PREVIEW: Cal basketball's heartbreak in the rearview mirror, Sam Singer and Jabari Bird prepare for something special

In the span of five days in March, the Cal basketball program was turned upside down, but now, it's time to move forward.

It's hard not to see at least a little bit of newly-minted comics-to-Netflix superhero Luke Cage in California head men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin. From the resonating voice coming from somewhere below his feet, to the imposing stature, to the self-assured sense of right and wrong, to the quietly erudite bearing, he's the Bears' own Power Man. 

The Marvel Comics hero started out as a riff on the blaxploitation genre of the 1970s, as the first black superhero to have his own monthly publication, and became the heart and soul of the so-called street-level heroes of a world filled with gods and monsters. He's become, as it's been said, the black Captain America, a bulletproof black man protecting Harlem. In the newly-released Netflix adaptation of Cage's exploits, he is joined en media res as he sweeps up a barber shop for proprietor, Pops. One of Pop's sayings is simple, but powerful, gleaned from a speech by the first prime minister of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah: Always forward, never backward.

The actual quote is 'Forward ever, backward never,' and it very much applies to the Golden Bears, this season.

In the span of five days this past March,Cal's basketball world turned upside down. On March 15, the day after the Bears were named a No. 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament (the highest seed in school history), the campus began termination proceedings against assistant coach Yann Hufnagel, releasing a comprehensive report detailing sexual harassment allegations, leveled by a former reporter.

Two days after learning they'd be headed to Spokane, Wash., to face Hawaii, senior point guard Tyrone Wallace broke his hand during practice, and the campus announced it was reviewing Martin's conduct in the reporting of the sexual harassment (he was later found to have committed no wrongdoing), and Hufnagel's legal representation released a statement of its own.

On March 17, the Bears arrived in Spokane, sans Wallace, and sans Hufnagel. But, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews insisted, Cal was ready for the Warriors, and the Bears may very well have been. But as Sam Singer -- who started in Wallace's place when he missed eight games with a broken hand during the regular season -- prepared for his first postseason starting nod, he noticed something off about Bird.

The then-junior was in the midst of his best season in Berkeley, averaging a career-best 46.1% shooting from the field, 40.9% from three-point range, 3.3 rebounds and 10.4 points per game. He played in a career-high 33 games during the regular season and the Pac-12 Tournament, with a career-best 22 starts.

"You could see it in warm-ups. He had no lift. He couldn't really move. You could see it then," Singer says.

"Back spasms," Bird says. "My back had been tight probably for the past week or so, but nothing serious. It was just a stiff back, whatever. I'd been treating it. We got to the Tournament, and threw it out. I felt the pain the day before, and once we got to warm-ups the day of the game, I went up for a dunk, and just got really tight. I wasn't able to play or move, really couldn't run, so I was a no-go." As Bird lurched his way through warm-ups, Singer came up to him.

"I was hurt, man, literally, physically and mentally," Bird says. "I feel like I let my teammates down. I wanted to play really bad. I remember Sam came up to me during warm-ups, and was like, 'Come on, bro, we need you now,' and I was like, 'I know,' but I just didn't have it."

The Bears didn't know that Bird was officially ruled out until the starting lineups were announced. Moments before, Bird lay, face-down in the locker room, feeling for the first time in his life that he had failed.

"To not be out there, and to see them go out there and then lose that game, it hit me hard, because I felt like it was my fault, that I wasn't out there," Bird says.

Cal was sent home early. Between Hufnagel, Wallace and Bird, it was too much for the Bears to bear.

"Looking back on it, we were just unlucky," Singer says. "We had no idea why, why it happened. Looking back on it, we can always think about what if -- What if everybody stayed healthy? What could we have done? -- but now, it's time to move forward."

Sign up for!
Why join?

On Friday, the Pac-12 Networks will host the Men's Basketball Media Day for the 2016-17 season in San Francisco (a season which formally begins on Nov. 11), and the Bears will take a big step forward.

Wallace is gone -- drafted No. 60 overall by the Utah Jazz, but relegated to their NBA D-League affiliate. No. 3 overall pick Jaylen Brown, his 31.4% usage rate and 4.5 turnovers pr 40 minutes are gone to Boston. Mathews, who would have had a major role on the perimeter after shooting 41.7% for his career from three-point range, decided to take the graduate transfer route, and headed to Gonzaga.

The Bears lost 59.6% of their scoring from last season, 37.8% of their rebounding and 59.2% of their assists.

Still, with all that talent gone, one thought kept itching in the back of both Singer's and Bird's skulls: Forward, always forward.

"I think I can say that this summer, I probably worked the hardest I ever have, not because of the expectation to start, but because we have a chance to do something special," Singer says. "Coach said, after the [Hawaii] game -- and I think we all believe it -- that we still had everything in that room to win, and we just didn't. I think we just see it as another stepping stone, use it as a growing point to get past that first round, and continue to win in the Tournament." in to last season, Bird was already well aware that his legacy at Cal -- his father's alma mater -- needed burnishing to even come close to living up to the five-star expectations heaped upon his shoulders when he signed.

Cal would go as far as Bird went, it was thought, and that proved to be accurate. The Bears went as far as Bird's back would carry them, and no further. While Ivan Rabb weighed his options of staying in Berkeley for a sophomore season, or leaving for the NBA, Bird steeled himself for one more go-around.

"I attacked the weight room every day," Bird says. "I've been eating a lot better, drinking a lot of water. I'm trying to be in the best physical shape I can be in, for my senior year. I don't want any what-if this year."

While Singer will likely share guard duties with Charlie Moore and Columbia transfer Grant Mullins -- who are blessedly unburdened by the baggage of last year -- the offense, Martin said, will run through Rabb -- a candidate for multiple national player of the year awards, and a likely NBA Draft Lottery pick -- and Bird.

"More than anything, the ball will be in Ivan's hands more -- not necessarily bringing the ball up like a point guard, but the ball will be in his hands to make plays," Martin said. "Jabari's a focal point on the perimeter, to get him shots and make plays. I think you've got to allow both of those guys to make plays offensively, and other guys can be the spot-up shooter, dive to the basket, whatever it is you do, that's the ability, but it has to flow through those two guys."

"I've been waiting my turn these past few years," Bird says, "and finally, I have the chance to expand my role and handle more. As a senior, that's what you look forward to. You wait your turn, freshman and sophomore and junior year, and when guys leave, you've got to step up. It's time for me to do that."

He's had plenty of exemplars in his Cal career, from Justin Cobbs to David Kravish. Bird has spoken with both of them. He's never led from the front, at least in blue and gold, and they had some advice.

"You can't be afraid of failure," Bird says. "Those guys put themselves out there. They weren't scared to miss the big shot or make a mistake. They would just play the next play. If they made a mistake last play, it didn't matter. The main thing for me is putting my head down, and no matter what happens, just continue on and don't go back."

Forward, ever, backward never. Forward, always forward.

Read More

null Top Stories