THE SWEET SIXTEEN - #7 - LEON POWE
#7 - LEON POWE - FORWARD (2004-2006)
The Show. He's probably not the best basketball player in school history. But he is, without a doubt, my favorite.
For every Leon Powe there are at least a hundred kids whose situations get the better of them. His father walked out on the family when he was two. His house burned down when he was five, and Leon and family lived in temporary situations for the next several years. His mother struggled with the burdens of raising the family and was arrested for theft, fraud and drug possession. Leon missed almost his entire fifth grade year...caring for his siblings. Finally in 1998 he was placed in foster care.
And through all of this, Leon Powe got a 3.2 GPA his senior year at Oakland Tech and is on track to graduate from Cal during the NBA off-season. He suffered the type of knee injury that has ended many a career - and came back to become Freshman of the Year, an All-American and a second-round NBA draft choice.
Back in 2003, Powe was the cornerstone of a Top 10 recruiting class that also included Marquise Kately and Ayinde Ubaka. A local product, his commitment to Cal had the echoes of another famous local recruit a decade earlier. Powe did not disappoint as a freshman, averaging 15.1 ppg and 9.5 rpg (breaking the Cal single season record held by Bob McKeen). Whatever his game may have lacked in polish, Powe compensated with incredible upper and lower body strength and a relentless work ethic. He led the conference with 14 double-doubles and peaked (in my opinion) with 14 boards and 19 points in a home win over UCLA.
After his medical redshirt year, fans worried whether the same Leon Powe would return. In truth, he was better. In 2005-6, every one of Cal's opponents knew that Powe was the first option on almost every possession, and it didn't matter. Leon had improved his foul-shooting to the point where teams could no longer hack him with impunity - he finished the season at 72%. And with his strength he was able to complete many of the plays when opponents did foul him in desperation. He was a monster -the best big man I've ever seen in a Cal uniform, and one of the best in recent conference history. He averaged 20.5/10.1 and was a 2nd team All-American selection at season's end.
My enduring memory of Leon Powe is that overtime game with Oregon in the Pac-10 semifinals last year. My friends and I kept waiting for Leon to get tired, even though we almost sixty games of experience to suggest that wouldn't happen. We kept waiting for him to miss some shots from the floor - that didn't happen either as he would up 14-17. Maybe he'd start missing free throws? Turn it over? No. He drew charges, hit his free throws and pulled down rebounds. He willed his team - our team - into the conference final.
Afterwards we realized that we were watching a test. The game, the situation, the lack of support from his teammates - all of these things were testing Leon Powe as the night grew shorter. And Leon kept doing everything right. When he finally left with a minute left, cradling his injured shoulder, many Duck fans joined in the standing ovation. We had forgotten - my friends, myself, and the rest of the Staples crowd - that Leon Powe had been tested many, many times before.