Tower of Power
A difficultchildhood and a torn left ACL couldn't stop Cal's Leon Powe, the leading scorerand rebounder in the Pac-10
Leon Powe was notone of those little boys who grew up actively dreaming of an NBA career. Hisfantasies were deferred while he concerned himself with more practical matters,like finding a permanent home, keeping his family together and having enoughfood for his mother and siblings. Besides, every time he watched an NBA game ontelevision, it seemed as though the players made every shot. "I thoughtguys in the pros never missed," says Powe, 22. "They seemed like theywere perfect, and I knew I wasn't perfect. There wasn't anything about my lifethat you would have called perfect."
Loftier dreams area possibility now that Powe, California's bruising sophomore forward, is thePac-10's leading scorer (20.1 points per game) and rebounder (10.5 per game)and has a realistic chance for an NBA future. Powe sat out last season afterreconstructive surgery on his left knee, and the Bears struggled to a 13-16record without him. But with Powe back in the lineup, Cal was 10-4 in thePac-10 (16-7 overall) and tied with UCLA for first place at week's end. The6'8", 245-pound Powe is so dominant in the low post that he routinely facesdouble and even triple teams. "He's probably the strongest guy in theleague right now," says Washington senior guard Brandon Roy. "He's gotthat grown-man game."
Powe has alwaysbeen mature beyond his years. A childhood filled with poverty and heartacheforced him to grow up quickly. As the oldest child of a single mother, ConnieLandry, young Leon quickly took on parental duties, caring for his youngerbrother, Tim, while their mother supported them by selling used goods at fleamarkets near their Oakland home. That lasted until he was seven, when he camehome from school one day to find the family home ablaze, accidentally set onfire by five-year-old Tim.
No one was hurt,but the house was destroyed, beginning a long odyssey for the family. Theylived with relatives at times, but more often they stayed in cheap motels orshelters--wherever Landry could find a roof, however temporary. "There wereprobably 25 or 30 places that we called home at one time or another," Powesays, "and that's not counting some of the places where we would just stayfor a night before moving on. Money was more than tight, and we just did whatwe had to do to survive."
While they were onthe move, the family grew. Landry eventually had five more children, and Leonplayed Mr. Mom while she worked at various jobs during the day. He missedvirtually all of fifth grade when he spent the year looking after his siblings."You had to make sacrifices," Powe says. "Some nights I would letmy little brother or my mom have my dinner. I figured I could eat the nextday." In 1994, when Leon was 10, Landry was arrested for stealing food froma grocery store; later that year and again in '96 she was charged with welfarefraud. By the time he was 14, Powe and his siblings had been placed in fosterhomes.
His life finallytook a turn for the better when Bernard Ward, an Oakland playground legend,took Powe under his wing. Powe developed his game and eventually became a starat Oakland Tech, which he led to the state final as a junior. The game is amemory filled with grief; his mother died of heart failure at age 41, four daysearlier. He now wears a medallion with Landry's likeness and also listens toTupac Shakur's Dear Mama before each game. "I know the way we lived wasn'tthe best, but she tried the best she could," he says. "She found a waywhen it looked like there was no way."
That might helpexplain Powe's resilience. He tore his left ACL after his junior season in highschool, but he recovered well enough to be named state player of the year as asenior and lead Tech back to the state final. The next season he was Pac-10rookie of the year at Cal. After redshirting to have the knee operated on againin 2004, he has come back strong on and off the court: He's on track to get hisdegree in social welfare in spring '07 .
Powe also workedhard on his jump shot and his ball handling during his year off, skills heneeded to improve to better his pro prospects. The NBA dreams he couldn'tentertain as a boy are now in the back of his mind, where he plans to keep themuntil the season is over. "I don't want anything to take away myconcentration on what we're trying to do," he says. "After the seasonI'll sit down and think about my options, but right now I feel at homehere." That's a feeling Powe will never take for granted.
Big Point TotalsBut Little Notice
Three majorconferences--the Big East, Big Ten and Big 12--have leading scorers who havestrangely flown under the radar. One reason might be that much of theirimprovement has come just this year. Here's a look at each.
Quincy Douby,Rutgers (Big East). On Feb. 1 the 6'3" junior guard poured in a career-high41 points at Syracuse, breaking the scoring record at the Carrier Dome. Thetotal was also the highest ever by a Big East player in a conference road game.A talented three-point shooter (38.9% this season), Douby has added a floaterto his repertoire, a major reason he has increased his average from 15.1 pointslast season to 24.6 at week's end. "He's always been able to shoot it fromthe locker room," says St. John's coach Norm Roberts, "but now he'sbeating guys off the dribble."
Thomas Gardner,Missouri (Big 12). Last winter the 6'5" junior guard shot 27.0% fromthree-point range and averaged 10.4 points. So Gardner tweaked his shot lastsummer after a suggestion from assistant coach Jeff Meyer, who told him toimagine he was shooting in a phone booth, and has been on a tear all season. Atweek's end he was shooting 40.0% from behind the arc and averaging 19.6 points.On Jan. 16 Gardner scored a career-high 40 points against Kansas. "Kansastried a box-and-one and a triangle-and-two [and couldn't stop him]," saysTexas A&M coach Billy Gillispie. "They were all contested shots and hejust made them."
Vedran Vukusic,Northwestern (Big Ten). The 6'8" senior forward has come a long way sincehe arrived on campus in 2001 from his native Croatia. "I was probably theworst shooter the first two or three months of practice," he says. "Ifocused every day on what to change, and I went from throwing up bricks tomaking shots." Indeed, Vukusic (20.1 ppg at week's end, up from 16.8 a yearago) is shooting 50.3% from the field, and with 202 career three-pointers, heis one short of the school record. --Julia Morrill
• Stewart Mandel'sBubble Watch at SI.com/collegebasketball.
An NBA scout evaluates the potential of Arkansas juniorRonnie Brewer, a 6'7", 217-pound guard who was averaging 18.8 points (topsin the SEC) and 4.6 rebounds at week's end. --Julia Morrill
"He has the ugliest shot I've ever seen. He makesthree-pointers, but I have no idea how they go in. You never know where theball will go when he misses; sometimes it even hits the shot clock. But I canlive with all of that, because you know what? He scores.... Still, he's not anoff-the-chart athlete, he doesn't defend and he doesn't rebound. That bothersme because when you're 6'7" and as long as he is, you should be a pain inthe ass.... People say he can be a point guard, but I don't think he's a greatpasser.... He's a first-rounder for sure, but people are saying he'll go as thefifth, sixth or seventh pick. I'd be scared to death to take him thathigh."
ROBERT BECK (POWE)
COLOSSAL Powe had a game-high 30 points and 10 boards as Cal defeated Arizona last week.
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (BREWER)
TOM OLMSCHEID/AP (VUKUSIC)
CROATIAN SENSATION A poor shooter when he first arrived in the U.S., Vukusic is now deadly.