On Reserve: Jeff Powers’ career as a role player hasn’t affected his love of basketball

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Kore Chan/Senior Staff

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One hundred-fifteen days after the start of the college basketball season, Jeff Powers made his first appearance at a Cal press conference.

Wedged between press conference regulars Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon, Powers stood out. With just two games left in the season, Cal Athletics had decided to bring out the team’s three seniors — but it was clear that one of them didn’t belong.

A member of the media tossed Powers a soft-ball question, asking what these last two games would mean for him before he graduated. Powers shifted uncomfortably in his chair before giving his answer — “I’m alright,” he responded.

A different reporter started to question Powers as the conference wound down, asking him about his playing time, or lack thereof. Powers averages just seven minutes per game for the Bears.

“My career really has just been, I’m just kinda the guy that comes in when guys are hurt,” Powers told the reporter. “That’s just what my role is, and I accept it. It’s definitely hard to swallow.”

Though the reporter showed interest in Powers with his questions, he wasn’t writing down any of Powers’ answers as he did for Cobbs and Solomon. Eventually, the conversation shifted to what Powers’ plans are when his days at Cal are over.

“I know I can play somewhere,” he said. “I’d like to play for a team that can use me.”

It’s no secret Cal hasn’t used Powers much. After four years spent primarily on the bench, he has learned to fulfill his love of basketball in other ways. But he is still set on seeing time on the court after he leaves Berkeley.

In late 2009, Powers was at the University of Denver, but he transferred after just one quarter. He went because he thought he could fit into the Princeton offense there and left when he didn’t. Without a plan, Powers’ homesickness caught up to him, and the Bay Area native transferred to Cal after an old high school teammate — Brandon Smith — reached out.

Transferring meant Powers was a walk-on for the Cal team. Unlike most of the other players, who were recruited out of high school, Powers didn’t have a scholarship to support him. He had to pay his own way through Cal.

Powers worked hard to try and earn a scholarship. He put in extra time in practice, but for years he had nothing to show for it.

“(Playing for Cal) is a big mental commitment,” says teammate Ricky Kreklow. “To get to that point, you’ve got to put in a lot of work outside of what you are required to do. I think he definitely did that.”

Last summer, Powers ran out of time to wait for a scholarship. His father’s health issues became a financial issue for his family, and though Powers was just one semester from completing his degree, he was unable to afford that last semester he needed. He was staring down the possibility of not only having to forgo his senior season on the team but to drop out of Cal entirely.

Powers had to move home to nearby Clayton for the summer because he couldn’t afford to live in Berkeley. Completely in the dark, he began the fall semester without paying his e-Bill account.

Colleges rarely give scholarships to players who weren’t recruited and even more rarely give them to players who will only be around for one more year. And while Powers would ask some of the coaches about the potential for a scholarship, all they would tell him was, “We’re working on it.”

Two weeks into the semester, with Powers’ future hanging in the balance, coach Mike Montgomery pulled him aside after a weightlifting session.

“We’re going to give you a scholarship,” Montgomery told Powers.

Powers ran to the locker room to tell his teammates the news.

“He just had the biggest grin,” Kreklow says. “When he finally got the news that he had earned it, he was ecstatic.”

Getting the scholarship was like a stamp on Powers’ resume. It’s his biggest accomplishment on the Cal team — his achievement that proves he belongs.

“The stars aligned, and the scholarship was given to me,” Powers says. “And it really was a blessing, and I couldn’t be happier.”

But the scholarship didn’t translate into minutes on the court. This season, Powers has averaged just seven minutes per game, despite shooting more than 50 percent from three-point range. Powers is strictly a shooter, however, rarely contributing more than a deep ball or two. Other than a brief stretch where Kreklow and Jabari Bird were hurt, he has mostly spent his senior season like he did the three previous ones — on the bench.

Now expecting to graduate, Powers is doing what all college seniors must do: prepare for life after school.

A perennial role-player on the Cal team, Powers knows he doesn’t have a future in the NBA. So he is looking overseas for a place to play ball.

“It’s the only thing I’m concentrating on,” Powers says. “Just preparing for that. I’m excited for that — to have a new basketball experience. Just experience something new.”

Recent Cal players such as Harper Kamp, Robert Thurman and Brandon Smith are playing ball outside of the United States, and Powers keeps in touch with all of them. Right now, that is the goal: to find a team that can use him.

“I’ve been playing basketball since I was 7, and I don’t know anything else besides basketball,” Powers says. “Everything that I’ve accomplished has been because of basketball.”

Powers is focused on playing. But in the event that he can’t find a team to take him, he is determined to keep his passion in his life somehow.

In the spring, Powers partnered with teammate David Kravish to set up a DeCal centered on basketball analysis. Powers has always been a smart player, and he’s as ready to discuss advanced statistics as he is LeBron James and Kevin Durant. In his class, he does both.

Powers’ class gives him an outlet to keep basketball in his life without actually being on the court. And as one of the smartest players on the team, Powers often teaches the younger players how to play the game in a smarter way.

“He’s smart at basketball. That’s where he really helps the younger guys succeed,” Kreklow says. “They’re young minds. They don’t get as much, and that is where Jeff is really good because he gets it.”

But his DeCal also serves another purpose. Powers isn’t just defined by basketball — he also loves to read and write. And the DeCal gives him a chance to share his basketball knowledge, preparing for a potential career writing about basketball later down the line.

He spends his spare time soaking up the latest articles and stories about the game and would often write his own blog posts for Cal Athletics before his senior thesis caught up to him. Powers switched to a American studies major after the rigor of balancing a premed track and basketball proved too rigorous. But he has embraced his major, writing a senior thesis examining racial representation in “This is SportsCenter” commercials.

“When I wasn’t playing, I was really trying to get into writing,” Powers says. “I think when I do come back from overseas, that is something I would like to get into. That’s always in the back of my mind, because I do love to read and write.”

Like any competitor, Powers would prefer to be on a court than behind a desk. But it’s an open option as his career at Cal winds down.

Fifteen minutes after that press conference where Powers’ expressed his frustration, he was confronted with a question he’d considered his entire career: Should he have gone somewhere else, perhaps to a smaller school where he could have started?

Powers sighed, collecting his thoughts.

“Knowing what I know now, I probably would have gone somewhere else,” Powers says.

Then he paused again to think about it more. After all, Powers’ experience at Cal has been about more than basketball.

“Not everyone’s experience is going to be like mine here,” Power says. “If I were to go back in time, I think I would stay here though. Just because I do love this place.”

Riley McAtee covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee

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  • Steven Ilko

    There was so much that I didn’t know about Powers. Also a well written, well researched article. I wish Powers the best in his future, whether it be on or off the court.