Cal Basketball

Bear Insider Podcast: Leon Powe Talks About Cal Athletics Hall of Fame Selection

October 26, 2018
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Leon Powe played just two seasons at Cal, but that was enough to establish him as one of the best basketball players in school history, a distinction that will be validated this fall when he is inducted into the university’s athletic Hall of Fame.

After Cal, he spent five years in the NBA with the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies, a career noteworthy for a couple of breakout performances.  The most famous of which was his 21 points in 15 minutes in a 108-102 victory at the Boston Garden in Game 2 of the 2008 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, helping propel the Celtics to their 17th, and most recent, NBA Championship. 

Currently working in the Celtics front office, Powe connected with Bear Insider for a podcast interview.  The conversation covered a wide range of topics and began with Powe, a native of Oakland who attended Oakland Tech High school with Cal football legend Marshawn Lynch, expressing his gratitude at his HOF selection and crediting several individuals who helped him. 

Growing up in Oakland

Among the most prominent was Bernard Ward, a mentor and friend who guided young Leon and kept him heading in the right direction. “Bernard, he’s been there, him and his family have been there for me since day one, taking me into gym, into class, making sure I’m doing the right thing,” Powe said. “Especially being like a big brother, mentor, father figure. … making sure I worked extremely hard. Because they always told me nothing was given. And I understood what they were talking about back then and to this day. …He was just one of the key components that helped me throughout my years to get to where I’m at now.”

Ward worked with Powe extensively, helping develop his basketball skills, but also offering advice in other areas. “But what his biggest role was, they had to change my mentality as far as me thinking about not basketball but school, and as far as me going to class,” Powe said. “Because sometimes I didn’t want to go to class or do my homework, and I just wanted to hang out. And what he got me on is a better path, meaning you need to go to class in order to get what you really want in life. And you need to do your homework, and you always should be on time, you should be early. We started working on those habits and it took me a little bit to buy in.  But after the first semester, I think my freshman year, in high school I was ineligible and he sat down with me and talked to me. …And from that point on, that’s when I realized that I really do have to change my mentality.”

Powe also credits Jonas Zuckerman, one of his teachers at Oakland Tech. Zuckerman offered not only special tutoring, but was also a disciplinarian. When young Leon misbehaved, he was sent to Mr. Zuckerman’s class.

“So when I acted up, they said, ‘You know where we’re sending you.’"

“I was like, I don’t want to go there - - Mr. Zuckerman’s class. He teaches the older class, so he sits me down in the front of the class where all the kids are looking at me, I’m facing them, I’m the only one up there every time. We used to talk about that -- that’s one place I did not want to go. … And every time I went there and it was just like, you know what, I need to change my ways. Mr. Zuckerman used to always talk to me. …He ended up being my mentor, one of my mentors and one of the members of my team to try to help me get to where I need to go and help me achieve my goals. And which I’m real grateful for that as well to him.”

Of course, as with most success stories, a mother has a prominent role. Powe’s mom passed away when he was 17, but she lives on in his memory and his work ethic.

“I got the hard work, I know I got that from her because I’ve seen her try to – as she put food on our table – we barely were making ends meet and she still was putting food on the table, working hard, not complaining. Honestly, not one time she complained a day in her life. And to be able to do that and having a lot of kids, a single parent, I knew it was tough."

“Some days I had to stay home from school to watch my little brothers and sisters just so she can go out and then make some money at the flea market and then come back later on that night so we can eat. And she didn’t complain one day. And when I seen that and I was just like, man, that’s a strong woman and that’s what I want to be like. … I’m always grateful to her and always got her spirit in me as well.”

Career at Cal

Heavily recruited out of Oakland Tech, Powe’s choice finally came down to Cal or North Carolina.  He said he was a big Michael Jordan fan and he was enthralled by the atmosphere when he watched a Duke-North Carolina game. “It was so crazy, it was inviting,” he said, adding that he felt like he 'should run on the court and play with them right then.”

Fortunately for Cal, he changed his mind. “It was a lot of stuff going on with Carolina,” he said, without being specific. “And I talked to some players and stuff so they didn’t really, they told me a couple of things so I was like, you know what, I’m going to stay home.”

