Even by the mean standards of the city game, Leon Powe has had a hard life. His father left when Leon was two. Five years later his younger brother, Timothy, found matches in the house where they lived with their mother, Connie, in Oakland, and accidentally burned the place down. "That was the beginning" says Leon. "Everything had been cool. Then we lost it all." For the next seven years the family lived in about 30 different places—dingy apartments, homeless shelters, cheap motels. Connie made money by collecting things left behind in storage spaces and hawking them at flea markets. In 1998 the city's social services department took Leon and Timothy from Connie and placed them in a foster home. Then this April, Connie died in her sleep of unknown causes in an Oakland motel room just four days before Leon, then 17, was to lead Oakland Tech High into its first Division I state championship game.
For Leon, a wondrously gifted 6'8", 230-pound power forward, basketball has always been a saving grace. By the time his mother died, he was one of the most highly recruited players in the country, drawing interest from Kansas, Maryland, North Carolina and nearly every other major program. Still, he says, "I was lost. My mother was the reason I did everything. I wanted us to get out of the ghetto; I wanted to buy her a house. I was devastated, but I kept playing because that's what she would have wanted."
Though obviously distracted and plagued by first-half foul trouble, Powe had 19 points and 10 rebounds in Oakland Tech's 80-75 loss to L.A.'s Westchester High. Three weeks later, in an AAU game, he tore his left ACL. "I asked myself, Why is this happening to me?" he says. His knee surgery went well, though, and in July, Powe gave an oral commitment to Cal.
Last year Powe averaged 29 points and 15 rebounds, but he is just as proud of some other numbers. After Powe had a 1.9 GPA as a freshman, Jonas Zuckerman, his academic adviser, began tutoring him. Two years later Powe's GPA was 3.2. "I'm so proud of him," says Bernard Ward, a counselor at the Alameda County Probation Department who took in Leon after Connie's death. "He's bounced back from so much, and he's just a kid."