A Local Star Prepares to Take Flight in Berkeley

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

The basketball gym at Riverview Park in North Augusta, South Carolina is nothing fancy. It’s the type of sprawling, multi-purpose gym you’ve been to a million times. A place to hold indoor soccer games, summer hoop camps, or a Friday night co-ed volleyball league. It’s your run of the mill suburban rec center that allows weekend warriors to shake off the dust of another long work week and get out and run. This all changes, however, for one week every July. That’s when the best basketball players in the world under the age of 18 descend on North Augusta to compete in the most prestigious AAU tournament there is. They call it the “Peach Jam”.

As you can imagine, for better or worse, Nike has their fingerprints all over the Peach Jam. The flagship tournament marks the culmination of the “Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL)”, which is effectively a group of prestigious AAU basketball tournaments run by Nike designed to highlight the athletes Nike hopes to one day sponsor. In the end, it works out for everyone. Nike puts on the tournaments, players get exposure, and college coaches get to see all the best talent of tomorrow crammed into one gym competing against one another.

Last year’s Peach Jam headliner was undoubtedly Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. Widely considered the best high school player to come along since LeBron James, Wiggins fell one point short in the tournament championship. He lost to Cal’s Jabari Bird.

Playing for the Oakland Soldiers, an AAU team LeBron once played for extensively, Bird found his team down 50-49 with under 10 ticks on the clock. Bird was being guarded by Wiggins on the left wing when the ball came his way. Without hesitation, he rose up and fired off a three with everything on the line. Wiggins couldn’t help but commit a foul. Bird calmly strode to the free throw stripe, in a sweltering South Carolina gym in July, under the watchful eyes of the Mike Krzyzewskis of the world, and calmly drained the game winners.

Sure enough, before Bird could even board his flight back out to Oakland, The North Carolina Tar Heels came calling, Jabari’s dream school.

“My dream school growing up was North Carolina. I wanted to be just like Jordan,” explained Bird in his high school coach’s office. “They came on too late though. I remember right after we won Peach Jam, I’m on my way home, and I get a text from one of their coaches offering me a scholarship. It was kinda crazy. UNC was a school I always watched growing up. But I had to say no. It was too late.”

Indeed, the 6’6” swingman, who’s always made sure to wear number 23, had worked his whole life to receive that text. For someone to offer him a chance to follow MJ’s exact footsteps and play for the Tar Heels of UNC. But Jabari is serious when he says it was too late. The Vallejo, CA native had promised to be a California Bear, and number 23 is a man of his word.

In order to connect the dots and fully understand where Bird developed his respectful demeanor, his cool confidence and his Jordan-esque smile, it helps to walk the halls of his alma mater, Salesian High School. Located in the heart of Richmond, the private school of 451 students shares a fence with the neighboring Richmond High School located just steps down the road. The quaint Catholic school features manicured lawns at the base of intelligent architecture. Students walk the halls in traditional school uniforms, while the administration is quick with a smile to the rogue stranger passing by. Principal’s Timothy J. Chambers popular slogan is “come and see”, and to be sure, the school’s excellence speaks for itself.

On the day I visited with Jabari, it was the second day of a new school year at Salesian. The back to school hustle and bustle didn’t stop Principal Chambers from corralling me into his office for a chance to discuss the attributes of his latest student done good.

“He was great,” says Chambers with beaming pride. “I can say that without a qualification. He was a leader. In the hallway, in the classroom, wherever he was. His language, his style, he had no pretense to superiority at all.”

It would be hard to blame Bird for having said pretense, considering his presence on campus. The main entrance to the school opens up to the a trophy case featuring the State Championship trophy Jabari won as a Junior in 2012. Down the hall, a conference room is adorned by a blown up photo of Bird in a McDonald’s apron from a photoshoot he did following his selection as a McDonald’s All-American. Yet despite all this pomp and circumstance surrounding the 18 year old, it hasn’t seemed to have gotten to his head.

Bill Mellis, a former team manager for the Cal Bears basketball team during the Jason Kidd era and current Salesian head coach, jumps at the chance to speak fondly of his former player both on and off the court.

