Fresh from a grueling rehabilitation workout, Leon Powe Jr. is kickin’ it with his mentor, friend, and unofficial guardian Bernard Ward in the threadbare studios of Oakland cable television station Soul Beat, where host Colette Moore has invited them as guests on her call-in talk show, Sports Beat.
The young athlete’s brown eyes droop slightly as orange studio lights flicker off his red China basketball shirt. Ward nudges him to sit up, prompting Powe to reposition his lumbering six-foot-eight-inch, 230-pound frame. It’s not the first time Powe’s been on television, but in a sense this is his prime time — a face-to-face with Oakland’s black community, which has watched him progress from an oversized unknown to become one of the nation’s most promising young basketball talents.
But Powe is still a teenager — a modest one at that — and Moore is forced to do most of the talking, prying short answers out of her guest. “So how tough will the basketball be in the Oakland Athletic League?” she asks.
“Real tough,” he replies, fiddling with his hands under the table before looking up to face the camera. “You have us, Oakland High with Ayinde Ubaka, who’s a really good player, and several other good teams.”
Powe may be camera shy, but with a basketball in his hands he’s anything but. The Oakland Technical High School senior, who turned nineteen last month, is what ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale calls a “diaper dandy” — an instant-impact player around which a college can build its basketball program. Powe is the fourth-ranked high school hoops player in the country, according to prep-sports Web site Schoolsports.com, and ESPN.com calls him the nation’s fourth-best up-and-coming power forward. “Leon Powe stands head and shoulders above any high school basketball player in Northern California,” says Lorenzo Harris, publisher of Norcalpreps.com, the online authority on Northern California prep basketball. “He’s a top five basketball player in his class nationally, top ten at the most.”
Oakland has long been blessed with prodigious basketball talent. It’s a city that has seen Bill Russell, Paul Silas, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw, JR Rider, Antonio Davis, and others develop as prep players, blossom in the college ranks, and go on to NBA careers. Powe is vying for the next slot on that A-list. He recently accepted a scholarship at Cal, signing a letter of intent to enroll in the fall. With nearly a dozen colleges in the running, Berkeley was lucky to bag him. “Leon is a powerful and skilled player,” proclaimed Cal head coach Ben Braun in a statement after accepting Powe’s letter. “He is mentally and physically tough, and he has been a winner on every team he has played for. Leon is one of the most competitive players I know. He really loves to win, and he makes the players around him better.”
Yet there’s something else that sets the young man apart from the pros who have climbed through the local basketball ranks. Leon Powe Jr. was raised on poverty and instability, not hoop dreams. He emerged as a basketball power from out of nowhere. And while he’s clearly built for the sport, a bright future was not what anyone would have predicted for Powe half a dozen years ago. The young man was forced to be a comeback kid long before he competed in a serious game of hoops, and that he now stands on the brink of a basketball career says as much about his strength of character and the dedication of his mentors as it does about his rebounding prowess. “Well you know, life is hard,” Powe says, flashing his usual modesty. “You have to do what you have to do to survive.”
The clock is ticking down at Sacramento’s Arco Arena. It’s the fourth quarter of the 2002 California Division I Championship finals between the Oakland Tech Bulldogs and LA’s Westchester Comets. The Bulldogs are trailing, and star center Leon Powe is sitting on the bench in foul trouble.
Bad break. This is the Dogs’ first trip to the state championships, and they want nothing more than to bring the title home to Oaktown. During the regular season, the team played with intensity and passion, hungry to make the statewide playoffs after tasting bitter defeat the previous year in the Northern California semifinals.
Powe led the Bulldogs to a 28-3 record, averaging 28 points, 14 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game. The team clobbered more than a few opponents on the road to the championships. But tonight’s rival is formidable: California’s top-ranked team, whose roster includes at least two McDonald’s All-Americans and eight to ten potential Division I college players. On paper, the Comets should be crushing the Bulldogs, especially with Powe on his ass. But the stalwart Dogs have held Westchester to a ten-point lead, based on the gritty play of University of Miami-bound point guard Armando Surratt and the tenacity of defender Kenneth “Deuce” Smith.
