Skip to content
Our Archives
Link copied to clipboard

Celtics reserve Powe has overcome plenty

LOS ANGELES - Jonas Zuckerman could only smile about the teacher across the hall from him at Oakland Technical High wearing a Los Angeles Lakers jersey.

LOS ANGELES - Jonas Zuckerman could only smile about the teacher across the hall from him at Oakland Technical High wearing a Los Angeles Lakers jersey.

"People out here are [Golden State] Warriors fans, but we all know the Lakers have a big following," said Zuckerman, the Oakland Tech athletic director. "Let's just say the Lakers cast a wide net."

But there's a gaping hole in that wide net. The people in the school can root for the Lakers or the Boston Celtics. But they can't root against Leon Powe.

How could they? He's one of them.

What Powe (rhymes with "show"), one of the Celtics' backup power forwards, did to the Lakers in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night has instantly become legendary, both within the framework of Finals history and the background of his youth.

What he did - scored 21 points, including hitting nine of 13 free throws in 14 minutes, 39 seconds - in the Celtics' 108-102 victory, which gave them a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series that continues tonight in the Staples Center, is dramatic enough.

"I just know coach [Doc Rivers] called my number," Powe said Sunday night. "He put me in the game and he called a couple post-ups for me and I knew I had to deliver. I was just trying to help my team win. My teammates did a real good job of finding me in good spots in good areas where I could finish easier, [not] have to make too many moves."

Asked whether Powe's contribution caught the Lakers a little off-guard, Kobe Bryant smiled and said, "Just a little. Just a touch."

Powe averaged eight points during a regular season in which it was not unusual for him to go long stretches without playing at all. He went into Sunday night's game averaging five points in the playoffs. Powe was only in the game because the Celtics had been unsuccessful down low.

"We actually had to go to Leon to establish a post game," Rivers said afterward.

How Powe got this far in his 24 years of life is far more gripping than anything that took place on the court.

Powe's father left when he was 2. The building in which the family lived burned down when he was 7. Connie Landry, his mother, was in and out of trouble with the law. California authorities took him away from Landry at one point and placed him in foster care. Landry died at 40, just before Leon played in a state championship game.

The family - Leon is the oldest of seven siblings - lived in shelters, abandoned houses, rundown residential hotels, even in the backs of abandoned cars. Landry's husband was in a state prison. Even Leon's best friend was in trouble.

But Leon became a Parade magazine first-team high school All-America, played at the University of California, came back after two knee surgeries, became a second-round draft choice of the Denver Nuggets and landed with the Celtics in a trade that barely caused a ripple in June 2006.

In the middle of all this, among others who helped clear a path for Powe, is Zuckerman, who was born and raised until age 13 in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia.

"I can remember being allowed a day off from school to go to a Flyers parade," Zuckerman said, laughing. "I remember [the Phillies'] Pete Rose catching a foul ball off Bob Boone's glove in 1980. I remember the 76ers and Portland in the 1977 Finals, and Moses Malone coming to town in '82."

But this telephone conversation was about Leon Powe and how his sudden success resonates through the halls of Oakland Tech, where the list of past students has included Clint Eastwood, Rickey Henderson, Curt Flood, the Pointer Sisters and Huey P. Newton.

"There was one year of elementary school when Leon missed 100 of 180 days," Zuckerman said. "When he got to us, he was so far behind, but it wasn't about effort. It was his background."

Zuckerman began to tutor Powe, and that, he said, "morphed into a study hall for others."

"The biggest problem now is getting the right message to the kids," Zuckerman said. "It isn't about their chance to someday play in the NBA. It's about keeping the dream in place of a chance to succeed at something if you work as hard as you can.

"I can tell you, if that had been me in his situation I would not have graduated. I don't know that I could have done what he has done. I don't know how he pulled it together. We've had equally good athletes who couldn't. Why could he? I knew his mom. I credit her for somehow instilling it in him."

Still, in the heat of the Finals, the only story about Powe that mattered to Lakers coach Phil Jackson was what he did on the court, attempting more free throws in his limited minutes than the entire Lakers team (10-for-10). The Celtics shot 27-for-38.

"That's ridiculous," Jackson said. "I've never seen a game like that in all these years I've coached in the Finals. Unbelievable."

Even more unbelievable was Jackson's assessment of why. Tongue-in-cheek? An attempt at creating an environment for tonight? Only Jackson knows. But this is what he said:

"The referees referee an illusion. Our guys look like maybe the ball was partially stripped when they were getting raked or whatever was happening, but it was in the crowd so the referees let that type of thing go. So we have to create the spacing that gives the right impression."

What Powe did, though, was anything but an illusion. He might not ever do it again, but the Celtics have held homecourt and are up 2-0 in the 2-3-2 format. Only two teams have ever swept the middle three games at home. And that's not an illusion, either. *