The Incredible Journey

Coach George Powles – McClymonds High School

As a young boy, George Powles had one thing on his mind . . . he wanted to be a professional baseball player. This ambition never wavered during his teenage years when he was a three-sport star at University High School in north Oakland. Soon after leaving high school, he seemed well on his way to accomplishing his life’s ambition when he signed with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. But after a brief stint with the Seals, he was released in 1931.

It was a crushing blow. But Powles soon learned that life can indeed work in mysterious ways. Asked to look back on his illustrious high school coaching career during a 1985 interview, he said of the Seals, “they did me a favor because nobody could have had a better life. I wouldn’t do it any differently if I had to do it over again.”

When he started his high school coaching career in 1946, it would have been inconceivable to George Powles to hear that one day he would be considered one of the best high school coaches in America. He would have scoffed at the notion of being mentioned in Hall of Fame induction speeches. He wouldn’t have dreamed that he would coach some of the best basketball and baseball players the world would ever see. And he definitely would never have believed that some of his players would shatter barriers that would forever change the world of sports. All of these blessings were his thanks for 30 years of teaching in the gyms and on the ball fields of Oakland.

When asked about players that stick out in his coaching career, Powles put Bill Russell, Frank Robinson, and Curt Flood at the top of his list. Remarkably, he had the pleasure of coaching all three within a two-year period at McClymonds. He just smiled and shook his head as if to say, “How lucky can a guy get?” He enjoys telling how he came to coach Russell.

Bill Russell

Bill Russell – McClymonds High School, Class of 1952

“Bill was in my homeroom class (at Hoover Jr. High). He played on the J.V. basketball team around 1950 or 1951 (at Mack). When he was a junior, I sent him to the J.V. team so he could get more experience but he got cut so Bill comes to me and asks, ‘So Coach, what do I do now?’” Powles recalled he kept Russell as the 16th man on the 15-man varsity team. “He suited up every other game and played a little. He was only 6’2” then, skinny and awkward and people hooted at him.” Russell recalled that his life changed when Powles made that decision to keep him on the varsity squad. “By that one gesture, I believe that man saved me from becoming a juvenile delinquent. If I hadn’t had basketball, all of my energies and frustrations would surely have been carried in some other direction.”

That summer Powles gave Russell two dollars and drove him down to the West Oakland Boy’s Club and got him a membership and, according to Russell, “told me to play basketball every day. I was terrible. But Powles had faith in me as a person and didn’t want to break my spirit.”

As a senior, Russell reported to practice with more coordination and standing 6’7”. He played in every game as a senior under Powles and before he graduated at mid-term, “started doing things I had never seen – blocking shots and guiding shots into the basket,” Powles remembered.

In Russell’s last high school game against Oakland High, two fortuitous things occurred. First, he played his best game ever, scoring 14 points and blocking several shots against Oakland High. Second, former Oakland prep and University of San Francisco player Hal DeJulio was in the gymnasium scouting other players for USF. Based on what he observed that day, DeJulio recommended the tall, gangly center from McClymonds High to USF coach Phil Woolpert.

At a Mack awards dinner after the season, Powles sat at the same table with Woolpert and talked Russell up to the coach. Based on the testimony of DeJulio and Powles, Woolpert provided Russell with the only college scholarship he was offered. That lone scholarship gave Russell a ticket to college instead of a job in a West Oakland steel foundry.