Avinash: With Shareef graduating, might be a good chance for us to write about his spectacular freshman season at Cal (like we did with Kidd a few years back).
LeonPowe: With Jason Kidd and Lamond leaving school in 1994, we brought in a highly ranked recruiting class consisting of Jelani Gardner and Tremaine Fowlkes. And while the kids (mainly Folkes) were very good - with Folkes winning the Freshman of the Year honors, unfortunately our upper class leadership (Monty Buckley, Al Grigsby and Ryan Jamison) and returning players (Anwar McQueen / Randy Duck) wasn't good enough to lead Cal to the post-season in 1994-95; although that team probably would've done pretty well in last year's Pac-12.
But then Bozeman landed Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The Future. No, seriously, that was his nickname, because in "The Future" guys were going to be his size 6'10", but also be able to handle the ball and attack the basket from a face-up as well as from the post. A quiet Muslim kid all the way from Atlanta - supposedly our Islamic Studies program was the key to landing 'Reef - so not just a great basketball player, but a kid who was thoughtful, religious and also had a killer spin move. So, we eagerly tuned in to that spring's McDonald's All America game to see our new prize recruit take on the best in the US.
So with the entire roster sporting giant white pieces of tape over their ears (apparently they all got their ears pierced) we watched as some kid named Kevin Garnett proceeded to block about 100 of 'Reefs shots - I remember thinking "this was the #3 recruit in the country?" He looked terrible! (Ok, so that Garnett kid turned out to be pretty good)
So then Reef came in and quickly put those fears to rest though. He was unstoppable. A combination of quickness, agility and fundamental post moves he racked up points more easily than any freshman I've ever seen at Cal - or even the Pac-10. Combining with high scoring JuCo transfer guard Ed Gray, the suddenly deep Bears looked like a contender to play deep into March. And Reef? Man, he was a monster. He played like an evolutionary James Worthy. A guy with a power forward's size, but a small forward's skill, touch and that spin move. Oh that spin move - he would just torture people with that. Then when people would play the base to take away that spin, he'd counter into the middle with a jump hook or then put them in the washing machine with a Sikma reverse pivot and pop the 12 foot jumper. I've never seen a college freshman come in with that many post moves. He became the first Pac-10 freshman to be voted Pac-10 player of the Year (granted, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton were inelgiable for the award as freshmen) and third team all American, averaging 20 and 8.5 rebounds and dominating older, more experienced power forwards.
Unfortunately, Bozeman's ability to bring in key high school players was a lot better than his ability to coach them (and that ability to recruit may just have been aided by FedEx envelopes full of cash) and despite having Tremaine Fowlkes, Gray, McQueen, Gardner, Sean Marks, Yogi Stewart, Tony Gonzalez and Reef, we got bounced in the first round in Dallas by Kelvin Cato and the Iowa State Hurricanes, leaving me and my friend a non-changeable air ticket back to the Bay Area on Monday so we rented a car from the airport - drove to Shreveport Louisana, lost $300 more dollars, drove back, slept on the floor of the airport until our flight. Not that I'm bitter about that trip or anything.
OhioBear: I didn't attend many games during Reef's one and only season at Cal. But I saw most (if not all) of the televised games that season. (I was a second-year law student who took school waaaayyyyy too seriously. I attended every football game, but let my basketball attendance fall by the wayside. But I digress...)
I kid you not (pun intended): at the time, I thought that Reef was the BEST freshman I ever saw play at Cal. Let that sink in. Yes, we had Jason Kidd just three seasons before Reef, but I actually put Reef a cut above him, purely in terms of his freshman year play from start to finish. Reef came in as incredibly polished. It was amazing to watch him work -- he had post moves, he had touch, and he had a knack for hitting that difficult baseline turnaround jumper. I thought he was simply amazing. And apparently so did the rest of the league: he was the Pac-10 player of the year as a freshman, something that seemed unheard of at the time.
Kodiak: Unlike OhioBear, I was a true Cal fan and saw all of Reef's games.
