The sounds of sneakers squeaking, basketballs bouncing, and coaches yelling echoed throughout Bishop O’Dowd’s brand new, state-of-the-art, 1,300 plus capacity gymnasium. This gym is the crown jewel of the private Catholic school’s new $40 million sports and entertainment facility, which will be the site of a Thanksgiving week event that will assemble a collection of elite high school hoops talent in the Bay Area.
“It’s really nice,” said Oakland Tech boys varsity head coach Karega Hart, who was in the stands observing a junior varsity scrimmage this past Saturday. He is particularly impressed by the stained glass backdrop on the north wall of the gym.
Hart brought his public school team across town to this hilltop campus overlooking deep East Oakland to square off against his long time friend, O’Dowd boys varsity head coach Lou Richie. This is Hart’s first visit to the new gym, but he will bring his squad back here next weekend to open their season in O’Dowd’s inaugural Thanksgiving Showcase, which will feature elite teams from California and Nevada.
Both Hart and Richie coach at the high schools where they once played when they were student athletes. Richie told Oakland Voices that the four decade-long friendship between these two highly competitive rivals is special. “For us to still be friends and still be considered brothers is incredible.”
Expectations High for Tech Bulldogs
Last season, the Oakland Tech Bulldogs swept the Oakland section championships inside Fremont high school’s brand new gymnasium, winning both the boys’ and girls’ trophies. Checking out Fremont’s bond-funded gym last spring, there were a lot of alumni from various Oakland schools in attendance with an unmistakable family reunion vibe.
Expectations for the Bulldogs are high this year. Despite summertime injuries to their starting backcourt, the team retained most of its players after losing in the quarterfinals of last year’s NorCal playoffs. That game was marred by a power outage that caused a second half venue change. “We pretty much got everyone back,” Hart said. This year’s goal, he said, is “to be better than who we think we can be. It just depends on how we gel. Gotta put in the work.”
Hart, who graduated from Tech in 1995 and became the head coach in 2010, has traveled as far as San Diego and Chicago for games. He is looking forward to his team playing with so many powerhouse teams in Oakland this weekend.
O’Dowd Now Has An Elite Facility for an Elite Program
The Thanksgiving showcase will serve as a public unveiling for O’Dowd’s new Bishop John S. Cummins Center, which features Steve Phelps Memorial Court inside Knauss Gymnasium. In addition to the gym, the Cummins Center also features an athletic performance lab, classroom space, a music studio, and a performing arts theater.
O’Dowd’s old gym, which is still connected to the newer facility, was small and felt even smaller than it actually was. Support beams in the bleachers obstructed some fans’ view of some parts of the court and there wasn’t enough space in between the court and the bleachers. It also had a second story on one end that the students sat in, giving the venue a gladiator pit feel.
Perhaps most importantly though, a lot of championship banners hung on the walls of that gym. The Bishop O’Dowd Dragons are one of the winningest high school programs in the state. Since 1981, the boys have won two state, 10 NorCal, 19 section, and 44 league championships. The girls have won four state, 12 section, and 23 league championships.
Former boys coach Mike Phelps ended his coaching career with the best coaching record in state history at 843-196. Phelps, who passed away in 2019, was the brother of the former O’Dowd President whom the new court is dedicated to.
Current O’Dowd coach Richie, who played for Coach Phelps in the late 80s, won a state title game as a coach in 2015 after losing one as a player in 1988.
Last year, the O’Dowd boys lost in overtime on the road in the NorCal quarterfinals. O’Dowd teams are usually competitive, but expectations for the Dragons this year are tempered, as they are without would-be senior Jalen Lewis. Last fall, Lewis became the youngest American player to ever sign a pro basketball deal when he signed a $1 million contract with the Atlanta-based Overtime Elite league.
In his head coaching career, which started in 2012, Richie’s teams have traveled as far as Hawaii and Florida and Massachusetts, but he hopes to play in Oakland for Thanksgiving every year from now on.
Oakland Reclaiming Its Elite Basketball Legacy
O’Dowd’s Thanksgiving Showcase will be the first Thanksgiving week event in the Bay Area to assemble such high level talent. Twelve elite teams will compete in eight games over two days.
Bishop Gorman from Las Vegas is Max Preps Sports’ 11th ranked boys team in the nation. They’ve won 24 Nevada state championships, and play O’Dowd on Saturday.
Reigning NorCal Champ Modesto Christian is ranked 21st in the nation.
All of the teams in the showcase are fixtures in the playoffs with star recruits, including three teams that are ranked in the top 20 in the Bay Area by the SF Chronicle: Tech (11), Moreau Catholic-Hayward (15), and Salesian-Richmond (20).
The Friday slate of games will kick off with a matchup of O’Dowd alumni versus the school’s current junior varsity squad. Tech will square off against Beverly Hills high that afternoon. Immediately after that, O’Dowd will get a rematch with Vanden, who ended the Dragons’ playoff run last year.
Richie says that the showcase event will also raise cancer awareness, and include a voter registration drive.
O’Dowd will also host a similar girls invitational basketball event in January over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. The O’Dowd girls have won four state championships, 12 section titles, and 23 league championships.
Richie’s vision for the Thanksgiving showcase is for it to become a marquee event not just in Oakland, but for high school hoops on the entire West Coast. Given the rich history of Oakland high school basketball, it would only be fitting for the Town to reclaim its position as the center of West Coast high school hoops.
Over a century ago, Oakland’s Fremont High won the second ever California Interscholastic Federation state championship in 1917.
When the CIF took a hiatus from hosting state tournaments from 1947-1980, Oakland teams dominated the famed Tournament of Champions in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. West Oakland’s McClymonds high earned its nickname “School of Champions” with an unprecedented run of success in the 50s and 60s. In fact, the original TOC trophy was retired in 1963 after McClymonds’ won it six years in a row.
McClymonds also produced arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, Bill Russell, who passed away this summer.
When the CIF resumed hosting state championship tournaments in 1981, the games continued to be held in Oakland, and two Oakland teams competed in that first statewide final of the modern era. Bishop O’Dowd defeated Castlemont in that title game, which was held at the coliseum in East Oakland.
The CIF held its annual state tournament in Oakland until the early 90s, when it was moved to Sacramento (allegedly due to complaints about East Bay Schools having a competitive advantage at the Coliseum).
“Oakland is definitely a basketball city,” Tech’s Hart told Oakland Voices. Both he and Richie believe that Oakland should reclaim its rightful place in West Coast high school hoops, and Hart says that Richie is the right man to make it happen. With a brand new state-of-the-art facility, O’Dowd has the right venue for Richie and his staff to realize their dreams.
With regards to the outcome of last Saturday’s scrimmage between O’Dowd and Tech, Richie told Oakland Voices, “No winners, no losers. We’re playing to find out who our teams are.”
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The Bishop O’Dowd High School Thanksgiving Showcase is Friday, November 25 at 3pm and Saturday, November 26 at 12pm for the boys’ basketball showcase. The O’Dowd Classic featuring the girls’ basketball teams is Saturday, January 14 at 9am and Monday, January 16 at 9am. Tickets are available for purchase here.