Lights, please

Justin Cobbs waited two years for a chance at the starting lineup. This fall, he finally got his shot.

Sophomore Justin Cobbs has settled in as Cal's starting point guard after transferring from Minnesota.
Edwin Cho/Staff
Sophomore Justin Cobbs has settled in as Cal's starting point guard after transferring from Minnesota.

His debut didn’t count, an exhibition game played before Haas Pavilion’s meager crowd of 1,818, their appearance thinned by rows upon rows of empty seats.

There was Justin Cobbs, willing his way to seven straight points upon a lonely stage. Hotly contested points, too, the kind that would elicit yells of “And one!” on asphalt. Amidst that fury, the tide turned, his Cal team flipping an embarrassingly close match against UCSD into a 35-point victory.

So began Cobbs’ career in his home state, a flurry of buckets meaningless within the larger season but memorable in how they occurred. In Berkeley, people don’t watch you ball unless you win — and sometimes not even then.

Cobbs, though, needed to expel a year’s anxieties. The sophomore transfer had played little in Minnesota, and then not at all in the Bay as he sat out per NCAA rules. That Tuesday night, hair bleached orange, he draped on a blue-trimmed game jersey for the first time. Jumping off the bench four minutes after the tip, he threw his body down the lane, his desire palpable.

The air, otherwise flat, stirred gently in tune.

***

When Julanda Brown looks in the mirror today, she still sees a thin line bisecting her tooth.

Brown play-wrestled often with Cobbs — her only son — who from birth could never sit still. On one occasion, Cobbs swung his head up too quickly and caught his mother in the mouth. Crack!

“He had the hardest head there was,” she says. “When I see him in games and I see him bump heads, I feel sorry for the other person because I know what I went through, and he was only seven, eight or nine then.”

They stopped wrestling after that. Her son, whose muscles and low body fat once astounded his pediatrician, was getting too strong.

Cobbs grew up on the palm-lined streets of Leimert Park, the Los Angeles neighborhood that film director John Singleton apocryphally called “black Greenwich Village.” His parents, who separated when he was five years old, eventually moved into houses on opposite sides of Cherrywood Ave.

He had a basketball-soaked upbringing, with a father who doubled as an AAU coach and a cousin he could never beat one-on-one. That cousin is Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s All-NBA second-teamer and, according to Cobbs, caller of cheap playground fouls.

A brilliant career at Bishop Montgomery — California’s Co-Player of the Year as a junior, CIF runner-up and Division MVP as a senior — landed him at Minnesota. Courted by schools such as Washington State and San Diego State, he and his father decided that playing for head coach Tubby Smith would be the best move. Smith earned a ring at Kentucky in 1998, and wouldn’t getting one of those be worth the cold Midwestern winters?

The arrangement didn’t last.

The purported reason was homesickness, and there was some of that. But perhaps more pressing was that Cobbs, who averaged just 2.1 points, never felt comfortable in Smith’s slow-down system. Big Ten teams are traditionally low-tempo, and Smith’s philosophy fit right in with the rest of the conference.

“Talking to him, he was looking to change (the style), but with recruitment you can’t change what you get,” Cobbs says. “They were getting a lot of good bigs. They were good players and you go to your strength.”

Cobbs lasted until the 11th-seeded Gophers made their way to March Madness, ending his tenure with six minutes and a foul in their first-round loss to Xavier.  He announced his intent to transfer a month later. Cal, which had shown interest in him out of high school but didn’t have an open scholarship at the time, jumped on the chance.

Then, the wait. Sidelined by the year-in-residence transfer rule, his arrival in Berkeley was received with little fanfare.

Reports of Cobbs starring in practice began seeping out. Still, it was just practice, where he would sometimes be relegated to scout team duty. His role was to be a facsimile of the opposition, only setting screens or only passing the ball off.

And gametime — gametime was depressing. Cobbs, who plays hard and fast, could only sit and watch. That energy bottled up, he walked away from the rest of the team until the feelings settled down.

“Every Thursday, every Saturday, Sunday, you see the cart roll out with the jerseys and yours is not there,” Cobbs says. “You just gotta put on a collared shirt and cheer on your team.”

Which is why that exhibition against UCSD, the game that didn’t count, is still his favorite this season: The wait ended.

Right now, he is one of the Pac-12’s pleasant surprises, his 13 points, 4.8 assists and 2.4 rebounds a welcome addition to the ever-thinning Cal roster. Beyond the box score, his play provides a fleet-footed X-factor that doesn’t exist elsewhere on the roster. But the Bears need more.

Head coach Mike Montgomery harps on his defense and lack of focus, the downside of his hectic style of play. Cobbs, 20 years old, is still an unfinished product that could be dangerous once polished.

Take his passing, for example. Cobbs ranks second in the league in assists, but Montgomery said in one press conference, “I don’t know that his first thought process is necessarily ‘pass.’” About 10 minutes later, Cobbs said he considered himself a pass-first guard.

He tries to be. On Jan. 14, a night when free photo prints of Jason Kidd were passed out to ticket-holders, Cobbs recorded his first career double-double. His 11 assists against Utah are still tied for the highest total of any Pac-12 player this season.

But he does not deliver passes with Kidd’s preternatural vision. When he drives into the lane and flips the ball around a defender or out to the wing, the decisions feel conscious, not instinctive.

Next year, the team’s direction may rest on his development. Defensive stalwart Jorge Gutierrez will be gone, as will do-it-all forward Harper Kamp. Together, the two have shaped Cal into the top defensive team in the conference, an identity that keeps the program hovering somewhere outside the top 25. Without them, a large portion of that responsibility will fall to Cobbs.

The team’s most probable NBA talent is Allen Crabbe, a smooth-shooting swingman with a touch he once called “a gift from God.” But Crabbe relies heavily on his perimeter game; when his gift deserts him, as it does for stretches, the Bears fall into trouble.

Montgomery has said that Cal can’t be a good team unless Crabbe gets his shots, and Cobbs will have to ensure that happens. Still, it’s his scoring that gets notice. The soft-spoken Crabbe, with his feathery jumpers, can score 25 without anyone realizing; Cobbs’ 25, filled with twisting, acrobatic limbs, feels like 30. It is Cobbs who could open up the offense in dramatic fashion, his fervor and aggression the catalysts.

“He knows how to run the team,” Gutierrez said after the UCSD exhibition. “He knows us.”

Crabbe will likely be Cal’s best player, but the Bears need Cobbs. Because for now and the foreseeable future, the games do count.

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