Morgan Jenkins (Left) and Tyra Hamilton (Right) of Bishop O'Dowd's Varsity basketball team. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Oakland Technical High School senior Rakyha Reid was a sophomore in 2019 when she played forward on the school’s basketball team that won a state championship. It was the Bulldog’s first state title since 2005, when the North Oakland school won the first-ever girls basketball state championship.

“It was amazing,” said Reid, recalling the thrilling and historic season. “I was happy, glad, looking forward to doing it again, but that didn’t happen.”

In 2020, the shutdown of schools and sports to prevent the spread of COVID-19 denied the Bulldogs the opportunity to defend their title. On March 12, just before the Bay Area’s health officers issued stay-at-home orders because of the pandemic, the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high school sports, announced it was canceling the annual state championship tournament, which pits Northern California regional champions against Southern California regional champions. 

“We were all devastated,” Reid recalled. “We knew what we were capable of.”

Reid and her Oakland Tech teammates weren’t the only Oakland youth athletes whose season was interrupted by the pandemic. Other teams in the city vying for titles had their dreams derailed as well. And the pandemic also interfered with some seniors’ efforts to be recruited by top-flight colleges to keep playing ball.

The Bishop O’Dowd girls had their bags packed for the state title game, then COVID happened

East Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School has one of the winningest prep basketball programs in California history. The girls won state titles in 2012, 2013, and 2015. The boys won state titles in 1981 and 2015.

Last year, the boys came within two games of a state title and the girls came within one game, but their seasons were canceled by COVID.

Girls head coach Malik McCord is in his twelfth season at O’Dowd. McCord, who was born in Oakland, took the Dragons to the state title game in his second year as head coach, starting a run of four finals appearances over the next five years.

In 2019, the O’Dowd girls returned to the state title game after a four-year absence, but lost to Rosary Academy from Fullerton. Last year, O’Dowd won another NorCal Championship, and earned a rematch with Rosary Academy in the 2020 state title game. The team was eagerly looking forward to the showdown.

“We would have won, no doubt in my mind,” said McCord, who also noted that his team had an unusually high number of seniors last year, eight, and that the team had made incredible progress during the year. O’Dowd had also beaten Rosary Academy during a winter tournament in Arizona earlier in the season.

McCord said he will always remember the NorCal Championship game of 2020 because of how supportive his players were of each other. Some of the star players struggled, but others stepped up, and they all had each others’ backs. “We always win as a team,” he said.

A picture taken after the 2020 NorCal Championship game is still the background image on senior forward Morgan Jenkins’ phone. “Everyone was together, on the same page,” she said about that last tournament game they played together before the pandemic.

Senior guard Tyra Hamilton remembers that the 2020 O’Dowd girls team was singularly focused on getting back to the state title game and redeeming themselves from the loss in 2019. “All season we were like, ‘We’re gonna win state.’”

She remembers the celebration after the NorCal Championship game as “one of the most fun times in the locker room,” but added that immediately after the celebration, “we were locked in,” focused on preparing for the state championship.

The team came to school two days later on March 12 with their bags packed for a trip to Sacramento, but in the morning, they were told that the state tournament had been canceled. 

“It just didn’t seem real,” said senior guard Alanis Brewer. “We had come so far. It was a super emotional moment.”

“Everyone was crying,” recalled Hamilton. She had a bad feeling in her stomach; she wouldn’t get to play one last state championship game with her senior teammates, some of whom she had played with almost her entire life.

“Everything we did all year was about winning state,” she said. “It was a hard pill to swallow.”

Senior guard Tyra Hamilton said the Bishop O’Dowd team had a singular focus of winning the state championship. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland has a legacy of championship teams and star players

Even with the Golden State Warriors gone, basketball has long been, and continues to be, a big deal in Oakland. For many kids, it is a productive outlet for youthful energy. For some, it can also be a ticket to higher education, and professional careers.

Oakland has produced numerous stars like the NBA’s Damian Lillard, Gary Payton, and Paul Silas, and the WNBA’s Amisha Carter, Rehema Stephens, and Alexis Gray-Lawson. A current member of the Golden State Warriors, Juan Toscano-Anderson, was born and raised in deep East Oakland. Oakland is also the hometown of arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, Bill Russell, who attended West Oakland’s McClymonds High School.

