unison: "Heyyyyy, ohhhhh!" Clap, clap, clap.
It was Thursday night at the state high school basketball tournament in Austin and Yates was scheduled to play its semifinal game, and the players, restless from waiting more than an hour in the locker room because of an overtime game before them, wanted out of the tunnel. The officials held back the players until the other teams cleared the court.
One of those teams was Lancaster High School, ranked as the second-best basketball team in Texas, behind only Yates. Lancaster made news a couple years ago when it allowed a football player to transfer to the school and play after he was kicked off another team for getting arrested for robbing people at gunpoint.
Lancaster, fresh off its victory, marched past the Yates team and the players jawed back and forth. "See y'all Saturday night," one of the Lancaster players said on his way in. "We're going to beat that ass."
The players started shoving, and the talking became shouting. Police officers moved in, and Peters, like the rest of his teammates, had to wait a little longer for the cops to pull a couple Lancaster players into a locker room.
"Somebody just said something smart to one of our teammates, and we don't really appreciate that," Peters said. "[The other team] always wants to talk, and we just want to play."
During the last two years, no high school basketball team in the state and perhaps the country has played better than Yates. Last year the school lost only one game and finished with a state championship — its first since 1949 — and if the players won another championship this season, the squad would be the first team from a high school drenched in athletic accomplishments to do so.
But it wouldn't be good enough. The Yates team entered this season with one goal: To be considered the best team in the country.
"That was it from the first practice," says Greg Wise, the basketball coach at Yates. "We wanted them to have that mind-set, because we knew that teams would be coming at us. A lot of people say, 'Everybody is going to come at you, so be ready for their best shot.' We turned that around so we have something to prove also. We're coming at everybody else."
The team lined up games against other top schools in the country. During a five-day trip to Hawaii, Yates won the famed Iolani Classic tournament, beating the team that was ranked, at that time, best in the country. (It was the only loss for that team, which later won the Pennsylvania state championship.)
About a week after Hawaii, the boys traveled to Huntsville, Alabama, for another tournament. A couple days before New Year's Eve, the Lions played the team that featured this year's Mr. Basketball in Alabama. Yates won 108-77.
Yates returned to Houston to start district play against a group of schools lacking in basketball talent, but Yates was playing at its best. And that's when the trouble started.
On January 5, when Yates was ranked the fifth-best team in the country by ESPN, the team squared off against Houston's Robert E. Lee High School, which had won just one game all season.
"We talked on the way, on the bus, about getting that record," Joseph Young, a Yates player and son of Phi Slama Jama member Michael Young, told a television reporter after the game. "About getting 200."
Yates, winning 100-12 at halftime, beat Lee 170-35, setting a state scoring record for most points in a high school game. The fallout was immediate, and the story of the beating became national, landing at The Huffington Post and the New York Daily News and just about every news outlet in between.
"Now I recall, if you look at it, we've been in some baseball games against certain schools where we lose to opponents 25-0. We've been in some soccer matches against certain schools where we'll lose 19-0," says the principal at Yates, Ronald Mumphery. "There's no difference in either one of those, but nobody equates it that way."
And so it went for the rest of the season. After the Lee game, Yates had 12 more games before the playoffs. As it tried to become the best team in the country, playing as arguably the best high school basketball team in the city's and the state's history, Yates became a source of pride for Third Ward residents. City Council members read proclamations about the school at pep rallies, and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee called the school to broadcast a message via cell phone.
But critics called Yates a classless bunch that ran up the score.
"It's Yates High School," Mumphery says. "You have some long-standing animosity, and that's just the way it is. I could live to be 150 and it'd still be that way.
"So we have to apologize because our kids have done a good job."
During the playoffs, in its five games before the state tournament in Austin, Yates continued to roll, scoring more than 100 points every game and beating the other teams by an average of more than 40 points. On that Thursday night, as the cops corralled the Lancaster players who pushed and yelled to get at Yates, the team's line never broke.
"Fuck them," one of the Yates boys said. "Let's tax this ass first."
With that, the players ran out of the tunnel.
