OAKLAND, Calif. -- When Cuonzo Martin arrived in Berkeley, on the heels of a Sweet 16 run at Tennessee, and the dubious petition circulated amongst the Volunteers faithful to fire him, he knew he had to make a splash. He had one goal, and one goal only: Win an NCAA championship.
There was one way to do that: Go fishing.
“For a staff that hadn’t been in California, we had to maybe hit the ground running at the level we’ve been doing it,” he said recently. “We call it catching sharks. We’re trying to catch a great white.”
On Monday, while Martin and the team had dinner together at Barney’s Gourmet Hamburger in Berkeley, one year of work came to fruition.
13 miles down the road in Oakland, the first recruit that Martin called – two days after he got the job -- the one recruit that he knew he had to get, sent an overflow crowd at Old Yeller Café ‘N’ Market into an exultant roar.
“It definitely means a lot to see so many familiar faces, family and friends, and I want to thank you guys from the bottom of my heart, to support something positive in the city,” said five-star power forward Ivan Rabb. “This environment, it’s crazy. I can’t say it enough. I just want to announce that I’m going to the University of Cal, Berkeley.”
Rabb hasn’t talked to the player he’s most likened to, in terms of impact of his commitment -- Jason Kidd -- but he wants to.
“He had a tough decision, as well,” Rabb said. “I’m not sure about everything that happened, but he made a good decision. He made a great decision.”
Rabb pauses, a hint of a reflexive grin spreading across his cheeks.
“He made a great decision.”
“The reason why I decided Cal, was because I just felt the most at home,” Rabb said. “I knew they were family, from Day One. That was one of the most important things for myself and for the people around me. If anything goes wrong, I’ll still have fun there and I’ll still enjoy my time on campus. I think that was the most important thing.”
When the words finally left his mouth – “Berkeley” – Rabb said his heart dropped a bit.
“It just feels like a huge weight off my shoulders. Just happy,” he said. “I haven’t been this happy in a long time, to be honest.”
Rabb – the No. 1 player on the West Coast, the first top-10 recruit to come to California since Leon Powe -- is staying home. Martin landed his great white.
In the crowd, among the blue and gold throng, was the first commit Martin landed – 2016 wing Oscar Frayer, who’s known Rabb since he was in fourth grade, and Rabb in fifth.
“I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” Frayer smiled, wearing a gray Cal zip-up. “I didn’t know. I was just glad for him and his family and his mom.”
Frayer was the first to jump in the boat with Martin, and an important in-roads into the Oakland Soldiers program. Shortly after his commitment, Hashim Alaudeen -- who coaches the Oakland Soldiers youth team that includes Martin’s son – said that Frayer’s commitment would help land Rabb. As much as younger players in the area look up to Rabb, seeing a talent like the four-star Frayer proved that Martin wouldn’t settle for Plan B’s.
“Obviously, I was happy for him, and I’ve known him for years, but that didn’t really change my mind, but he’s an impeccable player,” Rabb said on Monday. “He’s going to open some eyes the year after next.”
The commitment of Frayer – and Martin’s pursuit not only of Rabb, but of five-star Caleb Swanigan (who wound up committing to Michigan State over the weekend) and No. 1 overall prospect Jaylen Brown, as well as Centereach (NY) Our Savior New American three-star wing Davon Dillard and soon-to-be four-star wing Tyson Jolly out of Oklahoma City (Okla.) Putnam West showed Rabb that Martin wanted the big boys, and he was coming strong, just as he did, from the outset, with Rabb.
“It was just the way that everything he said sounded so sincere,” Rabb said. “Me, I’m a person who gets vibes from people, and I can kind of read somebody’s vibe, and see what type of person they are. I think that struck me the hardest, when I first met him.”
Another thing that struck Rabb about Martin was his hard-scrabble background, growing up in East St. Louis, Mo. Tami Rabb – Ivan’s mother – raised him on her own since he was 2. A fashion model from age 14-20, living overseas, then working as a caregiver by day and a cook at night.
Before he spoke, he scanned the room for Tami’s eyes, and found them. She’s his strength. His rock. He needed here one more time.
“I was trying to lock eyes with her before I even walked in,” said Rabb.
Much like Tami, Martin’s mother was a single mother, too, with four children instead of two, worked two and sometimes three jobs at a time.
“It definitely helped me connect to him,” Rabb said. “It’s not all about basketball with him. It’s about life, in general. He’s been through this, so basketball, it’s a big part of his life, but he’s been without, before. For him to have that same relationship, that same background that I have, it means a lot, because I can connect to him, with other things, outside of basketball.”