Oakland high schools have a long history of taking part in championship tournaments. According to writer John E. Spalding, the CIF started hosting state championship games in 1916. East Oakland’s Fremont High School boys basketball team won the second ever CIF state championship in 1917. Although CIF stopped hosting tournaments in 1928, by 1947 a coalition of Bay Area athletic leagues created the Tournament of Champions. Formally known as the Northern California High School Invitational Basketball Tournament, the TOC occurred every year until 1980.  

McClymonds High School in West Oakland earned the nickname “School of Champions” with an unprecedented run of dominance in the TOC in the 1950s and 1960s. McClymonds won eight TOC titles over those two decades, including six in a row from 1958-1963, a span in which they also won 110 out of 111 games.

In 1976, the CIF took over sponsorship of the Northern California TOC, and girls teams were added to the tournaments two years later. By 1981, the CIF switched to a statewide tournament format that has since added five more Divisions for both boys and girls.

Two East Oakland schools squared off in that first state title game of the modern era: The Bishop O’Dowd Dragons defeated the Castlemont Knights at the Oakland Arena in 1981. Oakland schools have won 11 state championships and more NorCal championships than any other city in the CIF tournaments since then.

Thinking back to his playing days in the 1980s, Oakland Tech alumnus Leroy Hurt remembers how Oakland schools were feared in the region. “The whole level of play was pretty high,” he reminisces. Hurt is now in his sixth season as head coach of the Oakland Tech girls varsity team and he has been doing everything he can to elevate Oakland basketball.

“I just want to get it back to where it was,” said Hurt. But without an actual season, it’s been hard to keep building on the progress the school’s team has made.

COVID ended the O’Dowd boys team’s 18-game winning streak

Last March, the O’Dowd boys basketball team hadn’t yet qualified for the state title game because the NorCal Championship match was delayed after the opposing team, Sheldon High School of Elk Grove, had COVID concerns at its school. The game was rescheduled for March 12 in Sacramento, and the O’Dowd boys were hoping that a win would earn them the right to play in the state tournament. Like the girls team, they came to school that day with their bags packed for a road trip.

Coach Lou Richie said that when he heard about the NBA canceling its season on March 11 he knew that the high school season would follow suit. Sure enough, the next day, the O’Dowd boys were informed their season had come to an end.

“It was tough because no one really had us pegged to be there,” said Richie about the team’s improbable season. 

The boys team was a comeback story: After starting with a record of 5 wins and 7 losses, the Dragons found their footing and won their final 18 games. The team was confident heading into the NorCal Championship match.

“It was surreal to be on a team competing for the open state championship, and to have the opportunity taken away was heartbreaking,” said senior guard Matthew Desler.

“I felt like I did not play my best in our last game and it made me feel sick for months after,” said teammate Marsalis Roberson.

Richie knows what it is like to have a state championship taken away. It happened to him as a player in his junior year at O’Dowd. A few games after a victory over Leroy Hurt (who was also in his junior year) and the Oakland Tech Bulldogs in the 1988 playoffs, O’Dowd advanced to the state title game, which at the time was still being held in East Oakland. Down by one point with mere seconds left in the game, Richie drove the length of the court and lifted a last second floater that hit the back of the rim, but was then tipped home by teammate Mike Dones. When the ball went through the net at the buzzer, Richie raced to his coaches to celebrate what he thought was the second state championship in the history of Bishop O’Dowd. It would have also been only the second state title for an Oakland school in the modern era.

But it wasn’t. The referees ruled that Dones had tipped the ball illegally while it was still over the rim, nullifying the basket. 

“Heart wrenching,” said Richie.

The alumnus turned head coach said that he was so upset that he kicked the bench, breaking his toe. Then he jumped up and hung on the rim wildly in protest of the referee’s call. “I’m glad there’s no film of that,” he said.

Richie went on to play at UCLA and Clemson before returning to O’Dowd as an assistant coach in 2001. He became head coach in 2012, and in 2015, after several consecutive losses in the state title game, Richie and the O’Dowd boys finally won that second state championship.

“It was an incredible monkey off our back,” he said about the championship that had eluded him and the school for 27 years.

