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.