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What separated Powe from most other highly touted prep players, Olivier says, were his work ethic and self-confidence, and that Leon would not get down on himself when he made mistakes. And with the Soldiers, Powe was finally seeing some real competition, and beginning to comprehend just how good he could become.
When Powe returned to Tech as a sophomore, he was a changed player. He no longer coasted, and he was fierce and constant on the court. The 2001 Bulldogs squad was built around DeMarshay Johnson, a slim, nationally ranked six-foot-nine forward. But Johnson missed some games due to a bout with mono, and others later in the season due to academic ineligibility. Powe stepped in to fill the void, averaging 24 points and 13 rebounds a game, which helped lead Tech to a 24-3 finish and a slot in the Northern California Division I semifinals, where the Bulldogs lost by four points to De La Salle. "I never had an idea on how much better Leon could get," says Coach McGavock. "From the ninth grade to the tenth grade, he improved 100 percent."
Hill and Ward kept Powe on a daily training regimen of shooting and moves they say has both improved his skills and made him tougher. Hill recalls one memorable free-for-all at an indoor court in Emeryville: "It was anything-goes," he recalls. "No fouls were called, and we were all going at it. I dropped out of the game and then it was Bernard versus Leon."
Instead of backing down when Powe drove forward, Ward was bumping him back, holding his ground. The play got so physical that Hill thought he was going to have to step in and stop a fistfight. "Man, they kept on going at it, hacking each other and playing really hard," he says. "Bernard then began to talk trash to him, which made Leon mad. After a while, I knew what Bernard was doing. ... He was challenging his mental game to see if he was going to back down, and Leon didn't. To me, that showed that Leon had heart. It also meant that he was ready to take a challenge from someone who was older and more experienced."
The next summer Powe was part of an Oakland Soldiers lineup that read like a who's who of national ball, with names such as LeBron James, John Winston, DeMarcus Nelson, Rekalin Sims, and Marquise Kately. But it was that summer's ABCD Adidas basketball camp in New Jersey that sent Leon's stock soaring.
This camp is the most prominent of the many showcases that attract top prep players from around the country for evaluation. Powe walked in as a national unknown, and proceeded to outplay and embarrass some of the nation's best young basketball stars. In the process, he caught the attention of college coaches and NBA scouts, who began comparing him to Elton Brand.
At first, Powe was unsure of how he would measure up. Then he scored fifteen points in the opening scrimmage. "After that first game, as I got comfortable, I started bringing to the players," he says. The young Oaklander was blocking shots, grabbing every rebound that came off the rim, and dominating the floor in a fashion that had everyone asking about him. By the time he returned home, his mailbox was filling up with letters from colleges -- Arizona, Duke, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina, Cal, and Texas -- all wanting a piece of him.
The wild card in Leon Powe's future as a basketball player came last spring as he played with the Soldiers in Houston. "It was a big tournament game for us," Powe recalls. "At the beginning of the game, I was going for a rebound, and I planted my foot hard to jump off the ground, when I felt a tear in my knee."
Powe took himself out, then tried playing again later only to find he wasn't jumping well. Back home, he discovered he'd torn one of his anterior cruciate ligaments, limiting his mobility and lateral movement. He promptly underwent surgery to repair the damage, and was forced to miss Tech's myriad preseason summer games and the various exposure camps where young careers are made. "Leon had a very serious knee operation for a high school kid," says Lou Richie, who works with Powe as a trainer. "With an ankle sprain, everyone's had one. But when you have a torn ACL, you really don't know if you will make it back. While the doctors may say one thing, then you have your friends and family saying another."
The setback is more than just physical. "Mentally, if you've never had that type of injury, you don't know if you can push yourself to certain limits," Richie says. "You start questioning yourself. 'Do I need this, is it worth it?'"
Powe felt this lack of confidence acutely, but he wasn't about to give up after all he went through to get here. "At first, I was like, man, I'm not going to be able to come back," he says. "I kept calling my doctors and they told me that I had to just believe that I could do it. Then I started believing in myself."
He embraced his painful rehabilitation, swimming, running, and lifting weights to help strengthen his leg. Over the summer, Powe could be seen warming up with his Tech teammates, and then sitting down with assistant coach Harold Hammock to help coach the team.
As yet, he isn't fully recovered from the surgery. While Powe's instincts are still intact, his game only seems about 75 percent of where it was last season. In a recent game at Sacramento's Jesuit High, he looked bothered by his injury, and seemed restrained in his jumping for most of the night. Tech won by seventeen points, and Powe, double-teamed at all times, scored 23 but missed seven free throws. "Leon didn't look that good to me," Ward commented as Powe bounded up to shake hands after the game. "You missed too many free throws. You looked like Shaq at the line," he told the player, then turned back to his interviewer. "I see a lack of concentration on his part, but he'll be alright."
Powe says his knee feels fine, although he continues to play with a brace. Richie concurs. "Leon Powe might have been the quickest person to come back and play basketball after having ACL surgery," the trainer says. "Working him out, I have seen him do some dunks that were incredible. If there are some problems with him, it may be mental."