It was a normal day of recess for the students at Cleveland Elementary School this past Friday, June 4 — complete with games of wall ball, soccer, tag, and duck-duck-goose — until members of the Santa Barbara Breakers basketball team showed up to play.
The Breakers are a professional minor league basketball team and a member of the West Coast Professional Basketball League. New to the team this past season was James Powell, who Santa Barbara area residents should recognize after he spent the last four years as a Gaucho at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
A soon-to-be UCSB graduate with a degree in sociology, Powell certainly had his fair share of memories in a Gaucho uniform and put together an impressive career.
“We went to the tournament this year, so that’s definitely a memory,” Powell said. “And then, my sophomore year, I probably have my fondest memory: I made a game-winning shot [against UNLV]. It was my one and only game-winning shot of my whole life, so I’ll remember that.”
Powell averaged just less than 10 points per game in his time at UCSB, and, in his senior season, he helped lead the team to the Big West Conference championship and the school’s first berth in the NCAA Tournament since 2002. Powell also finished his career at the Thunderdome with the school record for most three-point baskets made, with 221.
Breakers owner and head coach Curt Pickering said that he saw Powell play at UCSB and offered him a spot on the team when his time as a Gaucho ended.
“I see a lot of basketball games, so I’m always looking for talent,” Pickering said. “I saw him play for UCSB and he brings leadership, he has a three-point shot, and I know he has a strong determination to continue to play basketball beyond college. When you have a player with skills that has that desire and determination to really raise his game to the next level, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Pickering said that Powell has made solid contributions to the team and has improved his overall ability in the process. “He’s brought that strength of scoring, and he’s shown leadership abilities,” Pickering said. “I’ve seen improvement. I’ve seen his defense get better and I’ve seen him hit some clutch shots for us.”
Powell showcased those offensive abilities for the students of Cleveland Elementary as he and the kids took part in a three-point contest, half court shots, and a game of “Thunder,” which is “Knock Out” without the “knocking out” aspect. Powell’s teammates, William Clay and Al Dia, also joined in on the fun.
Clay did some ball-handling tricks to entertain the students, but the students were more fascinated with Dia. Dia, a seven-footer from Paris, France, fielded guesses from the students as to how tall he was, the most extreme being 12 feet.
After all the games were over, Pickering stressed the importance of doing these kinds of activities with students and what message the team tries to convey.
“Our games are only two hours and if that was our only purpose, that’s very short-sighted,” said Pickering, who has been running Montecito Basketball Academy for 13 years now. “These kids are 10 and 12 years old. and what they do with their lives is very important. So, all we can do is pass the message on and try to remind them about living a positive life and believing in yourself. So, we share different values, different principles for life, rather than just dribble a basketball and teach them how to shoot. It goes way beyond that. I call it ‘planting seeds,’” he went on. “We’re trying to impact our community, and make it a more positive place to live.”
Dia expressed the same sentiment. “It means a lot,” Dia said. “We have to be out there for them to show them they got to be in school and that school is important.”
Dia also praised Powell for his basketball prowess and for being an all-around good person.
“He’s just a great guy,” Dia said. “When he’s on the court, he gives it everything he’s got. He got injured a few weeks ago, but I hope now he feels better. He’s a good friend of mine and he’s a good player. He’s got a good shot, especially from the three-point line. He motivates the rest of the team.”
Powell, an avid fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, was frequently called “Big Game James” as a Gaucho, but he doesn’t exactly know how he gained the moniker.
“That came from somebody who deserved it way more than me — James Worthy,” Powell said. “I don’t even know where that came from. How could I take a name from an NBA great? I mean we wear the same number and got the same name, but I don’t deserve the nickname.”
“We did these things all the time [at UCSB],” Powell said. “Elementary schools or camps, they always had us do something like this. You bond with the kids, and the kids want to see you dunk the ball, and things like that. I like being around the kids. It’s very important because you never know what kind of future they have. If you show them something different, they may fall in love with it and want to do it for the rest of their life.”
So, while Powell may not deem himself worthy (no pun intended) of the former-Lakers player’s nickname, he enjoys being a role model and making a difference in the lives of children. That being the case, I’m sure the students at Cleveland Elementary would argue that he doesn’t need to be “Big Game James.” He’s done well enough already.