Cary boys basketball coach Allan Gustafson knew he had something special, and he knew just how he wanted to put it into words.
After a Dec. 7, 2014 victory against Athens Drive, he told this reporter that his top two players, Cory Gensler and Donte Tatum were his “Fire and Ice.”
Tatum – the “Fire” in this duo – and “Ice” Gensler kind of knew what Gustafson meant, but the coach, a proud N.C. State alumnus, had to fill them in on who Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani were.
“I didn’t (like it) at first because it put more emphasis on us than the rest of the team, but there’s not any stopping it now,” Gensler said. “It really caught on.”
An undefeated regular season, one that had Cary 26-0 going into Friday’s Southwest Wake 4A conference championship, helped. (The Imps suffered their first loss, to Apex, in the title game.)
“A lot of people know us as ‘Fire and Ice,’” Tatum said.
Gensler, a senior, and Tatum, a junior, play differently than Monroe and Corchiani, the Wolfpack’s all-time leading scorer and the NCAA’s first player to 1,000 career assists.
But like the latter pair, their different skills and personalities have helped them form a unique bond on and off the court.
“You can kind of see, where they complement each other well, they’ve rubbed off on each other too,” Gustafson said.
When Fire met Ice
Gensler remembers the first time he saw Tatum. It as an Apex Middle versus Reedy Creek Middle basketball game. Tatum, though a 7th-grader, led his team by Gensler and Reedy Creek.
“He killed us,” Gensler said.
They didn’t see each other until Tatum’s freshman year at Cary, when Gensler was a sophomore. There was some excitement in the two playing on the same team.
Cary went 12-12 that season, but the next one, Gensler’s junior year, was when the two had their big moment.
Early in that season the team was loosening up for practice by running five laps around the gymnasium floor. Gustafson was ready to start the next stage when Gensler called out.
“Donte’s got one more lap,” Gensler said. He had seen Tatum fiddle with his shoe and fall one lap behind everyone else, and the junior wasn’t happy.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh boy, here we go. This is going to be interesting,’” Gustafson said. “As a coach I’m stepping back wondering ‘How is this going to play itself out?’”
Tatum didn’t argue or lie. He ran one more lap.
One of Gustafson’s mantras is “on good teams, coaches hold players accountable, on great teams, players hold players accountable.” He commended both players for their role.
“I said ‘First of all that was leadership on Cory’s part,’” Gustafson said. “And Donte, you’re respecting the process and your teammates and your captain and you’re not going to do less than what everyone else is doing.”
From that point on, Fire and Ice were like iron on iron, sharpening each other.
“To me it spoke volumes about both players and it kind of set the tone for how they were going to work together, play together and respect each other,” Gustafson said.
Getting the nickname
During Gensler’s junior year, both players were first-team all-conference selections for the 18-7 Imps. Gensler, after scoring 38 to topple Apex late in the season, was voted league player of the year.
The two were earning their nickname with distinctive styles of play.
Gensler plays the game at a calm pace, no matter what pressure he’s under.
“It’s impossible to speed him up,” Middle Creek coach David Kushner told Gustafson earlier this year.
Like Iowa’s Jared Utoff or former N.C. State star T.J. Warren, Gensler drives around opponents and finishes in the midrange smoothly. He gets to where he needs to be on the court with ease, but not flash.
At 6-foot-4, he plays point guard, leads Cary in rebounding and assists and knocks down 3-pointers on a nightly basis. He fills the stat sheet.
And he’s got ice in his veins.
Down by one to Apex in overtime, Gensler hit the 16-footer as time ran out to win. His facial expression was unchanged even as hundreds of Cary students mobbed him and pushed him into the gymnasium wall.
“He shows no expression. He has a big play? He still shows no expression,” Tatum said. “He’s as cold as ice.”
The next week, he hit a 3 to send a nonconference game with Leesville Road into overtime as time expired. Again, Gensler was stoic.
“I’ve never tried to get too high or get to low throughout the course of the game,” Gensler said. “I just stay even-keeled and stay poised. I just thought that was the way to play. It’s not for everybody, but it’s the way I’ve always played.”
Tatum doesn’t glide around the court like Gensler – he darts, dashes and leaps. While Gensler demoralizes teams with his consistency, Tatum gets the same effect with a jaw-dropping play.
“He always gets the crowd going with his highlight plays,” Gensler said. “He’s a fiery guy; intense.”
At 6-foot-1, Tatum is shorter than Gensler but his incredible vertical lets him play above the rim. He’s almost impossible to keep out of the lane when he gets going, and he can take a hard foul and still finish thanks to his body control.
He’s a menace in fast break chances, allowing Cary to pour on the points in a small time frame if “Fire” gets momentum.
“When I get the crowd into it and hyped, that sparks me to play better,” Tatum said. “That’s how I’ve been playing since I was young. That stuff just gets me going.”
Neither player wanted a nickname at first, but they turned it into a part of a bigger team goal.
“The personal attention wasn’t what we wanted it to be but we kind of put that aside and said ‘Make Cary as good as we can and all that will take care of itself,’” Gensler said.
Gensler and Tatum hang out all the time. Tatum was snowed in at Gensler’s house earlier this season, so the two went outside and got shots up in the snow.
The more they’ve rubbed off on each other, the more Cary is reaping the rewards.
Gustafson’s challenge to Gensler this year was to be more like Tatum – be explosive.
Gensler has dunked on a few unsuspecting opponents this season. Gustafson urged him to end one full-court drill with a dunk every time.
“Show that aspect of your game, like Donte,” Gustafson said.
To Tatum? Be more like Gensler – have a wide-ranging skillset.
Tatum’s game has taken off. He’s shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and added a mid-range step-back jumper that has made him practically unguardable.
“He’s gotten a lot better in just the last two years,” Gensler said.
Tatum’s had a front-row seat to Gensler’s recruiting process, which gives him a head start on what it means to workout for college coaches and to put together an offseason training plan.
Gensler’s summer plan was to make – not attempt – 500 shots a day, six days a week. During a Christmas tournament in Wilmington this season, Tatum was doing workouts on the beach with his family members in the area, well before the game.
“He’s a role model for the underclassmen by commitment, work ethic and how he approaches the game,” Gustafson said. “I think Donte has seen Cory’s work ethic and heard the coaches praise it,” Gustafson said.
Tatum has one Division I scholarship offer, to Maryland-East Shore. Gensler, who Gustafson calls “criminally under-recruited,” has an offer from VMI.
But before they worry about which schools to pick, they want to go out with some Cary history.
After leading the imps to the team’s first conference title since 1999, they want to add another championship banner to Charlie Adams Gymnasium. Cary has three state titles, the earliest in 1939.
“I want to take this as far as we can. If we keep winning, make a deep run, it’ll all take care of itself,” Gensler said.
There’s only about a month left of Fire and Ice together in a Cary uniform, but the end may not be final. The two have talked about playing together at the next level.
And why not?
“Fire and Ice” has worked in college before.