Video: Marsalis Roberson and Jalen Lewis at DLS MLK Classic
Watch Lewis' game-winning shot on Roberson assist.
— Marsalis Roberson
and Jalen Lewis
are two of the best high school basketball players in California, each rising fast in the national recruiting rankings.
a highly skilled, 6-foot-9 forward, leaped more than 40 spots in the
past year, trailing only D.J. Wagner of Camden (N.J.) in one media
ranking of Class of 2023 players.
"Exciting, but gotta keep working hard to keep that spot," Lewis said.
the same time, Roberson went from no-star status to a 4-star recruit
according to 247Sports, which ranks the explosive 6-5 left-handed combo
guard as the 118th incoming senior in the country.
great, but gotta get inside 100," Roberson said.
And while the
coronavirus pandemic ended last season for the pair, it isn't slowing
the duo's preparation for 2020. Each maintains strict at-home workout
routines filled with weights, push ups and daily runs. Each finds parks
and hoops to get up hundreds of shots every day, which doesn't surprise
high school coach Lou Richie of
Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.)
"Two remarkably driven, polite and talented student-athletes," Richie said. "Excellent leaders and students. Razor focused."
That focus is sharpened every day by their fathers.
Roberson's dad, Jason Roberson, was murdered in 2017 and serves as his major inspiration.
"He pushed me to be the best I can be, and now I push forward to honor him," he said.
father, Ahlee Lewis, is very much alive. He was thrust into a
single-parent role two months after his son's birth. His wife Tiffany
died from breast cancer after being diagnosed seven months into her
pregnancy with Jalen.
"It's just been him and I my whole life,"
Jalen Lewis said. "He's made a ton of sacrifices. I'm not sure where I'd
be without him."
Said Richie: "You got two kids who lost
parents in very tragic, sudden ways and have risen above. Fortunately,
each had, and has, tremendous support systems in place. Their lives have
been tremendously lifted and inspired by their fathers. But theirs is
also a family story."
Marsalis and Jason
and his dad were extremely close. A former high school baseball player,
college graduate and Navy veteran, Jason taught his son how to be
disciplined and regimented. A barber by trade, he stood 6-6 and was
known around town as "Big Jay."
He ran a tight, but fair, ship.
wake me up at 6 and we'd workout together," Roberson said. "He gave me
chores to do like washing dishes, just built me a lot of structure. It's
helped me in so many ways."
Born in Berkeley and raised in
the Bay Area, Marsalis eventually moved to the Arden-Arcade region of
Sacramento in the summer of 2016 to live with his father and propel a
dream of being a professional basketball player.
Fourteen months later as a freshman at Natomas (Sacramento), Marsalis was awakened one night by the sound of gunfire.
heard those sounds before so I really wasn't scared," Marsalis
to police reports, Corey Crawley shot and killed Jason with a silver
revolver and was convicted of second-degree murder. He faces 43 years to
life in prison. No motive was every proven, but robbery was highly
suspected. Jason, 39, was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Marsalis learned of his father's death the following morning when detectives arrived at his door.
don't remember much," Marsalis said. "I was at the police station half
the day. I really didn't know where I was. I couldn't process it all. It
didn't seem real."
He remembers a few
days later being cast for a broken hand. "I slammed it against the wall
when I found out my dad died," he said.
mother Brenaia Roberson, an academic advisor at Cal, immediately moved
Marsalis back to Oakland to live with her, her parents and Marsalis'
younger twin siblings, Amare and Anyah.
former Holy Names (Oakland) four-year basketball standout who later
earned two college degrees, Brenaia surrounded Marsalis with her large
"tight knit" family and got him enrolled at Bishop O'Dowd, a well-known
private school that boasts a strong academic reputation with powerhouse
athletic programs, headlined by the boys and girls basketball teams.
wanted to put him in a safe and academically strong environment,"
Brenaia said. "I wasn't thinking about basketball at that point. I
simply wanted him to be at a really good school with a really strong
Marsalis still had his uncle
Faraji Edwards and trainer Ron Nelson — dad of former California scoring
legend and Duke guard DeMarcus Nelson — as strong basketball mentors.
