Ivan Rabb took a seat near the end of his bench halfway through the third quarter of the 2015 California Interscholastic Federation finals in Haas Pavilion. Sporting the Bishop O’Dowd black and gold, Ivan could only watch Mater Dei rain fire on his Dragons as he sat hunched with cramps. That’s when his assistant coach came up to him, tilted an empty green Gatorade cup and squirted a stream of Heinz mustard into it.
“For the cramps,” he said.
Ivan peered into the cup and swished the mustard around like a glass of wine so it would slide down easier. He tilted his head back and downed it, chasing the goopy liquid with some Gatorade.
“Good to go,” he shouted in a nasally voice.
Less than an hour after Ivan’s salty infusion, the Dragons found themselves deadlocked in a tie ball game with 10 seconds left in overtime. On the final possession, Ivan flashed to the left block as the Dragons reversed the ball to the top of the arc and back to lead guard Paris Austin, Ivan’s best friend. He dribbled around the three-point line, shielding the ball with his off-arm and stopped right in front of his bench as his man switched stances. That moment of relief from his defender was just enough for Paris to squeeze by and force Ivan’s man to rotate off him and protect the rim. A window opened up, and Paris shoveled a pass to Ivan, who was hacked on the arm with just 0.8 seconds left on the clock.
The players assumed their positions along the paint as Mater Dei’s bench sat with their backs slouched and heads fixed on the opposite side of the court. Ivan, a 75 percent free throw shooter, needed just one of his shots to fall for the Dragons to take home the title. He stepped up to the line, took the pass from the referee and started a routine he rehearsed thousands of times. He rose the ball above his head, took two hard dribbles and let it go.
The crowd belched the sound that kids make when a classmate is scolded.
Haas Pavilion was packed that Saturday night — almost at capacity with 10,533 people — with most of the fans trying to catch a glimpse of their Oakland-grown hero and five-star recruit in his campaign to unseat the four-time defending champion, the Monarchs. Their presence wouldn’t hurt Ivan’s chances at committing to Cal and staying in the Bay Area either. A high school state championship would be great, they thought. An NCAA championship would be even better.
Ivan didn’t move much while waiting for the second free throw. He says he wasn’t even nervous. The entire Mater Dei bench stood in anticipation this time around — each player adjusting his spot in the scrum to get a better angle at the free throw. Again, he handled the pass from the referee and again, he started the same routine. He rose the ball above his head, took two hard dribbles and let it go, releasing the most important freethrow of his high school career.
Mater Dei hoisted one last heave at the basket as the entire Dragons roster cleared the bench. The crowd stormed the court. Fans, many from Oakland, shouted and cheered with the Bishop O’Dowd squad — simultaneously celebrating landing on the right side of a state title classic and hoping that enough screaming and shouts of “Ivan” could convince him to stay in the Bay Area and commit to Cal. Ivan was lightheaded — from all the salt, he says — but he embraced the crowd and his teammates as his decision became that much clearer.
Ivan committed to Cal in his mother’s restaurant in Oakland just two weeks after the state championship game.
“I didn’t want to be just another player that came in and out of a program and not really be remembered because they had so many great players,” Ivan says. “Here at Cal, there are so many guys who are from here and from the area — California or whatever it may be — but they come and then they leave and go other places.”
Ivan’s decision, followed by the unexpected commitment from Georgia native Jaylen Brown, led to a huge rise in national and local expectations for the historically mediocre Bears. And following Cal’s disappointing elimination in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, Brown, alongside the other five players ranked ahead of Ivan in the class of 2015, deserted the NCAA wastelands for greener pastures in the NBA. That group included Maryland’s Diamond Stone and Kansas’ Cheick Diallo — both players who struggled in their lone collegiate seasons and were drafted in the second round.
Meanwhile, Ivan was simultaneously excellent, underutilized and underrated throughout the year. He was an advanced analytics darling in an underwhelming draft class and looked fantastic as the third option on a loaded team to boot, suggesting he’s nowhere near his ceiling. He averaged 12.5 points and 8.6 rebounds on nearly 64 percent true shooting. While none of those numbers may pop off the page, he was the most efficient and productive player on the floor regardless of lineup combination. He recorded a team-best 124.8 offensive rating (Jaylen finished at 98.4, for reference) as he dished ample servings of shimmy and shake in addition to showing off a reliable 15-footer.
