Saturday, November 1, 2008

Homeless To Hardwood: The Leon Powe Story

When you watch the Boston Celtics take the floor for a basketball game, you see many things. You see a seemingly maniacal power forward with length who has the ability to dominate in the post and shoot the midrange jumper, Kevin Garnett. You see a clutch swingman with a jerky game that is somehow better than most everybody else's, even the league MVP's, Paul Pierce. You see a cool two guard who might be the best shooter in the league that can take it to the hole as well as he can shoot the three ball, Ray Allen. You see a speedy young point guard who can't shoot a lick but can drive to the hoop and pass pretty well, Rajon Rondo. You also see a slow, a little undersized center who can play defense, grab boards and block shots as well as the next guy, Kendrick Perkins.

But to the casual basketball fan, in this game Leon Powe is not seen.

Suddenly, Leon Powe the player is revealed, put on display for all to see; Game 2 of the 2008 NBA Finals. He explodes for 21 points in 15 minutes, shooting more free throws than the whole Lakers team in his short play. This disgusts Lakers coach Phil Jackson, as he identified after the game in the press conference, mentioning his disappointment at the triumph of this Leon "Pow". Powe caps off this incredible finals showing with back-to-back earth-shattering dunks (one of them pictured above). On this day, he is realized, put on the NBA radar as an elite bench energyman (if there is such thing as an elite bench energyman. But if there is such thing, Powe is one of them). Powe kept up his work throughout the rest of the finals, overlooked by fans and players alike no more. Powe was fully exposed as a basketball player this spring.

But the real Leon Powe is not seen by many, and almost certainly not by the casual fan.

Leon Powe Jr. was born on January 22, 1984 in inner-city Oakland, California. When Powe was at the tender age of two years old, his father bolted from the family, leaving his mother, Connie Landry, to care for Leon and his six siblings. After he left she had make the little money that the family had by selling toys and trinkets at a flea market, enough to keep Leon and his six little brothers and sisters from going hungry. When young Leon was seven years old, he arrived home from school one day to find his house in ashes, burnt to the ground, with many fireman at the scene. His little brother Tim was apparently playing with an errant match, and the Powe family found themselves nomads overnight.

They were still in one of the toughest inner-city environments in America, and they settled where they could, be it a run-down motel, an abandoned car or a street corner, and over the six years that they spent doing this they moved to a different location over 20 times. Food wasn't always available, and with his mother fighting drug addictions and working a job that barely pays, Leon would sometimes have to miss school in order to care for his young brothers and sisters; he was the oldest of all seven. In the end, the burden of having so many kids, and so little money overpowered Connie Landry, and she gave into her drug addictions. When Powe was ten years old she was caught stealing groceries, and she got sentenced to 90 days in jail. During her stay in prison, they discovered her drug addiction, and the Child Protective Services took custody over Leon and his siblings and they were placed in foster care.

"My situation was different." Said Powe, "I had to learn everything off the streets. My mom could only teach me so much." And at another time he also said, "That shaped my character real fast. I had to grow up as a little kid quickly, and I did that." Given Leon's case, you would almost expect him to go to the lifestyle of the nearby gangs. But Bernard Ward, the older brother of Leon's then-best friend, Shamare Freeman, was determined to not let that happen. Freeman was constantly flirting with trouble, and Leon walked away from Shamare a few hours before he was caught stealing a bike (Shamare was put in jail), and Powe decided that he would discontinue the friendship, what with Shamare's legal record that included stealing and skipping school. Bernard took Leon under his wing, saying, "I took it upon myself. I said to Leon, 'I lost my other little brother to the system, and I'm going to help change your life so that you don't go that way.'" Playing hoops, street ball in particular, kept Powe out of trouble in middle school.

For high school, still in foster care, he attended Oakland Technical High School, which has an enrollment of over 1,500. In his junior year, Powe led his team to the state championship, him being the marquee player for Oakland Technical High. But Leon Powe is not known for his good luck. Four days before the game, his mother tragically died from a heart attack. Powe reflected on the incident, "(My world) crashed down when she died. All of it." His mother's death at the young age of 41 had a massive impact on Leon, and he seriously considered not playing in the state championship. He finally decided that he would play, thinking that that is what his mother would have wanted, her being one who loved to watch her son play basketball. Powe scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the championship loss.

Shortly thereafter, to add insult to injury (or injury to insult, really) Powe tore his ACL in his left knee while going in for a dunk in an AAU tournament in Houston. It healed somewhat, but it never had any formal rehab, and that would come back to haunt Leon when he got to college. But he came back strong in his senior year in 2003, averaging 27.4 points, 14.2 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game, leading his high school to the state finals again. This season ultimately put Powe on the radar as an elite player, earning a spot in the prestigous McDonald's All-American game, winning Gatorade California Player of the Year honors, and was also named First Team Parade All America. He also became the only Oakland Tech athlete to have his number retired by the high school.

With all of the significant events happening on the court, Powe had to keep his grades up, and spent many weekend hours studying for the SAT. He had a tutor, Jonas Zuckerman, hired by Ward, who had taught Powe in elementary school. Leon always went to class and never had to be told, towards the end of his high school stay he realized how important school is. As a senior he had a 3.2 GPA, a great improvement on his earlier 1.8. In the beginning, he didn't care about his academic performance. "I didn't care about school, sitting in class, doing homework. I didn't think I was going to college. I heard you have to have all these A's and B's. And I said, 'I'm not doing it.'" But Powe did get up to the "A's and B's" range; a 3.2 GPA is a B+ average. He took the SATs four times in order to obtain the necessary scores for admission into college, with a fifth just in case.

