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Once upon a time

Posted by Charles P. Pierce October 2, 2008 06:11 AM

The smoke machine means that something's different this year. The smoke machine means that something's different this century. One by one, the members of the Boston Celtics -- excuse me. The (cough, wheeze) world champion Boston Celtics -- wander through the beginning of their new season, each one of them attending fervently the Stations of the Media. They stop in front of a series of black backdrops, where they smile and glower and get themselves immortalized, at least for the rest of the new season. Some of them wait grumpily in an upstairs corridor, substitute players fidgeting while Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen jump ahead of the line to tape preseason interviews for what appears to be every platform on the cable dial except the History Channel, which is not here perhaps because none of the Celtics is a member of the Knights Templar.

Down on the floor below, Leon Powe goes station to station. He smiles and he glowers and gets himself immortalized, at least for the rest of the new season. At the last station, he stands, dribbling, while a smoke machine puffs clouds of gray vapor all around his ankles. Somewhere, James Naismith picks up his battered old fiddle, plays a sad song, and weeps into his mustache.

But, amid the snapping of the cameras and the chattering of the reporters, there is nothing but happiness here for Leon Powe. Happiness, and a kind of peace that you find by putting one foot in front of the other, day after grinding day, when hope seems as transient as smoke in the wind.

"We's champions, still champions and nobody can take that from you," he says, smiling, and it is a smile with the entire weight of a life behind it. You earn this smile. Nobody gives it to you. "I had to get back to work quick, but it was a real good quick, you know?

"It was real enjoyable. When I could walk over there in the Bahamas, people following me around, calling my name. Great for me, great for my family. I got a lot of people back out there in the Bahamas now. I told them, every time I do a TV interview, I give them a shout-out."

At 6-foot-8 and 240, he was a great burst of effort in the frontcourt. If he had a breakthrough game, it was probably at the end of January against Miami, when he dropped 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. You could see the confidence radiating off him in waves. He guarded anyone he was asked to guard. He ground away at all the thankless tasks. He started the year scrapping for enough playing time to earn the incentives in his contract, many of which involved simply being on the roster by a certain date. By the time the Finals rolled around, Powe was ready to put up 21 points in 15 minutes against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2.

The world came to know Leon Powe and his story, and it is one of those stories in which this country's perpetual bungling of the vast issues of race and class comes together in a Hollywood ending that allows the country to congratulate itself for not being as maladroit on those issues as it actually is. Leon Powe's success is his own. It does not belong to a sugary media culture drunk on happy endings and the American Dream. It does not belong to journalists who go spelunking through the underclass in search of stories to save their own souls. Leon Powe is not redeemed, because he had nothing from which he had to be redeemed. We do not own his history, not one second of it.

"I know how I got here. I got here by working hard," he says. "If I want to stay here, got to continue to work hard. That word -- 'relaxed' -- is not in my vocabulary."

He was 2 when his father left. He was 7 when his brother accidentally burned their house down. He embarked on a nomadic life along the fringes of an America that the country would prefer to believe does not exist. He lived in flophouse motels and homeless shelters all over Oakland. For a while, he even lived in abandoned cars. His mother fell into drugs and ruin, and her seven children were shuffled into the maze of social services and foster care.

Remarkably, Powe grew tall and strong, with inordinately long arms. He worked endlessly on his game and, by the time he was a junior at Oakland Tech, he was among the best high school players in the country -- who, that season, included a burly kid from Ohio named LeBron James. He led his team to the California state championship. His mother died of a heart attack a few days before the championship game. She was 41. Not long after that, as he was preparing to play at the University of California, Powe shredded one of his anterior cruciate ligaments, an injury that dogged him throughout his college career, and more than anything else dropped him into the second round of the 2006 draft. Which is where the Nuggets found him before trading his rights to the Celtics. He played his season. He told his story, which is his alone. A year later, the people of the islands were calling his name.

OT columnist Charles P. Pierce is a Boston Globe Magazine staff writer.

5 comments so far...
  1. Charlie:

    What kind of a retard are you?

    Posted by Mary Cranston October 3, 08 09:16 PM
  1. Great read and reminder of how amazing a guy Leon really is. I had the chance to meet him after they won the Championship and he was still very humble and thankful.

    Posted by Jeff October 4, 08 01:04 PM
  1. Charlie, I always enjoy your writing. Just saying.

    Posted by John P. October 5, 08 02:43 PM
  1. i think he is the kind of "retard" that writes great articles, and Mary, you need to get a life.

    Posted by Ben Cranston October 11, 08 06:05 PM
  1. Shame on you, Mary!!!

    Posted by Alan October 17, 08 08:40 AM
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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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