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The Making of Leon Powe

Turning an Oakland unknown into an NBA prospect took more than practice. It took mentors, and a kid with a superstar character.



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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.

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