The San Francisco Bay Area has produced just as many, and perhaps more, NBA standouts than the SoCal basin. When it comes to McDonald’s All-Americans, however, the Bay Area lags behind. Winning high school and AAU programs and new media is changing that trend and this year the Bay Area has three highly-regarded players in the prestigious national all-star game.
By Ronnie Flores
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After his 17-year professional playing career, Antonio Davis was hired by ESPN as a studio analyst for NBA broadcasts. The retired power forward had the opportunity to talk with legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight (known best for winning three NCAA titles) about his college days at UTEP during a time when “The General” was at Indiana. The new colleagues talked about how Knight would have loved seeing the rugged forward in an Indiana uniform.
Too bad Knight didn’t know anything about Davis when he came out of Oakland’s McClymonds High in 1986.
Davis wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American caliber player at Mack. But he was definitely worthy of being recruited by more than a single D1 program. Truth be told, Davis was only recruited by UTEP’s Don Haskins (and his ace recruiter Tim Floyd) after the workhorse forward played in the BCI Tournament in the spring following his senior season.
Over the course of the first 35 years of the McDonald’s All-American Game, the San Francisco Bay Area (a region with a nine-county population of over seven million people) averaged one participant every five years.
That statistic went out the window this year when three Bay Area natives were selected to participate in the event.
All three players, Aaron Gordon (Archbishop Mitty, San Jose), Jabari Bird (Salesian, Richmond) and Marcus Lee (Deer Valley, Antioch), took different routes to play in the 2013 McDonald’s Game. Opinion does vary on exactly what is the reason the talented trio broke NorCal’s one-every-five-years trend, but it’s obvious all three are extremely talented players.
“Like I said about Coach Knight, colleges just didn’t know about me,” said Davis, who played in that long-running AAU tournament for the father of former NBA all-star Gary Payton and is in Chicago to watch daughter Kaela Davis (Buford, Ga.) play in the girls game. “Colleges are now recruiting Bay Area players more.
“For years, there was so many good SoCal teams and they were always winning the state title. Then Jason Kidd’s team won and my old school (McClymonds) recently won. That changed things. I’m so glad the (Oakland) Soldiers are out here going gym to gym winning games. Kids can see that. They want to get out (earn a scholarship) and can see they can live a great life.”
There is no question by winning major AAU tournaments such as the FAB 48 in Las Vegas in 2010 and the Nike EYBL last summer, the Oakland Soldiers AAU program has helped raise the profile of basketball in the Bay Area. The success of the region’s AAU programs helps put players in position for selection to all-star games such as McDonald’s. The deeper teams advance in spring and summer tournaments, the better chance for players to be seen by members of the McDonald’s selection committee.
For Gordon, a 6-foot-8 forward, the answer is simple. It wouldn’t have mattered which AAU team Gordon played for or where he went to high school. Last season’s Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year was a clear-cut selection and after two practices Gordon is proving he’s one of the nation’s four best prospects in attendance. His explanation for this year’s NorCal McDonald’s love is also simple.
“The Bay Area has good ballplayers,” said Gordon, who chose Arizona during a Tuesday press conference at McDonalds’ media day. “Northern California basketball is very much on the uprise and we’re putting the nation on notice.”
For the 6-foot-6 Bird, Gordon’s Oakland Soldiers teammate, the exposure he received on the summer circuit and being the leading player on a Salesian team that played in national events put him in position to be selected. Going into last summer, Bird wasn’t a lock to be chosen and is one of the few among the 24 boys players who doesn’t feel a sense of entitlement. The Cal commit is genuinely happy to be in Chicago and has a bigger outlook on what his, Gordon’s and Lee’s selection means.
“I’m really appreciative to be apart of this,” Bird said. “I wasn’t following it too much, but when I got the info (I was in), I was real happy among my close friends about it.
“Playing for the Soldiers definitely helped, but not everyone can get playing time for them. Even for those guys, they want to be part of the Soldiers and that makes them want it more. It has helped all of us in the area get better.”
The influence of new media coverage from outlets such as Yay Area’s Finest and BallIsLife.com cannot be overlooked, either. Bird feels being able to see visuals of players’ performances clearly and quickly also has played a role in NorCal players receiving national recognition.
“Getting plenty of good video out there also helps.”
For Lee, a 6-foot-10 shot-blocking four-man, the road to McDonald’s has been anything but routine. He began high school as a guard prospect and as older brother Bryan put it, “we were just looking for a scholarship to St. Mary’s.” Gradual growth (about two inches each year of high school) transformed Lee from a budding perimeter prospect into one of the nation’s best long-term post prospects.
