“Big Time Hoops on Bancroft Way” - 2015-16 CAL Basketball

No. 14 CAL's season opener is Friday night vs. the Rice Owls. (Photo by John Polzer of calbears.com)

By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com

Let’s start with some perspective: In the modern era of college basketball, we’ll say after 1960, CAL basketball has appeared in the Sweet 16 just twice. Not once have they marched their way into the Elite Eight. 55 years later, the CAL basketball program is being described around the nation as a shoo-in to make the Round of 16, with realistic expectations of a Final Four run. Loaded with a starting lineup consisting of three potential NBA first rounders, a coach with a proven thirst for winning, and a fan base overdue for success, the vibe has never been better along Bancroft Way.

In his first year at the helm in Berkeley, head coach Cuonzo Martin led a relatively young group of Bears to a 7-11 mark in PAC-12 play. With the return of Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird, Coach Martin figured to have a solid core to work around for the 2015-16 campaign. Get one year bigger and stronger, sprinkle in some talented freshmen and go at it in year two. That’s the narrative most Old Blues expected to unfold. What happened next, no one could have predicted.

First, Tyrone Wallace announced he would be returning for his senior year. How Cuonzo convinced Mr. Wallace to stay is anyone’s guess. The 6’5” point guard has been described by NBA scouts as someone ready for the League. He averaged over 17 points last year in a tough PAC-12. Most expected him to move on to greener pastures, but Cuonzo convinced him otherwise. The first domino had fallen.

With senior facilitator Wallace committed for one more year, Cuonzo set off into the deep dark waters of big time college basketball recruiting in search of the biggest fish he could find. His SEC roots led him first to Georgia, where he fell in love with All-Everything Jaylen Brown. A top-five blue chip recruit destined for the NBA. A player the likes of Coach K and Calipari and Izzo all salivate over. The type of player that doesn’t move to Berkeley to play amateur basketball for a year. Cuonzo still went after him.

Yet no matter how thick of a sales pitch Coach Martin had up his sleeve, he would need one more piece of bait to reel in a player of his stature. Namely a top-10 national recruit that could help clean the glass, distract the defense and catch lobs for 40 minutes a night. That’s where Ivan Rabb came in.

At 6’11” and skilled, Rabb too had options of his own. Virtually any school in the country was clamoring for his services, namely the Arizona Wildcats. Young Ivan was still undecided when he took the floor of the California State Championship Game vs. So-Cal power Mater Dei. Conveniently, the Saturday night game was played inside Haas Pavilion, in front of a loud, passionate crowd not only rooting for a Bishop O’ Dowd win, but to “Beat L.A.” Rabb clearly enjoyed the atmosphere, winning the game in the final seconds with a clutch free-throw and bringing his Oakland high school their first state title in 34 years. As students and fans rushed the floor to celebrate the triumph, you could almost see Ivan thinking, “Hey, I could really get used to this whole scene.”

Days later, Rabb signed on to be a Bear, spurning Arizona in the eleventh hour. Now with his first big fish in the ice chest, Cuonzo got greedy and went looking for more. If the best player in the nation in Ben Simmons signed with LSU, maybe Cuonzo could convince Jaylen Brown to come to CAL.

When Cuonzo Martin speaks, people listen. (Photo by John Polzer)

How Cuonzo really convinced Brown to pick CAL is tough to tell. Some point to the fact that Cuonzo had a relationship with him during his days at Tennessee. Others claim that Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a graduate of Brown's Georgia high school, played a major role. What we do know, is that Brown took an unexpected unofficial visit to Berkeley (Brown had to pay) and took a look around the Bay Area and sat down with Coach Martin. Kentucky, North Carolina and Michigan all bent over backward for the ultra-athletic swingman. But, out of nowhere, Jaylen Brown announced he would be taking his talents to Berkeley.

Suddenly, CAL boasted a starting five with three McDonald’s All-Americans (Brown, Rabb, and Bird), as well as two future pros (Wallace and Mathews). After the dust settled from Martin’s unprecedented recruiting haul, Martin said simply, “You work hard, do your job to the best of your ability and it goes back to building relationships over time. Then sometimes you’re blessed with a gift.”