With time draining fast, Bulldogs coach Hodari McGavock looks over at his benched weapon. Powe is equipped with an arsenal of moves around the basket that enables him to score almost at will against his high-school opponents. He’s also a ferocious rebounder with a seven-foot wingspan that’s hard to shoot over, and it’s time to break him out. McGavock gives Powe a look that says “Get out there and put us back in the game.”
Powe proceeds to do exactly that. In one impressive move, he catches a lob from Deuce on the low post, spins to his right around a Comet defender, and dunks over the Comets’ Brandon Bowman and Scott Cutley to launch an eleven-point Bulldog scoring run. But the rally comes too late — Westchester is able to withstand the attack to win 80-75 and walk away with the prize. “Five more minutes and it could have been a different story,” McGavock laments afterward.
As the runners-up receive medals for their participation, most sport long faces. The loss was especially bitter for Powe. It had been a particularly rough week. Four days earlier his mother, Connie Landry, had died in her room at Night’s Inn, an Oakland residential motel, from causes related to cardiomyopathy, a chronic heart condition. Powe claims his mother’s death didn’t affect his playing. “Once I stepped on that court, I was not thinking about anything except winning,” he says.
Afterward, though, it was a different story.
The death of Connie Landry at age forty closed the door on a childhood no kid should have to endure. If Powe often seems like a man amongst boys, it’s not surprising. He was forced to be a man before he really had the chance to be a boy. When he was two years old, his dad, Leon Powe Sr., walked out, leaving his mother to support Leon and his newborn brother Tim on the pittance she earned peddling left-behind storage center items at East Bay flea markets.
During a recent Oakland Tech lunch hour, Powe takes some time out to reminisce about things he’d just as soon forget. As the hulking young man recalls it, his childhood was tough but tolerable. When he was little, his mom managed to hold down a variety of regular jobs: There was a stint with the parking lot at 17th and Franklin streets downtown, followed by a position with Regional Center of the East Bay. From the fall of 1991 through December 1992, Landry worked part-time as a temp secretary at Highland Hospital. These positions, supplemented by public assistance and a little help from Landry’s mother, kept a roof over their heads.
Until Leon was seven, the family lived comfortably on the first floor of a brown, three-bedroom North Oakland duplex. He considered it his home. But the family’s relative stability was shattered abruptly one day in 1991 when Leon was at school and Connie at work. Left briefly unsupervised while his grandmother babysat, five-year-old Tim came across some matches and accidentally set the home ablaze.
The fire destroyed the building, and drove Landry and her kids into a homeless shelter. Thus began a seven-year revolving-door odyssey in which the family rarely rested in one place for long. They stayed with Landry’s mother for a short time, and later with her Aunt Jessie — who then went into a nursing home, prompting yet another move. The family’s many stops included various shelters in Richmond and Oakland, transitional housing, shabby apartments, and residential hotels. Leon and his brother estimate at least twenty moves in all — it was hard to keep count. “We moved around from hotel to hotel and with family,” adds Tim, who at sixteen is the spitting image of his older brother. “We had some apartments, but my mother wasn’t able to keep up with the rent.”
“We lived all over the place,” Leon adds. “All over Oakland — East, West, and North Oakland. We lived in Berkeley and even Vacaville.”
The latter was home to the California Medical Facility, a state psychiatric prison that held Richard James Landry, Connie’s husband.
In her desperation to stave off poverty, Landry got herself in a heap of legal trouble. In April 1994, according to Alameda County court records, she was arrested and later convicted for petty theft after leaving Emeryville’s Pak ‘N Save with $192.12 worth of groceries. Five months later, she pleaded no contest to a felony count of welfare fraud. For more than a year after the fire, Landry had received AFDC but neglected to tell welfare workers about her earnings from Diversified Personnel, the temp agency that placed her at Highland. She admitted to collecting $7,459 in cash and food stamps to which she wasn’t entitled.
Leon’s mom tried to explain her motives in a heart-wrenching welfare questionnaire filled out prior to her conviction. “I wasn’t trying to do something criminal. I thought you had to make a whole lot of money [to be ineligible],” she wrote. “I was just trying to survive. My rent was high. I was evicted and lived in shelters. … I was trying to keep my family together and the jobs helped me to pay rent. I would like to request to pay [the money] back and not have a criminal record — that would further destroy family.”