I will disagree that he's the best true frosh I've ever seen. That is and may forever be Jason Kidd. But as far as frosh bigs go, Shareef is easily the best. In fact, he may be the best Cal big man that I've ever seen in person regardless of age.
Polish and skill are the two words that first come to your mind when you think of Reef's game. You just don't see guys with that type of footwork as freshmen. Heck, you rarely see it in seniors. He had an array of post moves on either block and could score just as well with either hand. He could handle the ball, lead the break, and hit the open three. It was mildly ridiculous how skilled he was. He never overpowered guys or outjumped them, but he was so smooth with the ball that he was able to beat double and even triple teams. Keep in mind that he played during a "rebuilding" year. Teams knew to throw everything at him. Yet, I don't remember games where he was shut down. He was that good. And yet, it never seemed like he was a ball hog or a volume shooter.
I had the opportunity to meet him at the team's awards banquet. He was humble, polite, and surprisingly quiet. It's too bad that chronic knee issues plagued his career. He wore braces on both knees while he was a Bear, and that persisted during his time in the league.
Ok, it wasn't THAT relevant (in fact, you can see why someone may have wanted to pay jelani $$$ - but there was a good stretch of reef highlights around the 5 minute mark
OhioBear: Just realized that if Shareef had stayed one more year, we wouldve had a nice lineup of Shareef, Tony G, Yogi Stewart, Prentice McGruder, and Randy Duck, with Grigsby, McQueen, and Sean Marks off the bench. Without Shareef (and without Gray in the NCAA tournament for that matter), Cal got to the Sweet 16 as it was.
LeonPowe: And if Dirk Nowitzki had come too (and number 1 overall recruit Julian Sensley - but he turned out to be not good for Hawaii)
Reef:The comments do a great job capturing what he was and why his short tenure at Cal was memorable. I would add a couple things, both of which stem from the same core: Shareef always seemed far older than his years.
On the court, his game was old school and old man. He had average athleticism for a Pac-10 big, but a set of skills an NBA 10-year-veteran would envy. He could handle up top and on the wings, hit from midrange, turn on you in the post. He had an endless array of offensive skills. But what was most fascinating and fun to watch for me was how slow he seemed to move. Everyone around him always looked much quicker, but despite this he was never, ever in a hurry. He set up his moves like a chessmaster. If they stepped back he'd shoot over them. If they overshaded one side he'd cross them over. If they leaned on him he'd drop step or spin. If they got in the air he'd pump fake. He boarded the same way. It's like he never got off the ground, never outjumped anybody, but the ball was waiting for him because he was in the right spot. In the modern era they talk about James Harden having the old man YMCA game. That was Shareef. Calm. Deliberate. Another bucket.
I think Jason Kidd was the most impactful freshman in Cal history. But nobody came to Cal ready to score like Shareef.
His maturity off the court was just as impressive. I watch tape of interviews from his graduation, and it's like he hasn't aged a day, because that's what he was like as a freshman. Quiet. Thoughtful. Humble. Midway through the season there was a lot of talk in the media about Ramadan. Would the fasting affect him during a critical time in the season? It seemed like the only one completely unconcerned was Shareef. Every time he was asked about it he calmly said it was his faith and changing his behavior was not an option, but it would have no effect on what he did on the court. And when it didn't, and everyone wanted to ask him why it didn't, he didn't get annoyed, he again just patiently talked about his faith and the basketball. In the end that's what it seemed to come down to in his game and in his life. Simplicity. What was real. There was never any of the drama, never any of the ego, that came with other players of the Cal era. There was just his faith and his basketball.
Regardless of the time frame, regardless of the circumstances, graduating with a BA from the University of California at Berkeley with a 3.8 GPA is a towering achievement. But from that man, I would have expected no less. Todd Bozeman did a lot of things wrong, but seeing the pictures and watching the video of Shareef Abdur-Rahim in Lower Sproul in a cap and gown, I think this is one of the things he did right.
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