Powe Ready for Big Return after Knee Surgery
Nov. 2, 2005
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) - Leon Powe would lie awake for hours trying to will his eyes closed, his throbbing left knee anchored in a full-leg brace making sleep nearly impossible night after night.
He questioned whether he would play basketball at the same level again, or if he should even try. He thought of his younger siblings and the hundreds of hard-off kids in his hometown of Oakland counting on him to give it a shot, and of his late mother and how she taught him never to quit.
Powe's long-awaited return for California after a difficult recovery from left knee surgery marks the comeback of one of the Pac-10's premier players, considered among the best forwards in the country. Finally, he's ready to pick up where he left off as the conference freshman of the year and league rebounding leader two years ago.
'At night time, I couldn't really go to sleep because it was painful, but I wasn't telling anybody that,' Powe said before a recent practice. 'It usually hurt, but I was just laying there. I couldn't go to sleep anyway. That's when I was thinking, 'Man, is it all worth it, or should I just give it up?' But my mama, she didn't raise a quitter. I was like, 'I'm going to ride it 'til the wheels fall off. If I can get it right this time and do it all right, hopefully it will be cool and it won't mess up again.''
Doctors told Powe it could take 10 months before he'd be able to get back on the court to shoot, and Powe began dealing with what he described as 'a little depression' - though he wound up returning sooner to take shots without bending his tender leg.
'I just wanted to walk,' he said. 'I wasn't even thinking about basketball, just let me walk.'
Powe is the highest-profile member of the Golden Bears' exceptional 2003 recruiting class that came to Cal with huge expectations, and he made an immediate impact. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound Powe averaged 15.1 points and 9.5 rebounds as a freshman, also blocking 17 shots, making 19 steals and having 19 assists.
'He never played healthy,' said point guard Ayinde Ubaka, Powe's roommate and former AAU teammate in Oakland. 'He's been playing on one leg for so long. Now it's all there. He's got two legs instead of hopping around on one. He's that much better, that much faster. He's got more confidence. It's going to be a thrill playing with him.'
For Powe, just getting to Cal was a remarkable journey.
His mom, Connie Landry, died from a heart condition at the age of 41 only four days before Powe played in the state title game as a junior at Oakland Tech High. He had been taken from her at age 13, but they remained close and Powe visited her at work most days.
'When my mom died, I thought I didn't want to play any more,' he recalled.
Powe's father left when he was 2. Five years later, Powe's younger brother set the family home on fire while playing with matches. The boys then shifted between homeless shelters and cramped apartments, and Powe spent part of his teenage years in foster care while his mom was in jail battling drug problems.
It took four tries on his college entrance exams to score high enough to play for the Bears. He relied on a personal tutor and several friends who made sure he didn't fail.
Then, after undergoing a routine physical following his standout freshman season, doctors determined he needed an operation on his left knee, which he had already gone through after his junior year of high school.
He had a bone graft done in April 2004, followed by reconstructive surgery in September. Powe remembers waking up and being unable to walk. He had the operation in Colorado and was forced to get around in a wheelchair in the snow.
At first, he couldn't even concentrate enough to read a magazine. Powe got through those difficult nights by making calls to his friends and his girlfriend at all hours, waking them up more than once - 'It's Leon again, hello,' he said, chuckling as he remembered the conversations.
Bernard Ward, Powe's unofficial guardian and the older brother of his best friend, stayed by his side many nights as Powe fell asleep - pulling the couch up to the base of Powe's bed.
'He grew up. Every time he needed to walk, I had to pick his leg up,' Ward said. 'It was kind of frustrating for him. He was kind of down. I told him, 'You go through that and you'll be stronger.' That's what kept him going and kept him working hard. He wanted it to be a success story for other people. It's just a blessing to see him walking again.'
Once Powe finally was cleared to play in May, the first thing he did was try to dunk. He barely got off the ground - Powe signals with his fingers that it was slightly more than an inch - but his long arms allowed him to pound the ball down, anyway.
Still, he was thankful nobody saw it.
Most games last season, Powe, dressed in street clothes, gave the Bears a pep talk before they took the floor. Then he endured two hours of opposing players running by his seat on the bench with a smile and some trash talk. He remembers who they were, and hopes his game will take care of such behavior from now on.
Powe played in a summer Pro-Am league in San Francisco and was named MVP, averaging 33 points and 11 rebounds.
'We haven't given Leon a break and he's responded wonderfully,' said Cal coach Ben Braun, whose team prepared for the season with a 12-day, five-game tour in Italy. 'Leon is a guy that you look up and he's got double figures before you know it. He's become a tougher matchup than he was two years ago. He was more predictable. He was 12 feet or in. His versatility is a lot better.'
Many figure Powe's days with Cal will be short-lived, expecting him to bolt for the NBA after the season. He insists his motivation isn't all about collecting a giant pro paycheck, though he would like to help youngsters in Oakland and elsewhere someday.
He'll think about all that later. Meanwhile, everyone is counting on him to get Cal back to the top of the Pac-10.
'I have things to take care of. I can't leave everybody hanging,' he said. 'I know what I have to accomplish this year and what people expect. If one person gets it done, it's me. I believe in myself. There ain't no pressure on me. I'm going to go out there and play my game, because I know what kind of game I have.'