Landry was sentenced to ninety days in county jail and ordered to pay restitution. She was then accepted for a work furlough program and her sentence was suspended. But less than two years later, in June 1996, she was convicted of another count of welfare fraud, a misdemeanor this time.
Throughout it all, to make matters worse for the kids, Landry kept getting pregnant by various men. In December 1992 she gave birth to Leon’s half-brother Richard — the result, she told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter shortly before her death, of a conjugal visit with her husband. Unable to maintain a nine-to-five schedule with an infant, she left her job at Highland and returned to the flea market hustle. Baby Jessica was born next, followed closely by Michael. Tatiana and Christine would come along later. “I can remember talking to my mother one day, telling her not to have any more kids because she might have to quit her job and we wouldn’t have any more money,” Leon says.
All but one of the kids became wards of the county (two-year-old Christine lives with her father, Greg Brinkley, who was Landry’s boyfriend at the time of her death). Social workers took Leon and Tim from their mother in 1998 and put them under the care of veteran foster-mom Imergene Wash at her North Oakland residence, where Tim still lives. “It wasn’t hard for us when we were placed in foster care,” Tim says. “My mother didn’t have a steady job or a lot of money coming in. She wasn’t able to get a place and take care of us, so we just accepted it.”
Leon and Tim are stoic about their childhood. Yeah, they didn’t have steak and eggs for breakfast, and yeah, it was hectic, but they survived. Still, Child Protective Services doesn’t take a mother’s children on account of mere poverty. “It’s got to be serious,” says the Alameda County caseworker who oversees the two brothers. “We don’t remove kids because they don’t have Nike sneakers or their parents don’t let them watch MTV. It usually falls under neglect or abuse.”
Citing privacy concerns, the caseworker would not say why Landry’s children landed in foster care. Since Leon is over eighteen, she notes, he has the right to come down and view the files for himself. “He may not want to, though,” she adds, referring not to Leon’s file, but to CPS petitions in general. “These reports are very graphic. They have details that can be painful for the kids to take. And a lot of these kids are in denial about what happened to them.”
One thing Leon remembers quite clearly is how, as the oldest child, he was often called upon to do the work of a nanny, changing diapers and bathing and feeding his younger siblings until his mother made it home from her scavenging or selling. As a result, his attendance in school was sporadic. He would be absent for days and sometimes weeks at a time, and he missed the fifth grade entirely. “My mother couldn’t afford a babysitter so I had to stay home and take care of my brothers and sisters,” he says. “I had to do this so my mom could go to the flea market and sell stuff.”
Leon becomes reserved when he reflects on his mother. As a boy, he remembers getting angry that he had to miss school to change diapers. Now he gives his mom some credit. “Staying home made me more responsible in the long run,” he says. “When I was about twelve or thirteen, I began to realize all of the things that my mother did for us. She was struggling to do all that she had to do.”
Tim, who plays junior varsity ball for Tech, says he and Leon haven’t spoken much about their mother, even though the brothers are extremely close. “I knew that he was sad about what had happened,” Tim says, “but we really didn’t talk about each other’s feelings.”
By the time Leon entered sixth grade a year late, he was already six feet tall. That’s about the time Jonas Zuckerman first met him. Zuckerman, then Tim’s teacher at Oakland’s Golden Gate Elementary, remembers Leon showing up regularly to collect his sibling from school. Tim’s big bro was playful, the teacher recalls, but also unusually reserved and mature. “He was very quiet and he was not tremendously outgoing,” Zuckerman says. “He was real tall and gangly-looking. He hadn’t grown into his body and he was very thin and skinny.”
In Oakland, when you’re twelve years old, six feet tall, and black, people immediately assume you’re into basketball. Powe wasn’t, really. Like most kids, he’d shoot around at the park, but he wasn’t serious about it, nor did he try out for the school team. Instead, Leon spent most of his spare time hanging out with his best friend, Shamare Freeman.
