This story was produced by Oakland Voices, a nine-month program led by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education that trains Oakland residents to tell the stories of their neighborhoods.
In the final minutes of Oakland High School’s blowout win over Buena High in the boys’ Division III basketball state championship game, Wildcat senior Te’Shawn Gamble had his arms around fellow seniors Josh Clark and Jimon Campbell. Teammates since they were seven years old, the trio from East Oakland were physically interconnected as their high school careers came to an end.
“Seeing us grow up together, all we’ve been through, for us to win the ultimate prize, that’s what makes it special for us three,” Te’Shawn told Oakland Voices.
The three longtime friends and teammates are part of a gritty O-High squad that made a Cinderella run through the California Interscholastic Federation tournament to capture the school’s first-ever state championship in boys basketball. The O-High girls won the Division III title in 2019.
The game immediately following the O-High boys’ victory resulted in a third state title in a row for the Oakland Tech girls, making for a pretty successful evening in Sacramento for the Oakland Athletic League.
The fact that two chronically underfunded Oakland public schools won state championships is truly worth celebrating: These days, the top hoops prospects tend to gravitate towards private schools with better-funded athletic departments, and some now even have the option of going pro as teenagers.
In Oakland Unified though, austerity measures and declining enrollment have been the trend over the last two decades. Last Friday, hundreds of teachers engaged in a wildcat strike by calling in sick to protest the most recent round of budget cuts and layoffs.
Friends that ‘wanted to play with that Oakland on my chest’
Te’Shawn is an athletic, all-league, two-way shooting guard who led the Wildcats in assists this year. Josh is a steady, two-way point guard who has a mature seriousness about him on and off the court. Jimon, also a point guard, is a lightning-quick, relentless force of nature on defense who always has an infectious smile on his face.
For these three ballers, it all started at public rec center gyms. Te’s grandfather Howard works at the Tassaforanga recreation center in East Oakland. Jimon’s dad Octavio works at Willie Keyes recreation center in West Oakland. The Oakland Police Athletic League has a competitive team that practices at both gyms, and that’s how this trio of state champions met.
Josh’s father, Aaron, was their first Oakland PAL coach. Oakland Tech players Ahmaree Muhamad (this year’s OAL MVP) and Mahlik Smith also played on those same Oakland PAL teams.
The trio also met O-High Coach Orlando Watkins when he was working at Willie Keyes.
Coach Watkins is a Mission High (SF) grad who played at College of Alameda. He became an assistant at O-High in 1999, and has been head coach since 2006. His resume includes Wildcat alumnus Damian Lillard’s junior and senior years.
“It feels good,” Watkins said about being a champion. “These kids really wanted it, and put forth the effort needed.”
As exciting as it is for everyone on the team, the team almost didn’t include the trio of seniors that have played together for over a decade. When Te’Shawn, Josh, and Jimon were in eighth grade, they were all planning to attend a school other than Oakland High.
Josh attended Carl B. Munck Elementary and Montera Middle School. He was recruited by Capital Christian, a successful high school program in Sacramento, and he strongly considered moving out there. Ultimately though, he didn’t want to leave his family, and he also “wanted to play with that Oakland on my chest.” Having gotten to know Coach Watkins from Willie Keyes, Josh decided to play for him because the coach “always showed love.”
Te’Shawn attended several elementary schools in Hayward and San Leandro before ending up at Montera for sixth grade. He transferred to Bret Harte for eighth grade. That year, he had friends at both O-High and Tech that he was interested in joining the following year, but ultimately felt that O-High would be better for him academically.
While Josh and Te were four-year varsity players at O-High, Jimon took another path to becoming a Wildcat. After attending St. Lawrence O’Toole for elementary school and Bret Harte for middle school, he was recruited to go to Bishop O’Dowd as an athlete, but couldn’t get in as a student. He ended up going to Moreau Catholic of Hayward, where he played varsity for two years, but it ultimately wasn’t a good fit. He wanted to transfer to Oakland to play with Josh and Te, but was told there wasn’t space, so he went to San Leandro for his junior season.
For his senior season, Jimon got his wish and became a Wildcat. When asked why he wanted to end up at O-High, he told Oakland Voices, “I really wanted to finish with the guys I started with.”
‘We’re just trying to add to that legacy’
Like Josh, Jimon also “wanted to win something with that Oakland on my chest.” He said that the night before O-High’s upset win over Oakland Tech in the NorCal title game, a night when he hadn’t won any championships yet. “Honestly, we’re just trying to add to that legacy.”
In addition to his father, most of his family were Wildcats. While he wanted to add to the legacy of Oakland High by winning the school’s first-ever boys NorCal title, he and his teammates ended up adding to an even more legendary high school hoops legacy.
