What drives Kristine Anigwe?

Already written into Cal’s record books, when will the sophomore center be satisfied?  

Anigwe has reached 1,000 points faster than any Cal player in history (photo courtesy of pac-12.com)

By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com

Seated next to her coach in the bowels of Key Arena, Kristine Anigwe couldn’t take it anymore. Like a winter downpour in Seattle, the tears were inevitable at this point, it was only a matter of how long they would last. All anyone could do was pass her a towel.

The 10th seeded Bears had just bowed out in the semifinals of the 2016 PAC-12 tournament, a six point loss at the hands of 3rd seeded UCLA. Anigwe had an outstanding game in defeat, 26 points and 15 rebounds to be exact, both numbers eclipsing her already gaudy season averages of 20 and 9. Numbers unheard of for a freshman. Especially one who didn’t pick up the game of basketball until the 8th grade.

Tasked with the near impossible chore of summing up a season in one post game press conference, fifth year head coach Lindsay Gottlieb chose to sing the praises of her freshman center and the otherworldly year she had. 43-points in a game, national freshman of the year, averaging almost double digit rebounds, scoring more than any frosh in Cal basketball history, the list of accomplishments goes on seemingly forever. But if you learn anything about Kristine Anigwe, all those accomplishments are thrown to the side after a loss. And maybe even forgotten. “Failing is very hard for me,” she says simply on a recent evening in Berkeley. “I dread it. I hate losing. I hate not doing something that I know I could do.”

Losing is something the Cal women did a lot of last season. A fact Anigwe willing shoulders the blame for. Despite her record year, Anigwe is haunted by the fact that it was her beloved coach’s first losing campaign in her Berkeley career. In Gottlieb’s first season as Cal’s coach, she took an NIT team to the NCAA’s. The next year, Gottlieb had the Bears in the Final Four. Now, Gottlieb was at the podium following her first sub .500 season that included a dismal 4-14 mark in the PAC-12. Even so, all the protective coach could do was praise her team’s effort, particularly an emotional Anigwe, who proved incapable of talking. The pain of falling short on Gottlieb’s expectations was too much to bear.

Anigwe fights her emotions following the end of the PAC-12 Tournament in Seattle in 2016 (photo courtesy of Pac-12.com)


Sitting down with Anigwe behind the scorers table at Haas Pavilion, two things quickly become noticeable. One is that Anigwe isn’t particularly comfortable talking about herself. Another is that she requires some extra room for her legs that power her 6’4” frame up and down the court and even to the rim for dunks (we’ll get to that later.)

She is eating a post workout meal of soft tacos, in the kind of way you’d expect an Olympic Triathlete to eat, with the nutritional value being the most important aspect of the act. The gym is quiet now, except for the welcome squeaks, dribbles and swishes being made by Ivan Rabb. The future NBA first round pick is taking advantage of the vacant floor space, fine tuning his game in the middle of conference play.

The presence of NBA-bound Rabb, along with Anigwe’s upbringing in Phoenix inevitably brings up the topic of the Suns. Steve Nash? Amare Stoudemire? Was she a fan? “No,” she says matter-of-factly, “I grew up watching the Phoenix Mercury. I loved Diana Taurasi. She was a huge inspiration for me.”

Despite having the luxury of a WNBA team in her backyard to look up to and always being the tallest girl in her class, it wasn’t until just before high school that Anigwe found her way onto a basketball court. Fortunately, her area volleyball team was good enough to push her into her calling. “To be honest, back then I tried out for the volleyball team and I didn’t make it. So I went ahead and tried basketball. It’s worked out from there.”

Her two parents, Annette and Christopher, ran a strict household focused primarily on academics and the fruits that books could bear for their four children. Basketball was secondary to Anigwe, up until the time her talent was spotted and she was sent to Colorado Springs to try out for Team USA’s youth program. By the time Anigwe was selected to Team USA and began jett-setting to international tournaments, she started to realize basketball could really take her places. “Don’t get me wrong, I made the team, but the tryouts were really nerve wracking. It seemed like so many great players were getting cut everyday. But after I made that team, I really began to take my basketball career seriously.”  

By her junior year at Desert Vista High School, Anigwe was morphing into a star. In addition to her duties with Team USA’s program, Anigwe was competing on the women’s AAU circuit with the “Arizona Elite” and her trusted coach Kenny Drake. Not only was she playing for his team, but also dedicating herself to attending his private workouts on the side, even if she hated it. “Yes, I often really hated those workouts,” she explains. “Sometimes I would have to sit down in the corner of the gym and take off my shoes, but Kenny would refuse to let me leave the gym until we finished our workouts. He really made me so much better at basketball.”

By the spring of her junior year, Anigwe lead her high school team to an Arizona State Championship. Anigwe was the star that brought the school the glory of a state crown, but true to her personality, she has trouble recalling all the details of the triumph. “I can’t remember if we played in the Suns’ arena or not to be honest, now that you ask. I just remember it being a really fancy place.”

What Anigwe remembers most about her high school career is failing to win back-to-back titles, falling to Goodyear Millennium High in the the Division 1 semifinals. Anigwe took the loss hard, almost completely shutting her down. “It was tough. I remember I didn’t really talk to anyone for like a week. I spent a lot of time in my room just writing in my room. Sleeping, talking to my mom, writing some more. But eventually I realized I had to grow up and move on.”