With his family’s constant uprooting, Leon often lost contact with his friend, but they would usually manage to reconnect sooner or later. As they moved toward adolescence, though, the two boys began growing apart. Shamare was increasingly flirting with trouble, and sometimes bringing a reluctant Leon along for the ride. At first it was petty things such as shoplifting that just about every kid tries at some point. But Leon’s pal was moving toward serious crimes such as drug-dealing and jacking cars.
Just as Shamare started getting into the heavy stuff, Landry’s family again pulled up stakes. For once, it was a fortuitous move, putting some distance between Leon and his streetwise chum. It also wasn’t long after the move that Leon began developing a tight bond with Shamare’s elder half-brother Bernard Ward, whom he had known since Leon was eight.
It was a friendship that would change both of their lives.
Powe has no trouble recalling the chance meeting that started him down the road to a Cal scholarship. It took place at an establishment where his mother was no longer allowed to set foot. “I was in the seventh grade when I ran into Bernard at Pak ‘N Save,” he says. “It had been a while since I had seen him, but I asked him what was happening and if he could work me out.”
What Powe wanted was a critique of his basketball skills, something Ward knew a thing or two about, despite his five-foot-ten stature. Almost two decades earlier, Ward was himself an up-and-coming player — one whose star rose early and fell hard. In the mid-1980s, he was an All-City point guard for Oakland Tech. He went on to Contra Costa College, where he was an All-State junior college player.
“Bernard Ward was a tremendous basketball player,” says Dwayne Jones, boys’ basketball coach at Jesse Bethel High School in Vallejo, who played for Contra Costa the year before Ward’s arrival. “Bernard was in the mode of a Baron Davis. He was notorious for catching alley-ups and tip-in dunks on people. He was the ultimate floor general and he pushed players to get better. If a player wasn’t playing up to par, he would get in their face and let them know.”
Although Ward attracted scholarship offers from Arizona, UNLV, and other Division I colleges, he says he was channeled into the wrong classes at Contra Costa, stifling his chances of transferring to a top school.
And the streets beckoned. Ward played for Cal State Hayward for a short time, but slacked off in school and before long found himself in trouble for grindin’ — selling dope on the streets.
In November 1990, according to court records, an undercover cop approached a man named Louis Tappin on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and asked for a “dove” — a $20 crack rock. Tappin led the narc to Ward, who led the way to a plastic Baggie containing the cocaine. Ward was busted. A year later, he was arrested again on the same charge.
Ward pleaded no contest to one of the charges in December 1991; the other was dropped, and he got off with two years of probation. But he skipped probation meetings and failed to follow through on a court-ordered drug-abuse program. In August of ’92, the judge responded with a bench warrant. In all, Ward served 85 days behind bars.
He tried to get back into the game as a walk-on at UNLV. Then, while working out with some Rebels players, he broke an ankle, again setting back his hoop dreams.
As an elite player Ward was finished, but he managed over the next five years to get the rest of his life in order. In 1998, he got his felony reduced to a misdemeanor, clearing the way for his current career as a youth counselor for the Alameda County Probation Department.
He also continued taking classes, and graduated from San Francisco State with a sociology degree in 2000. He was married the following year, and is now finishing up a masters program at John F. Kennedy College in Orinda.
Nowadays, Ward is reluctant to rehash his old troubles. “Things just happened,” he says. “I really don’t want to get into that. That’s my past. I’m not mad about it, though. If I hadn’t gone through that, I probably wouldn’t have been the person that I am today.”
It was the summer of ’98 when Ward ran into Powe at the Pak ‘N Save. He didn’t take Leon’s workout proposal too seriously at first, but the boy wouldn’t give up. “Leon was persistent,” Ward says. “What really turned me on to Leon was that he was bothering me. He was calling me on the phone, wanting me to work him out. Since he knew that I hooped back in the day, he knew I knew the game.”
Ward decided to challenge Powe to see if he was serious: “I told him to go up to Santa Fe Middle School in our old neighborhood, run seven laps, and then shoot jump shots until the sun went down.”
The boy obeyed. Meanwhile, Ward staked himself out in a car across the street from the schoolyard, discreetly watching as Leon completed the workout unsupervised. He came away impressed. “Most kids wouldn’t have done that,” he says. “But Leon was out at the park. I was testing him and he passed the test.”