Lee played in the summer for Los Angeles-based California Supreme and parlayed a strong summer season into a selection to the Under Armour Elite 24 event at Venice Beach. From there his national profile grew.
“Cal Supreme made a difference for Marcus Lee,” said Hoop Review’s Gerry Freitas, who has a combined 22 years experience as a scout and former college coach. “I think playing on visible AAU teams and having some success has helped Bay Area kids, but I think it’s also helps kids from other areas get scholarships. Certainly kids from L.A. get overlooked for scholarships every year. As far as McDonalds, I don’t think too many Bay Area players have been overlooked in the past.”
Upon graduation from Deer Valley, Lee will leave Antioch and head to Bluegrass Country as one of a record six players from this year’s game attending the University of Kentucky.
“I had a goal to get here,” said Lee, who has blended with the national competition and is unquestionably one of the game’s participants whose best days of basketball lie ahead. “My coach (at Deer Valley) told me at the beginning of the year, ‘You’re going to make the team.’ Then we started winning games and I put up good numbers.
“This has never come close to happening in the Bay Area. I think we all deserved it.”
All-Time McDonald’s All-Americans From The Bay
1989 — Calvin Byrd (St. Joseph, Alameda) 6-6 F
The Bay Area’s first McDonald’s All-American, Byrd had a fantastic summer after his junior season and made a name for himself on a national circuit that wasn’t nearly as robust as it is now. As a senior, he teamed with freshman Jason Kidd to lead St. Joseph to a 28-5 record and was named first team CalHiSports.com All-State. Byrd scored four points in the game played in Kansas City, Mo.
1992 — Jason Kidd (St. Joseph, Alameda) 6-4 PG
If social media was around 20 years ago, there’s no telling how big a name the state’s best all-around point guard ever produced would have been. As it is, Kidd reached “Rock Star” status in high school and back then was nearly as as big a name in the Bay Area as Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. The first-ever four-time all-NorCal pick, Kidd was twice named the state’s Mr. Basketball and was also named national player of the year by most credible outlets. He helped St. Joseph become the first ever NorCal program to win the Division I state title and raised awareness of basketball in the region nationwide. In the game, Kidd went for 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting and came up with five steals. It was in the McDonald’s practice sessions, however, where Kidd really displayed his trademark passing and stamina.
1993 — Darnell Robinson (Emery, Emeryville) 6-11 C
“Tank” left high school as the state’s all-time leading scorer with 3,359 points, dominating small school competition in the process. Robinson signed with Arkansas (which some Bay Area basketball experts thought was a mistake) and had weight problems during his time in Fayetteville. Robinson’s development was also hindered by a penchant for playing on the outside and not using his powerful body in the paint. Despite never playing in the NBA, Robinson was a legitimate high school All-American. He scored 19 points, and dominated future NBA forward Rasheed Wallace, in the game played in Memphis.
1998 — Ray Young (St. Joseph, Alameda) 6-7 F
A former Student Sports Magazine cover subject, Young was the state junior player of the year during the 1996-1997 season. He twice led St. Joseph to NorCal Division I titles, but wasn’t able to live up to lofty expectations when he entered UCLA as part of the nation’s top-rated recruiting class. A lack of development at the college level stymied his chances at a NBA career. Young made two field goals and netted five points in the game played at Scope Arena in Norfolk, Va.
2003 — Leon Powe (Oakland Tech, Oakland) 6-8 F
Nicknamed “The Show,” Powe overcame a rough childhood and a serious knee injury in college to help the Boston Celtics win the 2008 NBA championship. Mentored in his early years by former Oakland Tech standout guard Bernard Ward, Powe twice led Tech to the CIF Division I state title game and earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors in 2004. He was able to return from his injury to become a first team All-Pac-10 selection in 2006. In the “LeBron Game” at Cleveland’s Gund Arena, Powe scored 15 points.
2004 — DeMarcus Nelson (Sheldon, Sacramento) 6-4 G
We cheated a bit to include “The Iceman,” who broke Robinson’s all-time state scoring record, finishing with a still-standing 3,462 points. Nelson played his first three prep seasons at Vallejo in the East Bay before playing his final year at Sheldon. A shooting guard, Nelson was a captain at Duke in 2008, but was not drafted by an NBA team. In the 2004 game in Oklahoma City, Okla., Nelson led the West team with 22 points.
Note: This list does not include Brandon Ashley, who prepped at Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland before finishing his prep career at Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.). Ashley was the Cal-Hi Sports State Division III and Junior Player of the Year in 2011 before earning McDonald’s All-American honors last year.