"Oooo, ah, Third Ward High. Oooo, ah, Third Ward High." — Yates High School chant
The morning Yates left for the tournament in Austin, Mumphery was already thinking, worrying really, about Lancaster High School. For two days, the principal had been calling around trying to find a game film of the school that Yates was sure to play for the state championship.
He thought someone from Bellaire High School, whose basketball team was nationally ranked by USA Today this year but lost to Lancaster early in the season, had a tape. Mumphery had his secretary track down the man's phone number and finally reached him. He couldn't get it.
"This is Yates High School; people don't give us film," Mumphery says. "You don't almost know."
Mumphery does. When the 1985 Yates football team prepared for a state championship game against Odessa Permian — three years before author H.G. Bissinger followed the Permian team for his book Friday Night Lights — Mumphery was an offensive line coach for Yates. The school couldn't get a game film to prepare for Permian, but Yates won the state title, 37-0.
"When I coached here, we won everything we could win," Mumphery says.
Mumphery wears his state championship ring daily, along with the ring he got when Yates was named the high school football team of the decade for the 1980s, as he patrols the hallways at Yates as principal.
But a lot has changed since then.
In the 1980s, when the oil bust hit the city, it took down the Third Ward like much of Houston. In a Houston Press article published in 2000, the author wrote:
"Almeda, a backbone of the ward, was once a primary route into downtown. It stretches from the South Loop east of the Astrodome, skirts the eastern edge of Hermann Park and ends on the north near the central campus of Houston Community College..."
"The end of that era arrived after the broad concrete ribbon of State Highway 288, which now parallels Almeda to the east. While it gave rush-hour Houstonians a new freeway into and out of downtown from the south, 288 stole traffic from the business corridor and crippled its property values. Most of the chain outlets moved to other burgeoning areas. Independent businesses had to fight to hold on."
"That struggle for survival followed an earlier one, when racial barriers finally gave way to new opportunities for blacks in other areas of the region."
"When integration came, blacks kind of wandered off because they didn't have to stay in the Third Ward if they didn't want to," a business owner in the Third Ward told the Press. "People began moving out to the suburbs."
That, combined with an open enrollment policy in Houston that causes Yates to lose 30 percent of its zoned students each year, led to a dwindling population at the high school. As districts in the suburbs, like Katy and Fort Bend County, boomed out of control, Yates shrank.
"They've torn down a lot of apartment complexes, and as you drive through the neighborhood, you see a lot of vacant fields where homes once stood," Mumphery says.
In the mid-'80s, enrollment at Yates hovered around 3,600. Today, the numbers are closer to 1,200. Three of those students are white, 88 are Hispanic, seven are Asian and the rest are black.
And while other areas of the inner city have redeveloped dramatically in the last decade, the Third Ward has, except for a few pockets, remained unchanged. The 2000 Press article described the ward as having streets that "sported boarded-up storefronts and aging buildings." Someone might say the same thing after a trip through the Third Ward today.
The Fourth Ward, for example, is barely recognizable from what it was ten years ago. Residents from low-income housing, such as Allen Parkway Village, were pushed out and the city razed properties. New condos have replaced what was demolished. Midtown boomed with new restaurants and bars, becoming a hot spot for affluent, white, young professionals.
Third Ward residents fought the same kind of change in the mid-2000s, and when developers moved in to buy property, homeowners put up signs in their lawns that said things like, "Third Ward Is Our Home and It Is Not for Sale." Garnet Coleman, the state representative for the area, has repeatedly echoed the same sentiment.
Enrollment at Yates may have dropped, but the school remains a symbol of solidarity in the Third Ward. Mumphery was recently in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky — he moved to Houston in 1981 — sitting at a park bench. He wore a Yates High School ballcap.
"A guy came up to me and said, 'Third Ward, Texas,'" Mumphery says. "He identified Third Ward, Texas, with Yates High School. In fact, it's called Third Ward High."
Mumphery returned to Yates in 2008, after a ten-year absence when he served as an assistant principal at Houston's Jones High School and as principal at Cullen Middle School, a Yates feeder.
