How and why did five standout international basketball players find their way to a small Catholic high school in San Antonio?
That’s the first of many questions swirling around Texas prep school circles as attention suddenly has focused on St. Anthony Catholic High School and its ambitions to become a nationally recognized boys basketball school by fielding athletes from around the world who have NCAA Division I college potential.
In December, the school abruptly withdrew as a longtime member of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), the state’s largest governing body for private school interscholastic competition, after the five students were declared ineligible because they allegedly received inducements to enroll in the school.
Neither St. Anthony nor TAPPS officials have disclosed the exact nature of those inducements, which allegedly violated league rules, or how they might have benefitted the players, their families, or guardians.
“The players’ ineligibility was based on actions by their guardians and those representing the young men, not the young men themselves,” TAPPS Executive Director Bryan Bunselmeyer said in a Wednesday interview with the Rivard Report.
Principal Rene Escobedo communicated with the Rivard Report via email, but calls to St. Anthony for further comment have not been returned.
At the center of the controversy is St. Anthony’s Nigerian sophomore star Charles Bassey; the school’s Athletic Coordinator Hennssy Auriantal, who also runs an organization that brings overseas high school-age players to the U.S.; an abrupt coaching change just a few games into the season; and a sudden switch of leagues immediately following the coach’s firing.
St. Anthony has been educating Catholic students in San Antonio for more than 100 years. Its decision to withdraw from TAPPS after 19 years rather than have its players sidelined and abide by the league’s rules signals a change in course for the school’s athletic programs, one now defined by a heavy investment in blue-chip players from abroad and a move into the higher echelons of elite prep basketball.
The five players subject to investigation remain on the team following the school’s decision to end its membership in TAPPS and join the Texas Christian Athletic League (T-CAL), which counts six San Antonio-area schools among its membership.
The Yellow Jackets’ star is Bassey, a 6-foot-10 center named the nation’s No. 2 recruiting prospect for the class of 2019 by ESPN. His teammates include 7-foot junior Ousmane Ndim, 6-foot-1 junior Sam Chaput, 6-foot-8 sophomore Obi Prosper, and 6-foot freshman Jordan Persad.
Bassey, a Nigerian, came to St. Anthony before the start of the 2015-16 school year and led the Yellow Jackets to the TAPPS 5A championship game as a freshman. Ndim, from Senegal; Prosper, from Nigeria; and Chaput and Persad, who came to the school via Canada but also appear to be from other countries, are new to the team this season.
Two weeks after the ineligibility ruling, the school fired its new coach, Jeff Merritt, just four games into the season because he allowed Bassey to play in a game. Before TAPPS could sanction the school for using an ineligible player, St. Anthony announced it was leaving TAPPS for T-CAL.
Escobedo said that TAPPS viewed Bassey’s sponsorship “by a charitable organization for tuition, room, and board” as an inducement to attend the school, according to a statement given to reporters Nov. 17 in response to the ineligibility ruling. Escobedo denied any inducements were offered to players. However, he refused to disclose what group or individual is paying Bassey’s tuition.
Yes II Success
All five players have ties to Yes II Success, a Dallas-based program that identifies promising athletes from overseas and helps place them in private high schools in the United States. It also runs an Adidas-sponsored summer-league basketball team.
Yes II Success was incorporated in 2014 through National Corporate Research, Ltd., a Dallas-based registered agent company. Yes II Success’ registration is listed as “involuntarily ended.” Auriantal declined to answer questions about how Yes II Success functions.
Escobedo denies any cooperation between Yes II Success and St. Anthony. However, Auriantal joined the Yellow Jackets’ athletic staff as its athletic coordinator shortly before Bassey enrolled. Auriantal told the Express-News that he and Bassey had known each other for several years, having met in Bassey’s native Nigeria.
“St. Anthony has not engaged the services of Yes II Success in any way, for any student,” Escobedo stated in the November release.
Escobedo did not respond to a follow-up question on whether a third-party or another branch of the University of Incarnate Word system, which oversees St. Anthony, has had dealings with Yes II Success.
Auriantal stressed that Bassey and the other students are thriving academically in the positive environment of St. Anthony.
“The success the boys are having are not basketball-related,” he told the Rivard Report via email. “The success comes from the people they are around every day and support they are receiving. Those are regular boys that chose to be around good people who truly care about who they are and how well they are doing academically.”
The Yes II Success Facebook page and Twitter account frequently celebrate the accomplishments of Bassey, whom the posts refer to as “Big Ticket” Bassey. Ndim, Chaput, Persad and Prosper are also mentioned.
“The social media is just an avenue for promotion, marketing, and branding, which again has nothing to do with those boys’ athletic success,” Auriantal said. “Anything about the boys on social media is non-important. It’s just a way for them to feel that their accomplishment has been noticed when they are done performing at the highest level through all the preparation and the process that they go through to prepare them for life.”
Originally from Montreal, Auriantal played basketball for the University of Wisconsin from 1995-99. He founded the PDP Basketball Academy in Wisconsin and was an assistant coach at Jackson State University before coming to St. Anthony.
