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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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"I am sure Bernard sees part of himself in Leon," says Zuckerman, who knew both Powe and Ward individually before they became tight. "He hasn't had things easy, but now he has a college degree, a home, wife, and a kid. He comes from some of the same areas that Leon came from in North Oakland and West Oakland. Leon can relate to Ward and where he came from. I think they have a lot in common."

While Ward recognized Powe's potential, the boy still had serious catching up to do. Leon was a complete unknown in the Oakland basketball community, where news of a hoop phenom spreads quickly. And he wasn't yet an impact player -- the kind who immediately makes a difference on a team. Not until he began working out with Ward, and started playing eighth-grade hoop at Carter Middle School, did Powe start to attract some notice. It began with a couple of breakout games. "I scored 44 points in each game," Leon remembers. "After I scored 44 the first game, all of these high-school coaches came and seen me play, and they then wanted me to come to their schools."

Those schools included top private high-school basketball powers such as Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd and Concord's De La Salle, but Powe settled on Oakland Tech, then his neighborhood school.

Tech had a decent basketball program, but it wasn't championship caliber. Powe would eventually change that, although not freshman year. In his first season with the Bulldogs, he pulled off a respectable fifteen points and nine rebounds a game, but it seemed he was playing hard only in spurts, and not being nearly as aggressive as he should. His schoolwork was less impressive. Tech has a slogan for its athletes: "No books, no ball," and with a GPA of 1.9 his first semester, Powe wasn't living up to it.

Sensing trouble, Ward sought help both on and off the court. He got in touch with his friend and probation department co-worker Jermaine Hill. An Oakland native who had played hoop for UC Davis in the early 1980s, Hill had been a mentor to other Oakland players, and Ward felt he'd be a good person to help Powe stay on the right track. Together, the older men drilled Leon on the court, and kept after him about his schoolwork and general demeanor.

Toward the end of Powe's freshman year, Ward made a wise move to ensure his young friend's academic success. He looked up Zuckerman, who had taught Ward's stepdaughter at Golden Gate Elementary. Lo and behold, Zuckerman already knew the Powe kids, and told Ward that yes, he'd give Leon a shot.


It's 5:45 in the afternoon and Jonas Zuckerman is pacing the aisles of an Oakland Tech classroom, stopping to peer over Theo White's shoulder to keep him on task. White, the starting varsity power forward, is one of fifteen players in the tutorial lab of the mandatory team study hall McGavock makes his players attend.

Zuckerman runs a tight ship, which suits his personality. A tidy, energetic 33-year-old with dark hair and light-green eyes, his face lights up when talking about Leon and his brother. He knows what they've gone through, and seems genuinely happy about their progress.

Since becoming Leon's tutor, he's come to believe in the teenager's classroom abilities, just as Ward recognized his basketball potential. "Part of Leon's academic problems stemmed from that fact that he was in and out of school based on his family situation," Zuckerman says. "When I first started tutoring him, his grades weren't that good, but his attitude was."

At first, Zuckerman would meet privately with Powe after school, but progress was slow. "He wouldn't get things done all of the time," the tutor says. "He didn't always follow through on what he had to do."

But then came another fortuitous move: Zuckerman was transferred to Oakland Tech to teach English. This proximity allowed him to keep closer tabs on Leon's academic obligations. And by this time, Child Protective Services had placed Leon, Tim, and their siblings in foster homes, offering a sense of stability that had been lacking for most of their childhoods.

With Ward and Hill riding him, and Zuckerman at Tech, Leon finally had a safety net in place. The teacher began working with him every day both before and after school, and developed a bond with his pupil. "What brought me in to helping Leon was how much and how hard he was willing to work," Zuckerman says. "We've grown close academically. He's a kid without a support network. A lot of kids that have been in the foster system have aunts or family members around. He really doesn't have that support network, so he chooses who he wants around. Bernard is part of that, but I'm also a part of that."


By the start of his sophomore basketball season, Powe's grades were up markedly, and his game was on fire. The summer of freshman year, Ward had introduced Powe to the Oakland Soldiers, a nationally known youth traveling team that faces some of the best players in the country. "When I first saw Leon play in the ninth grade, I thought he was okay," says Mark Olivier, the Soldiers' coach. Although Powe was athletic and could move up and down the court well, he lacked in his footwork and shot. But Olivier found Powe to be a quick study. "He was willing to take on information and absorb it," says the coach. "He catches on really quickly."

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