|Leon Powe has averaged 2.6 rebounds and 3.3 points in just 9.7 minutes a game. (FILE/JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)|
Powe is a proven rebounder
Rookie overcomes childhood adversity on his way to NBA
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Just before the Celtics' team bus arrives at The Arena in Oakland for tonight's game against the Golden State Warriors, Leon Powe will look across the street at the Coliseum flea market and catch a glimpse of his past. Powe spent a considerable amount of his childhood at the flea market, helping his mother, Connie Landry, sell trinkets, toys, and used clothing from the back of a van. That was how the single mother supported six children after a fire burned down the family home and before Alameda County Child Protective Services placed Powe and his siblings in foster care.
At the time the agency knocked on the door, the family lived in a crowded, one-bedroom apartment in East Oakland, struggling to pay rent with unpredictable earnings from the flea market. No money meant another move. Sometimes Powe spent nights in motels, cars, and homeless shelters. When food ran low, Powe went without dinner so everyone else could eat, grabbing breakfast at a friend's house the next morning. Powe missed large portions of elementary school when he needed to watch his younger siblings.
"You just wanted to get somewhere where you could get settled and stay in one neighborhood," said Powe, 22. "But I didn't get to do that because we moved from place to place. I understand why we moved because sometimes we overstayed our welcome. Sometimes it just didn't work out between the people who collect the rent and us. It just didn't work out."
But Powe always believed somehow, some way everything would work out. Homelessness, foster care, the death of his mother, a best friend in prison, two ACL tears, and a slide to the second round in the 2006 NBA draft never limited the scope of his dreams. When Powe plays in Oakland tonight for the first time since the Celtics acquired him with the 49th overall pick (via Denver), his life will have come full circle.
Even as a former top-ranked high school prospect and California-Berkeley star who sits at the end of the Boston bench, Powe has succeeded. Ask anyone in Oakland who knew Powe as a tall, awkward kid shouldering adult burdens and they will tell you it was never about basketball. It was about Powe breaking the cycle and creating a better future for him and his family. But as it happened, the adversity Powe overcame translated into the toughness and tenacity that made him attractive to NBA teams. Now, he leads a life that less than a year ago seemed unimaginable and less than five years ago would have been unfathomable.
"I've got my own stuff," said Powe. "I control the lights, the furniture, and everything. Pay the rent. That's the cool part about it, knowing that things can happen for anybody if you work hard. I remember when I was younger and we used to always say, 'That only happened to this fool because he knew how to shoot real, real good,' not knowing that he'd been in the gym, shooting over and over. I worked hard to get here. I didn't just sit down and pray and wish it would come."
"They tried to rob somebody and got put in jail," said Powe. "That's where they've been ever since. It could have went either way for me because [Freeman] was my best, best friend. And he was one of the baddest fools on the block."
While Freeman and Powe went separate ways, Freeman's half-brother, Bernard Ward, became the most important influence in Powe's life. A former Oakland Tech high school basketball standout, Ward spent time in prison before turning his life around and taking a job as a probation counselor. He saw a chance to make a difference with Powe and make up for a missed opportunity with Freeman.
"My little brother had gotten in trouble, so I took Leon under my wing," said Ward, who is now Powe's legal guardian. "I was trying to teach him about life. I wanted to make sure he didn't make the mistakes my little brother and myself made. It was about showing a young man how to be a good citizen growing up in the community."
When a 13-year-old Powe asked Ward for help with his game, Ward decided to test Powe. Ward hears a lot of people ask for help, but few demonstrate the drive necessary to change. Ward wanted to see how much work Powe was willing to do. So, he asked Powe to run 20 laps around a nearby schoolyard and then practice his shot until sunset. Ward waited 20 minutes, then hid across the street from the schoolyard and watched Powe.
"The kid ran 20 laps," said Ward. "He shot till the sun came down. I was like, 'Wow, he's serious. He really wants to get his life together.' It took off from there. Once I saw that [at the schoolyard], I knew he had the discipline. He just needed guidance and to be pushed, a big-brother, father-figure thing. I just wanted to show support because you knew deep down the kid had been scarred by life."
Ward first made sure Powe improved his grades, seeking out Oakland Tech teacher Jonas Zuckerman as a tutor. Powe spent long days with Zuckerman, raising the 1.5 grade-point average that made him ineligible for six weeks of his freshman season to 3.2 by graduation. Powe would need good grades and good board scores when he decided to attend Berkeley, a university that did not honor scholarships to partial academic qualifiers.
As Powe worked toward better grades, Ward researched the best basketball options in Oakland. Powe would play for Oakland Tech during the school year and the Oakland Soldiers in AAU tournaments across the country. With his toughness and talent for rebounding, Powe quickly developed into one of the top prospects in his high school class, with some scouting reports ranking him just behind LeBron James.
