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Leon Powe eyes return with Bulls' Summer League

“I’ve always had to prove myself,” Powe said after workouts at the Berto Center last week. “They said I’d never get into the league. I got into the league. They said I’d never be a productive player. I love proving people wrong."
Powe has lived a life both of patience and hard work, a remarkable story of triumph in a league replete with amazing recoveries.

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There aren’t many 28-year-old, five-year NBA veterans who’ve played significant roles on NBA championship teams playing in the NBA’s Las Vegas summer league this week.

But there aren’t many men like Leon Powe, who’ll play for the Bulls summer league team opening play against Boston Tuesday. Powe endured a childhood in which his family moved at least 30 times, living in everything from cars to homeless shelters as he eventually ended up in foster care. He overcame serious knee surgeries in high school and college to enjoy a surprising starring role for the Celtics in the 2008 Finals.

So summer league with all those kids and never-going-anywhere free agents? Leon Powe has overcome so much more.

“I’ve always had to prove myself,” Powe said after workouts at the Berto Center last week. “Sometimes you want to get mad, but you can’t get mad. In high school, I was No. 1, No. 2 in the country. I hurt myself and worked my way back. They said I’d never get into the league. I got into the league. They said I’d never be a productive player. I love proving people wrong.

“It’s why I wanted to come to Las Vegas,” said Powe. “There are more teams there, more people to show that I’m fine. I’m not in any wheelchair. They keep putting out there that I’m not OK, like my leg is killing me. That’s why I’m going. I’ve just been doing two a days with the Bulls. I wanted to go where it wouldn’t be easy. I’ve been working (to rehabilitate his leg) three years. I came to show everyone my leg is fine. Rebound, defend, show leadership. Nothing has changed. I’ll play the game hard and respect the game. I can help anyone.”

The Bulls may need that help as well with uncertainty on the roster, and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is a great admirer of Powe from their Boston days together. It was in Game 2 of the 2008 Finals that Powe may have saved that championship season. Powe scored 21 points in less than 15 minutes with the Celtics losing in the Celtics’ eventual Game 2 win to go up 2-0 heading for Los Angeles.

Though an undersized power forward at about 6-8 and 245, the Celtics often used Powe in the post with his toughness and ability to carve out space, much like they’d later do with Glen Davis. Powe has similarities in his game to other undersized power forwards, like Carl Landry and Paul Millsap.

He’ll block out, play fundamentally sound and make a big play as he’s been in big games. He would suffer another serious knee injury in Game 2 of the classic Bulls/Celtics first round series in 2009. He knocked around some with Cleveland and Memphis after that, and late last season in Puerto Rico after not being picked up by an NBA team. There were questions about his knee as he rushed back from that ACL tear in the 2009 playoffs to sign with Cleveland later that summer.

Which is Powe’s knowing advice to Derrick Rose.

“It depends on how hard you work,” said Powe. “You can come back if you work hard. It was a little early for me. It was a mistake I made a couple of times. You can be your old self, but you have to be patient.”

Powe has lived a life both of patience and hard work, a remarkable story of triumph in a league replete with amazing recoveries.

Powe was homeless for years after his family’s house in Oakland burned when he was seven. His father had left years before and his mother battled drug addiction and arrests. They lived in motels, cars and abandoned buildings. Leon often missed months of school consecutively to care for siblings. Despite all that, he became a senior high school first team all-American even after knee surgery his junior year. His mother, whom Leon idolized as she did all she could to hold the family together, died of a heart attack just before his state championship game in high school. That summer Leon suffered his first ACL tear in an AAU game.

Leon went to the U. of California/Berkeley and was Pac-10 freshman of the year. But he missed his sophomore season with knee surgery. Then he came back again and averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds as a junior before being drafted in the second round by Denver and traded to the Celtics. Powe played three seasons in Boston and was establishing himself as one of the league’s top reserves before that ACL tear again against the Bulls in the 2009 playoffs in what was a contract year and expected to be Powe’s first big NBA payday.

But he’s returned from worse.

Now he’s back and says he can do it again, and if there’s anyone who has proven he will work his way back and be a productive player it is Leon Powe. There’s that something in certain people, what we label drive or determination or even courage. There’s a relentless spirit to Leon Powe, and few have overcome greater odds to produce in pro sports and more often.

“Thibs knows me and is giving me an opportunity to work and show what I can do,” said Powe. “I feel things are going real well. I feel good. My leg is fine. I really don’t know why people keep bringing it up. I can go up and down the floor, go in the post. I went to Puerto Rico because nothing was happening (in the NBA). I said, ‘OK, I’ll go to work and get better and get in better shape.’

“I just want to come in and help a team win,” says Powe. “It’s the attitude on the court and off the court, in the locker room. I’ve been there, in the Finals, someone who can play off the bench. I know I can help a team.”

The NBA also is better when men like Leon Powe are playing.

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