Soon, Ward and Powe were meeting for workouts every other day and becoming tight friends. It was too late to save Shamare, who ended up at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility on felony robbery and assault convictions. But the workouts gave Ward a second chance to be a better role model. “When my little brother got into trouble with the law, I decided to take Leon under my wing and lead him on the right track,” he says. “I tried to show Leon how to use basketball as a way to change his life.”
Powe more or less adopted Ward, too. “Bernard has been like a brother to me,” he says. “I haven’t had a father figure in my life, so he’s been there for me over the years showing me things, the things I need to do to become a man.”
In basketball terms, the more time Ward spent with Powe, the more convinced he became that the boy was something special. Most impressive was Leon’s work ethic, the way he listened attentively and did exactly as he was told. And it didn’t hurt that Leon, now six-four, was simply built for the game. “I can remember one time we were at the park playing basketball and I told Leon to do a certain move,” Ward recalls.
That move was to dunk on him. The eighth grader promptly took the baseline and in one quick swoop brought the ball through the hoop over his defender. That was all Ward needed to see. “After he did this in one complete motion,” he says, “I told him that by the time he gets into the twelfth grade, he was going to be one of the top players in the country if he continued to work on his game and grades.”
Leon’s 34-year-old mentor is a stocky man with a dark-brown complexion who wears his brownish-orange hair in a short Afro. In his game days, Ward weighed in around 180; nowadays, he’s maybe pushing 210. Watching him watch Powe on the court, one gets the sense Ward is reflecting on his past mistakes — with himself and his brother. The antithesis of a high-strung sports parent, Ward seems to turn inward during the games, showing little, if any, emotion. When he speaks, his manner is slow and deliberate, though he always has plenty of words for his protégé after every game.
“I am sure Bernard sees part of himself in Leon,” says Zuckerman, who knew both Powe and Ward individually before they became tight. “He hasn’t had things easy, but now he has a college degree, a home, wife, and a kid. He comes from some of the same areas that Leon came from in North Oakland and West Oakland. Leon can relate to Ward and where he came from. I think they have a lot in common.”
While Ward recognized Powe’s potential, the boy still had serious catching up to do. Leon was a complete unknown in the Oakland basketball community, where news of a hoop phenom spreads quickly. And he wasn’t yet an impact player — the kind who immediately makes a difference on a team. Not until he began working out with Ward, and started playing eighth-grade hoop at Carter Middle School, did Powe start to attract some notice. It began with a couple of breakout games. “I scored 44 points in each game,” Leon remembers. “After I scored 44 the first game, all of these high-school coaches came and seen me play, and they then wanted me to come to their schools.”
Those schools included top private high-school basketball powers such as Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd and Concord’s De La Salle, but Powe settled on Oakland Tech, then his neighborhood school.
Tech had a decent basketball program, but it wasn’t championship caliber. Powe would eventually change that, although not freshman year. In his first season with the Bulldogs, he pulled off a respectable fifteen points and nine rebounds a game, but it seemed he was playing hard only in spurts, and not being nearly as aggressive as he should. His schoolwork was less impressive. Tech has a slogan for its athletes: “No books, no ball,” and with a GPA of 1.9 his first semester, Powe wasn’t living up to it.
Sensing trouble, Ward sought help both on and off the court. He got in touch with his friend and probation department co-worker Jermaine Hill. An Oakland native who had played hoop for UC Davis in the early 1980s, Hill had been a mentor to other Oakland players, and Ward felt he’d be a good person to help Powe stay on the right track. Together, the older men drilled Leon on the court, and kept after him about his schoolwork and general demeanor.
Toward the end of Powe’s freshman year, Ward made a wise move to ensure his young friend’s academic success. He looked up Zuckerman, who had taught Ward’s stepdaughter at Golden Gate Elementary. Lo and behold, Zuckerman already knew the Powe kids, and told Ward that yes, he’d give Leon a shot.
