LEWISVILLE, Texas -- Imagine a basketball team that combined Marcus Smart, Phil Forte and ... Johnathan Gray?
Well, it happened ... for the past 10 years.
These three North Texas and national athletic standouts grew up playing AAU basketball together every summer since they were in the third grade.
It formed a tight enough friendship that Gray, ranked No. 5 on the ESPNU 150 for football, made the long trek to Lewisville from Aledo on Thursday to watch his buddies take on Montrose Christian in front of ESPN cameras just two days before Gray’s final high school game in the 4A Division I state championship.
“I came out to watch my brothers play,” said Gray, a Texas commit. “I was lucky enough to play AAU basketball with these guys.”
Smart is the No. 11 national basketball recruit for the Class of 2012 and has committed to Oklahoma State. Forte will join him at OSU.
The love will be returned Saturday, not only Forte and Smart, but by the whole Marcus basketball team.
Marcus coach Danny Henderson canceled the team’s weekly Saturday morning practice so the whole squad can travel to Cowboys Stadium for Gray and Aledo’s big game, even though Marcus has its first district game next week.
“I know that’s crazy because we have Plano West coming, but it’s invaluable for my kids to be around that state championship atmosphere, especially when they know Johnathan and some other Aledo players,” Henderson said.
Gray, who broke the Texas single-season touchdown record in last season’s state final and is looking to break several national records Saturday, has an even deeper connection with the Marcus basketball team than just his friendship with Forte and Smart. He filled the role as the team’s motivation speaker last season.
“Last year, before our biggest regular season game, Johnathan came into the locker room and talked to the guys and got them jacked up,” Henderson said. “It was really cool. He’s a great kid.”
So can arguably the greatest high school football player in Texas history also play basketball?
“You ought to see him lock down somebody on defense,” Henderson said. “It’s amazing. He might be the best deny defender I’ve ever seen. His man can’t catch it. It is amazing to watch him deny someone. You can’t screen him because he’s so strong and quick and whoever he’s guarding can’t catch the ball.”
“I’ve never seen a kid play as hard as he does,” Forte said. “He just goes, goes, goes. We call him the Energizer Bunny. He just has a motor that I’ve never seen another player have.”
Gray is so respected by his basketball-playing friends that even Smart said a one-on-one game between the two would be a close battle.
“You know how built Johnathan is, and him using that muscle that he has and that athleticism ... It would be a challenge,” Smart said. “I think I would come out of that with my basketball skills, but it would be a good match.”
Smart and Forte also claim to have predicted Gray’s rise to greatness on the gridiron.
“We always knew coming out when we were younger, just to see this dude out here playing,” Smart said. “We knew he was going to do great things in the future with his football school.”
A few state records and two state championships later, Gray has fulfilled Smart’s prophecy.
Gray is a touchdown away from holding the national record for career touchdowns and 21 points shy of the national point record, both held by Michael Hart of University of Michigan and Indianapolis Colts fame.
Gray banged up his knee in Aledo’s semifinal game against Corsicana last week, but he said despite some swelling, the injury hasn’t kept him from practicing.
“It’s a little swollen, and we don’t really know what’s wrong with it because the swelling keeps coming back," Gray said. "We'll just drain it and see what happens."
After Gray moves on to play for the Texas Longhorns, he'll look forward to the playful banter to come from his then-Big 12 rivals – Forte and Smart.
“Next year, I think [the Longhorns] play in Stillwater, so it will be fun,” Forte said. “I’ll get to go check Johnathan play.”