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If looking at the history of CAL basketball tells us anything, it’s that talent matters a whole lot. Certainly, having phenomenal coaches like Lou Campanelli and Mike Montgomery is a blessing and a backbone for any basketball program. But, as most coaches will tell you, it’s the players on the floor that makes the most impact. When Todd Bozeman led the Bears past Duke into the Sweet 16 in 1993, he was only 29-years-old. Surely, Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray were running that show. In ‘97, the last time CAL made the Sweet 16, Ben Braun was in just his first year at CAL. Safe to say Ed Gray, Tony Gonzalez, Alfred Grigsby and Randy Duck were mainly responsible for that run. As these coaches logged more experience in Berkeley, they didn’t necessarily have more success. Talent was the not-so-secret sauce.

Cuonzo Martin seems to understand this trend, judging by the way he’s pursued the best talent in the country to set up his program for success. It also doesn’t hurt that CAL’s second year head coach was a star player himself at Purdue alongside Big Dog Glenn Robinson. Neither does it hurt that he learned to coach under Gene Keady, played in the NBA, beat cancer, and navigated the mean streets of East Saint Louis as a youth. As a head coach, Cuonzo has taken struggling programs in Missouri State and Tennessee and put them back on solid ground. He’s already done exactly that during his short stint in Berkeley.  

The new-look Bears will officially take the floor for the first time together this Friday night at home versus Rice. Ranked 14th in the nation, most hoop pundits foresee a second place finish in the PAC-12 for the Bears behind mainstay Arizona. The main question marks surrounding CAL are whether they will be able to share the ball and defend consistently. Critics also wonder how accurate Jaylen Brown will shoot and how strong Ivan Rabb will be in the paint.

Most of these questions will be answered during CAL’s non-conference schedule starting this weekend. This Monday the Bears will host UC Santa Barbara of the Big West and over Thanksgiving they will square off with San Diego State former Fab-Five head coach Steve Fisher. Most likely, CAL will meet Bob Huggins and West Virginia on day two of their Las Vegas’ T-Day tourney. Other notable non-conference games include a mid-December home game vs. St. Mary’s of Moraga, an ESPN televised roadie at Virginia, and a post Christmas game against Steph Curry’s alma mater Davidson.    

Barring a disaster, CAL will be firmly in the mix when Selection Sunday rolls around in March. If all goes according to plan, the Bears will own a favorable seed heading into the Big Dance, with plenty of late-night SportsCenter highlights already under their belt. As every CAL fan can attest, what will happen in postseason play is tough to tell. God knows Bears supporters have endured their share of heartbreaking seasons (the 2015 Bears Football recent four game skid comes to mind). But will the talent Cuonzo Martin has assembled in Berkeley (he even added Steve Kerr’s son for good measure), the sky really is the limit in Berkeley.

"For the love of elevation." Jaylen Brown will wear #0 in Berkeley.

Jaylen Brown Commits to CAL

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

Suddenly, the CAL basketball team has three McDonald's All-American's suiting up for one team. Jaylen Brown, rated as high at the number 2 prospect in all of high school basketball, has decided tonight to join fellow Mickie D's All-Americans Jabari Bird (Junior) and Ivan Rabb (Freshman) to play his college ball inside Haas Pavilion in Berkeley. Brown, a 6 foot 7, 220 pound athletic specimen out of Wheeler HS, north of Atlanta Georgia, has said "thanks, but no thanks" to the likes of Kanas, Kentucky, UCLA and North Carolina to play ball for Cuonzo Matin and the Bears next year. In case this had you wondering, yes, the 2016 Final Four will be held in Houston, Texas. Make your travel plans accordingly...  

Local Star Jabari Bird Gets Set to Take Flight in Berkeley

(Photo by Kelley L. Cox)


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.

Bird slashing in the 2012 state title game in Sacramento

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.

Bird wore #23 during the McDonald's All-American Game in Chicago last year.

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.”

Aaron Gordon (on Bird's left) is already turning heads at Arizona, while Antioch's Marcus Lee is a freshman at Kentucky

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.

Coach Bill Mellis flanked by Bird, Mario Dunn, Jermaine Edmonds and Markel Leonard (photo by Dennis Lee)

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.