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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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In November 1990, according to court records, an undercover cop approached a man named Louis Tappin on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and asked for a "dove" -- a $20 crack rock. Tappin led the narc to Ward, who led the way to a plastic Baggie containing the cocaine. Ward was busted. A year later, he was arrested again on the same charge.

Ward pleaded no contest to one of the charges in December 1991; the other was dropped, and he got off with two years of probation. But he skipped probation meetings and failed to follow through on a court-ordered drug-abuse program. In August of '92, the judge responded with a bench warrant. In all, Ward served 85 days behind bars.

He tried to get back into the game as a walk-on at UNLV. Then, while working out with some Rebels players, he broke an ankle, again setting back his hoop dreams.

As an elite player Ward was finished, but he managed over the next five years to get the rest of his life in order. In 1998, he got his felony reduced to a misdemeanor, clearing the way for his current career as a youth counselor for the Alameda County Probation Department.

He also continued taking classes, and graduated from San Francisco State with a sociology degree in 2000. He was married the following year, and is now finishing up a masters program at John F. Kennedy College in Orinda.

Nowadays, Ward is reluctant to rehash his old troubles. "Things just happened," he says. "I really don't want to get into that. That's my past. I'm not mad about it, though. If I hadn't gone through that, I probably wouldn't have been the person that I am today."


It was the summer of '98 when Ward ran into Powe at the Pak 'N Save. He didn't take Leon's workout proposal too seriously at first, but the boy wouldn't give up. "Leon was persistent," Ward says. "What really turned me on to Leon was that he was bothering me. He was calling me on the phone, wanting me to work him out. Since he knew that I hooped back in the day, he knew I knew the game."

Ward decided to challenge Powe to see if he was serious: "I told him to go up to Santa Fe Middle School in our old neighborhood, run seven laps, and then shoot jump shots until the sun went down."

The boy obeyed. Meanwhile, Ward staked himself out in a car across the street from the schoolyard, discreetly watching as Leon completed the workout unsupervised. He came away impressed. "Most kids wouldn't have done that," he says. "But Leon was out at the park. I was testing him and he passed the test."

Soon, Ward and Powe were meeting for workouts every other day and becoming tight friends. It was too late to save Shamare, who ended up at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility on felony robbery and assault convictions. But the workouts gave Ward a second chance to be a better role model. "When my little brother got into trouble with the law, I decided to take Leon under my wing and lead him on the right track," he says. "I tried to show Leon how to use basketball as a way to change his life."

Powe more or less adopted Ward, too. "Bernard has been like a brother to me," he says. "I haven't had a father figure in my life, so he's been there for me over the years showing me things, the things I need to do to become a man."

In basketball terms, the more time Ward spent with Powe, the more convinced he became that the boy was something special. Most impressive was Leon's work ethic, the way he listened attentively and did exactly as he was told. And it didn't hurt that Leon, now six-four, was simply built for the game. "I can remember one time we were at the park playing basketball and I told Leon to do a certain move," Ward recalls.

That move was to dunk on him. The eighth grader promptly took the baseline and in one quick swoop brought the ball through the hoop over his defender. That was all Ward needed to see. "After he did this in one complete motion," he says, "I told him that by the time he gets into the twelfth grade, he was going to be one of the top players in the country if he continued to work on his game and grades."

Leon's 34-year-old mentor is a stocky man with a dark-brown complexion who wears his brownish-orange hair in a short Afro. In his game days, Ward weighed in around 180; nowadays, he's maybe pushing 210. Watching him watch Powe on the court, one gets the sense Ward is reflecting on his past mistakes -- with himself and his brother. The antithesis of a high-strung sports parent, Ward seems to turn inward during the games, showing little, if any, emotion. When he speaks, his manner is slow and deliberate, though he always has plenty of words for his protégé after every game.

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