“I’ll just say that for someone that was as recognizable and in the limelight, he is very down to earth. He loved his senior class. Not just the basketball players, but all the way down to the teachers. He treated everyone with respect and didn’t walk around like he was better than anyone else. One of his first year’s here, during a spirit week, he came in a full on purple Teletubby costume. He can laugh at himself. He was never above anything.”

If our location for an interview was any indication (cramped in the back corner of Mellis’ “under-construction” basketball office) Jabari’s reputation for humility in the face of humungous hype certainly seems to hold weight. With his never ending legs and Inspector Gadget arms coiled up like an accordion on his old coaches’ couch, Bird is at ease discussing the long arch of his basketball career.

The son of a San Quentin Prison guard, Jabari had his old man around in the afternoons to rebound for him when he was itching to get some shots up in the family’s backyard. That’s because his dad, Carl Bird, worked the graveyard shift, in part to have more time to spend with young Bari. It also didn’t hurt that Carl knew his way around a basketball court himself. A 6’8” forward who led the Cal Bears in scoring twice during the 1970’s, Carl was drafted by the Golden State Warriors and eventually cut out a long career for himself in professional leagues overseas.

“My dad always worked with me in the backyard. It would then go to HORSE, and he would always beat me in HORSE, then it went to one-on-one. I’m a little kid, and he’s like 6’8” 240, a big guy, but he wouldn’t let me win. He wasn’t about letting me win. That definitely helped me with my competitive edge.”

Not only did Jabari benefit from patterning his game after his father, he also remembers becoming infatuated by the Greatest Of All Time, Michael Jordan, at a very young age. It just so happened that the youngster grew up to be the same height as MJ, with a similar body-type and style of play.

“Growing up I just watched Michael Jordan videos all the time. I mean, who didn’t want to be like Mike? I remember watching him in the Finals versus Utah. Just as a little kid next to my mom, imitating his moves on the couch, trying to do whatever he did. I even watched Space Jam all the time. I had all his DVD’s. Everything.”

Inspired by Jordan like so many his age, Bird became consumed with the game of basketball, playing any chance he got. Whether it was an outdoor playground in Vallejo, inside at the Mare Island Sports Center, or at an AAU tournament with the Vallejo Hustlers, Bird was rarely seen during his youth without a basketball under his arm.

When it came time to pick a high school to attend, Bird chose Benicia High. A relatively unknown program, Bird’s reasons for attending Benicia were threefold. The school was relatively close by, all his friends were going there, and the coach was the son of Al Attles. The same Al Attles who drafted Carl Bird onto the Warriors decades earlier. After experiencing a five inch growth spurt the summer leading up to his freshman season, Bird became a breakout player for Benicia averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds playing against guys four years older than him. It wasn’t long before he got his first call from the Oakland Soldiers.

“I remember the Soldiers called me after my freshman year, and I knew who the Soldiers were. Carl Foster called me. I was super nervous at the tryout. When I walked into the tryout I saw all these elite guys like Jabari Brown, Dominic Artis, etc, and I was thinking, ‘I’m not supposed to be here’. I don’t want to say I was star struck. But there was just a lot of talent in the gym, Aaron Gordon, everyone. Initially, I didn’t feel like I belonged there.”

Whether Bird felt he belonged or not, he turned in a great performance at the tryout and was able to make the squad. With an alumni list of players that include LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Chauncey Billups and the like, there was no understating how big of a deal it was for Jabari to become a Soldier. For the next three summers, Bird would tour the United States, stopping off at an array of elite tournaments to play the best talent the team could find. Alongside him the entire way was Aaron Gordon, the current Arizona Wildcat who won California’s Mr. Basketball award twice while at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose.

“I was motivated. On the Soldiers I was never known as ‘that guy’. When people talked about the team I played on, in my age group, it was always about Aaron Gordon. And Aaron is a good friend of mine, but at the same time, I see him as a rival. Any accolade he got, I wanted it too. Being on the same team as him pushed me to work hard because I wanted everything he had. I wanted be seen on the same level as him.”

