With 17 seconds left and the game knotted at 58, Haas Pavillion was buzzing. Driving from the right wing, Arizona’s Nick Johnson charged into the paint for a 12-foot runner, but the shot clanked off the bank rim and into the arms of California’s Tyrone Wallace. Wallace immediately flipped the ball over to his point guard, redshirt-senior Justin Cobbs, for a chance to knock off the No. 1 team in the country.
“We came to the huddle [prior] and I asked coach if he wanted a timeout if they missed the shot and he told me to just come down, call a ball screen and go from there,” Cobbs remembers.
Cobbs calmly walked the ball up the floor and crossed half court like he was hooping in his backyard in Los Angeles.
10.9 seconds left.
Johnson met him a few feet above the arc.
8.8 seconds left.
Cal forward David Kravish rushed up to the top of the key to screen Johnson and give Cobbs a clear path down the right-hand side of the lane, but the big man had Aaron Gordon draped all over him.
6.2 seconds left.
Cobbs waved Kravish back down and called up Richard Solomon, who was guarded by Kaleb Tarczewski. He quickly bounced around the screen, leaving Johnson behind him and forcing Zona’s lone 7-footer away from the paint.
4.3 seconds left.
The point guard took two hard dribbles to his left, stepped back and lofted a 15-foot fade-away from the baseline. It rained through the net as the home crowd exploded, ending the Wildcats’ then undefeated season.
But there was no buzzer.
The Berkeley faithful stormed the court with 0.9 seconds remaining in the Pac-12 conference battle on February 1. Cal head coach Mike Montgomery was irate at his school’s student section.
“The game was not over,” Montgomery says now. “I had a fear of them calling a technical foul, because they almost had no choice but to call a technical if Arizona tries to inbound the ball—which a lot of teams would do.”
Fortunately for the Bears, no technical was called and Cal’s fans stormed the court for the second time that evening after Solomon stole the subsequent inbounds pass. You know what they say: It was twice as nice.
“Gordon was on our other big, so he was going to come up and could switch the screen really well,” Cobbs says. “But I saw Tarczewski waiting on the weak side, so I waved Dave back down and called for Richard Solomon to come up and set the screen so I could bring Tarczewski out and get to the basket.”
One fan immediately pulled himself up by the net and sat atop the rim of a basket. Dozens more took selfies on their cell phones with Cobbs as he struggled not to drown in the sea of yellow bouncing on the hardwood. The Bears ended the Wildcats’ season opening 21-game winning streak that evening and it was the first time in school history that Cal had ever downed the No. 1 team in the country.
“He was a big shot maker,” Cal assistant coach John Montgomery, Mike’s son, says. We called him ‘Big Shot Cobbs.’”
“He’s not afraid to take the big shot. He likes the big moments,” Mike Montgomery says.
After the game, Cobbs went to dinner with his mother. When the two got back to his on-campus apartment and saw his game-winner lead off the night’s edition of SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays, his emotions got the best of him. He had come a long way from his basketball dead-end just a few years prior.
“You just think back sometimes to your lowest points when you never thought you would be here just three years ago,” Cobbs says. “It was just a blessing for me to have that moment, a time when I realized to cherish moments like that and cherish second chances to go out there and play the game you love.”
It was Halloween morning in Minneapolis 2009. Cobbs awoke and walked outside his freshman dorm at the University of Minnesota wearing white Nike mid-calf socks, flip-flops, shorts and a long-sleeve t-shirt. The day before had only challenged the L.A. native with a light fall breeze. Other than that, a clear sky draped over the campus.
“The day before that was a just a regular day about 70 degrees,” Cobbs says. “I walked outside in my flip-fops and there was snow everywhere on the ground. It was crazy. I had to change my shoes, throw on a jacket or two and go to class. That was different for me.”
The morning was the first of many rude awakenings for Cobbs at Minnesota. When recruiting the guard, then-head coach Tubby Smith had sold Cobbs on incorporating him into the Golden Gophers’ new up-tempo system they would be installing for the 2009-10 season. But Smith had a strong frontcourt in Damian Johnson, Ralph Sampson III, Paul Carter, Colton Iverson and Rodney Williams, allowing the coach to facilitate his preferred half-court, high-low offensive scheme. Another forward, Trevor Mbakwe, was redshirting that season, prepping to become Minnesota’s leading scorer in 2010-11.
Cobbs played in all but one of Minnesota’s games that season, but he was the Gophers’ sixth guard, limiting his playing time to just 10.7 minutes per game and his production to a minute 2.1 points, 1.3 assists and 0.8 rebounds per outing.
“I was buried on the bench, wasn’t getting too much playing time. I didn’t know what was next,” he says. “ Yeah, I could transfer. But you didn’t know if that would be a successful transfer. I just didn’t know.”
Cobbs believed he could play at that level, but he felt the Minnesota staff never even gave him a chance to compete for more playing time.
“It was a little overwhelming, you walk in and nobody even says anything to you, you’re just another guy out there,” Cobbs said. “I had to prove myself and I think I did a good job learning the system and trying to fit in, but it came to the point where I didn’t think that was the spot for me.”
The reality check for Cobbs felt like a smack in the face and a sucker-punch in the stomach.
“During the season you’re always questioning did you make the right decision with the school, should you transfer, are you even good enough to play the sport,” Cobbs admits. “So many different things are going through your head when a negative thing happens. I just had to reset. I was blessed with the opportunity to go to Cal and restart my career.”