The power forward shouldered 57 percent of Cal’s post touches and shot 80 percent at the rim, all while anchoring the No. 1 defense in the Pac-12. He displayed the split-second decision-making that is intrinsic to the best rim protectors and built a reputation for always being at the right place at the right time off rotations. He stymied pick-and-rolls with uncharacteristic lateral foot speed and recognition for a 19-year-old yet to reach his athletic prime. His 95.3 defensive rating doesn’t speak enough to how integral he was on that end of the floor for the Bears.
This is all to say that Ivan could be on an NBA roster right now if he chose to declare for the draft. He neither plummeted in mock drafts because of a gaping hole in his game nor was he injured for any extended portion of the season. He chose to return to Cal for a sophomore campaign. He preferred to stay.
Ivan said the choice was hard but simple: The NBA will still be there in a year, but this season would be his last chance to leave any sort of lasting legacy in Oakland as a Cal player; to be the face of the faceless Bears.
“I just want to represent for Oakland,” Ivan says. “I think I can be a household name here.”
Choosing to return for a sophomore campaign was years in the making, back to the days Ivan would wait on 65th Avenue for the bus to school.
Ivan lived on 73rd in East Oakland. Paris, who lived just three blocks away on 76th, waited at a different stop but always rendezvoused with Ivan on the bus. They go way back. Paris recollects the time someone they knew got killed on Ivan’s block when they were in eighth grade. They would say hi and shake hands in passing. He went to the high school a couple of blocks from where they lived. He got shot.
“I just want to represent for Oakland. I think I can be a household name here.”
“For someone that hasn’t grown up in Oakland all their life, it might be sketch to them,” Paris says. “For us, we grew up with shootings and bad stuff all the time. You kind of become accustomed to it and know to watch your back and be safe.”
Ivan and Paris always sat together, even when they went to Montera Middle School. Things were different back then. They would gather with a squad of their friends near the back of the bus, many of whom went to the nearby Skyline and Oakland Technical high schools. There was a lot of tomfoolery and shenanigans. There were a lot of fights too. Sometimes the bus driver had to pull over so the students would stop.
After starting at Bishop O’Dowd, Ivan and Paris were suddenly the odd men out. The duo were among the few students at the school from what they liked to call the “bottom ground” — the portion of East Oakland below the hills. For the most part, bottom grounders couldn’t — and still can’t — afford to attend the prestigious private institution, where tuition reaches upward of $16,000 for some.
“It definitely was a huge change of scenery,” Paris says. “Even though Montera was in the nice part of the hills, there were a lot of inner city kids that went there. It was a public school. There were a lot of fights and activities going on at school. High school, it was a lot different. Everything was all structured. There were different ethnicities and races at Bishop compared to Montera. In middle school, everyone looked the same.”
Damian Lillard, another Oakland-grown star who made it big in the NBA, happens to be Ivan’s former neighbor. He had a similar experience growing up, but on a different side of the same coin. He wasn’t heavily recruited and attended Oakland High School, the oldest public school in the city.
“I think the Oakland school system puts forth a great effort to help the students as best they can, but lack the resources necessary to match the level of some other school districts,” Lillard said in an email to The Daily Californian.
Unlike Lillard, Ivan had a foot in both worlds, and his status as an outsider was not lost on him. Him being the pride of Bishop O’Dowd didn’t make it any easier or less complicated either. A predominantly white school suddenly boasted Oakland’s most highly touted basketball prospect since Jason Kidd. This world of new books, sturdy desks and counselors was new to him.
“A lot of performance comes from a child actually knowing the teacher is invested in you doing well — the support being there and your peers being motivated too.”
“The difference between Montera and Bishop was definitely noticeable,” Ivan says. “I got all the help I needed at Bishop. We had counselors. We had teacher’s assistants in class.”
