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Cal’s Ivan Rabb ready to take the next step

After waiting a year, the sophomore forward will enter NBA draft

Last spring, Ivan Rabb did what he believed was best for him by returning to California-Berkeley rather than going to the NBA.

“A lot of families out there may try to push their kids to not only go to the NBA, but maybe even go to a certain school,” Rabb told The Undefeated in November 2016. “And, I would just say for everybody, make your own decisions, because you’re the one that has to live with it.”

On Wednesday, the sophomore forward made another decision. He will enter the 2017 NBA draft with no plans of taking his name out, he confirmed to The Undefeated.

The 6-foot-11, 220-pounder averaged 14 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 32.6 minutes per game this season. The projected first-round pick was a 2017 All-Pac-12 Conference first-team selection under former Cal basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, who has departed to take the head coach job at the University of Missouri.

“Cal meant a lot to me,” Rabb told The Undefeated. “My two years at Cal was a huge learning experience both on and off the court.”

The teenager from East Oakland, California, had the opportunity to be an overnight millionaire — lots of new money that could help his mom reopen her soul food restaurant. For the first time in his life, dollars could have made sense for Rabb by just saying yes to the NBA last spring like many of his fellow star freshman colleagues did.

Rabb, however, prides himself in not being a follower.

He was raised by his single mother, Tami, who moved several times with her two sons before they settled just blocks away from Oracle Arena, where the Golden State Warriors play in the Brookfield Village neighborhood. East Oakland, an evolving and suddenly gentrifying part of Oakland, is still impoverished, with its share of crime, violence and drugs with a population that is heavily black and Hispanic. Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, former NBA great Gary Payton, Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, musicians Sheila E., Tony! Toni! Tone’! and M.C. Hammer, comedian Mark Curry and the late Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed by a policeman at a neighborhood subway train stop, all were from there.

Rabb is the latest phenom from East Oakland with a star expected on the rise. Not that he plans on forgetting where he came from, no matter what his future wealth may be.

“Just remember coming home, like my block just being closed off by the police and stuff, and I couldn’t get in my house,” Rabb said. “ ‘Let’s see an I.D.?’ Back then I used to forget my wallet all the time and so I just couldn’t [go home]. I had to wait until my mom or somebody called. There was often some type of [incident] …

“One of the first days I moved in, somebody got hit by a car. It was like a hit-and-run. That was one of my first experiences at the house. I was like, ‘Damn, I saw it.’ I saw a person on the ground. But people used to just fly down the street. Oakland streets are real narrow.”

Rabb could have easily joined the wrong crowd in East Oakland. He credits his basketball skills, inner pride and strong parenting from his mother for keeping the wrong people at bay. He also learned from “tons of people” who ruined their chances to become Division I basketball players by getting “caught up.”

“Everybody knew I was a basketball player,” Rabb said. “They never really tried to get me to do anything crazy. I was never really a follower, so when I said, ‘No,’ people respected it most of the time.”

Rabb also recalled the challenges he had academically in a public junior high school that lacked crucial resources in East Oakland.

Students were shoved into overcrowded classrooms. Books were often shared. There was no air conditioning. While Rabb said most teachers wanted their students to succeed, he had a math teacher who told him he “would never be nothing.” Kids were stressed about struggles at home. Underpaid teachers were overwhelmed. Rabb said students were given unchallenging homework just to “keep them busy.”

“[The teachers] don’t get paid enough and it’s too much stress on them. They get stressed out,” Rabb said. “And that’s what causes them to say things like, ‘You’ll never be anything,’ or something like that. As a community, we got do a better job at just giving teachers more, giving teachers what they need to educate these kids.”

Rabb says that “with all due respect” he feared that the same problems would exist if he attended an Oakland or nearby San Leandro public high school, as was expected. He believes that Oakland Bishop O’Dowd High School basketball coach Lou Ritchie “changed my life” when he was recruited during his eighth-grade year. Rabb had never heard of the Catholic school just 20 blocks from his home.

Rabb was stunned to see kids having “more than they needed” during his O’Dowd visit. Ritchie believed that Rabb would be a great player, but he also promised to help him become a respectful young man who functioned well in society. Rabb eventually accepted the financial aid to attend the school that had a highly respected basketball program, too.

“With the resources they had, I knew O’Dowd was probably the better option. So we found a way to get in, and I took advantage of it,” Rabb said.

Basketball came easy for Rabb as he was a varsity star as a true freshman, leading the Dragons to a 24-7 record. School initially stressed him out as it presented a large but much-needed challenge. Ritchie forced Rabb and his other teammates to attend study hall on the weekend. Structure. Mandatory classes on religion. Alumni and guests often around with successful backgrounds to be seen as role models.

Rabb eventually adapted to meet the demands of O’Dowd.

“The teachers were on me,” Rabb said. “It was annoying at first. But they were on me about doing my work, and going to get help if I really needed it instead of just blowing it off and being like, ‘I’ll be all right. I’ll pass, it’s not a big deal.’