Transferring to Cal was an easy decision for Cobbs. The school was his top choice coming out of Bishop Montgomery High School, but the Cal staff didn’t have enough scholarships to bring Cobbs into the fold.
Better yet, the Bears roster was littered with local products that Cobbs had grown up playing with and against. He had known the team’s starting shooting guard Gary Franklin since they were 5 years old. He played with Solomon at Bishop Montgomery, where they were California Division IV runner-ups and battled against another Cal teammate, Allen Crabbe, at nearby Price High School. Ironically, Franklin would transfer to Baylor before the two could play together, fleeing Berkeley in the months after Cobbs redshirted the 2010-11 campaign.
“We used to joke around a lot because we played against them in high school and they won most of the time,” Crabbe says before laughing. “We were from the same area, so we know a lot of the same people, we share a lot of the same experiences.”
In a cohesive unit, Cobbs thrived in his redshirt-sophomore season in 2011-12. That season, Jorge Gutierrez, who played 15 games with the Brooklyn Nets this year, held down the point for Montgomery. The lineup allowed Cobbs to score 12.6 points per game, drilling 41.3 percent of his three-point looks as a secondary option while he averaged 5.0 assists, too.
Crabbe went on to win the Pac-12 Player of the Year that season and earned the accolade again in 2012-13 as a junior. But the second time around, Gutierrez had graduated and Cobbs took over as the starting point guard.
“If we needed him to score, he could score,” Crabbe says of Cobbs’ point play. “If we needed him to dish the ball out, he could hit people. If we needed him to lock down defensively, he could do that, too.”
Cobbs’ highlight of that redshirt-junior season was a game-winner against another Pac-12 opponent. The Bears were at No. 23 Oregon on February 21, with the game deadlocked at 46. Crabbe had scored 12 to lead the Bears most of the way while Cobbs matched his 12 and added 8 boards and 7 dimes against the Ducks’ Johnathan Loyd, who the younger Montgomery called Cobbs’ “arch-nemesis.”
With a crucial conference matchup in the balance, Cobbs stepped up.
“We were in the timeout and he kept saying, ‘Give me the ball. Give me the ball,’” John Montgomery says. “We ran a play to Crabbe and he ended up being a decoy to get the ball to Justin isolated on the wing against Loyd. Every time Justin would try to get anywhere [Loyd] would try to strip him and Justin is just so strong, he made the game winner, shot through a little bit of contact. That was such a big moment, winning on the road. It was pretty fun.”
“I think if he didn’t ask for the ball, we wouldn’t have given it to him because we had Crabbe and he was playing very well and scoring at will. His confidence and his ability to say ‘give me the ball,’ was terrific. And it worked.”
At 19-13, Cal earned a trip to the NIT in Cobbs’ senior campaign this year. After the Zona hooplah, the Bears lost five of their last 7 games, ultimately preventing them from a spot in the Big Dance. Even so, Cobbs left his mark on the Cal program. Despite only being at the school for three seasons, he’s second all-time in assists in Bears history with 531, behind Keith Smith (546) and ahead of Kevin Johnson (521) and Jason Kidd (494).
“When he brought it in practice, everybody else brought it,” John Montgomery says. “Justin demanded excellence, he wanted everyone to play up to his level and his speed. He was kind of the face of our program last year and, throughout his career, he was always a starter and a guy who represented the program very well.”
Today, Cobbs is prepping for the June 26 NBA Draft in Las Vegas at Impact Basketball. He’s working out against DeAndre Kane, Xavier Thames, Khalif Wyatt and Malcolm Lee, who he says have all pushed him to get better each day.
And while he’s working on making his jumper more consistent and continuing to make better reads off the pick and roll, something Mike Montgomery said was Cobbs’ biggest improvement over his three years at Cal, Cobbs still keeps his days trapped on Tubby Smith’s bench in the back of his mind.
“When I come in [to the NBA], I’m coming in just like I was before: I was nothing,” Cobbs says. “I know I’m going to have to earn everything and that makes me different.”
His size will help with the transition. At 6-3, 190 pounds, he’ll be able to compete with the strongest physical point guards in the NBA. His former Cal coaches both believe he has the athleticism to finish in the paint at the next level as well. Crabbe, who spent his rookie season playing alongside All-Star point guard Damian Lillard in Portland, has confidence Cobbs can succeed in the League.
“I feel like, of course he’s going to need the experience and he’s going to need to play in order for him to know where he’s going to be able to be most effective and where he’s going to be able to pick his spots,” Crabbe says. “But I definitely feel like if he’s given the opportunity to play, he’s going to be able to grow and with more experience with the NBA game, he’s going to be able to adapt.”
Adaptation isn’t new for Cobbs. He’s always viewed himself as an underdog.
“I know I’m not one of the guys in the Draft that’s highly thought of, I always see myself as underrated. I’ve always been playing with a chip on my shoulder,” Cobbs says. “Nothing’s ever been given to me in this basketball process. Nobody ever thought I was going to play 35 minutes a game or lead the conference in scoring and hit game-winning shots. The system was never designed to work around me.
“I think I’ve worked for everything I’ve gotten and that’s something I take pride in and separates me from other people.”
If you ask Kaleb Tarczewski, Cobbs can separate himself from others with one quick dribble very easily.