Oakland High School has long been a bastion of boys basketball brilliance, but for decades its teams have come up short in postseason tournaments. The Wildcats, despite boasting NBA All-Star Damian Lillard among its alumni, had never advanced past the regional semifinals of the state tournament. The lack of boys championship hardware (Oakland High girls basketball won a Division 3 state title in 2019) in the school’s halls belies the talent that has played there.

This all changed Friday night when Oakland High’s remarkable five-game winning spree in the state tournament culminated in a 59-43 victory over Buena High of Ventura in the CIF Division 3 championship game at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.

Money Williams, whom coach Orlando Watkins credits with helping turn around the Wildcats season, scored a game-high 22 points and snared nine rebounds. Anthony Lacy had nine points and seven rebounds, Te’Shawn Gamble added nine points and Josh Clark had eight points.

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The Wildcats boys celebrate their first state championship. Credit: Amir Aziz

“It’s bigger than basketball,” Williams, a senior wing who is committed to University of Montana, said after winning the school’s first state championship. “We did this for the city. I did this for the youth. I want the youth to look at this and be like, I can do this. Don’t let nobody tear you down. Stay true to yourself, trust God and you can accomplish your goals.”

While both teams’ offenses struggled early in Friday’s title game, Williams provided defensive grit as Oakland High jumped to a 9-0 lead. The senior drew a foul with one second to go in the first half and sank the free throws for a 23-13 lead. Lacy and Williams began to push the pace in the second half, and when Williams sank a 3 in the third quarter for a 21-point lead, chants of “O-A, O-A-K, O-A-K-L-A-N-D. Oakland. O-High” began to rain on Golden 1 Center.

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Oakland High’s Jimon Campbell (second from left) returns to the sideline with cheers from teammates at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif. on Friday, March 10, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

There was little reason to believe the Wildcats’ odds at winning an elusive state title would change when the school lost for a third time to crosstown rival Oakland Tech on Feb. 25 in the CIF Oakland Section championship game. But because the CIF Oakland Section champions (Tech) and runners-up (Oakland High) both qualified for the state tournament, which are divided into six divisions, Oakland High had a second life. When Tech and Oakland High were placed in Division 3, Watkins and assistant Oakland High coach Will Lew saw potential of a fourth meeting of rivals, this time with a state title game berth at stake.

“I think Money, after we lost to Tech the (third) time, did a little soul searching,” Watkins said at Friday night’s championship news conference, with players wearing medals on the dais. “I know when we played at Ponderosa (in the first round of the state tournament), it was a different Money. It was a different team. Other people accepted their roles and they played for each other.”

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Oakland High’s Anthony Lacy (12) attempts a steal from Buena’s James Fitzgerald (25) in the second half of the state final game at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on Friday, March 10, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

“Hey man, we didn’t win the OAL. Let’s go win state,” is how Watkins described his team’s mindset. “Let’s do it for each other. Let’s do it for the city. Let’s do it for the program.”

After beating Ponderosa High in Shingle Springs, Oakland High caught a break when top-seed Las Lomas fell to Carlmont of Belmont. The Wildcats torched Carlmont in the second round, then traveled to Sunnyvale to beat The King’s Academy and set up the fourth showdown with Tech. Before an overflow audience at Laney College Tuesday night Oakland High played a tougher defense and finally beat Tech, 77-61.

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The 2023 Oakland High School boys basketball championship team. Credit: Amir Aziz

Watkins said Tech, his on-court rival, pushed him and his players to elevate their game. “They helped us a lot this year,” Watkins said of coach Karega Hart’s gritty Tech team. “They showed us, ‘Hey, you guys got to get a little nastier on the defensive end.’ After the third game these guys said that’s not going to happen again. Tech had a lot to do with this. But there’s not enough neckwear for them. So we’ll take (the medals), and I’ll take Karega out for a drink.”

Chris Carlay, who played under Watkins from 2001-05 (when Watkins was a JV coach and varsity assistant), hosts “The Plugged In Podcast” with fellow alum Joe Hawkes. 

“Lillard is without a doubt the pride of that program for making it to the NBA and bringing notoriety to the school,” Carlay said after attending Friday’s win. “Watkins has been able to establish himself as the pillar of the program. I think for winning the first state championship in Oakland High history, some thought should be made to naming the gym after coach Watkins.”

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Coach Orlando Watkins (seated center right) and players share their thoughts during the post-game press conference. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland Athletic League teams went 12-0 against non-OAL schools in this state tournament (Oakland High boys went 4-0, Tech boys 3-0 and Tech girls 5-0). Carlay said the teams are blowing away a false perception that has long hurt the league’s reputation.

“Often teams in the OAL get looked at as having a vast talent pool, and a lot of athleticism, but not the coaching and cohesion to advance in the tournament,” said Carlay, who works at Mount Diablo High. “Tech and Oakland High had a good combination of talent and camaraderie.”

Before the Friday title game in Sacramento, Oakland High players received a video message from Lillard, who was out of state on a Portland Trail Blazers road trip. Lillard spent more than a minute talking about Oakland, its culture and environment, and how, for all his prep accolades, the point guard never achieved his goal of winning a state title at Oakland High.

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Coach Orlando Watkins (left) has established himself as a pillar of Oakland High School’s basketball program. Credit: Amir Aziz

“It was big for these guys to see Dame taking time out of his day, during his season trying to make the playoffs, to acknowledge these guys,” said Watkins, who coached Lillard from 2006-08. “It goes to show once you join this program, you’re in the program for life. He saw these guys this year, at a preseason tournament in Portland, and said they have a chance to do something special. And I think he wanted to let them know he still believes in them.

“There’s a lot of (Oakland High players) before these guys that had that dream and weren’t able to achieve it,” Watkins said of a state title. “For these guys to come and do it, it’s huge for the program. In fact, there’s a lot of alumni in the room–and there’s even more outside–that when we beat Tech, they said ‘Go win it for us.’”

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Oakland High’s Money Williams hugs Te’Shawn Gamble after the team’s state title win at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on Friday, March 10, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Watkins said the hard-fought victory over Oakland Tech gave his team a surreal feeling that lingered until the Wildcats arrived at the NBA arena Friday morning. He then turned to his team at the post-championship press conference: “And now… I don’t know, how do you guys feel?”

Jimon Campbell, the senior point guard who flashes the ‘OAKLAND” lettering on his chest any chance he gets, spoke up for the Wildcats: “Like state champs!”

Oakland High roster (*1st-team all-OAL; ** 2nd team): Da’Sean Armstrong, Rohm Neal, Josh Clark**, Money Williams*, Jordan Spencer, Jimon Campbell, Marcel Macon Bennett, Anthony Lacy, Te’Shawn Gamble*, Noah-Alan Ragasa, Will Tidwell, Zaymani Mitchell, Pierre Stevenson, Desmond West, James Fitzgerald, Ja’shaun Jackson, Eric Jackson, Couraji West, Dillan Cooper, Terrence Roquemore, Lorenzo Arroyo Garcia, Jaylon King. Coach: Orlando Watkins.

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.