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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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His first game back after rehab, Powe scored 32 points against San Francisco's Balboa, but Balboa was a joke next to the many nationally ranked teams on the Bulldog schedule. Over the winter holidays, Powe held his own in the Las Vegas Prep Classic, the Slam to the Beach tournament in Delaware, and a third tournament in Utah. In Vegas, the Bulldogs beat perennial basketball powers Durango High School and Florida state champion Dillard High School before losing to their old foes, the Westchester Comets, in the final. In Delaware, Tech lost two -- to the nation's second-ranked Saint Benedict of New Jersey, and Our Savior of Long Island -- but defeated North Carolina's Laurinburg Institute, a national prep-basketball power. And in Utah, Tech beat Davis, the previous year's Utah state champion, and West Jordan, the runner-up, but lost to Bingham, another Utah team, in a tight game they should have won. "Leon was getting double- and triple-teamed, but other people on our team haven't been stepping up," says McGavock.

Zuckerman, who accompanied the team to Utah, came away more impressed than ever with Powe. "This was one of our most frustrating games of the year to date," the teacher says. "It was cold and the kids were tired. Leon barely touched the ball in the game -- they rotated defenders towards Leon, denying him the ball. He was frustrated.

"After the game, Leon came out and went up to the ten kids waiting for him and signed all of their autographs," the teacher continues. "Nobody asked. The kids were just waiting and he obliged them. When I asked him why did he do this, he said it was the right thing to do. He said that it wasn't their fault that we lost."

That would be in line with one of Powe's goals, which is to stay focused and down-to-earth despite all of the acclaim he's been receiving. "It's nice to have a favorable impression on people," he says. "You don't want anyone to be mean to you or people to think that you're too cool for them."


"We love you, Leon!" a caller exclaims. Leon grins.

"Just keep your head up and your belief in God, and everything will be all right," implores another.

Back in the Soul Beat studio, Ward beams like a proud parent as laudatory calls pour in from around Oakland. It's not just that his protégé is a great player, or that he overcame great odds. It's that, despite it all, Leon Powe has become a stellar role model in his own right.

"Leon is well-liked by everybody at school, and he sets the tone for the team," says teammate Theo White. "He stays on the entire team about our grades, checking up on us. He doesn't want anyone ineligible."

Himself included. By buckling down in the classroom, Powe has lifted his freshman GPA from an abysmal 1.9 to a respectable 3.2 overall. "All of his teachers love him because he comes to class, listens, does his work, and sets the tone in the classroom," Zuckerman says. "When other kids don't see him clowning around, then they don't."

Ward admits he's somewhat concerned about Powe's ability to stay grounded in the face of the fame machine -- the relentless media onslaught that is certain to follow his ascent. Last year, the hype grew to the point where there was talk about Powe signing with the NBA straight out of high school, but his injury put a damper on that.

Some pro scouts also worry that Powe is too small to play power forward, and isn't yet skilled enough to play small forward -- while phenomenal around the hoop, he's weaker on his outside shot and footwork. But given Cal's strong coaching and Powe's reputed work ethic, most sports pundits predict he'll go on to make his mark in college ball and possibly in the NBA. "Powe will be an instant-impact player at the power forward position in college," declares Harris of Norcal Preps.

Oakland Tech is now 17-4 overall, making it the top-ranked team in both the OAL and Northern California. If the Dogs take the league, a near certainty, it's on to the regional playoffs and then perhaps the state championships, where they could get a rematch with their Southern California nemesis. "I'm going to be double-teamed for the rest of the season, so there's nothing I can do," says a resigned Powe. "I'm just going to have to get used to it."

Another thing he'll have to get used to is the roaring crowds at UC Berkeley, where he's guaranteed his own cheering section. "My college decision came down to Cal and North Carolina," Powe says. "They both needed players and someone to come in and play immediately. I also did it based on the support I could receive from the people who have watched me play over the years."

With Powe on board, Cal boasts one of the top-ten recruiting classes in the nation. Joining him will be Oakland High's Ayinde Ubaka, a national Top 50 prospect, plus Marquise Kately of SF's Riordan High and Dominic McGuire from San Diego -- both in the Top 100. "I had a plan to choose Cal, and to convince many of the top players locally and from throughout California to go there to make Cal a force," Powe says. "We'll be just as good as anybody nationally. I said, 'Why should I go far away to play when we can stay here and bring a title back to the bay?'"

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