It’s 5:45 in the afternoon and Jonas Zuckerman is pacing the aisles of an Oakland Tech classroom, stopping to peer over Theo White’s shoulder to keep him on task. White, the starting varsity power forward, is one of fifteen players in the tutorial lab of the mandatory team study hall McGavock makes his players attend.
Zuckerman runs a tight ship, which suits his personality. A tidy, energetic 33-year-old with dark hair and light-green eyes, his face lights up when talking about Leon and his brother. He knows what they’ve gone through, and seems genuinely happy about their progress.
Since becoming Leon’s tutor, he’s come to believe in the teenager’s classroom abilities, just as Ward recognized his basketball potential. “Part of Leon’s academic problems stemmed from that fact that he was in and out of school based on his family situation,” Zuckerman says. “When I first started tutoring him, his grades weren’t that good, but his attitude was.”
At first, Zuckerman would meet privately with Powe after school, but progress was slow. “He wouldn’t get things done all of the time,” the tutor says. “He didn’t always follow through on what he had to do.”
But then came another fortuitous move: Zuckerman was transferred to Oakland Tech to teach English. This proximity allowed him to keep closer tabs on Leon’s academic obligations. And by this time, Child Protective Services had placed Leon, Tim, and their siblings in foster homes, offering a sense of stability that had been lacking for most of their childhoods.
With Ward and Hill riding him, and Zuckerman at Tech, Leon finally had a safety net in place. The teacher began working with him every day both before and after school, and developed a bond with his pupil. “What brought me in to helping Leon was how much and how hard he was willing to work,” Zuckerman says. “We’ve grown close academically. He’s a kid without a support network. A lot of kids that have been in the foster system have aunts or family members around. He really doesn’t have that support network, so he chooses who he wants around. Bernard is part of that, but I’m also a part of that.”
By the start of his sophomore basketball season, Powe’s grades were up markedly, and his game was on fire. The summer of freshman year, Ward had introduced Powe to the Oakland Soldiers, a nationally known youth traveling team that faces some of the best players in the country. “When I first saw Leon play in the ninth grade, I thought he was okay,” says Mark Olivier, the Soldiers’ coach. Although Powe was athletic and could move up and down the court well, he lacked in his footwork and shot. But Olivier found Powe to be a quick study. “He was willing to take on information and absorb it,” says the coach. “He catches on really quickly.”
What separated Powe from most other highly touted prep players, Olivier says, were his work ethic and self-confidence, and that Leon would not get down on himself when he made mistakes. And with the Soldiers, Powe was finally seeing some real competition, and beginning to comprehend just how good he could become.
When Powe returned to Tech as a sophomore, he was a changed player. He no longer coasted, and he was fierce and constant on the court. The 2001 Bulldogs squad was built around DeMarshay Johnson, a slim, nationally ranked six-foot-nine forward. But Johnson missed some games due to a bout with mono, and others later in the season due to academic ineligibility. Powe stepped in to fill the void, averaging 24 points and 13 rebounds a game, which helped lead Tech to a 24-3 finish and a slot in the Northern California Division I semifinals, where the Bulldogs lost by four points to De La Salle. “I never had an idea on how much better Leon could get,” says Coach McGavock. “From the ninth grade to the tenth grade, he improved 100 percent.”
Hill and Ward kept Powe on a daily training regimen of shooting and moves they say has both improved his skills and made him tougher. Hill recalls one memorable free-for-all at an indoor court in Emeryville: “It was anything-goes,” he recalls. “No fouls were called, and we were all going at it. I dropped out of the game and then it was Bernard versus Leon.”
Instead of backing down when Powe drove forward, Ward was bumping him back, holding his ground. The play got so physical that Hill thought he was going to have to step in and stop a fistfight. “Man, they kept on going at it, hacking each other and playing really hard,” he says. “Bernard then began to talk trash to him, which made Leon mad. After a while, I knew what Bernard was doing. … He was challenging his mental game to see if he was going to back down, and Leon didn’t. To me, that showed that Leon had heart. It also meant that he was ready to take a challenge from someone who was older and more experienced.”
The next summer Powe was part of an Oakland Soldiers lineup that read like a who’s who of national ball, with names such as LeBron James, John Winston, DeMarcus Nelson, Rekalin Sims, and Marquise Kately. But it was that summer’s ABCD Adidas basketball camp in New Jersey that sent Leon’s stock soaring.