The Yes II Success social media accounts feature a steady feed of player highlights, but offer little information on the organization itself. Its Facebook page describes Yes II Success as a nonprofit. An online presentation on the site Emaze.com that bears Auriantal’s name and appears to have been created when he worked for Jackson State refers to Yes II Success as a foundation and aligns with TAPPS’ current understanding of how the organization works.
A New League For St. Anthony
After his firing, Merritt posted a statement on Twitter defending his decision to play Bassey and praising his former players.
“They represent everything that is right in a world that we, as adults, have made very complex,” Merritt’s statement said. “… The St. Anthony basketball team is made up of young men from diverse backgrounds and cultures; many of who have sacrificed so much in order to attain the goals they have set for themselves and for their families.”
Merritt also praised the school’s decision to leave TAPPS for T-CAL.
T-CAL does not have rules on player inducement codified in the league’s basketball plan. The smaller confederation of private schools is regarded by some to be an “outlaw league” due to its relatively lax rules on player eligibility, practice schedules, and other regulations, according to the head of one local private school who asked not to be identified.
“We believe that the move to T-CAL affords our students the ability to compete with schools similar in size to St. Anthony,” Escobedo said. “Our male and female athletic teams will continue to compete as usual at every level.”
Switching to the smaller league has not lessened the attention paid to St. Anthony’s elite players. In December, the team participated in invitational tournaments in South Dakota, Kentucky, and Florida, and earlier this month played in the high-profile Spalding Hoophall Classic at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts. Bassey was listed as one of the tournament’s “featured stars.”
Within T-CAL, one of St. Anthony’s potential opponents could be the athletics-focused charter school Athlos Leadership Academy. The two-year-old school made news in 2016 when its basketball program began attracting top talent from public and private schools around the city, including Johnson High School and TMI.
Athlos head coach Mike Lopez told the Express-News that he had not done any recruiting, but that the families of the players reached out to him. The team soon began playing against well-known NCAA Division I prospect programs like Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, Hillcrest Prep in Arizona, and Findlay Prep in Nevada.
Lopez’s assistant coach is Ralph Auriantal, the brother of Hennssy Auriantal. When asked if Athlos had enlisted the services of Yes II Success, Athlos spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez emailed a response that did not address the issue of Yes II Success. She also wrote that the hiring of Ralph Auriantal followed school protocol.
“Ralph Auriantal was chosen from a pool of candidates based on his extensive background in physical education,” Gonzalez said.
Establishing ‘The Level Playing Field’
Yes II Success selects students based on academic ability, “skill, athleticism and physical strength.” Once selected for the program, Yes II Success requires that students’ parents give the program’s representatives legal guardianship and power of attorney, according to the organization’s online presentation.
“We encourage all of our partners to discuss with us about all the players they already have in the USA and the ones they are looking to bring in and start the dialogue how they want to proceed if they are on board,” the presentation states.
Bunselmeyer told the Rivard Report that any student participating in the Yes II Success program would not be eligible to play in TAPPS.
TAPPS has encountered similar organizations in reviewing player eligibility, The Frank Rutherford Foundation and PowerForward International being two examples. Each operates a little differently, but like Yes II Success states its purpose as giving underprivileged students a shot at a better life. The trouble, at least for TAPPS, is that the students are selected based on their athletic ability as much as their need.
However, Bunselmeyer said that any potential association with Yes II Success was not part of the investigation of the St. Anthony students who were declared ineligible. When TAPPS investigates eligibility of players, the burden of proof falls on the school.
“The documentation [St. Anthony] provided did not establish eligibility,” Bunselmeyer said.
Instead, Bunselmeyer said the paperwork failing to establish eligibility raised issues addressed in Section 87 of the TAPPS constitution dealing with the solicitation and inducement of student athletes. The TAPPS board was not trying to rob the young men of their chance to play, he said, but wanted to ensure that the 41,000 TAPPS competitors were playing in a fair system.
“Our job is to make sure the level playing field is established,” said Bunselmeyer, stressing that the five players do not deserve to have their futures compromised.
Under Section 87, unacceptable solicitation includes “those things that target students for their athletic ability.” Inducement includes payment, reduced tuition, board, lodging, transportation, jobs for guardians, athletic camp registration, payment for summer conditioning, cash, promise of university or college scholarships, free or reduced cost private instruction, or any other valuable consideration.
With his No. 2 ranking among the Class of 2019 by ESPN, Bassey will likely have several Division I schools eager to sign him. Ndim, Prosper, Persad, and Chaput are likely to draw recruiting attention as well. Outside of TAPPS, few may even care how such high-profile talent found its way to St. Anthony.
Rosters like the one at St. Anthony signal the beginning of a high-profile basketball program. That will mean valuable marketing for the school in a climate of increasing competition from high-performing charters such as Great Hearts Monte Vista and steadily improving student performance within San Antonio ISD. The banner photos on the St. Anthony homepage already tell the story: St. Anthony is a basketball school.