He's done what he can to promote academics. One of the first things he did was to have all the lockers removed from the hallways. Parents of students pick up books from the school during the first week of class and are asked to keep the books at home. Each classroom has another set, and, the point is, students can't use the excuse of losing books.
But while students at Yates are accepted to West Point and awarded the prestigious Presidential Scholarship — both happened this year — athletics stays at the forefront.
"Championships that are won, it's not just the team. It takes the whole school and the neighborhood and the community," Mumphery says. "It takes everybody's effort to win a state championship."
"But when I think of coach Greg Wise of Houston's Yates High School, I become darker than Johnny Cash's closet. The things I would like to do to Coach Wise would curl an executioner's toes." — Rick Reilly
Taking heat for blowout victories is nothing new for Wise. His Yates team was doing the same thing a year ago.
In its first ten games of the 2008-2009 season, Yates went undefeated, beating its opponents — all Houston-area schools — by an average of close to 44 points. Toward the end of that streak, Wise started pulling back his players, coaching to try to keep down the score.
"We started playing a zone the entire second half," Wise says. "We don't even practice a zone."
In the championship game of the Houston ISD tournament, on December 20, 2008, Yates played Alief Elsik, a team that had lost eight of 14 games before facing Yates. Elsik won the game 78-76, the last time that Yates lost a game.
"I said then, 'From now on, we're going to at least play the way we play for three quarters,'" Wise says.
Wise grew up in the Third Ward, attended Ryan Middle School and attended the high school for one year before his family moved. He graduated from Madison. After attending Houston Baptist University, where he played basketball, Wise started coaching.
His first coaching job was at Paul Revere Middle School in west Houston, and he later jumped to coach at Lee. Wise moved to Hightower High School in Fort Bend County in the early part of this decade, but he eventually left the sport to run a real estate company.
After his two sons graduated high school — they both went to play basketball at the University of Arizona — Wise decided to get back into coaching. Along with the job at Yates, Wise had offers from six other high schools.
"Being able to coach in the area I grew up in, and give back to the kids in the area, that was important to me," Wise says. "This is where I wanted to be, so you can't complain about what you don't have."
The transition wasn't smooth. The facilities at Yates were a big drop from what Wise had at Hightower. At Yates, for example, there isn't anyone to wash the kids' workout clothes, and there isn't even a full-time trainer.
That can be a problem, considering the intensity of practices. In fact, this year a Yates player passed out during a practice. Of course, Wise says, the player was too embarrassed to tell anyone he hadn't eaten anything in a couple days.
"That's one of the reasons I'm so proud of these guys. They already go through more than what a lot of people will ever go through," Wise says. "We have kids that spend the night with other kids because they don't have any other place to go. Both the mother and father are out on the street, and if there's no place for the father to be, there's no place for the son to be."
Wise started at Yates in 2007, a year after a lengthy decline in academic performance landed the school on the state's academically unacceptable list.
"The school could've been run better. It was tough to get kids in class, and even if they were in class, to get kids to learn," Wise says.
So, Wise used basketball. His system was such a change, the commitments he required of his players so intense, that some kids quit the team. One senior player who quit during Wise's first year later came back and apologized to the coach and was allowed back on the team. He ended up being co-MVP of the district.
Another tough first-year decision for Wise, he says, was keeping Elton Roy, who starts for the team this year, off the varsity squad.
"He was one of the ones I had to deal with. He had varsity talent, but he was a little immature in the way he did things; his mind-set wasn't ready," Wise says. "Now he's where he needs to be, and with that, he's got a lot of colleges recruiting him."
Almost all the players on this year's team, including all five starters, are seniors, and the players have been at Yates for each of Wise's three years. And each of the graduating players, Wise says, will play basketball in college.
"Whether it's junior college, we'll get everybody in," he says.
Brandon Peters has already committed to Western Kentucky, Joseph Young plans on Providence College in Rhode Island and point guard Darius Gardner is headed to Stephen F. Austin. Senior guard Greg Watts, the salutatorian at Yates, is going to the University of Texas on a full academic scholarship.