But the transition to a new school, on the heels of such a horrific
tragedy, wasn't easy.
"It was definitely
different coming from a public school," Marsalis said. "Basketball
helped, but I wanted to play varsity. My hand was broken so that didn't
help. It was frustrating at first."
who scored 40 in a summer league varsity game for Natomas, was talented
enough to make varsity, but Richie wanted to bring him along slowly. He
played JV that season.
"His father was just stolen from him," Richie said. "I just wanted him to be a kid for a while."
Brenaia was thankful for that, and the internal strength the school flexed.
Richie has been both a godsend and mentor to my son," she said. "The
O'Dowd community is so strong. It shows in every aspect, more than just
basketball. It's really like a second family." Ahlee, Tiffany and Jalen
never had a chance to know his mother, a softball and basketball player
at Benicia High. There were pictures of her everywhere in the house
when he was a tyke, but Ahlee had to take many down.
it was too hard on me and I didn't think it was healthy for him," Ahlee
said. "There were enough photos for Jalen to surely know who his mother
Besides her athletic prowess, Tiffany was a scholar, earning a Master's Degree in Social Work at Sacramento State.
seen a lot of videos of her, and I have some photos," he said. "I
remember a couple times getting on the court and being at the free throw
line and saying to myself, ‘This is for you mom.' "
recently turned 15, owns a pair of size 16 pink Adidas Dame 4s sneakers
that have the initials MIAWM on them. It stands for: "Mom is always with
"Her spirit is always there," Jalen said. "But my dad's presence is pretty unmistakable."
also 6-6, carries a big booming voice. He starred at Oakland High in
the 80s, when the Oakland Athletic League boasted players like Gary
Payton and Greg Foster.
"The golden age," he said.
played three seasons at UC Davis, graduating with a economics degree in
1989. Basketball was a huge part of his life and he made sure it was
part of his son's also. He had the knowledge and background to teach him
all the skills.
"I remember picking up a ball at 3-and-a-half and I haven't set it down since," Jalen said.
got Jalen immediately involved in the AAU circuit with the Oakland
Rebels. Projected to be 6-11, Jalen played against much older kids and
more than stood above the crowd.
By third grade, he was playing
the center spot. By sixth grade, he was 6-1 and traveling up and down
the state and around the nation playing tournaments.
"I learned post moves really early and then guard skills not long after that," he said.
a corporate recruiter in San Francisco, was affectionately known around
AAU circles as the Richard Williams (overbearing tennis father of Venus
and Serena Williams) of basketball dads.
Ahlee both laughs and
cringes at the comparison. Yes, he's involved 100 percent and instructs,
he says, but he's balanced enough to offer a bigger picture.
passionate about the game and my son, but I've never wanted Jalen to
become consumed by it," Ahlee said. "We don't talk about basketball all
"I've always encouraged him to speak up and voice his
opinions. And he's very opinionated, just like his mother. I'm so
thankful for that. I wasn't going to raise a robot."
Jalen, with a 3.5 grade point average, is naturally very quiet but has
been heard having quite heated discussions with his dad after games.
most aggressive I've seen Jalen at times in his conversations with his
dad," Richie said. "You see two very large men in a loud disagreement;
you worry it might tip over. But it never has. It's healthy. There is a
great camaraderie and love between them."
Jalen: "We've always had a lot of back and forth. He's allowed that. We
make decisions together. We're doing our best to make the right
decisions. It's never disrespectful. He knows I love and respect him.
he's hard on me a lot. He's trying to keep me focused and serious. But
he tells me he's proud of me and that he loves me, too." Marsalis and Jalen
and Jalen live only a mile apart in the low-lying Oakland Hills
neighborhood of Maxwell Park, once considered as "rough and dangerous,"
but now deemed "resurgent and highly desirable," according to Richie.
