Barry Bell understands the challenges facing his McClymonds High School basketball team.

The “School of Champions,” as the Myrtle Street campus is dubbed for its athletic dominance over the decades, is being gutted of basketball talent as gentrification uproots West Oakland neighborhoods. Declining enrollment—around 300 students, down from 600-800 only 20 years ago—makes it difficult to field teams, let alone compete for league titles. More and more, it seems the athletes who do remain are opting for private schools or others outside the district. And the previous season’s winless Oakland Athletic League record (0-10), Bell’s first coaching at his alma mater, could dissuade potential players.

But before the regular-season finale on Feb. 10 against visiting Oakland High—which thumped McClymonds by 47 points weeks earlier—Bell could only talk about those excuses for so long.

“We’ve got jerseys; they’ve got jerseys,” the coach said. “We gotta suit up and we gotta play.”

On another campus, expectations might be lowered. Not here. Definitely not on Senior Night.

Standing courtside are McClymonds football coach Michael Peters, whose team has reached six state title games in a row, and his son Marcus Peters, an NFL All-Pro cornerback. Rooting on his football teammates and classmates is star football player Jaivian “The Jet” Thomas, who is heading to UC Berkeley on a scholarship. Hanging above the basketball court are banners honoring school alumni and basketball legends Bill Russell and Paul Silas. Both greats died in 2022—Russell, a Hall of Famer and civil rights pioneer, in July at age 88; and Silas, an NBA All-Star and LeBron James’ first NBA coach, in December at age 79.

McClymonds player Isaiah Cryer (#12) competes on the court against Oakland High. Credit: George Smith

“Anything short of winning a championship is not satisfying,” said Bell, whose team improved to four Oakland Athletic League wins in his second season and earned a berth in the CIF Oakland Section playoffs (McClymonds visits KIPP King at 7 p.m. Saturday in the opening round). McClymonds’ growth earned Bell Coach of the Year honors and two of his players—guards Devon Mack and Deontae Faison—were named to all-league teams. “I’m a competitor. I grew up in a competitive household,” said Bell. “I’m trying to win.”

As a McClymonds freshman in 2007-08, Bell was promoted to varsity during the boys basketball team’s 32-0 season, which ended with a state championship. Russell, the 11-time NBA champion who became the first Black NBA coach with the Boston Celtics, returned to his alma mater to speak with the team.

“He set the standard about civic engagement and getting involved in the community,” said Brian McGhee, a 1985 McClymonds graduate who now manages the school district’s African American Male Achievement Program, of Russell. “Bill passed it down to Paul Silas, Joe Ellis, and many others who came through McClymonds. Education was first. And you respect the community, respect the folks who grew up in the community, and always give back.

“(Russell is) a true Warrior. He loved McClymonds. He loved West Oakland. He loved students who were about taking care of business. He’s all about helping the next brother or young lady in your community. That’s instilled in me. And so, you pass it down from generation to generation.”

Isaiah Cryer, left, and Brandon Davis defend against Oakland High’s Desmond West. Credit: George Smith

Bell became league MVP as a McClymonds senior and earned a scholarship at Cal State Pomona. After his college career, he stayed at Pomona as a graduate assistant and volunteer coach. He lived with friends, worked at a group home, and earned his masters in education. Bell returned to Oakland during the pandemic and worked as a teacher’s aide at Skyline High before heading to McClymonds to also work for the African American Male Achievement project, which aims to “improve academic and ultimately life outcomes for African American male students.”

Bell vowed to take time away from coaching basketball, and turned down offers to become a college assistant. But when the McClymonds boys basketball position became vacant, players on the team lobbied for their mentor to take over a program he led to greatness as a player.

“When I was here, we didn’t just play for ourselves, we played for Mack and our community,” Bell said. “A lot of people came out and knew who we were. That’s where the pressure was. You can’t come out here and not play hard. We represent being the ‘School of Champions.’ ”

It’s a West Oakland legacy established by Russell, who won two national titles at the University of San Francisco in 1955 and ‘56, and Silas, who went unbeaten (82-0) during his prep basketball career at McClymonds in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

“You hear those names, watch their interviews, see their highlights, watch them coach … ” Bell said of the legends. “They were stand-up guys, and not too many make it out of here. Especially during the time period they came up in—a very tough time to be an African American athlete.”

Orlando Watkins, the basketball coach at Oakland High whose team is the No. 2 seed in the playoffs (Oakland Tech is the top seed), appreciates McClymonds’ history, though it might be lost on some of his players.