"If I feel like you're not going to go and represent well, which means I can't go back to that coach and say, 'Take this kid,' then there will be someone that doesn't go. But this year, we'll get in everybody," Wise says. "It took two years to get the kids to be doing what they do now, so to tell them to turn it on and turn it off, that's almost impossible."
The week after Yates beat Lee 170-35, the school district's athletic director, Daryl Wade, met with the coaches from both schools to make sure the second game between the schools was uneventful.
So at the end of January, when the two schools played again, the players met in the middle of the court before the game to exchange T-shirts. It was clear that Wise pulled back his players near the end of the game, but Yates still won by 99 points. As the clock wound down, Yates held the ball as its fans yelled for someone to score. They wanted to win by 100.
"During district, we could've put up 200 easy. Like a lot of games," Wise says. "I work hard at what I do, and it was more of a strain on me to keep [the score] down than it was just to play like we play. Our system doesn't really allow you to relax, because we try to be relentless on both ends."
Yates continued to put up big scores and win by a lot of points, but apart from the furor after the first Lee game, the heavy criticism died down. And more people from around the Third Ward and Houston jumped on the Yates bandwagon.
"You look at the amount of people that are showing up to the games, and that would be surprising to anybody," Wise says. "You look at what's going on now, it's almost like another way of God doing his work. There are a whole lot of successful people that have graduated from Yates, but there are also some people that aren't doing so well, and they're coming to the games and seeing people they haven't seen in a long time. That's just another way this team is being used to bring the whole community together."
Then came Rick Reilly.
Reilly is a longtime sportswriter for national magazines, and by his own account, he has published more than one million words. He started writing for Sports Illustrated in 1985 and later moved to ESPN The Magazine. In March, about the time Yates was getting ready to leave for the state tournament, Reilly wrote his last column for ESPN and titled it, "Someone stop this man." He was referring to Wise.
"For starters, I'd like to see [Wise] dipped in seal butter and dropped in a polar bear's cage," Reilly wrote.
He added that he'd like to clock Wise and see him spend a day as a speed bump in the parking lot of Lee High School. Reilly even blamed a fight after a game between Yates and Booker T. Washington High School — shots were fired and two Yates students were arrested — on the lopsided score.
Reilly didn't talk to Wise for the column, but he did get in touch with Jacques Armant, the head coach at Lee. Armant was quoted: "These are tough kids from a tough part of town. Beatings like this can turn out to be real dangerous."
"32 minutes of hell." — Yates's self-proclaimed style of play
The day before the team left for Austin, Mumphery was finalizing travel plans, stressing to staff that the team hotel needed to be kept secret.
"I don't want any little girls showing up at that hotel," Mumphery said.
The Yates team was used to traveling like rock stars and playing in front of crowds that many college teams would kill for. During the team's regional semifinal game, for example, played at the Merrell Center in Katy, the arena reached capacity — about 5,600 — before the game started. The Yates fans who couldn't get in stood outside of the complex with their faces pressed against glass windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the game.
After Yates beat the North Texas high school The Colony 106-76, more than 16,700 fans showed up on Saturday to see the team play Lancaster for the state championship. It was the most people ever to watch a state championship basketball game. Governor Rick Perry watched from a courtside seat, and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee sat behind the Yates bench for the entire game.
And police officers were stationed outside both teams' locker rooms.
"We don't do a lot of talking, and I don't allow my players to talk like that," Wise says. "If you say something to us, you're not going to keep saying something. You might say something at the beginning of the game, because you think you're going to upset us, but as the game goes on, that'll die off."
The game started like most do for Yates, with the team jumping out to a big lead in the first couple minutes. But as the first half continued, Yates never got rolling the way it did in every other game. The Lancaster boys continually beat Yates's full-court press and got easy points off layups. Each time it looked like Yates was about to rip off a string of points, the Yates crowd would start to chant, "Oooo, ah, Third Ward High," but the momentum never lasted.
Just before halftime, a Lancaster player hit a shot to cut theYates lead to four points.
Yates couldn't get its game going in the third quarter, either. For close to five minutes, Peters was the only player to score, and he made only two shots. Lancaster kept playing strong, and the team took its first lead against Yates — the first time Yates had trailed all tournament — about halfway through the quarter, and in a span of about a minute, Lancaster pushed its lead to six points.