"Amazing their paths brought them so close together."
mutual respect as soon Jalen joined the 2019-20 O'Dowd team. The much
ballyhooed freshman immediately noted Marsalis' work ethic, leadership
skills and athleticism.
"He was one of the first people who
reached out to me and he pushed me to be better," Jalen said. "I'd
played with him in AAU when we were way younger. But I obviously saw
this other side. He always got there early and left late working on his
Marsalis, like most, was impressed
with Jalen's skill set, but more so his humility and work ethic. Kansas
liked all of it and gave him a scholarship offer in May, joining USC,
Cal and Davis.
"When I first saw him and
the foot work around the basket and all his skill, he just looked
unstoppable," he said. "He's put in a ton of hard work. To be ranked No.
2 in the country is crazy. I'm proud of him."
Even with the
two standouts and Cal-bound
the Dragons took time to mesh. They started the year 5-7 before
rattling off 18 straight wins to close the year, winning a North Coast
Section title and a Northern California Open Division game to face
two-time defending champion Sheldon (Sacramento) in the finals.
The coronavirus shut down the season and O'Dowd's dream of winning a second state title in five years.
I think we would have beat Sheldon," Marsalis said. "We were locked in.
We were ready for anything and anybody after that game, too."
all-around play earned him Player of the Year awards by the San
Francisco Chronicle and Bay Area News Group. He led the team in scoring
(16.5 per game) and rebounding (6.3) and sparked the defense and added
3-point shooting and highlight dunks. Most of all he was a leader, said
Richie, perhaps the best he's ever coached.
It's a big
reason why he's earned 12 college offers, including Cal and Nebraska. A
3.2 grade point average doesn't hurt either. He thanks his mom for that.
"She's always there for for me,
especially in education," Marsalis said. "I feel like she guides me and
always shows her love for me."
At every game,
Brenaia has been in the middle of Marsalis' own cheering section, a huge
contingent of enthusiastic family. It's helped with his intensity and
desire to do well, Marsalis said. He never takes a play off, Richie
"He is just so determined," Richie said.
"He just willed us to wins at times, in the best way possible. Not just
athletically, but his inner strength."
He taps into his late
father for that. At home, he holds on to his dad's Navy medals. During
games and workouts, he closes his eyes and pictures pop.
I get sad, wishing he could be here watching the game or talking to me
afterward," Marsalis said. "But he's with me everywhere. If I'm in the
weight room and need to go harder, I think about him. When I was super
hot in a game late in the season, I thought to myself, he's guiding me."
averaged 10 points per game during the regular season but close to 15 in
the playoffs, doesn't have to close his eyes and imagine. His dad is
within eye- and earshot.
Knowing other kids, like
Marsalis, don't have fathers physically in their lives, Jalen has even
greater appreciation for his own dad. So does Richie.
done an incredible job," Richie said. "To have a kid with a 3.5 GPA? To
be humble and hard working and not entitled. And he's maybe the best
player in the country for his class? That's very rare."
Jalen: "The sacrifices he's made to get me to the right places, the
right schools, all the AAU games — for me just to be happy — I'm super
grateful," Jalen said. "He's had endless job opportunities and certainly
places to go. ... I'd be far less of a man without him. I don't want to
be exactly like him, but I definitely want many of his traits, like how
he speaks publicly and gets his point across."
Ahlee doesn't have to say much to communicate his pride and joy.
"It's been an incredible journey so far," Ahlee said. "I know his mom would be proud of both of us."
Brenaia is proud of her son also.
most proud that Marsalis stayed focused (after his father's passing)
and continued to be a good kid, a good son and do well in school and in
basketball," she said. "I'm proud that he continues to go after his
dream of playing in the NBA, a dream started by his dad. In that way, he
continues to honor and celebrate