This camp is the most prominent of the many showcases that attract top prep players from around the country for evaluation. Powe walked in as a national unknown, and proceeded to outplay and embarrass some of the nation’s best young basketball stars. In the process, he caught the attention of college coaches and NBA scouts, who began comparing him to Elton Brand.
At first, Powe was unsure of how he would measure up. Then he scored fifteen points in the opening scrimmage. “After that first game, as I got comfortable, I started bringing to the players,” he says. The young Oaklander was blocking shots, grabbing every rebound that came off the rim, and dominating the floor in a fashion that had everyone asking about him. By the time he returned home, his mailbox was filling up with letters from colleges — Arizona, Duke, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina, Cal, and Texas — all wanting a piece of him.
The wild card in Leon Powe’s future as a basketball player came last spring as he played with the Soldiers in Houston. “It was a big tournament game for us,” Powe recalls. “At the beginning of the game, I was going for a rebound, and I planted my foot hard to jump off the ground, when I felt a tear in my knee.”
Powe took himself out, then tried playing again later only to find he wasn’t jumping well. Back home, he discovered he’d torn one of his anterior cruciate ligaments, limiting his mobility and lateral movement. He promptly underwent surgery to repair the damage, and was forced to miss Tech’s myriad preseason summer games and the various exposure camps where young careers are made. “Leon had a very serious knee operation for a high school kid,” says Lou Richie, who works with Powe as a trainer. “With an ankle sprain, everyone’s had one. But when you have a torn ACL, you really don’t know if you will make it back. While the doctors may say one thing, then you have your friends and family saying another.”
The setback is more than just physical. “Mentally, if you’ve never had that type of injury, you don’t know if you can push yourself to certain limits,” Richie says. “You start questioning yourself. ‘Do I need this, is it worth it?'”
Powe felt this lack of confidence acutely, but he wasn’t about to give up after all he went through to get here. “At first, I was like, man, I’m not going to be able to come back,” he says. “I kept calling my doctors and they told me that I had to just believe that I could do it. Then I started believing in myself.”
He embraced his painful rehabilitation, swimming, running, and lifting weights to help strengthen his leg. Over the summer, Powe could be seen warming up with his Tech teammates, and then sitting down with assistant coach Harold Hammock to help coach the team.
As yet, he isn’t fully recovered from the surgery. While Powe’s instincts are still intact, his game only seems about 75 percent of where it was last season. In a recent game at Sacramento’s Jesuit High, he looked bothered by his injury, and seemed restrained in his jumping for most of the night. Tech won by seventeen points, and Powe, double-teamed at all times, scored 23 but missed seven free throws. “Leon didn’t look that good to me,” Ward commented as Powe bounded up to shake hands after the game. “You missed too many free throws. You looked like Shaq at the line,” he told the player, then turned back to his interviewer. “I see a lack of concentration on his part, but he’ll be alright.”
Powe says his knee feels fine, although he continues to play with a brace. Richie concurs. “Leon Powe might have been the quickest person to come back and play basketball after having ACL surgery,” the trainer says. “Working him out, I have seen him do some dunks that were incredible. If there are some problems with him, it may be mental.”
His first game back after rehab, Powe scored 32 points against San Francisco’s Balboa, but Balboa was a joke next to the many nationally ranked teams on the Bulldog schedule. Over the winter holidays, Powe held his own in the Las Vegas Prep Classic, the Slam to the Beach tournament in Delaware, and a third tournament in Utah. In Vegas, the Bulldogs beat perennial basketball powers Durango High School and Florida state champion Dillard High School before losing to their old foes, the Westchester Comets, in the final. In Delaware, Tech lost two — to the nation’s second-ranked Saint Benedict of New Jersey, and Our Savior of Long Island — but defeated North Carolina’s Laurinburg Institute, a national prep-basketball power. And in Utah, Tech beat Davis, the previous year’s Utah state champion, and West Jordan, the runner-up, but lost to Bingham, another Utah team, in a tight game they should have won. “Leon was getting double- and triple-teamed, but other people on our team haven’t been stepping up,” says McGavock.