Anigwe in her final high school game with the Desert Vista Thunder. A semifinal loss in the Arizona state championships. (photo by Nick Cote)

Moving on meant turning her sights to a bright future in the college ranks. By now, she had been named the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year, to go along with her eye-popping stats with her AAU club team and gold medals on Team USA’s junior teams. No one could have blamed her if visions of UCONN, Tennessee, or Stanford began to pop into her head. After all, the late-bloomer was now a nationally recognized blue chip recruit. But even with her rising stock shooting through the roof, Anigwe never wavered on her verbal commitment to Berkeley and coach Gottlieb. “In the end, Cal showed interest in me when no one else did. I trusted them at an early age. For me to get super good and decommit is not a part of my character. At the end of the day, you know where your roots are, where your heart is and who has your back.”

With her commitment to Cal solidified, Anigwe overcame the anguish of her senior year defeat by attending the McDonald’s All-American game in Chicago, an event reserved for the best 48 men and women high school basketball has to offer. When ESPN personnel realized Anigwe could dunk, they pushed her on the idea of being the lone female in the annual dunk contest, one that has produced a long list of NBA superstars. Anigwe, shy by nature, took a leap of faith and gave it a shot. But with the cameras on and her legs jet-lagged, Anigwe came up empty in her turn to dunk. Naturally, the internet’s reaction was polarizing. From basement bloggers ripping her, to 13-year-old girls congratulating her for rising above the rim with the nation’s best male athletes. Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon ended up beating Anigwe and the rest of the field with a monster dunk, leaping over the head of a standing Jalen Rose.

Nowadays, a google search of Anigwe will no longer lead you straight to her famed dunk attempts at the McDonald’s contest. Instead, you’ll be hit with stories of her 50-point night on December 8th, 2016 versus Sacramento State. Of course, Anigwe doesn’t like to talk about it, but it was a night that put the spotlight back on Cal women’s hoops for the first time in a while here in the Bay Area. In what was a incredible display of efficiency, Anigwe managed to score all 50 points in just 24 minutes of play. Moreover, her 19 buckets were converted on just 23 shots. Virtually every time Anigwe caught the ball, she finished with a basket. With her right hand or her left, midrange or under the basket, Anigwe’s deft touch and uncanny ability to finish around the basket was put on full display for the nation to see. No player, even in the higher scoring men’s game has reached the 50 point plateau. Ed Gray’s 48 against Washington State in 1997 is the closest any Cal player has come. That is until Anigwe did it, using only 24 minutes to do so.

Even with all the attention the 50-point night brought to the program, Anigwe does her best to avoid the topic. “I honestly don’t like talking about the 50 point game. I don’t want my legacy at Cal to be all about one 50 point game. I want it to be, ‘Kristine helped take a team to the Final Four.’ Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun game. But I want to help change the program and be a part of an incredible team at Cal.”

Despite being apprehensive to talk about her personal accomplishments, Anigwe is never at a loss for words when speaking about those around her. After all, the Media Studies major has visions of a career in broadcast journalism after she hangs up her sneakers. “Kristine’s Korner” is already a broadcast platform she has dabbled with in the past, and hopes to do more of.

If she had it her way, she’d do some features of some of her favorite people in Berkeley including her trusted coach Gottlieb, who Anigwe describes as “Incredibly caring. Caring about her players, caring about the program.” Anigwe also is quick to deflect praise on her trusted point guard Asha Thomas. A sophomore from Oakland’s Bishop O’ Dowd High School, Thomas is responsible for keeping the Bears calm and confident, even in the hairiest of situations. “Even when there is fire all around her, she always leads us in a calm way,” explains Anigwe. Thomas’ love for her home city of Oakland and its deep rooted culture is also something Anigwe enjoys being exposed to. “She just loves Oakland and repping the Bay Area. Always trying to teach me new Oakland lingo. She tries to keep me hip that way.”

Anigwe rises for a dunk attempt at the McDonald's All-American Dunk Contest in 2015. (Photo courtesy of bearinsider.com)


Now over halfway through her sophomore campaign, with the dust settled from her 50-point barrage, Anigwe is focused on navigating her team back into the NCAA tournament, a place Coach Gottlieb is so used to being, but where Anigwe has yet to find. This season started as good as ever. Ignited by Anigwe’s nightly double-doubles, Cal started the year 13-0, the best start in program history by a wide margin. Unfortunately, this has given way to a 3-7 start in league play. A disappointing result that has eaten away at Anigwe thus far.

As a player and as a person, Anigwe is often times more driven by the fear of failure that the feeling of success. She admits this can be a gift and a curse. Her coach recently told the Mercury News, “Kristine is the most self-motivated player we’ve ever had here. It’s not close.” But this self-motivation has its costs, as it can put blinders on the ability to see and appreciate success as its unfolding in the moment. Explains Anigwe, “People think I’m just running through life without appreciating things or digesting accomplishments, and yes, it can be lonely. But to me it is scary to fail, so I’m always looking for ways to get better and avoid that failure.”

Even if Anigwe were to give her coach the gift of another Final Four trip at Cal, there is a good chance Anigwe will be wrapped up in her obsession to improve her game indefinitely. Beyond her Cal career looms the light of more basketball in the WNBA, not to mention the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, or her post playing career endeavors into the media business, or even a crusade to close the wage gap in women’s sports like basketball, soccer and the like.

Whether or not Kristine Anigwe will successfully overcome her dread of failure still remains to seen. But rest assured, she’ll leave a wake of her defeated opponents on the way to defining her own definition of success.

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.