Kindled

Jamal Boykin Credits His Success at Cal to the Older Brother Who Paved the Way for Him

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It's three o'clock in the morning somewhere in Pavia, a small town in northern Italy, and there's a young man lounging on a couch with a laptop at his fingertips. He's streaming sights and sounds of a basketball game that's taking place thousands of miles away, most likely rooting more passionately than anyone inside the arena. He lives in Europe as a professional athlete, so his computer is a portal into the world of his younger brother. He follows the Cal men's basketball team with pride and precision, rattling off Jamal Boykin's statistics like they're his own.

"He shoots the ball at 59 percent," says Ruben Boykin, Jr., who probably knew the number by heart. "That's excellent."

Ruben, 24, is a talented player as well. He's made a career of the sport overseas, currently averaging a double-double for Paul Mitchell Pavia in LegADue. He speaks limited Italian and doesn't exactly prefer carbonated water, but he seems to be adjusting to the trapezoidal key and enjoys living abroad. He'd enjoy it even more if the time difference didn't make spending time with Jamal, 22, so difficult.

The Boykin brothers grew up in Los Angeles as complementary competitors, turning childhood diversions into wars of winning and losing.

Board games became battlegrounds. Video game controllers were violently tossed in tempests of defeat, eventually retrieved so the virtual contests could continue.

"There was always a reward for winning," Jamal says. "Whoever lost the game would have to rake the leaves, take out the trash, do yard work. It was never just for fun."

Their rivalry was most riveting in the front yard, where an adjustable stand-alone hoop endured bucket after bucket, swish after swish, dunk after dunk. The two would go at it one-on-one for hours on end, quickly developing new moves to keep the other brother guessing. The basket, which had to be replaced at least three times, stands today as a tribute to summers past, when their duels were as intense as the Southland sun.

"We'd dive on concrete to get a loose ball," says Jamal. "Once we got to a certain age, we had to stop playing because it got too physical."

Back in elementary school, though, they often played as teammates. When Jamal was in second grade, he cried when he found out he wasn't quite old enough to play alongside Ruben in a recreational youth league. Once Jamal was added to the roster -- he says their father, Ruben Boykin, Sr., pulled a few strings when he replaced the previous coach -- Ruben seemed far less interested in shooting. It gave Jamal a chance to demonstrate that he belonged on the hardwood, too.

"I danced coming down the court," Jamal recalls. "I had about eight points my first game, and it was all because my brother found me every single time. He's the type of person who will sacrifice for people he loves."

Ruben went under the radar at University High, a school that isn't exactly a factory of Division I scholarship athletes. Jamal, who decided to enroll at Fairfax High for its arts program and for its well-known basketball powerhouse, knew his brother would impress the coaches and scouts that showed up to watch the league's dynasties.

"My brother was probably the most underrated player in the city," says Jamal. "When his team played mine, it was an opportunity for him to gain some exposure."

Ruben was otherwise overlooked despite averaging 32 points and 15 rebounds per game in his senior year, undoubtedly one of Southern California's best prep players. Steve Ackerman, who was University's assistant basketball coach at the time, fielded fruitless calls from Kansas and West Virginia. The big-name colleges, he says, were really looking for prospects from big-name schools like Fairfax. Ruben eventually settled on an offer from Northern Arizona, where he played four seasons as a reliable forward.

Jamal, on the other hand, was a highly touted recruit who attended Duke before leaving to join the Bears. He says he plays the way he does -- with intense outward energy -- out of respect for his brother.

"I would be ungrateful not to give it my all knowing that there are many players like my brother who are talented, who do put in the work, who do have the passion for the game but didn't get the same opportunity," he says. "It would be an injustice not giving it my all."

There's a newspaper article about the brothers that hangs in Ackerman's classroom, a yellowing artifact of their time in the Western League limelight. It was published seven years ago, so the clipping is a launching pad into nostalgia.

University -- a seemingly eternal underdog against Jamal's nationally ranked team at Fairfax -- found itself in the midst of a furious comeback against the Lions during a regular-season showdown in January 2003. Ruben and Jamal hardly looked like relatives.

Says Ruben: "If he scored on me, everyone would go crazy and all that did was piss me off. So I would score 40 points on his team."

Says Jamal: "At a certain point of the game, there was this look on his face. I was no longer his brother. I was the enemy."

Those 32 minutes of basketball are forever stamped in the minds of the Boykin brothers. Jamal remembers a huddle in which Fairfax coach Harvey Kitani told the team that it simply couldn't lose to University. Ruben remembers missing a shot to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Both remember discussing the Lions' 67-57 victory the rest of the night.

There were other recollections, too.

"I always felt he was better than me," says Ruben. "But I would never admit it to him because I'm the older brother."

The assessment seems to genuinely stun Jamal, who points out that it's just another example of Ruben's selflessness.

It's eight o'clock in the evening somewhere in Allen Fieldhouse, the historic arena at Kansas, and Ruben is on his feet as Cal takes on the top-ranked Jayhawks. He's processing sights and sounds of a basketball game that's unfolding in front of him -- he flew in from Italy last December to watch the game -- cheering loudly enough that Jamal can hear him over the capacity crowd. His ticket is a portal into the world of his younger brother.

He follows the 6-foot-8 forward with love and loyalty, watching as Jamal racks up 15 points and 15 rebounds.

"That just meant the world," Jamal says. "He's always been my biggest fan."

Because of Ruben, European clubs are fond of him as well.

"Every team that he's played on has shown interest in me," says Jamal. "Because of how great he is as a person, and what he brings to the table, they figure, 'If there's another kid with his genes, then we could take him, too.'"

Jamal isn't sure how his basketball future will pan out, but he seems to be thriving under coach Mike Montgomery and enjoys life as a senior at Berkeley. He'd enjoy it even more if Ruben attended all of his games.

So would Ruben.

Tags: JAMAL BOYKIN, CAL MEN'S BASKETBALL, MARCH MADNESS 2010, RUBEN BOYKIN


Contact Jeff Goodman at [email protected]



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