Zuckerman, who accompanied the team to Utah, came away more impressed than ever with Powe. “This was one of our most frustrating games of the year to date,” the teacher says. “It was cold and the kids were tired. Leon barely touched the ball in the game — they rotated defenders towards Leon, denying him the ball. He was frustrated.
“After the game, Leon came out and went up to the ten kids waiting for him and signed all of their autographs,” the teacher continues. “Nobody asked. The kids were just waiting and he obliged them. When I asked him why did he do this, he said it was the right thing to do. He said that it wasn’t their fault that we lost.”
That would be in line with one of Powe’s goals, which is to stay focused and down-to-earth despite all of the acclaim he’s been receiving. “It’s nice to have a favorable impression on people,” he says. “You don’t want anyone to be mean to you or people to think that you’re too cool for them.”
“We love you, Leon!” a caller exclaims. Leon grins.
“Just keep your head up and your belief in God, and everything will be all right,” implores another.
Back in the Soul Beat studio, Ward beams like a proud parent as laudatory calls pour in from around Oakland. It’s not just that his protégé is a great player, or that he overcame great odds. It’s that, despite it all, Leon Powe has become a stellar role model in his own right.
“Leon is well-liked by everybody at school, and he sets the tone for the team,” says teammate Theo White. “He stays on the entire team about our grades, checking up on us. He doesn’t want anyone ineligible.”
Himself included. By buckling down in the classroom, Powe has lifted his freshman GPA from an abysmal 1.9 to a respectable 3.2 overall. “All of his teachers love him because he comes to class, listens, does his work, and sets the tone in the classroom,” Zuckerman says. “When other kids don’t see him clowning around, then they don’t.”
Ward admits he’s somewhat concerned about Powe’s ability to stay grounded in the face of the fame machine — the relentless media onslaught that is certain to follow his ascent. Last year, the hype grew to the point where there was talk about Powe signing with the NBA straight out of high school, but his injury put a damper on that.
Some pro scouts also worry that Powe is too small to play power forward, and isn’t yet skilled enough to play small forward — while phenomenal around the hoop, he’s weaker on his outside shot and footwork. But given Cal’s strong coaching and Powe’s reputed work ethic, most sports pundits predict he’ll go on to make his mark in college ball and possibly in the NBA. “Powe will be an instant-impact player at the power forward position in college,” declares Harris of Norcal Preps.
Oakland Tech is now 17-4 overall, making it the top-ranked team in both the OAL and Northern California. If the Dogs take the league, a near certainty, it’s on to the regional playoffs and then perhaps the state championships, where they could get a rematch with their Southern California nemesis. “I’m going to be double-teamed for the rest of the season, so there’s nothing I can do,” says a resigned Powe. “I’m just going to have to get used to it.”
Another thing he’ll have to get used to is the roaring crowds at UC Berkeley, where he’s guaranteed his own cheering section. “My college decision came down to Cal and North Carolina,” Powe says. “They both needed players and someone to come in and play immediately. I also did it based on the support I could receive from the people who have watched me play over the years.”
With Powe on board, Cal boasts one of the top-ten recruiting classes in the nation. Joining him will be Oakland High’s Ayinde Ubaka, a national Top 50 prospect, plus Marquise Kately of SF’s Riordan High and Dominic McGuire from San Diego — both in the Top 100. “I had a plan to choose Cal, and to convince many of the top players locally and from throughout California to go there to make Cal a force,” Powe says. “We’ll be just as good as anybody nationally. I said, ‘Why should I go far away to play when we can stay here and bring a title back to the bay?'”
With his mother’s death now behind him, a Cal scholarship in his pocket, and the dream team of Ward, Hill, and Zuckerman still watching his back, Powe can finally look forward to a future that doesn’t involve hunger, instability, or foster homes — one in which he will leave behind an Oakland Tech he helped transform into a national basketball power, and with any luck, a state champion.
And even if the Dogs don’t end up clinching the trophy, the odds are still good in Vegas that the saga of Leon Powe will have a happy ending.
Express intern Helene Blatter contributed to this report.