“I learned to take initiative, and go meet with the teachers. And, coach Lou definitely helped me out a lot with that because he would always say, ‘Either you’re at the gym or you’re in the library studying.’ ”

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - DECEMBER 22: Ivan Rabb #1 of the California Golden Bears takes a shot during a college basketball game against the Virginia Cavaliers at John Paul Jones Arena on December 22, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – DECEMBER 22: Ivan Rabb #1 of the California Golden Bears takes a shot during a college basketball game against the Virginia Cavaliers at John Paul Jones Arena on December 22, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Rabb excelled enough to become a 2015 Parade All-America selection as a senior. The 2015 California Mr. Basketball led O’Dowd to the top-level California State championship with an intense title game overtime win. Rabb also played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and represented the United States in the esteemed Hoop Summit, which pits the top American high school seniors against the top international teens.

College basketball powers such as Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and Arizona were finalists for Rabb. But in front of the Bay Area media at his mom’s then-open soul food restaurant, he chose home, choosing to play for Martin at Cal. The academically renowned Cal was far from a national or even Pac-12 Conference power for that matter, which was part of the attraction. Rabb also acknowledged that he believed going to a school close to home would have long-term benefits off the court.

“The biggest reason why I came here was because I felt like at the other schools I would have been just another player who came in and potentially left to go to the NBA, God willing,” Rabb said. “But, here it’s like I’m from the area. There’s been a lot of great players, I could be another person on that list. But, it’s not a lot of people from here who actually stayed and went here, and played well, and really put on for the city, so that was, like, my thing.

“I wanted to start something new. Then I came here. I wanted for this school to be like a Kansas, or a Kentucky, or like a UCLA who consistently gets players and they’re always really, really good. That was, like, my goal, to be honest. Like, I wanted to change the landscape of Bay Area basketball. Why not go to Cal?”

Rabb was also very proud to get academically accepted to Cal thanks to his 3.15 grade-point average at O’Dowd. He hopes that kids from underprivileged East Oakland and Bay Area neighborhoods can learn from his story that with dedication and hard work academically, they can go to a school like Cal, too.

“I didn’t even think about going to Cal when I was younger,” Rabb said. “That wasn’t even an option. And, I see so many people wearing Cal sweatshirts and stuff in Oakland. But Oakland, Hayward, San Leandro, nobody from there is going to Cal. Nobody I know, nobody in my group of friends. So, it’s really been like a blessing.

“At the same time I want to put it out there that there are a lot of kids out there who just need an opportunity. Kids who are smart and who can take advantage of it.”

Rabb averaged 12.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game as a true freshman last season. The 2016 All-Pac-12 second-team selection was projected to be a top 20 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. There were NBA scouts who thought the slender, 6-foot-9, 210-pounder wasn’t physically ready for the next level. Rabb initially put his name in the draft.

One-and-done college players who were selected in the first round of the 2016 NBA draft included Rabb’s Cal teammate Jaylen Brown, LSU’s Ben Simmons, Duke’s Brandon Ingram and Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray, Washington’s Marquise Chriss and Dejounte Murray, Marquette’s Henry Ellenson, Florida State’s Malik Beasley and Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson. Rabb, however, made a “hard decision” to stay in school instead.

Why?

“The whole time I was having a hard decision because I felt I wanted to stay, but I felt like everybody around me wanted me to leave and go collect the money, go reach their dreams,” Rabb said. “But, once I found out the people that were important to me didn’t really feel like that, then it was easy to follow my own heart. It was stressful. I was asking everybody for info.

“Coach Martin was like, ‘You got to stop worrying about what other people think. It’s about you. You’re the one that has to go out there and work your butt off.’ Knowledge definitely helped.”

A supportive Martin said Rabb’s family did a great job of “gathering information and making a well-informed decision.” Rabb credited his mother and other family members for not pressuring him to enter the NBA for quick financial gain. He said his already strong love and trust for his family was strengthened due to their support.

“They said don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine,” Rabb said. “It’s not like they’re starving or nothing like that. We are doing well enough. We’ve always did well enough to take care of ourselves.

“As long as my family was good, then I didn’t have a problem with it. Now, if you would have asked me the same thing a few years ago, then I would have left, no question about it.”

Rabb’s mom actually moved the family across the street from Lillard’s family around 2010. Lillard was starring in college at Weber State and his bond with Rabb has been growing over recent years. Rabb has respected Lillard for bonding at neighborhood picnics in the offseason that includes local hip-hop and R&B performances, barbecue cooked by local firefighters, swimming, horse rides and more. Once Rabb makes it to the NBA, he hopes to make a great impact on the East Oakland like Lillard has as a role model and with his time.

“That’s definitely in the future,” Rabb said. “I like what ‘Dame’ does. Like, he goes back and has a barbecue and invites like a ton of people to come out. But it’s going to take time to plan and figure out exactly what I want to do. And, first I have to be successful, whether that’s in college or NBA or whatever that may be. I have to work to get to that level so I can reach out to help people.”

Rabb was proud to be introduced as Oakland’s own “Ivan Rabb” during pregame introductions at Cal. Martin said East Oakland gave Rabb a “sense of purpose” and he is not only playing for his family, but his neighborhood, too.

“I just want to influence other people who come from Oakland, whether they’re athletes or not, even though I’m young. I know that there are people who can still learn from younger people. So, I just want to influence them to reach out too,” Rabb said.

Liner Notes

This story has been updated from it’s original version to reflect the news of Ivan Rabb heading into the 2017 NBA Draft.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.