The first-grade versions of Darrian Grays and Noah Hernandez would never believe it, but it’s true: They’re BFF now.
Grays and Hernandez may be separated by school, division and league, but they’re otherwise the proverbial best friends forever – connected at the hip, traveling parallel journeys through the high school basketball season.
They are the leading scorers on the Stanislaus District’s top large- and small-school teams entering the Sac-Joaquin Section postseason, which announced its brackets Thursday and begins with play-in games Friday.
Grays is averaging 17.2 points per game for Modesto Christian (21-6), which finished the regular season with its state record 170-game league winning streak intact. The Crusaders are the defending Division I champion and a two-time CIF Open Division finalist.
Hernandez was recently named Cal-Hi Sports’ Northern California Player of the Week after averaging 28.6 points over the last five games for Ripon High, the Trans-Valley League champion and Division IV contender.
He scored a career-high 38 with seven 3-pointers in a victory over Riverbank and ranks among the District leaders with a 20.4 season average.
“They both can shoot it and they both have a little dog in them to where they’re not going to take anything from anyone on the floor,” said Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia, who has coached and trained both players. “Even when they’re struggling, they think they’re the best player on the floor.
“I’m more proud of them off the court, though. I’ve known them for a lot of years and they’ve matured into amazing young men.”
Their friendship was born out of rivalry. Grays and Hernandez played opposite one another in a Salida youth basketball league as first-graders, and even then they understood what made Magic vs. Bird such a compelling match-up.
When we started out, we didn’t like each other. He was my arch nemesis. ... I didn’t like Darrian Grays.
Noah Hernandez, Ripon High senior guard, on Modesto Christian’s Darrian Grays
“He was always one of the better players and it was competitive when we played each other,” Hernandez said of Grays. “When we started out, we didn’t like each other. He was my archnemesis. ... I didn’t like Darrian Grays.”
That would change with the Modesto Blast, an AAU team. In fourth grade, the two became teammates, and their bond was strengthened by their love of basketball.
They spent time in “the lab,” as Hernandez calls it, drilling, scrimmaging and sharpening their game against one another. Iron on iron. For every gain Hernandez experienced, Grays wasn’t too far behind, and vice-versa.
They were enemies no more.
Hangouts turned into sleepovers, their families became intertwined, and both enrolled at Modesto Christian – a launching pad for top basketball prospects – as freshmen.
“Ever since (AAU), we’ve been close. Really close,” Grays said. “His mom and dad treat me like a son.”
That brotherhood was tested last season as Hernandez was forced to sit out his entire junior season after transferring to Ripon from Modesto Christian.
“If it wasn’t for Modesto Christian, I wouldn’t be the player I am today,” Hernandez said. “It showed me what grinding is. If you want to be good, you have to work hard. I love the basketball community at Modesto Christian. That wasn’t why I transferred.”
A native of Ripon, Hernandez said his family could no longer bus him into the Salida campus. The section office showed no sympathy, though, levying a season-long punishment.
“It lit a fire under me,” Hernandez said.
While Hernandez sat, Grays, a lights-out shooter, launched his star. He became a fixture in the starting lineup after an injury to Jordan Hollins-Buckner and averaged 7.3 points per game for a team that captured titles at every turn of the calendar.
I told him to keep working hard. ‘There’s a lot of kids working and you don’t want to let them pass you up. Stay positive.’
Darrian Grays, Modesto Christian High guard, on Ripon High’s Noah Hernandez, who was forced to sit out his junior season
Modesto Christian won its tournament, the Holiday Hoop Classic, for the first time in a decade, and rolled that momentum into a Modesto Metro Conference crown.
The Crusaders raced to a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title, beating the likes of Sheldon and Folsom, two traditional Sacramento powers.
While his stock climbed, he never lost sight of Hernandez, who kept his game sharp in the shadows. When his focus wavered or his confidence dipped, Grays picked him up.
“It was heartbreaking to see him sit,” Grays said. “I’d seen him put in all that hard work and then get the bad news. I wanted to see him play. I basically told him to keep his head up. He had his senior year ahead of him, so I told him to keep working hard. ‘There’s a lot of kids working and you don’t want to let them pass you up. Stay positive.’ ”
The 6-foot guard is having a breakout season. From obscurity, Hernandez ranks 17th in the section in scoring and ninth in the district in 3s with 62.
Modesto Christian High’s Darrian Grays and Ripon High’s Noah Hernandez rank among the Stanislaus District’s leaders in scoring and 3-point shooting. Grays has 76 3-pointers, third-best in the area, while Hernandez is No. 9 with 62.
“He’s having a great season and putting up big-time numbers,” said Grays, third in the district in 3s with 76. “He’s leading his team. I’m happy about that.”
Modesto Christian and Ripon are poised to make deep runs in the section playoffs, and neither Grays nor Hernandez believes their success is coincidental.
“It’s a product of all the work we’ve put in together,” Hernandez said. “We still have work to do.”