Leon Powe Made It the Hard Way

Dec 4, 2003

AP Sports Writer

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) - Leon Powe never knew for sure if he'd even playcollege basketball. It seemed something would set him back - grades, aproblematic knee, his shaky personal life.

Powe's father left two years after his son was born. When Powe was 7, hisyounger brother set the family home on fire while playing with matches. Theboys then lived in homeless shelters and cramped apartments. Powe spent most ofhis teen years in foster care. His troubled mother died during his junior yearin high school.

Last year, Powe finally scored high enough on his college entrance exams toplay at California, one of the nation's most prestigious public universities.

He is the highest-profile member of the Golden Bears' exceptional freshmanclass, considered among the top in the country this year.

'I dedicated a lot of weekends of my time to the SAT,' Powe said.'Sometimes it looked like it was never going to come through. The last test Itook came through. I was like, 'Thank God.''

It took four tries on the test - he took it a fifth time just in case. Powe,from nearby Oakland Tech High School, had a personal tutor and several friendswho made sure he didn't fail.

'I must've ran around the house a couple of times,' Powe said, recallingthe day he received his results. 'I just told everybody and got on the phoneand said 'I qualified!''

His own determination to stay on the right path is a big reason Powe iswhere he is today. 'I knew what was right from wrong,' he said.

Bernard Ward helped Powe figure it out, too. Ward also took him in.

Ward's younger brother, Shamare Freeman, is Powe's best friend. Freeman hasbeen locked up in a youth center for the past three years. He stole, he skippedschool, he got in his share of fights. Powe walked away from Freeman the veryday he was caught stealing a bike.

'I took it upon myself,' said Ward, 35, a counselor for the Alameda Countyprobation department who has become Powe's unofficial guardian. 'I said toLeon, 'I lost my other little brother to the system, and I'm going to helpchange your life so you don't go that way.' ... So far so good.'

Yes, Powe is making quite a name for himself.

At 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, he looks and plays nothing like a freshman. Heleads the Bears in scoring and rebounding. Going into the weekend, he wasaveraging 17.8 points and 10.8 rebounds for a Cal team that starts threefreshmen and a sophomore.

'He's a man-child inside,' said UC Irvine coach Pat Douglass afterwatching Powe go off for a career-high 27 points and 11 rebounds in a winWednesday night.

Along with Powe, point guard Ayinde Ubaka and swingman Marquise Kately areconsidered among the top 50 freshmen in the nation.

As a high school junior, some recruiting services ranked Powe second in thecountry behind LeBron James, the teen star chosen by the Cleveland Cavalierswith the top pick in the NBA draft this year. Powe is the Bears' most highlytouted recruit since Shareef Abdur-Rahim in 1995.

'A lot of people expect a lot from him,' Cal guard Richard Midgley said.'He works as hard as anybody else and doesn't think he's better than anyoneelse.'

Yet it certainly was a struggle getting here.

Powe's mom, Connie Landry, died from a heart condition four days before heplayed in the state title game as a junior. He was taken from her at age 13,but they remained close and Powe visited her at her work almost every day.

His world crashed down when she died - 'all of it,' he said. Powe was soshocked he considered not playing in the state championship game, but knewshe'd want him to. She loved to watch him play. He had 19 points and 10rebounds in the loss. As a senior, Powe averaged 27.4 points and 14.2 rebounds.

'I think about my mom a lot,' said Powe, who had his own heart checkedfollowing her death. 'She's one of the reasons I'm still here.'

Powe discovered faith at a young age. As a boy, he sang in his church choirand even performed rap songs for the congregation.

'I've just got faith in God,' he said. 'That's the only one who helped meget through it. It just felt like everything was coming apart, I was justfeeling bad. The only one I could turn to is God, to ask him for a little help.... Going to college period is a blessing for me.

'It's not like high school anymore. Sometimes you want to give up, but Ilive right around the corner. Where am I going to go? My house is down thestreet.'

He goes home to visit Ward every couple of days - 'to eat,' Ward says witha smile. Powe owes a lot to this man. Ward found him a tutor, Jonas Zuckerman,who helped prepare Powe to pass the SAT. Zuckerman taught Ward's stepdaughterat Golden Gate Elementary in Oakland. Zuckerman also knew Powe and his youngerbrother, Tim, after teaching both boys at the school.

Basketball - street ball - kept Powe out of trouble as a kid. By eighthgrade, he realized he had a special talent, and it no longer was kicking forthe flag football team. As an eighth-grader, he scored 44 points in twodifferent games before all of his teammates quit because they didn't like theircoach. The season ended after those two games, but Powe knew there were goodthings ahead in high school.

During summer ball the next several years, he played alongside James. Poweeven called the Cavs' star the day after his NBA debut to congratulate him onhis 25-point performance. Powe never heard back, but understands life as a prois hectic.

'We know he can do it,' Powe said of James. 'That makes young playersfeel good - that we can ball, too, and hang with the old cats.'

Powe tore the anterior cruciate in his left knee after his junior year atOakland Tech and had surgery. It still bothers him and he had it drainedearlier this season. He wears a black brace for games.

'He's played on it pretty hard, and that's just a repercussion of playingon it hard,' Cal coach Ben Braun said. 'We see no signs of him slowing downas a player. His play is improving. He's been practicing hard and practicingwell.'

Powe and Ward hope that Powe's success story provides a positive example forkids growing up not only in Oakland's toughest neighborhoods, but everywhere.

'Where we come from it's rough and there's a lot of negative stuff.Hopefully we can use this to save lives,' Ward said. 'Hopefully kids can seewhere he came from - foster homes - and give them hope that through hard workthey can get scholarships.'

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