Orlando Watkins coached NBA star Damion Lillard at Oakland High, but fears Oakland is losing basketball talent. Credit: George Smith

“I walked into the gym today, and one of my JV kids said, ‘You know Wilt Chamberlain played here?’” Watkins said before the Feb. 10 tip-off. “I was like, ‘No … he didn’t … Bill Russell played here.’ He said, ‘I knew it was one of them.’ So the younger generation doesn’t get it.

“My generation, we remember hearing the stories and we watched the film of Bill Russell and Paul Silas. They gave hope to Oakland. You could make it out of West Oakland. And it grew to you can make it out of North Oakland—you look at Rickey Henderson and Marshawn Lynch; you can make it out of East Oakland—Damian Lillard (whom Watkins coached) and Gary Payton. 

“They represent Oakland.”

Head coach at Oakland High since 2006, Watkins lost three games to the 2007-08 McClymonds state title team, with Bell as a freshman. Now Watkins is the one who has a team oozing with talent, and on this night his star player, Money Williams, delivers a thrilling show in a 46-34 Oakland High win—though McClymonds trimmed 35 points off its previous defeat to the Wildcats.

Money Williams, who has committed to the University of Montona, is one of the city’s top players. Credit: George Smith

“When we’re playing against each other we don’t like each other,” Watkins said of coaching in the Oakland Athletic League, in which all schools boast star athletes as alumni. “In the moment (of the game) we’re enemies. But after the game—I’m lying, a day after the game—we all love each other and we’re all about, ‘How do we promote the league and these kids?’”

Two days prior to the win against McClymonds, Watkins lost a nail-biter to rival Oakland Tech, with Tech point guard Ahmaree Muhammad hitting the go-ahead basket in the final seconds to quiet the packed Oakland High gymnasium and clinch the OAL regular-season title and top playoff seed.

“Our two games against Tech remind me of the old Oakland Athletic League,” Watkins said.  “With gentrification, it’s gone. Luckily, right now Tech is really good. We’re really good. But the players that lead to the environment no longer live in Oakland or go to a private school.”

Money Williams (3) attempts to draw a charge from Brandon Davis (0). Credit: George Smith

School leaders at McClymonds hope to increase enrollment to 650 students—about half of what the campus can accommodate—over the next three years. 

“If we’re trying to build up to 650 students, we need sports and things to draw the students in,” Tolani King, a McClymonds alumna and parent told The Oaklandside’s Ashley McBride last May.

McGhee, who was the master of ceremonies for McClymonds’ Senior Night, believes Bell can help overcome those hurdles.

“Some of our best athletes in Oakland end up going to a private school, or they bus out and go to different schools,” said McGhee, a multisport athlete at McClymonds who played college football at UC Berkeley. “And that impacts the talent pool here in Oakland.

“What Barry has brought to McClymonds is a skill set, discipline and making sure these kids stay (academically) eligible. You want to keep tradition.”

Oakland Athletic League All-City selections

Boys basketball:

MVP: Ahmaree Muhammad, senior, guard, Oakland Tech. Coach of the year: Barry Bell, McClymonds. First team: Muhammad; Omar Staples, senior forward, Oakland Tech; Ardarius Gates, sophomore guard, Oakland Tech; Money Williams, senior guard, Oakland High; Te’Shawn Gamble, senior guard, Oakland High; Michael O’Donal, senior guard, Skyline. Second team: Devon Mack, junior guard, McClymonds; Josh Clark, senior guard, Oakland High; Joshua Edgerly, senior guard, Fremont; Devin Haynes, senior forward, Oakland Tech; Ozmandias Savage, junior forward, Fremont. Honorable mention: Deontae Faison, junior guard, McClymonds; Elijah Alexander, junior forward, Skyline.

Girls basketball:

MVP: Erin Sellers, senior guard, Oakland Tech. Coach of the year: Curtis Cooper, Oakland High. First team: Sellers; Mari Somvichian, senior guard, Oakland Tech; Nia Hunter, senior guard, Oakland Tech; Daijha Teague, junior guard, Oakland High; Alesha Gordon, junior center, Castlemont. Second team: Taliyah Logwood, junior forward, Oakland Tech; Santi Commodore, junior guard, Castlemont; Natanya Carrol, junior guard, Fremont; Zariah McBride, junior guard, Fremont; Auja’Leeyah Lewis, freshman forward/center, Oakland High. Honorable mention: Jhai Johnson, freshman guard/forward/center, Oakland Tech; Jane Alexander, freshman center, Skyline; Gia Watts, freshman guard/forward/center, Skyline.

Nick Lozito is a Sportswriter and designer whose work has appeared in The Oaklandside, Berkeleyside, KQED, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He is a graduate of Oakland Technical High School and Sacramento State University.