When Oakland Tech High megastar Leon Powe announced his plans to play basketball for Cal earlier this week, it was more than a recruiting coup for head coach Ben Braun. It marked the first time since Jason Kidd a decade ago that the Bears lured the top local player to Berkeley, a sign that the program has finally recovered from the shameful Todd Bozeman era.
Bozeman’s violations are well-documented: he paid recruits’ parents cold cash to attract talent and didn’t take care of business on the academic side. But he also threw a veil of shame over the basketball program, and for all of Braun’s success since taking over, he has a history of losing out on the Bay Area’s top players. El Cerrito’s Drew Gooden headed off to Kansas, Modesto Christian’s Chuck Hayes to Kentucky, and Berkeley’s own Justin Davis skipped across the Bay to the dreaded Stanford Cardinal, a defection of John Walker Lindh proportions.
Braun instead focused on southern California and the Midwest, where he has roots after bringing Eastern Michigan University a surprising amount of success before coming to Cal. He even grabbed players from Europe, with variable results. The core of the current squad came from the Rockfish, a Los Angeles AAU program that doesn’t get the top dogs of the area. But the inroads into the local kids just weren’t bearing fruit.
That’s why Powe’s decision is a momentous one for the Cal program. The Bay Area produces some great players, and there’s no reason Cal shouldn’t be the preferred destination for that talent. Great academic opportunities without the admissions handcuffs of Stanford, a solid basketball tradition and revamped facilities are just a few of the amenities the school can offer, yet players like Gooden and Davis barely gave Cal a glance on their way out the door.
Things started to turn around a bit last year, as Braun signed both Richard Midgely and David Paris out of Modesto Christian High, but neither was the subject of bitter recruiting battles, as Cal was up against schools like St. Mary’s and Cal State Northridge for their services. Powe is another story. The other schools on his short list read like a role call of national champions: Duke, North Carolina and Maryland, with Kansas thrown in for some heartland flavor. Anytime Cal beats those powers for a player, it’s cause for celebration up and down Telegraph Avenue.
Powe is expected to make an instant impact on the program, the kind of player around whom a coach can build a team. Now the Bears are the front-runner for Powe’s AAU teammate Ayinde Ubaka, at one time thought to be a lock for Arizona and their progression of point guards who end up in the NBA. Ubaka and Marquis Kately, another Cal signee who will spend a year at prep school, just finished leading their Slam ‘N Jam team to a top-four finish at the Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas, the top West Coast event of the summer. If Braun can establish a relationship with Slam ‘N Jam, it would give him an in with most of the Bay Area’s best high school players, including three standouts for the class of ‘04.
Of course, Braun can’t win ‘em all. Vallejo High’s DeMarcus Nelson, one of the top rising juniors in the country, gave his verbal commitment to Duke earlier this year. Of course, this is the same kid who decided to transfer to St. Mary’s High last summer but changed his mind after just two days, so his commitment to Duke may be about as solid as stock advice from an Enron exec. But Cal doesn’t lure players away from Tobacco Road, so there’s no reason for ACC schools to be able to strip-mine the Bay Area for talent without at least some resistance from the Bears.
Braun has done amazing things with limited players, helping turn Sean Lampley from a marginal recruit into the Pac-10 Player of the Year and reaching the NCAA Tournament last year without a legitimate scoring threat. Last year’s recruiting class was supposed to be his motherlode of talent, but the Julian Sensley fiasco and Jamal Sampson’s burst of NBA optimism put the kibosh on that. If Powe qualifies academically and Ubaka joins him at Haas Pavilion along with super-talented classmates Kately, Wesley Washington and Dominic McGuire, Braun would have the personnel to play with any team in the country. What more could a Cal fan ask for than local kids in blue and gold taking on the Dukes of the world?