The Feel Good Story of the Year… 2003
Even Laker fans should be happy to see Leon Powe succeed. Or not.
By Ryan Jones
Every time I tuned in to a Celtics’ game this season, I’d notice Leon Powe and think, “Good for him.” I don’t do this with many players. I’ve written about plenty of high schoolers who’ve since made the League, and while it’s always fun to have written about a kid before he made it, I don’t often care much how they turn out. Powe, though, was different.
At halftime last night, the Disney Channel folks gave us a nice little human interest piece on Powe, which was a more blatant reminder of why I root for this kid. They left some stuff out, of course, primarily the series of knee injuries (one in high school, the others at Cal), the sum total of which led to Powe falling all the way to 49th in the 2006 NBA Draft. Among those chosen ahead of him: JJ Redick, Oleksiy Pecherov, Joel Freeland, James White, Paul Davis, David Noel and Vladimir Veremeenko.
For most NBA teams (many of them twice), the risk associated with Powe’s knees overshadowed his terrific potential. You probably don’t remember, but this kid was a consensus top-5 player in the high school class of 2003, a group that included LeBron James (briefly his AAU teammate, as you’ll see below), Chris Paul, Luol Deng, Charlie Villanueva, Travis Outlaw, and Powe’s current Celtic teammate Kendrick Perkins. Staying close to home to play his college ball at Cal, the one they called “The Show” back in the Bay Area averaged 15.1 ppg and a league-best 9.5 rpg to earn Pac 10 Freshman of the Year honors in ’03-04. He missed the ’04-05 season due to injury, then came back in ’05-06 to average 20.5 ppg and 10.1 rpg, making him one of only three players in the country to average a double-double. Despite that and his second-team All-American honors, he still fell deep into the second round, where the Nuggets drafted him and immediately sent him to Boston.
It was a lucky twist for a kid who hadn’t had much luck to that point. As the halftime piece sort of made clear, Powe had a pretty rough upbringing, losing his mother and struggling along with his siblings not to fall through typical societal cracks. His talent definitely helped, and he capitalized on it. Then the injuries struck, and there was literally no guarantee he’d make it when he showed up on the Celtics’ summer league roster two summers ago. But he did, and while playing time has been sporadic — he started five of the 56 games he played while averaging 8 ppg and 4 rpg during the regular season, averaged 18 minutes per against the Hawks in Round 1, then barely got off the bench against Detroit in the ECF — Powe’s at least guaranteed himself a place in the League.
And now? Well, he shot as many free throws last night as he had in his previous six games combined, which seems unlikely to happen again. (Although I’ll point something out here for all you bitter Laker fans… and coaches: Powe attempted double-digit free throws in four of his last eight regular-season games this season. There actually is a precedent here. You may now return to your regularly scheduled bile-spewing.) If the Celtics hold on to win this series, Powe’s 13 trips to the line last night will be held against the League as Exhibit A in how much Stern & Co. wanted Boston to win. Personally, I won’t much care. This kid was due for some breaks, and I couldn’t be happier for him.
Anyway, here’s the feature I wrote on Powe back in ’03, which appeared in SLAM 68.
Leon Powe :: Golden State Warrior
Considering what he’s already overcome in his life and career, Leon Powe’s fight to be the best should be his easiest battle yet.
WORDS Ryan Jones :: IMAGES Erik Butler
If there’s such a thing as karma, Leon Powe will one day lead the Golden State Warriors to an NBA championship. As destinies go, few could be more appropriate. It’s not just that such a scenario would mean Powe had realized his NBA dreams—which, given his size, skill and desire, isn’t all that hard to imagine. But achieving that kind of success with the long-suffering Warriors? That’d be justice. That’d be right. For a kid born and bred on the hard-knock streets of North Oakland, a kid who lives and breathes his hometown, that’d be just about perfect.
“That’s the best thing about Leon, his loyalty,” says Mark Olivier, Powe’s coach with local AAU power Slam-N-Jam, aka The Soldiers. “He’s an Oakland-based kid. The bigger he gets, he always knows where he came from. No doubt, he wants to play for the city of Oakland. His first game at Cal next year, it’s gonna be a sellout.”
Yes, Leon will take his game to UC Berkeley in the fall, the jewel of a loaded ’03 recruiting class that’s heavy on Bay Area talent. And yes, he could end up repping the Yay in the League someday soon. But for now, Leon is focused on the present, on continuing his improvement and leading his Oakland Tech squad back to the state championship game. The past isn’t something he feels much like dwelling on, and the future, bright as it is, can wait just a little bit longer.