Yates, for maybe the first time all season, looked like a team out of sorts. A couple of steals and buckets by Peters and Gardner kept Yates close, but when the third quarter ended, Yates trailed 65-61.
Midway through the final quarter, the game, along with the entire season, looked like it could slip away. Yates senior starter Elton Roy, who led the team in its semifinal victory against The Colony, fouled out of the game. And with six minutes left and Yates losing by a point, Yates star Joseph Young missed a shot and took an elbow to the face from a Lancaster player.
Young collapsed on the court, and after a few minutes of trainers attending to him, Young tried to walk off. He collapsed again. The trainers carried him off the court to the tunnel that led under the stands.
For two and a half minutes, Yates couldn't score, and for the first time in a long time, the Yates crowd, packed in two sections of the arena, was quiet.
But with four minutes left in the game, the Yates fans erupted as Young ran back out of the tunnel. "They were trying to strap me down, to open my eyes to examine me," Young said after the game. "But I came to and had to get back in the game. So I just ran out."
Young immediately checked back in the game and hit back-to-back three-pointers. Peters scored five more points in 30 seconds, and Young made another three-point shot. With just under two minutes to play in the game, Gardner had the ball from what seemed like half court and lobbed it toward the Yates basket. Peters, flying in from the side, grabbed the ball out of the air and slammed it through the hoop.
The Yates crowd yelled as loud as it had all tournament. One Lancaster player, who had to be pulled away from the Yates team by a police officer the night before, kneeled down on the court and cried. Yates finished on a 22-3 run, winning the game 92-73.
As the Yates players huddled in a mid-court celebration, Peters broke from his teammates and bounced toward the Lancaster bench.
"Talk that shit now."
"The mainstream just doesn't get it." — Yates Principal Ronald Mumphery
At the postgame press conference, Wise broke down and cried, talking about his best friend and assistant coach for 17 years, Charles Phillips, who had died from cancer before the start of the season. "I felt like he was looking down on us."
Reilly was brought up, and Gardner answered the question: "Those things aren't true that they say about [Wise]. I'm a kid and I can't say anything about [Reilly] because I don't know him. When you say something about someone you don't even know, you're giving yourself a bad name."
Brandon Peters was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament and presented with a medal and trophy after the game by Perry. The Yates crowd booed the governor.
Young was admitted to the hospital and treated for a concussion.
The team traveled back to the Third Ward on Saturday night after the game and was in church service at 9 o'clock the next morning at Wheeler Avenue Baptist, still wearing the crimson and gold warm-up suits. The preacher spoke about the "Celebration of Discipline."
In national polls before the state tournament, Yates wasn't ranked the best in the country. A high school in Ohio held that position in USA Today and ESPN. But the Ohio team couldn't match Yates in its perfect season, losing a playoff game by nearly 30 points. The ESPN poll commented, "There will be no debate now."
The Yates kids went on spring break, and when they returned, two months of events had been planned to honor and celebrate the team. The players had to show up at a Third Ward grocery store on a Saturday, and signed autographs for two hours. A rally at City Hall and a parade through the Third Ward were also scheduled.
The celebration started with another pep rally at the high school at the end of March. Bun B of UGK made an appearance, and the Yates Crimson Chorale performed a song, "G-O Wise," written for the coach.
Now that Wise is losing most of his players to graduation, he moves on with an untested group. Of the three underclassmen on varsity, only sophomore Clyde Santee saw any significant playing time in the playoffs. In the state championship game, for example, Santee played six minutes. Junior Trey Dickerson played one.
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"Our sub-varsity team is doing well, and they're learning our system, so we can keep building the program and be successful year in and year out," Wise says. "But this team did things that no one in the country was doing, that no team has ever done. This team was special."
Like the hallways in the school, the outside of Yates is bleak. Besides a flagpole, a small bed of flowers and a lion statue in a rusted cage, there isn't much. The new hand-painted sign that's been planted almost looks gaudy.
"National Champions 2009–2010," the sign reads. "Jack Yates Lions. Let the tradition live on."