It was that first summer with the Soldiers that Jabari met point guard Mario Dunn. An electrifying player in his own right, Dunn had just finished his first year at Salesian, and continually sung the praises of the school and the basketball program in front of Bird. Because Bird’s coach at Benicia had recently been let go, Jabari figured why not head over to Salesian and chase down a state championship with his buddy Mario. He eventually achieved just that, but not before being embroiled in an alleged recruiting violation.

In what by all accounts was a mix up in the bureaucratic paperwork of the California high school athletics governing body, it was deemed illegal that Jabri had talked to Mario about Salesian before enrolling in the school. Forced to succom to the “Pre-Enrolment Contact” rule, Bird’s Salesian team had to forgo six of their wins that they earned at the beginning of the season. Coming back from a brief suspension, Bird, Dunn and current Oregon point guard Dominic Artis were able to make it all the way to the Division IV State Championship game only to fall short at Arco Arena. The next year, with Artis gone to a Las Vegas prep school, Bird broke through and brought home the elusive State Championship trophy back to Richmond.

Following his subsequent Peach Jam title over Andrew Wiggins, Bird returned home last summer with the world at his fingertips, literally. Virtually any school in the nation had their doors wide open for Jabari, should he have chosen to walk through. Ultimately, he chose to be a Cal Golden Bear, becoming just the fifth McDonald’s All-American to come to Berkeley, joining the likes of Shareef Abdur Rahim, Leon Powe and Jason Kidd.

“Cal was the first college to offer me a scholarship when I was a freshman at Benicia. Honestly, that meant a lot to me. I came into high school as an unknown player, and as soon as I started putting up numbers, Cal came calling and offered me. After that, Washington and Arizona and other schools started calling. But I was always the type of guy who knew he wanted to stay close to home.”

By staying home, Bird became the most heralded Bay Area high school senior to stay local for college since Leon Powe went from Oakland Tech to Cal. Stanford and Cal’s rosters have largely been made up of talent from Southern California as of late, not to mention St. Mary’s looking all the way to Australia to fill out their roster. Last year’s NBA rookie of the year, Damian Lillard from Oakland High, ventured out to Utah to play for Weber State in lieu of staying local. It’s a trend Bird is excited to try to change.

“That is one of my goals. To show kids from the Bay Area following in my footsteps that you don’t necessarily need to go away to play college ball. You can be an All-American, stay close to home, and still accomplish your dreams. Jason Kidd did it, Leon Powe did, I want to do that too.”

While not every superstar from Northern California stays local like Bird, there will be a host of local hoopers doing damage in the PAC-12 this year. Dominic Artis from Salesian will be running the point for Oregon, Aaron Gordon is poised to dominate at Arizona, and Darin Johnson from Sacramento is set to breakout at Washington.

“The PAC-12 should be awesome to watch this year,” says Jason Lincoln, a videographer from the hit YouTube site “Yay Area’s Finest”. “I’ve watched a ton of basketball in the Bay Area over the years, and this is definitely one of the best senior classes I’ve ever seen.”

Lincoln, along with Yay Area’s Finest head honcho Travis Farris, has been filming highlight videos of Bird, his boyhood friend, for as long as he can remember. It’s a passion project that Farris and Lincoln have pushed to become what is now a famed YouTube channel that attracts a cult following of basketball lovers.

“Those guys have been filming me since I was in the ninth grade. I’m all for it and I love supporting it. I think its cool because people say they have all these highlights and want them to get out and Travis and Jason are always there. If you put on a show, YAF is going to put it out.”

Highlight tapes aside, Jabari knows full well that if he expects to send Cal to the Final Four, or find himself on an NBA roster, he has his work cut out for him. Bird’s best attribute is his mid range game. Using his length and smooth athleticism, Bird should have little trouble in college getting off one dribble pull up jumpers and finishing lobs in transition. But there are still some holes in his game that he must fill in order to play at the highest level. Namely defense and ball-handling. Two things Coach Mellis believes Jabari will sure up, so long as he buys into Mike Montgomery’s no nonsense style over in Berkeley.