They call Leon “The Show,” both because it rhymes with his last name and because…well, if you’ve seen him play, you probably understand. A strong, athletic 6-8, 240 with the wingspan of a 7-footer and a long jumper’s hops, Leon Powe is as talented as any senior in America. If not for a torn ACL suffered last April and all the attention focused on that kid from Northeast Ohio, Leon might even be the most talked-about player in the class of ’03.
If only you’d seen him four years ago.
“I wasn’t really into it,” Leon says of his early hoop days. It’s a Saturday morning, and he’s chillin’, watching his man Raymond Felton and UNC on TV against Virginia. “I was just playin’ to be playin’. I was just a rebounder. That’s all I’d do, just get a rebound and pass to one of the scorers.”
That was probably a good idea, because, as long-time Oakland Tech coach Hodari McGavock colorfully recalls, “When he came here, his downside was up and his upside was down. He was green and knock-kneed.” Not that there weren’t signs, even then. As an eighth grader, Leon recalls, he averaged 44 points in the only two middle school games he played before the team fell apart and the season was cancelled. He might’ve had the chance to attend one of the Bay Area’s hoop factories, but instead he chose Tech, hype-free and close to home. And before too long, Leon’s potential began to be realized.
“When we had our first game, Coach gave me, like, 50 seconds. I was like, OK…” Leon says. “Next game, our big man got in foul trouble, and Coach looked down on the bench, looked at me, looked at the JV coach, and said, ‘Should I put him in?’ I only played like a half, and I had 18, 10 and like 9 blocks. And I still wasn’t really a go-to guy, just a third option.”
All that changed rather quickly. “He’s the kind of kid, when I first saw him in ninth grade, I said, Well, he’s OK,” Olivier says. “Within three months’ time, he was one of the best in our area.” Soon, he was one of the best anywhere. As a sophomore, Leon led Tech to a division title and a state semifinal berth. Last season, as a junior, he guided the Bulldogs to a CIF Regional championship and a place in the school’s first-ever state title game, where they dropped a five-point decision to SoCal power Westchester. This year, despite a national schedule loaded with road games and opponents who’ve been doubling and tripling Leon like his name was O’Neal, Tech was off to another strong start, and The Show was doing nothing to diminish his name.
So there’s the story, right? Young kid gets older, bigger and stronger, game gets real, possibility becomes reality. Right. But that ain’t the half. What the stat sheet and the trophy case can’t tell you, and what you’d never guess from talking to this kid, is just how much he’s had to overcome to be where he is. In the space of a few weeks last year, a kid who didn’t exactly get many breaks coming up caught a 1-2 punch that would’ve dropped most folks. That he overcame that combination tells you more than the stats and trophies ever could.
“My mom passed in March, right before the state title game,” he says quietly. Four days prior to the biggest game of his life, Leon’s mother died unexpectedly. Though he spent much of his childhood in foster care and hadn’t lived with his mother in years (his father left when Leon was 2), he remained close to her and was understandably floored by the news.
“As I know my momma, she wanted me to just go out there and play. She liked what I was doing,” he says. “So that’s a motivation.” It certainly seemed to be in the championship game, when he totaled 19 points and 10 boards to keep his overmatched Tech squad in the game. A few weeks later, balling in a Houston AAU tourney with Slam-N-Jam, “I felt a little tear in my left knee,” Leon remembers. “I went baseline and tried to dunk, and I put all the pressure on my knee. I got fouled, went to the line, finished my free throws, went out for about five minutes, and came back in. Then some little guard jumped over me, and I knew something wasn’t right.”
Back home a few days later, a doctor visit and MRI confirmed the worst: a torn ACL. The injury meant Leon would miss a chance to further improve his stock and his game over the hectic summer season, forced instead to immerse himself in rehab. By now, though, you should know he found a way to flip the script on his situation, working so hard over the summer that he could’ve played at ABCD Camp in July. But with a full ride to Cal already guaranteed and his rep intact, Leon wisely, if grudgingly, sat out. “I really wanted to play. I was like, Doc, c’mon, can I?” he laughs now. “They could’ve cleared me, but they said it wasn’t worth it.”
