Growing Up ... Leon Powe

They’ve always had talent, but what were the Cavaliers like before they became rich and gigantic and famous?

Cavaliers forward, Leon Powe, had a rough road growing up – facing about every obstacle and tragedy a young man can. Powe has dealt with hunger, homelessness and the death of his mother while he was still in high school. It’s no wonder he’s able to overcome basketball setbacks with such class and resolve.

From the hard-scrabble streets of Oakland to an AAU legend, in today’s Growing Up, we take a look at one of the Cavaliers toughest (and nicest) guys, Leon Powe – who explains the importance of workouts, the inspiration of his role models and his memorable first dunk …

At first, basketball … started out as just something fun; just to give me something
to do.

In 8th grade basketball, my team … played three games and all my teammates quit. We didn’t play any more games the rest of the year. It was Carter Middle School. It’s not like they were bad, they just hated the coach.

But in 9th grade … things turned around and I averaged around 13 and 9.

After that, my mentor, my brother, Bernard Ward … asked me if I wanted to join an AAU team. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll join the AAU team and see how it goes.’

So I joined the Soldiers … and they said, ‘He’s alright. He can rebound, but we’re not sure. Let’s put him on the ‘2’ team and see what happens.’

From there, I started ... working out with a lot of different guys, including college players and pros. And most of the workouts consisted of drills, some things I had never done to try to get better.

In those drills … I was doing really well. And that gave me the confidence to go back out there and try to turn this into something. I wasn’t thinking about the pros, but I was thinking about maybe a college scholarship.

The key was … to continue working out; that’s what my brother taught me.

I couldn’t do any of the stuff … I can do now. It was mostly one-on-ones, shooting drills, three-on-three, post-work drills. We’d start that in the morning. And then we’d work out later that night and do another session. Drew Gooden would be there. Shareef Abdur-Rahim. He had such great footwork; I learned a lot from him.

I could see that I was … increasingly getting better and better – putting up 20, 25 then it got to be 30,35. My brother told me it’s because of all the work we’ve been doing, and that’s how we keep getting better. And that allowed my confidence to take off.

This was the summer … going into 10th grade. And that’s right around the time that I met LeBron.

I was on … the ‘2’ team. LeBron was on the ‘1’ team. This is the summer when it all happened, maybe for both of us. Of course, he was going pro since second grade, and I was just getting started. But I was still working out with different players and different types of players – while I was also playing AAU games. And I could tell I was getting better and better, even with some high-quality guys on the team.

Oakland has a reputation … as the West Coast version of New York in terms of hoops. Oakland is known for basketball, and it’s filled with tough players, tough-minded players.

You don’t get too frustrated on the court … because you already know you can overcome anything on those streets. You’ve seen everything. You’ve seen it all.

My mom … passed away while I was in high school. And she taught me to never give up on anything – and that’s why I have that mentality. I’ve never seen her give up one time – even when things looked real dim, wondering about things like how we’re going to eat today? And she always found a way.

My mentor, Bernard, took me in and … showed me basketball. But he really showed me about life – how to carry myself as a young man and be successful in this world.

That’s why I have that never-give-up attitude … instilled in me – because of my mom and my mentor. They taught me what hard work is all about and the importance of school and education. Sometimes young kids will be like, ‘I don’t want to go to school today.’ But you have to do it.

Of course I remember … my first dunk. It was in 7th grade.

It was this … little summer tournament in East Oakland. I remember, when I was in like 6th, 7th, 8th grade I’d play in these tournaments just for fun.

When I was in 5th grade … I’d always get picked last. Every time. And I’d get mad. All I could do is rebound; I couldn’t score that much. But things started changing towards 7th grade.

In that game, I got … a steal and I got off on a fast break – all alone. And I could hear my teammates behind me yelling, ‘Dunk it!! Dunk it!!’

It was the nastiest, ugliest … dunk of my entire life. I almost tripped, nearly fell, stretched out and barely dunked the ball. It was a dunk, but man, it was UGLY! I don’t know what it looked like, but it must’ve been terrible.

I wasn’t proud of it … but I remember being excited running back down the court. Hey, that was my first time!