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Leon Powe Profile

January 10, 2003 Columns No Comments


Profile in Courage: Leon Powe

by Nicholas Lozito

The streets of Oakland, California have been both a friend and foe to Leon “The Show” Powe.

At times, their bumpy, concrete courts with double rims and torn-down nets helped mold the eighteen-year old Oakland Tech senior into a high school basketball phenom. Meanwhile, their darkest corners and drug-ridden areas have served as home for much of his life.

Today Powe stands as a 6-foot-8 power forward who is capable of turning a high school game into his personal 36-minute highlight reel. Last year’s California state championship game was no different, except for one tragic detail. Powe’s mother, Connie Landry, had passed away from unknown causes in an Oakland motel room just four days prior to the game.

“I made up my mind that I was going to play,” said Powe, whose father left the family when he was two. “My mom told me she wanted me to hoop. She was the only one I had. She provided everything for us.”

With his mother’s death less than a week behind him, “The Show” poured in nineteen points and grabbed ten rebounds against No. 1-ranked Westchester High School of Los Angeles. The Bulldogs lost the game by five points, 80-75, but Powe’s courageous performance opened the eyes of many.

“I think that was more a statement about his maturity,” said Dave Bollwinkel, former head coach of Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California. “He was willing, in a trying time, to take a step back, still morn his mother, and meet a commitment he made to his team. It means that he was maybe a little more mentally tough than many of us.”

While basketball may come with ease for Powe, life did not. At seven, Powe’s younger brother, Timothy, accidentally burnt down the family’s duplex after getting a hold of matches. Shortly after the fire Landry lost custody of her five kids, who were put into foster care.

In junior high, Powe met up with Bernard Ward, a counselor at the time with the Alameda County Probation Department.

“He was spending a lot more time with Bernard and understanding the importance of education and were it could take him,” said Jonas Zuckerman, Powe’s current academic advisor at Oakland Tech.

Unfortunately, his mentor’s words didn’t instantly kick in.

In his freshman year at Oakland Tech, Powe’s grade-point average dipped below a 2.0, and he was forced to sit out four games due to academic ineligibility. “I went to the game and had to sit out,” Powe said. “I saw the crowd and the (players) having fun. I was like, ‘I want to be out there.'”

When Powe finally did get on the court, he quickly made himself one of the top players in the Oakland Athletic League. Playing alongside 6-foot-9 center Demarshay Johnson, a McDonald’s All-American candidate heading into his senior year, he had someone to help guide him.

But Johnson struggled in the classroom, often not attending, and was academically ineligible for much of his senior season. He went on to play at a North Carolina prep school and is currently waiting for clearance to play at the University of Nevada.

Shortly following Johnson’s departure, Oakland Tech organized a team of academic advisors for their athletes, headed by Zuckerman.

“That was kind of the turning point in the program,” junior point guard Quenton Thomas said. “Nobody else should ever have to go through what Demarshay did.”

Powe also learned from Johnson’s mistakes, improving his GPA to 3.5 his junior year. He also averaged 25 points and twelve rebounds on the court, catching the eye of Ben Braun, head coach at the University of California. In November he signed at letter of intent to play for the Golden Bears.

“I’m excited about the whole college thing,” Powe said. “I never thought I’d have an opportunity like that, and Cal is one of the top academic colleges in the nation.

“When I was twelve I didn’t think I would go to college. In the long run I have learned to like school; that’s the crazy thing about it.”

According to Zuckerman, his success in the classroom has been an inspiration to other athletes on campus. “When younger players see Leon, who is one of the top players in the country, going to class and getting good grades, it makes their decision easier,” he said.

Powe’s decision to play at Cal, which is located just minutes from Oakland Tech, has also paved the way for other Oakland athletes. Oakland High point guard Ayinde Ubaka signed a letter of intent to attend Cal just a week after Powe. Fremont High small forward Timothy Pierce and Thomas are also being recruited by the Golden Bears.

Despite being one of the top leagues in Northern California, it is rare for an OAL basketball player to attend a top-notch program. “Maybe that’s changing,” Zuckerman said. “Certainly the Cal coaches want that to change. I can’t remember the last time an OAL payer got a basketball scholarship to Cal.”

Zuckerman knows that in order to keep this positive trend alive, the Oakland Tech players will need to back up their play on the court with hard work in the classroom. The back of each player’s warm-up jersey reads, “No books, no ball.”

“Our goal for the basketball team is, in the classroom to have a grade-point average of 3.0, and on the court to win the state title,” Zuckerman said. “Last season we had a 2.97 GPA and lost by five points in the final.”

The basketball players meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school to help each other with their homework. Players who specialize in certain academic areas help those who struggle. “Study hall is like a family get together for us,” Powe said. “It helps us out a lot as a team.”

The Bulldogs currently hold an 8-4 record and No. 1 ranking in Northern California. They have played preseason tournaments in Nevada and New Jersey in preparation for another state-title run. Powe has fully healed from an ACL tear over the summer. He believes that his improved outside game could be a vital piece to his basketball arsenal.

But after having his father leave the family at two, his brother accidentally burn down the duplex at seven and his mother die at seventeen, jump shots don’t take on the same significance.

“The two most undervalued qualities in a prospect, and the two most difficult to evaluate, are does he care and does he work hard,” Bollwinkel said. “With Leon, the answer to both of those is yes.

“He doesn’t play for a future contract, his posse or his girlfriend. He plays to win.”

     

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