Morgan Jenkins of Bishop O’Dowd’s varsity basketball team plans to attend Boston University and study political science. Credit: Amir Aziz

Coaches and players continue to prepare for a season that may not happen 

Like her fellow athletes across the city, Reid, the Oakland Tech junior, wants high school basketball to resume, but she’s dealing with the uncertainty in her own way.

“I’m not thinking about it,” said Reid. “Honestly, I’m just taking it one day at a time.” 

The Tech girls team already missed out on a trip to Illinois that had been scheduled for winter break. Two years ago, they played Chicago’s Lane Tech and Hyde Park high schools in the first of what Coach Hurt hoped to turn into a biennial road trip.

While Reid played in some tournaments over the summer with her Amateur Athletic Union team, the Cali Ballaz, that experience only makes the uncertainty over this year’s high school season more frustrating. “Getting to play over the summer makes me want to go even harder,” she said.

Even without being able to play, Reid is getting recruited by colleges, but she said her main priority is to attend one of the historically Black colleges and universities. Without any game film from her senior year, earning a scholarship will be an uphill battle, but Reid is confident in herself. “I have a lot of faith,” she said about her chances of continuing to pursue her hoop dreams.

Her coach, Leroy Hurt, thinks she has a good shot at walking on (making a team without a scholarship) wherever she decides to go.

The O’Dowd girls team has already missed out on a trip to Hawaii for a tournament over winter break. McCord’s message to his players is to stay ready until they hear otherwise. McCord thinks the current O’Dowd girls could be better than the previous two teams that made it to the state title game. But he’s aware basketball is low on society’s overall list of priorities during the pandemic and economic recovery. “There’s worse things going on, things bigger than basketball,” he said.

One of McCord’s goals over the years has been to create a family atmosphere in his program that isn’t just about winning titles. The bright side of his seniors’ high school experience, he said, is that “at the end of the day, these kids have built relationships that will last a lifetime.”

There are four seniors on O’Dowd’s team this year. Senior forward Kennedy Johnson already has a scholarship to UC Santa Barbara, but her three fellow senior teammates do not. McCord thinks each of them can play in college, but he said that getting recruited will be more difficult without any game footage from what should be their final year of high school.

“If the season doesn’t happen, I will feel for them,” said McCord.

Colleges have been recruiting Hamilton, but not the ones she wants to attend. “Complaining doesn’t do anything,” the O’Dowd senior said, adding that she’s given up hope of playing in college because she doesn’t want to settle for a school “just to play.” Instead, she plans to study sports medicine, preferably somewhere in the South.

Her teammate Brewer has also accepted the possibility that she might not play in college. Brewer said she would love to play if the opportunity comes, but she isn’t interested in walking on somewhere. “I tried not to think about it too much because it was out of my control,” she said. 

Instead, Brewer’s thoughts are on her family and their health and well-being. She is focused on earning an academic scholarship and wants to go to college to make her family proud. 

“A lot of us kids don’t graduate high school,” she said about the reality for students in Oakland’s education system.

Morgan Jenkins is also trying not to think about the ruin of the basketball season. Like Hamilton, she has accepted that she won’t play in college, and plans to study political science at Boston University. 

“The decision was sort of made for me,” she said, referring to the pandemic.

In a preseason coaches poll a few months ago, the O’Dowd boys were ranked number one in the region. Star senior Marsalis Roberson already has a scholarship to Cal, but his six other senior teammates will have to try to earn a spot on a college team, possibly without any game film from this season.  

Coach Richie sees this as an opportunity for his seniors to learn how to be resilient, and they seem to be doing just that. 

“The most important thing that I learned is that the response to whatever adversity life throws at you is what truly matters,” said senior guard Henry Palmer. “My season was cut short, I couldn’t control that. However, instead of sitting on the couch the rest of the year, I got back up and began working so that the next time an opportunity like the one I had taken away from me presents itself, I’ll be ready.”

Though the CIF has not officially canceled the 2021 basketball season yet, any hope that there will be one is fading fast. Normally, winter sports like basketball are wrapping up their postseason by mid-March.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has kind of been a blessing in disguise, giving me time to focus on myself and get better every day,” said senior Jarin Edwards. “It gave me lots of time to reflect on what I wanted to do going forward and who I wanted to be.”

Tony Daquipa

Tony Daquipa is a dad, bureaucrat, PTA officer, photographer, urban bicyclist, grumpy old man, and preserver of history.