"I must have run around the house a couple times." Said Powe of the day he got the test results, "I told everybody and got on the phone and said, 'I qualified!'" Powe decided to attend California, where he shined early. In his freshman season he averaged over fifteen points per game, and he also averaged a conference-leading nine rebounds as well. He was awarded Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and All-Conference honors. But he was playing through excruciating pain; this being the hardest that he had worked his knee. He needed an operation, and he had a bone graft done in spring 2004 to ease the pain and had reconstructive surgery in the fall. Many people doubted that he would return, and the average one among us would have given up; it was a hopeless case for Powe, after all the knee failures. But Leon is not the kind to quit.

"In my family, we don't give up, especially when it gets tough." Powe reflects, "If you give up, where you gonna go? And I wanted to go the top." Powe clearly displayed his persistence by walking back on the basketball court after 16 months of rehabbing his knee. He redshirted in 2006 as a junior, averaging 20.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, while Cal went on to a 20-11 record and an NCAA tournament berth. Again, he was selected to the All Pac-10 Team. After this second year of stellar college ball, Powe decided to enter his name in the 2006 NBA draft.

Leon was selected with the 49th overall pick by the Denver Nuggets, and he was subsequently traded to the Boston Celtics, where he became the fourth-string F-C behind Kendrick Perkins, Michael Olowakandi and (my favorite player in the league) Brian Scalabrine. He barely got any playing time in that 06-07 season, averaging 4.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 11.4 minutes per game. Powe did not reach the required sum of 14 in points, rebounds and assists in order to guarantee the next year of his contract, but Powe was retained when the Celtics didn't waive him by the deadline (July 1, 2007).

Last year, Leon Powe got more of a chance to showcase his game. Still not getting top minutes during the regular season at 14.4 per game, Powe improved on the year before, averaging 7.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. Powe had a career game against the Miami Heat on January 29th, scoring 25 points and bringing down 11 boards in the Celtics' blowout victory. His performance in game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers (mentioned earlier) was the most notable matchup of his career, where in 15 minutes of play he scored 21 points in front of a crowd chanting his name, re-energizing the C's, winning 108-102 over the Kobe-powered Lakers. He played well the rest of the series, en route to Boston winning their 17th banner in Celtics history.

As a player, Powe is listed at 6'8", yet he is really about 6'7", rather undersized for a player of his position. Luckily, to make the first fact irrelevant, he has extraordinarily long arms, with a 7 foot wing span. Powe has a great deal of muscle, also possessing great skills of boxing out. A great feature of his game is his thunderous slam dunks, firing up himself, teammates and fans alike. Powe has proven himself to become one of the most trusted players on the Celtics' decent bench, and is now one of the first to come on the floor along with potential-laden swingman. His averages will jump this year with this well-deserved opportunity. Can he help fill the void left by James Posey? We don't know, but he'll definitely help. The 24 year old continues to improve, and he will only draw more attention as the year progresses. When you see Leon Powe play basketball, you see all this. His game demands your attention.

But his life demands your respect.

-- Moose


Moose said...

Sorry about the paragraphs here, that kind of messed up, so please just ignore it. Leon Powe is a true role model, one of my favorite players because of all that he's come through. Have no doubt that I was wearing a Leon Powe shirt while I wrote this.

Moose said...

Fixed the paragraphs, sorry y'all.

BETCATS said...

that was professinal style journalism. You write serious, i write silly, its all good. I really enjoyed that though. Only person(s) i can think of that write better than you are me, me,me, and me (and the SLAM staff). Good stuff.

Moose said...

Thanks, BET.

Anonymous said...

This is a truly inspirational story told in a professional manner.

A tip of the cap to Mr. Powe and one to Moose for telling it so well!

Eboy said...

Excellent work, Moose. Powe made me a fan when he ranshackled the Lakers over and over and over in the Finals.

B. Long said...

Moose, your growing up before my very eyes! Making daddy proud. J/K. Great work, son. Two new articles on Where Basketball B Longs!

HB said...

that was some great work moose, keep it up

Moose said...

Thanks for all the love, I appreciate it.

Hursty said...

Moose is stylin'. That was very, very nice.
You may want to have another look at all the punctuation and grammar though (theres probably 3 or 4 things worth clearing up).
On the whole, I liked it very much though.
I am not suprised that Eboy wrote the above comment at ALL though.

Hursty said...

You know... if his mothers mothers name is Landry, then is it unreasonable to think that possibly he is related to Rockets energy man Carl? Same height, explosivenes, etc...?
Outlandish but it would be pretty cool.

Moose said...

Thanks, Hursty. I'll edit more carefully now . . .

the baconator said...

Wow.... that's about all I can say Moose. No lie, one of the best sports articles I've ever read. Truly inspiring, and really intense. You actually made me a Leon Powe fan in the time it took to read that, haha. Great work

Roy said...

Hey Moose, great article on Leon Powe. Dude deserves a lot of respect not just as a player but as a person. It's unfortunate only a few NBA fans here in the Philippines recognizes Powe. He just plays hard every night and I believe he has a great heart. A lot of people should learn from Leon Powe's experience. Again, great job Moose. ^_^

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