Ward was also there for Powe at his lowest point when he lost his mother, who had a fatal heart condition, four days before playing in a California state high school championship game his junior year. Ward pulled Powe out of class, gave him the news, and encouraged him to "turn a negative into a positive." Although he briefly considered not playing in the title game, Powe finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds in a losing effort. Just as back then, the memory of his mother remains a constant source of motivation.
"He's had a lot of tough luck," said Mark Olivier, who coached Powe on the Oakland Soldiers. "But he's had some real good luck with the people who have been in his corner."
The summer before Powe started his sophomore year at Oakland Tech, Olivier scheduled practice for 6 p.m. One of the most important team rules is that every player be on time. Powe was never late. But two weeks into workouts, Powe surprised Olivier by asking if he could arrive at 6:30 p.m. two days a week. At first, Olivier said absolutely not. Then, the coach asked why. Powe told Olivier that dinner at his foster home started at 6 p.m. House rules. By the time he returned home after practice, there was hardly any food left. Olivier immediately switched the start of practice to 7 p.m.
Just getting it done, Powe pushed mounting fatigue from his mind and body as he traveled to Las Vegas, then Houston, for AAU tournaments following the state championship game. He fought through double and triple teams. He guarded the opponent's best player. Long days were filled with game after game after game.
Playing alongside James and Kendrick Perkins during the Houston tournament, Powe did not feel like himself. He couldn't run as fast or jump as high as usual. Then, competing against a team led by Dwight Howard, Powe went up for a fast-break dunk and felt something pop in his left leg. He stayed in the game, ran back on defense with a slight limp, then tried and failed to grab a rebound over a much-smaller guard. Powe knew something was terribly wrong and asked to come out of the game. Upon returning to Oakland, Powe learned he had a torn ACL.
"It put everything in perspective," said Powe. "I just started looking at things different. I didn't know if I was going to come out of high school [and go straight to the NBA], but I was in the top 10, top five players in the country in my class. [Tearing my ACL] just eliminated all of those ideas. I was just going to go to college, and try to get [my knee] better before I went to college."
Powe rushed through his rehabilitation in five months, returning for the final portion of his senior season at Oakland Tech. He reported to Berkeley for his freshman season still wearing a brace, though confident his left knee would soon be as healthy as it was before the injury. Powe earned All-Pacific-10 and Freshman of the Year honors, and also became the first freshman in history to lead the Pac-10 in rebounding (9.5 per game) and first Golden Bear freshman named team MVP. In retrospect, those accomplishments are astonishing considering Powe tore his left ACL again at some point during his freshman season.
With the second tear, Powe took his time coming back, sitting out his sophomore year at Berkeley to make sure he took all the right steps. He told himself, "If it doesn't work this time, it's never going to work." Last season, in his return from the second tear, Powe reestablished himself by leading the Pac-10 in scoring (20.5 points per game) and rebounding (10.1).
"I think I'm pretty much back," said Powe. "I'm going out there and I'm playing all out, but there's still something in the back of my mind where I'm like, 'Man, I hope I don't do it again' because I can't go through another rehab like that anymore. Those two rehabs, especially the second one, that was crazy. I worked so hard. It was tough. Sometimes you can't even pick your leg up. You can't even move. Sometimes you're just in pain and you can't do anything about it."
As accolades poured in after his second season at Berkeley, Powe set his sights on the NBA. After all that he had been through, falling to the second round was only a minor disappointment, another obstacle in a life filled with them.
"I stayed in a room with a flatscreen TV," said Powe. "I ain't seen one of those up close like that. It was in my room. Imagine me, I was staying in the room most of the time just watching TV. I called up everybody and told them where I was at and told them, 'I'm in a room with a flatscreen.' "
Powe laughs at the not-so-distant memory. For his one extravagant purchase since signing a conditionally guaranteed three-year deal with the Celtics worth potentially $1.9 million, Powe bought a flatscreen TV for his suburban Boston home. He enjoys watching basketball in high-definition.
While Powe also does his share of watching from the Boston bench, he possesses precisely the qualities the team needs; the same qualities that saw him through a difficult childhood. Toughness. Tenacity. Ability to deal with adversity.
Red Auerbach, who always appreciated the kind of character instilled by a difficult upbringing and looked for instigators, was enamored with Powe. The 6-foot-8-inch, 245-pound forward may prove a steal in the second round. In just less than 10 minutes a game (which many observers argue is far too little time), Powe has shown the ability to rebound (2.6 rebounds per game) and score (3.3 PPG). His constant hustle makes good things happen.
"Coming from a situation where he basically didn't have a childhood and he got into Berkeley, that speaks volumes about who he is," said assistant executive director of basketball operations Leo Papile, who scouted Powe extensively. "He can be a 15-year NBA player, high-rotation or starter, a guy who puts up numbers wherever he goes. He's a survivor."
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.