20 years ago, Bill Mellis shared the huddle with Jason Kidd as the Cal Bears knocked off the two time defending National Champion Duke Blue Devils. He watched the magician that is J Kidd pick apart a seemingly helpless Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. Duke’s chance at an historic three-peat evaporated, while Cal marched on to the Sweet 16. The Sports Illustrated cover photo from that game is prominently displayed in the Salesian basketball office still to this day.

As I finish talking to Bird and he uncoils from his seat in his coaches’ office, Jabari lets out one of his signature smiles as he discusses his Unit 1 freshman dorm arrangement at Cal. Mellis has walked those dormitory halls a thousand times. Eaten at Top Dog down the street, gone to Memorial Stadium every Saturday. More importantly, he’s seen and heard the Harmon Gym crowd explode with noise and spill over onto Bancroft Avenue after another “You had to be there” performance from Jason Kidd. As Mellis and Bird embraced each other a week before Jabari headed off to college, they both knew. They knew the story of the coming years about to unfold was going to be filled with unexpected twists and turns, gut wrenching defeats and historic victories. They both knew it, and were ready for it to begin. But for now, the two could just smile.

“Get StOAKed” – An Oakland Clothing Line is Determined to Challenge Perceptions

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

A group of five 15 year olds isn’t supposed to be able to captivate a room like this.

Tears of joy and pride, prolonged moments of intense contemplation, and rousing standing ovations were supposed to be reserved for “Graduation Saturday” at UC Berkeley. And although more than a few remnants from the Cal graduation yet remained, it was Sunday now. By this time, the diplomas had all been given out, the pictures had all been snapped, the celebratory bottles of wine had been emptied, and the grandparents were well on their way back to Florida.

A newer, younger generation of students now had the stage in the Haas School of Business main auditorium all to themselves. An impressive collection of East Bay ninth graders had descended upon the Berkeley campus to compete in a business competition and pitch their start-up ideas to a group of distinguished panelists. The event, put on by BUILD.org, promised the winner a thousand dollars of seed funding.

In front of a standing room only crowd, it was a clothing company called “Stoaked” that stole the show.

Ryan Frigo, Jovon Jenkins Jr., Desmond Cliett Jr., Christian Johnson, and Kai Crosby, all Oakland Tech Freshman, took the stage near the end of the competition and left no doubt who was the most deserving winner. In a compelling presentation, the five-man team went far beyond simply explaining their brand, but instead dove headlong into social issues plaguing the city of Oakland. A city that the team is currently growing up (and taking pride) in.

The Stoaked contingent used a microphone instead of a bullhorn in order to be heard on this day. And their focus was on their hoodies rather than the 1%. But their speech held undertones of the since past Occupy Oakland movement, and the crowd surely was struck by the gravity of the moment.

“Stoaked is an apparel company that represents Oakland’s life, beauty, and soul,” explained company leader Kai Crosby. “The brand represents a lifestyle and a vision that Oakland’s potential will continue to be brought out, and will bring positive outside perceptions to Oakland. We are trying to slowly change the image of the city we grew up in by selling clothes.”

Ryan Frigo continued to captivate the audience with more background on how Stoaked came to be, and where he plans to take it in the future. It is a company that sells a fashionable, well designed, original product, but the founders make sure their goods also come with a positive and meaningful message.

From L to R: Frigo, Jenkins Jr., Cliett Jr., Johnson, and Crosby (photo by Gene Dominique)

From L to R: Frigo, Jenkins Jr., Cliett Jr., Johnson, and Crosby (photo by Gene Dominique)

Frigo, who appears to be the brains behind the technical side of the product, has chosen a logo for Stoaked that epitomizes the change in Oakland that he is after. The spreading roots of the “City of Oakland Tree”, centered inside a triangle is the logo representing this up-and-coming brand. And if even incidental, consumers can’t help but see the triangle as representing a delta sign, as in change.

“We looked into the Oaklandish logo (also depicting the ‘City of Oakland Tree’) and we realized they don’t have any special rights to the city tree, so we went ahead and made our own design out of Oakland’s city logo.”