Smart move—and besides, Leon made as much of a statement with the way he handled and came back from the injury as anything he might’ve done on the court. “When I got the news…man, I was bent for like three days. And it wasn’t just basketball, it’s because it was Leon. And my heart hurts,” Olivier says. “But when things aren’t going his way, he looks at the bright side. That’s very rare. So he says, ‘Coach, I’m gonna come back. It’s gonna happen, and it’s gonna make me stronger. Just watch.’ And then…in three months! They had to slow him down from working out so hard, because he was too far ahead of schedule.”
Though McGavock says that, by midseason, Leon was still “only about 90 percent,” that missing 10 percent didn’t seem to bother him. “By the time this season started, I’d been ready,” Leon says. “In our first game, I only played about two quarters, and I scored like 32 points. At first, the brace was bothering me a little bit, but I adjusted it. I feel good now.
“I obey all the rules,” he adds. “I don’t play no pickup. But it’s hard…out at the park one time, somebody called me out. I was like, It’s cool, it ain’t worth it. I knew he ain’t got no scholarship to lose.”
Hard work and determination have gotten him this far, and that focus is keeping him on track. Indeed, what this kid’s got inside him is almost enough to overshadow his physical gifts. But only almost. Olivier sounds smitten, as only a coach can, when he speaks of Powe’s wingspan, vertical jump, massive hands and, maybe most impressive, his raw strength. When Leon admits, “I’m strong as heck,” it doesn’t sound menacing—but if you’re trying to D him up anytime soon, it probably should.
Then there are the measurements, the aforementioned 6-8, 240. If those numbers sound at all familiar, it’s because they’re awfully similar to the dimensions of LeBron James. And these two dudes aren’t only on the short list for possible first-team All-American honors this season—they’ve got history. Through a mutual friend, LeBron ended up balling with Slam-N-Jam at a tourney in the summer of 2000. He and Leon originally played on different squads, Bron on Soldiers I and Leon on Soldiers II, and their teams (though they didn’t guard each other) eventually went head to head. Neither player disappointed.
Before long, they were playing side by side for the Soldiers—including a scary run with fellow top-5 senior Kendrick Perkins of Texas the following summer—and as teammates at ABCD Camp in ’01. In the process, they got tight. “Me and LeBron know each other real well,” Leon confirms, before addressing the obvious question.
“I think I could hold my own against him. He’s got the court awareness, and I give him the advantage on the passing and stuff, but otherwise, I’d hold my own. I’d tell anybody that.”
He hasn’t been able to prove it, though, because despite their almost identical specs, these are two very different players. You know Bron’s game, laden with break-leading, dime-dropping flair and, when halfcourt sets demand it, a spot on the perimeter from which to launch his multi-pronged assault. Leon prefers to do his damage in close. Comparisons to Elton Brand, another undersized forward who makes up for his lack of true pf height with strength, reach and effort, or to the midrange game, athleticism and burgeoning passing ability of a young Chris Webber, are premature but not off the mark. Regardless, matching these two up isn’t the move. They’re better off on the same side. “Leon’s real cool. I talk to him all the time,” says Bron. “I love playing with him because he always plays hard, and he’s a true big man.”
With LeBron vouching for him and his stock healthier than anything you’d find on the NASDAQ these days, it’s not crazy to think that Leon could follow his man’s expected rout and declare for this year’s Draft. On that, the opinions of his coaches differ slightly. Olivier says if not for Leon’s knee injury, “He’s Lottery,” while Tech’s McGavock is a bit more conservative: “He has the potential to go to the NBA, but he’s not ready for the NBA right now.” Leon is happy to have made up his mind already.
“I think I’d like to get a little college in,” he says. “Plus, so many of my patnas are probably coming out already, like Kendrick and LeBron. I’m gonna let them get their years in first.”
Once again, smart move. Show everybody that the knee’s OK, soak up some of that college life, and stay close to the neighborhood. The last of those might not sound like a good idea, but at this point, Leon seems pretty well beyond whatever temptations his home turf might offer. That’s focus. Kid’s climbed too many mountains to trip over his own feet now. Fact is, his support system is here: McGavock; Olivier and the extended Slam-N-Jam family; his foster mother Imergene Wash, who also cares for Leon’s brother Timmy; and Bernard Ward, his surrogate father/older brother, a former Oaktown hoop star in his own right who’s making sure Leon doesn’t make the same mistakes he did. Leon’s got his grades (much improved these days) to maintain. He’s got other younger siblings to look out for, and his hometown to rep. Money and fame can wait. And success? In case you missed it, that’s what’s happening right now.
“He wants to be successful in life, not just on the court but off it, too,” says Ward. “He’s gonna be fine.”