At the time he tried to bring another prominent recruit with him. He had become friendly with LeBron James, then a high school star in Ohio who was still undecided between college or turning pro immediately.

The two texted one another often. “I said, if you are going to college you’ve got to come here with me, man,” Powe said. How serious James was we will probably never know, but Nike gave him a shoe contract and 90 million reasons to bypass college.

As a freshman in 2003-2004, Powe was Cal’s leading scorer and rebounder and MVP. A severe knee injury kept him out of competition the next season, and at one point appeared career ending. But he came back in 2005-2006, to again be the Bears MVP, averaging 20.5 points and 10.1 rebounds, just the sixth player in Pac-12 history to lead the conference in both categories, while leading Ben Braun's squad to an NCAA Tournament berth. He opted to leave for the NBA draft, was chosen by the Denver Nuggets in the second round, 49th pick overall, and sent to Boston the same day in a pre-arranged deal.

Career With the Boston Celtics

Powe spent three years with the Celtics.  The highlight was certainly his performance in that 2008 NBA Finals victory over the Lakers.

“I get asked about that every single day, every time I go to games, every time I see a friend they always bring that up,” said Powe, who has a couple of interesting back stories about that night.

Doc Rivers "always would tell me, 'stay ready, be ready, you don't know when it's your matchup, your time.'  Because Doc ... he'd use his matchups.  So if they played a certain player, he'd be like, 'Leon, okay, this is your game.'"

"So Game 1 was not my day, it was somebody else's day. And then Game 2, I had a good feeling that day.  I woke up, had some of my favorite cereal - Frosted Flakes.  And I was like, 'today might be a good day.'  The sun was out, everything was working.  Everything was working early in the day.  Got to the arena, everybody's smiling and talking to me, I'm like, everybody [is] being extra nice today.  So I was like, 'this might be my day.' "

The game began, then Doc Rivers told him to go in.

“He called my name and I was like 'oh wow, I’m ready to go. I’m ready to go in,'” Powe said. “And so I sprint onto the floor and the ref was like, ‘No, no you can’t come in yet, you got to wait ‘till the next dead ball.’  I had that adrenaline, I was ready to go in.  I ran on the court, I was sprinting, and they say, "no, no, you gotta come down' [to the scorer's table]."

"So now, I'm a young guy. I start thinking a lot while I was sitting there, at the scorer's table. I was like, 'Man. This is a big stage right here,' and I started looking around and seeing all the cameras the lights, everything. I was like, 'Man, this is unbelievable,' because where I come from, being able to get to this day, all the hard work I put in, and then I was like, 'Hold up, you can't be thinking like that. You gotta go out there and play your normal game.'"

"And I said, this stage, this is what you've been working out for. I talked to myself a little bit at the scorer's table. I said, 'this is what you've been working out for, you've been practicing for this your whole life. And you're ready. Just go out there and handle your business.' And then that's when I said, 'okay, I'm just gonna play my game.'"

"So I went out there, I got a couple things going early, a couple free throws, some layups, some dunks. And then after that the rest was history."

Interestingly, ESPN had prepared a documentary on Powe that it wanted to run earlier in the playoffs. Showing considerable confidence in Boston’s prospects, he begged them to hold it until the Finals. They did, and it aired at halftime of Game 2 in a masterpiece of good timing.  "At halftime i was walking back and I see myself talking on the TV screen, on the big screen.  I'm like, what the hell am i talking about?  They ran the story that day, I had that game, that was a coincidence." 

Best Kevin Garnett story from that championship season?

"I've maybe told this once or twice. But one story that symbolized everything is our team work ethic. Our team work ethic, our personality, we don't have no quit in us, no quit in us whatsoever. We always work, we were willing to put the work in to get where we want to get. Especially trying to get to a championship or win games."

"So one practice, we've been going hard for the last two or three weeks, going hard in practice. Doc said, 'you know what, KG, you sit this practice out. I don't want you doing anything. Let's sit this one out. The other guys, we gonna take them and we gonna work out a little bit, and have a little bit of practice and then we're gonna go home."