The company Frigo makes reference to here, Oaklandish, is an established clothing brand who is dedicated to supporting and representing the city of Oakland in the most positive light possible. With shirts including the one depicting the word “stAy” in support of the one-foot-out-the-door Oakland Athletics, Oaklandish has made every attempt to support the city through a local, artistically driven clothing store.

And as much as stores like Oaklandish have done to change and improve the perception of the city of Oakland, there is no substitute for the perspective that the members of Stoaked posses. Even despite close ties with Oakland and her sociology degree from the University of Chicago, Oaklandish’s CEO Anglea Tsay can’t quite compete with how local Stoaked really is. In the case of Ryan, Kai and the rest of the Stoaked staff, they embody the image and purpose of the clothes themselves. Their models are their classmates, their design consultants are their buddies who skate the rails behind Oakland Tech.

It wasn’t until Frigo finally laid his paws on a heat press that Stoaked went from just a lofty idea to something of substance. Now that same heat press is working overtime in his family’s basement, churning out shirts, tanks and hoodies for customers all over the Bay Area.

“Me and my friends take pictures all throughout the city of Oakland,” explains Frigo. “Sometimes it’s in an urban setting, other times it’s up in a secret spot in the hills. Using photoshop and different design programs, we create what the images will look like, then we use transfers and a heat press to get them on our clothes.” 

It is a process that can be time consuming and labor intensive, especially for a 15 year old. But as Frigo explains, “It doesn’t really feel like work, we enjoy doing it. We love making these clothes.”

As Spring gives way to Summer, the young men of Stoaked have graciously moved on from their business comp triumph. The seed money has already been re-invested, the Summer Line has been released and the all important Fall roll-out of apparel is in the pipeline. But as anyone already knows from hearing this group of entrepreneurs speak about their city and their mission, their goals go far beyond just the next quarter of sales.

Stoaked has decided to not just agree to change or sign up for a movement, but they decided to start one themselves. With each picture taken, each shirt pressed, and each item sold, they plan to come closer to changing the perception of the city they are growing up in.

 If they aren’t careful, they just might do it.

San Francisco’s Bruce-Mahoney Game – “A Tradition Unlike Any Other”

A left handed Timmy Hardaway, Trevor Dunbar, displays his handle on The Hilltop (Photo by Doug Ko, SanFranPreps.com)

A left handed Timmy Hardaway, Trevor Dunbar, displays his handle on The Hilltop (Photo by Doug Ko, SanFranPreps.com)

By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com

San Francisco isn’t supposed to still have this much tradition left in it.

It was supposed to be lost somewhere during the Dot Com boom and bust. Or at a martini bar in a gentrified yuppie hideout, or at a Mark Zuckerberg keynote address on internet privacy, or at an Orange Friday at AT&T Park. The seven by seven stretch of real estate bordered by the Bay and Ocean Beach is thought to have become too blue for it’s own good. Too liberal, too progressive, too obsessed with 3G, 4G and 5G. Too far from its roots.

In a city of transplants and tech mercenaries, the notion of being from San Francisco, has developed an increasingly foggy definition. Ask a post grad on polk street who’s “from San Francisco” where they went to high school, and the zip code usually won’t start with 941.

To be certain, not all of the tradition has gone by the wayside. Not even close. It is still there, still burning as hot as ever, it just requires one to look a few layers below the surface, like inside a 55 year old gymnasium near the corner of Fulton and Masonic.

The first time Sacred Heart Cathedral and Saint Ignatius (both private Catholic high schools in San Francisco) played against each other, the year was 1893, or maybe it was 1891, but no one seems to be exactly sure. Fittingly, the game was held on Saint Patricks Day, on the corner of 8th and Market. The Irish of SH beat the Wildcats of SI by a final score of 14-4. Leather helmets may or may not have been worn and the forward pass may or may not have been invented at this point. The game was believed to be a cross between football and rugby. Admission to the game was five cents even.

World War I came and went, Babe Ruth did his thing for the Yankees, and eventually history gave way for the arrival of The Greatest Generation.