The modern-day CIF state tournament evolved out of the Bay Area’s Tournament of Champions, which was held in East Oakland after the Coliseum was built in 1966. However, the CIF moved its state championship games to Sacramento in the early 90s in response to complaints about the competitive advantage for Bay Area teams playing in Oakland.
Started by three Bay Area athletic leagues in 1947, the TOC was the precursor for modern-day regional tournaments. The CIF took over control of the TOC in 1976.
When girls’ teams and teams from Southern California were added to the tournament in 1978, the McClymonds boys won the first postseason tournament of the modern era that pitted a team from NorCal against one from SoCal. McClymonds earned its nickname, “School of Champions,” due to its success in the TOC in the 50s and 60s.
In the last TOC ever in 1980, Fremont beat Castlemont in an all-East Oakland final.
The following year, in the first CIF state tournament of the post-TOC era, Bishop O’Dowd beat Castlemont in yet another all-East Oakland final.
In all, Oakland schools have appeared in 37 CIF state championship games, winning 17. Oakland public schools have won 11 of those state titles.
“It means a lot,” said Josh about joining that list of champions from Oakland. “That’s history. Everybody’s gonna remember a state champion. That’s big.”
‘It put a chip on our shoulders‘
The Oakland Tech girls have been here – they’ve won five of the 11 championship trophies displayed on OAL campuses – and despite graduating an incredible senior class that never lost a single playoff game, have a shot at staying here.
In contrast, the O-High boys had never been here, and weren’t supposed to be here this year. They finished second in the league, and second in section, both of which were won by their nemesis, Oakland Tech.
Top scorer Money Williams has been money for the Wildcats the past two years, and has a scholarship at a D1 school next year. While he stepped up his game in the wake of the section tourney loss, the Wildcats’ underdog run through the regional tournament required everybody to elevate their games.
Motivated by the sting of three losses to the same team in the same year, Te’Shawn noticed a “big change” in his team after the section tournament. Describing how the team practiced and played during the regionals, he told Oakland Voices, “We moved with a sense of urgency. Everybody was just doing their job.”
“Tech humbled us,” Jimon said about the section finals game.
Though the Wildcats made it to the NorCal semifinals last year, this was Jimon’s first time being in the regional tournament. He said that the team felt disrespected to be given a #9 seed after the season that they had. “It put a chip on our shoulders.”
Coach Watkins scheduled a very tough preseason in which they traveled quite a bit to play some very good teams. Their only losses in league and section play were to Tech. However, it’s hard for a section tourney runner-up to argue that they should have been ranked higher in the region tourney.
Oakland Tech, on the other hand, could argue that they were disrespected with a #3 seed despite sweeping the OAL and winning the Oakland section. The Bulldogs then made it through the regionals, only losing to O-High in an epic NorCal title game that was relocated from Tech to a neutral site, Laney College, in order to accommodate a larger crowd.
Watkins said that a change in his starting lineup also sparked the Wildcats in the regional tournament: he replaced Josh in the starting lineup with Jimon. Josh handled the move with maturity, and the team flourished with its new rotation.
In addition to Williams and the Oakland PAL trio, big men Anthony Lacy and Desmond West were instrumental in containing Tech’s Omar Staples, jr. and Devin Haynes in the NorCal finals, and they also held down the paint in the state title game as well.
Academics and accountability
Watkins emphasizes academics and accountability. He schedules 6:30 a.m. practices every Monday. He takes his players’ phones away during the school day, and they all have to do their homework in-between school and practice. “If we’re not dribbling the ball, we got study hall,” Jimon told Oakland Voices.
“Academics can take you further than basketball, or it can hold you back,” Watkins said.
Having an alternate plan is even more important given a recent rule change that makes it easier for college players to switch schools. Because schools can more easily pick up players that already have college experience, only the “elite-of-the-elite” high school players stand a chance at earning a scholarship.
Josh has a scholarship to Lewis & Clark College lined up for next year. Te’Shawn has basketball options, but is waiting to see if any additional offers come his way. Jimon has gotten accepted to several colleges as a student, but hopes to earn a basketball scholarship.
The three are part of a senior class that will end their high school careers as champions. In addition to Money Williams, the senior class includes Desmond West, Pierre Stevenson, and Jaylon King.
The Wildcats have good junior, sophomore, and freshman classes for next year’s team, and Watkins is optimistic about the future.
In the meantime, the Oakland PAL trio are enjoying the rest of their senior year as state champions.
Outside of school, they all have part-time jobs with the Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development Department: Josh is a Recreation Aide at Willie Keyes, Te’Shawn is a Recreation Aide at Tassaforanga, and Jimon is a youth basketball referee at DeFremery Park in West Oakland.
Having helped add some hardware to the Oakland High trophy case, these products of public rec centers are paying it forward to the next generation.