"KG said, 'Okay coach, okay coach.' So he went to the sideline. So we are doing drills,defensive drills, all type of little drills. And then out of the corner of my eye we see this shadow just moving fast as heck on the sideline, back and forth, back and forth."

"We (were) like, 'what the heck?' So [KG's] over on the sideline doing the whole practice. He can't get on court, so he made room on the sideline, doing defensive slides, sprints, everything. And then Doc looked over and said, 'What you doing KG?' And he's like, 'I'm doing practice over here, you said I can't be on the court, I'm gonna get my work in.'"

"So Doc said, 'Everybody to the middle,' and everybody ran to the middle. 'Thanks to KG, everybody go home, out the gym right now.' But that shows you the work ethic, we was willing to put work in and we didn't care the amount of work we had to do, but we was willing to do it. And that's one of the little storylines that he did that on the sidelines for about 30 minutes straight."

Current Work With Celtics

With the Celtics now, Powe’s duties are varied. “I do everything. A lot of stuff in the community. Motivational speaker, and things like that,” he said. “I work with the team a little bit. Here and there where they have me represent them at certain banquets and stuff like that. But also roll with, sometimes I do radio, sometimes I do TV. But I don’t do it full time or anything like because I got, you know, I do a lot of business stuff as well. I’m a big technology fan as well. So, I don’t do that full time but I’m here all the time doing the motivational speaking and the keynote speaking for the Celtics and then with the players and stuff like that. I just talk to them and I motivate them any way possible. Give them my expertise what I see out there and that’s it.”

"I don't want no part of coaching.  I still got all my hair, that's what I tell them.  I'll be an owner one day or a GM, so that's what I'm trying to learn as much as i can before i try to make that step."

It certainly is a great time to be a former Golden Bear in Boston.  Three former players are now in the Celtics organization: Powe, Jaylen Brown and Jabari Bird. 

"I'm always trying to put in a good word for my Cal guys, Danny Ainge over here, he loves toughness, he loves passion for the game, and sometimes he sees the potential in the guys coming out of Cal.  it's great to have a couple of Cal guys over here. We talk all the time, and I always encourage them to be the best they can be. It's good having them around. Because they know what that California life is like."

Hall Of Fame

The Cal community  will hear from Leon Powe directly at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Oct. 26.  It will certainly be a terrific night.

“Where I'm from, Oakland, i stayed home just to give [fans] a chance to see me grow, and being selected to the Hall of Fame is truly a dream come true, amazing thing that happened,” Powe said. “It happened to me and my family and the people that helped me along the way.  Tell everybody I appreciate them for always having my back, always looking out for me.  And stuck by me through thick and thin."

- David Bush contributed to this story.

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Bear Insider Podcast: Leon Powe Talks About Cal Athletics Hall of Fame Selection

MoragaBear
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We're re-running the story and podcast in honor of Leon's induction into the Hall of Fame tonight and making it available to non-subscribers today.

From his Hall of Fame bio:

Leon Powe (men's basketball, 2004-06) Powe firmly stamped his name in the Cal record book during his two competitive seasons at Cal. As a freshman in 2003-04, he was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and earned the first of two first-team all-conference and team MVP awards. His 9.5 rebounds per game set a school freshman record. Powe missed the next year following knee surgery and returned in 2005-06 to claim second-team All-America recognition. He was named MVP of the Pac-10 Tournament after scoring 41 points in Cal's semifinal win over Oregon and grabbing 20 rebounds in the quarterfinals vs. USC becoming the first Golden Bear with 20 rebounds in a game since 1982. Powe led the Bears into the NCAA Tournament that year. His career averages of 17.8 ppg and 9.8 rpg both rank among Cal's all-time top 10 and he is one of the few players in school history to have averaged a double-double for an entire season with 20.5 ppg and 10.1 rpg in 2005-06. Powe was chosen in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, winning an NBA title in 2008.
Big C
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I own two Cal sports jerseys: Joe Roth's and Leon Powe's
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