For the six years between 1939 and 1945, America was at war. Up and down the hallways of SI and SH, conversation didn’t consist of SAT scores and safety schools, but rather when and where you and your buddies were headed off to fight for your country. The era was ripe with pride and love for country and the football, basketball and baseball fields held less relevance in the grand scheme of things as they do today. To call the era tumultuous would be an understatement. America’s history was hanging in the balance.

As heated as the rivalry between Sacred Heart Cathedral and Saint Ignatius was in the 1940’s it obviously paled in comparison to the realities of war overseas. Many products of the two proud schools lost their lives serving their country, but two stood out as special young men.

The Bruce-Mahoney Trophy was established in 1947 to memorialize the death of Bill Bruce of Saint Ignatius and Jerry Mahoney of Sacred Heart. Bruce served as the student body president for SI, graduating in 1935. During his tenure as Wildcat, he was also a standout football player. Mahoney was an All-City football and basketball player at SH and also went on to be an accomplished boxer during his time in the service. Both men died while members of the Navy during WWII, Bruce in an airplane crash, Mahoney in a sinking submarine.

Since 1947, these two San Francisco cross-city rivals have duked it out for the right to hold the fabled Bruce-Mahoney Trophy. Each year, the two schools play a football game in the fall at Kezar Stadium. Once the home of the San Francisco Forty Niners, Kezar is an historic venue that sits on the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park. The winner goes up 1-0 in the three game Bruce-Mahoney Series that also includes basketball and baseball.

Come winter, the first time the two schools meet in basketball counts toward the Bruce-Mahoney Series. If the series moves to 1-1, the first baseball contest of the Spring, held at Pac Bell Park, ultimately decides who takes home the trophy for the Summer.

While the football and baseball games between these two schools are wondrous events in their own right, it is on the basketball court where the Bruce-Mahoney rivalry reaches it’s most fevered pitch.

Fittingly, the Bruce-Mahoney basketball game takes place in the heart of San Francisco, inside War Memorial Gymnasium on the campus of USF. Built in 1958, the 5,300 seat facility seeps with history and nostalgia. Some call it “The House That Bill Russell Built” as it opened it’s doors two years after Russell left the Hilltop for a hall of fame career for the Boston Celtics. For the Bruce-Mahoney game, literally every seat is accounted for. Students from both schools pack the upper levels, the last rows ducking to avoid the low ceiling.

At this point, of course, the football game has already been decided months ago. Now, the trophy is on the line in earnest. For the crop of seniors down 1-0 in the best of three Bruce-Mahoney series, every possession takes on a do or die significance. The 10 players on the court carrying the bragging rights and expectations of a sea of fellow students and proud alumni. A palpable tension fills the air, every basket cheered passionately, every foul call argued vehemently.

Much like the Axe in the Cal-Stanford Big Game, the fabled Bruce-Mahoney trophy serves as a constant reminder of what’s at stake. In the 65 years the trophy has been in existence, St. Ignatius has won the series 45 times, compared to just 20 wins for Sacred Heart Cathedral. Sacred Heart Cathedral won the trophy last year, however, and were looking to build momentum and close the gap with a repeat series win in 2013. If they wanted to retain the trophy in 2013, they would need to not only beat SI in hoops, but they would also have to win on the diamond.

On this night, St. Ignatius would prevail over Sacred Heart Cathedral by a score of 56-46. Trevor Dunbar ran the show for the Wildcats all night from the point guard position. A wizard with the ball in his hands, Dunbar repeatedly drew oohs and ahhs with his uncanny dribbling skills. Led by Khalil James, Sacred Heart never seemed to back down and proved fun to watch. Undersized, the Irish did yeoman’s work on the glass all evening to keep the game in question deep into the fourth quarter.

After the final buzzer sounded at War Memorial and the Wildcats of St. Ignatius climbed into the stands to greet their fellow students, yet another small chapter of the Bruce-Mahoney series was etched in history. More important than who won and who lost on Tuesday night, was that the history and tradition between these schools grew one game stronger, and for that, San Francisco should be proud.

Many would argue Gonzaga at USF doesn’t get this full… (Photo by @ConnorBuestad via Instagram)

Many would argue Gonzaga at USF doesn’t get this full… (Photo by @ConnorBuestad via Instagram)