Had Ivan and Paris not gone to Bishop O’Dowd, they say, they would have enrolled at Oakland Technical. Parents preferred to send their kids there instead of Skyline, despite Skyline being newer and located in the Oakland hills. This is primarily because of the academic prestige of Oakland Tech relative to Skyline. Graduation rates are far higher at Oakland Tech (89 percent versus 74 percent) in addition to the school boasting better academic programs, including a top-notch engineering academy.
Skyline was also the focus of a 2012 California lawsuit concerning the quality of instruction by dedicated teachers. Brandon DeBose Jr., then a senior at Skyline, was among the nine plaintiffs who alleged that several California statutes regarding tenure protected ineffective teachers. They alleged that these statutes disproportionately impact poor and minority students, saying they are more likely to be assigned to these teachers. Despite the Oakland hills historically having fewer minority residents, more than 90 percent of Skyline is made up of Black, Latino and Asian students.
“A lot of performance comes from a child actually knowing the teacher is invested in you doing well — the support being there and your peers being motivated too,” Ivan says.
Oakland prides itself on its diversity. Part of the reason Oakland Unified School District instituted its open enrollment policy, which allows families to rank the schools they want their child to attend, was in the name of that diversity. But the number of opportunists in Oakland who have taken advantage of the open enrollment policy has played a large part in exacerbating the integration issues that have plagued the city for decades.
Twenty percent of Oakland Tech students came from the Skyline attendance area last year, while just more than 2 percent of students zoned for Oakland Tech chose to go to Skyline. This resulted in just 24 percent of Skyline’s students actually living in neighborhoods that are zoned for the school. On the other hand, more than 60 percent of Skyline is made up of students from East Oakland attendance areas, namely the Castlemont and Fremont high schools.
It is no secret that the Oakland hills, zoned for Skyline, are home to the wealthier Oakland residents. By deciding that their school is not worth attending, the families that gamed the school district’s open enrollment policy got to have their cake and eat it, too.
“(The open enrollment policy) can exacerbate existing inequalities, because it’s the families that are most organized and educated that figure out the system,” says Board of Education District 6 Director Shanthi Gonzales, who oversees the district Skyline is in. “Who do you think are the families that have the time and resources to visit these schools and make these choices?”
The NBA has long been a bastion of social activism among the American professional sports leagues. As part of a predominantly Black association, NBA players — many of whom come from underserved neighborhoods — understand the impact their leadership can have on small communities. DeMarcus Cousins may always look grouchy, but Sacramento leaders and residents have taken the stage on more than one occasion to sing praises of his community advocacy, most notably his work with kids and with trying to improve community relations with police.
Ivan is aware of what his outreach can potentially mean to Oakland if he becomes established in the NBA. He sees the influence Lillard has on his hometown and hopes to be among a host of current and former athletes in Oakland — including Bill Russell and Marshawn Lynch, to name a few — to return and give back to the community that built them up.
“I just want to come out and do some positive things and put people in the position in the future to do positive things,” Ivan says. “That’s what it’s all about: giving back to my people. Everybody knows I’m representing for Oakland.”
But for now, Ivan has to worry about making it big first. Without Tyrone Wallace and Brown around, the sophomore power forward has largely been focused on his leadership.
“Nobody took on a vocal role last year,” Ivan says. “That was one of the problems. Tyrone and Jaylen spoke up a lot, but there was no specific leader. I felt people were looking to me, and I didn’t really realize it.”
Ivan will have a strong case as the NCAA College Player of the Year with all the touches and leadership responsibilities he can handle next season with the Bears. He embraces the future, eager to earn his place on an even grander stage. He’ll get that shot in the very near future, too — he’s pegged as a top-10 pick in a loaded 2017 draft class. Barring a catastrophic season or blockbuster trade, the Warriors most likely won’t get a chance to draft Ivan, but that doesn’t mean his hometown story will end there. Because when he matches up against LeBron James or Stephen Curry or Anthony Davis with a million eyes watching him, he’ll still have one hopeful eye fixed on Oakland.