When Rabb talks about Martin, he says Martin’s been recruiting him for two years. It’s only been one. That’s how deep the connection is. He knows the Bears head coach as well as anyone can, and vice versa.
“I got to know him off the court,” Rabb said. “We don’t always talk about basketball. We talk about other things – family, just life, in general. That was very important.
“From the very beginning, he was just honest with me. He didn’t just talk about basketball; he talked about life. When he did talk about basketball, he knew what he was talking about, because he’d been through college, and he’d been through professional basketball, as well. For him to come to Cal and make the relationship that we have together, it just goes to show what type of person he is. He kept it 100 percent real with me the whole time. I don’t believe that he’s ever lied to me, and I don’t think he will.”
Over the past several weeks, since he initially said he could announce at the state title game at Haas Pavilion, Rabb has gone back and forth between Cal and Arizona more times than he’d care to admit.
“I went back and forth a lot,” he said. “It was definitely a tough decision, because Arizona’s such a great program, and coach Sean Miller, he did a great job recruiting me since eighth grade, ninth grade, and I know I talked to him a lot. I told him I was going back and forth, and he definitely wanted me to be in his program, and I know he’s happy for me. He never said anything bad about me, no matter what I did. I’m just happy that I’m going to Cal.”
Looking back on his state title win on the Haas Pavilion floor – which, along with the rest of the arena, is undergoing a $10 million renovation – in light of his commitment, Rabb’s eyes widen.
“That was an amazing feeling,” Rabb said. “After the game, I didn’t know what to say. I know the media was asking what I was going to do, and believed that I was going to commit, and that was something that crossed my mind, but I didn’t want to ruin it for the school. It wasn’t about me. It was about these guys standing to my right, my teammates -- I consider them my family – and my coaches standing to my left. I didn’t want to make it all about myself.
“When I was playing on that court, and we won, it definitely was a great feeling. I can only imagine how it would feel for me, next year.”
When confronted with legacy – a large part of the Cal recruiting strategy, citing such Bears greats as Kidd and Powe – Rabb demurs.
“It definitely means a lot, but I wouldn’t put myself up there with those guys, yet, because I haven’t done anything, yet,” Rabb said. “I think, next year, I have a chance to prove myself, and hopefully, win a lot of games with Cal.”
How many games can he win in Berkeley?
“We can win a lot of games,” Rabb said. “My goal – I already told coach – my goal is to get into the Tournament, and go deep into the Tournament. That’s one goal I set out for myself. As a team, I want to win a bunch of games. I can’t explain that enough, because people are questioning me going to Cal, just because they didn’t have the best season this last year, but I think I’m a missing piece. I won’t say I’m the missing piece, but I’m a missing piece of the puzzle, and I think if you add me into that program, we can do great things.”
That may be why, a year from now, when Rabb is weighing whether to stay at Cal for a second year, or go to the NBA as an almost surefire lottery pick, there’s a chance that he stays home, again.
“That’s a great question,” Rabb said, when asked how long he’ll be in Berkeley. “Honestly, right now, it’s easy to say one year. It’s easy to say four years. You never know what’s going to happen. I could have a great season, and leave after my first year, or I could have a great season, and want to come back, because I love the campus so much. I’m not ready to answer that question, but we’ll see what happens.”
Frayer, for one, wouldn’t mind Rabb sticking around.
“It’s big-time,” Frayer said. “He’s a great guy. For Cuonzo to be there for only a certain amount of time, just months, and for him to get a top-10 player in the country – my preferred No. 1 player in the country – I mean, that’s big-time, right there.
“I’ve talked about it with him for the past week, get my two cents in, but overall, it was his decision. It’s whatever benefits him and his family. I’m all-in with him, Tami, his little brother, I’m all-in.”
Another piece of that puzzle is junior point guard Tyrone Wallace, who’s currently mulling his own future – whether to stay, and play with Rabb, or go to the NBA. With the collection of wings Martin is amassing – Jolly, Dillard, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews -- Wallace will have plenty of scoring options to help him develop his point guard acumen.
Now that he’s publicly, and firmly committed, Rabb now has more clout with not only Brown, but perhaps, with Wallace.
“I think I have a bigger effect. I’m finally here, and it’s finally over with, and now, I can talk to other recruits, like Jaylen, or Tyrone.” Rabb said. “I’m here. This is what I want to do. I want you guys to join me, or, in Tyrone’s case, I want him to be my point guard next year.”