A tradition to uphold: Commissioner of historical prep league wants to maintain its independence

OAL commissioner Michael Moore poses with the Castlemont boys basketball team after the OAL finals in March. (Photo by Ryan Phillips)

OAL commissioner Michael Moore poses with the Castlemont boys basketball team after the OAL finals in March. (Photo by Ryan Phillips)

Michael Moore has a great memory. He has held at least fifteen different positions in nearly thirty years working in the Oakland Unified School District, and can list each one in order, from substitute teacher to senior change officer to commissioner of the Oakland Athletic League.

He knows the names of the people he worked with and who hired him. He easily recalls growing up on 11th Avenue in Oakland, attending Oakland High in the 1970s and then seminary in Dallas, Texas. He remembers the first sermon he gave­—Thanksgiving Day, 1978, and the topic: “What are you full of?”

He can also remember his exact weight—368 pounds—when he had the first health scare that nearly killed him at 14 years old.

“My doctor told me that if I was fortunate, I would have a stroke in 30 to 90 days, and if I was unfortunate, I would die in 30 to 90 days,” Moore said of a high blood pressure problem that had him visiting the doctor on a weekly basis. “I was in the 9th grade. Ever since then, I remember a lot. Because all of this is extra.”

Moore’s memory is a big reason why he took the job as OAL commissioner in 2008, when the league’s joint status as a section was in doubt. He fondly remembers what it was like to be a student sitting in the stands at an OAL football game, the different school chants, and the rivalries, which included his own family. “All the boys in my family went to Oakland [High],” he said, “and all the girls went to Skyline.”

Moore at Oakland Tech's football signing day in February. The commissioner said he tries to attend every OAL function he can. (Photo by Ryan Phillips)

The 526-pound guy, who has been in a wheelchair since 1997, remembers the rich history of the OAL as well. He often wears a limited edition T-shirt that he commissioned, which trumpets the 90-year history of the league, when he’s at work in his High Street office. He’s quick to bring up that Hall-of-Fame athletes—like baseball players Frank Robinson and Rickey Henderson and basketball player Bill Russell—refined their talents in the OAL.

The Oakland Athletic League is one of the oldest high school sports organizations in the state. It was formed in 1919, with five high schools: Oakland High, Oakland Technical, Vocational (which became McClymonds in 1923), University (which closed in 1948) and Fremont. Its first official season was basketball. The OAL currently has six schools, with Castlemont joining in 1930 and Skyline in 1961. It became its own California Interscholastic Federation section in 1940, a status that remains today, making it the smallest of ten sections in the state. The largest—the Southern Section—has 567 schools. The three smallest of the ten sections are the city sections—San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland. But Oakland didn’t grow like the other two, and has the smallest population density of the three cities.

The size of the OAL doesn’t measure what a great source of pride it is for Oakland families like Moore’s, who have sent generations of kids to the same schools, played on the same fields, and sat in the same stands. These are people who witness some of the best high school athletes in the state, often future professionals, and then see the pros working out back at their old high schools after they’ve made it. People who decorate their bathroom with blue towels in honor of Oakland High, only to have their kid play basketball and football at Fremont, which happened to Moore.

In recent years, though, the size of the OAL, and the fact that before Moore came along it was without a full-time leader, raised questions about its status as an independent section. In 2008, especially, the fate of the OAL was very much up in the air. It had been without a commissioner for over a year, and some Oakland school board members, worried that the league wasn’t keeping up with state rules without the proper oversight, explored the possibility of joining another section. Representatives from the Oakland Unified School District, California Interscholastic Federation and the North Coast Section (a neighboring section to Oakland that governs many East Bay schools) met to discuss the possibility of dissolving the Oakland Section and incorporating the six schools into the larger NCS.

The representatives from OUSD at the meeting, which included board members Noel Gallo (now the Oakland Board of Education president) and Christopher Dobbins, wanted to explore whether joining the NCS would be beneficial to Oakland students. Because of its small size, the Oakland section has limited scheduling options for many of its teams. Teams from neighboring sections are less likely to schedule a game with an OAL team than a team from its own section, because sections award points, used to garner postseason eligibility, for playing teams from their own section.

An OAL team is also likely to have a shorter postseason than a team from a different section, such as the five-division, 168-member NCS, because it has fewer possible opponents. The season is shortened further for a sport like soccer that has no state playoffs—the round that follows section playoffs in which the OAL has guaranteed berths. The OAL also has an agreement with the CIF that all its schools play at the Division I level, the large-school division, for those state playoffs. For McClymonds, a school with 800 students, that agreement meant it had to beat teams quadruple its size when it made three straight appearances in the CIF D-I boys basketball title game from 2007-2009.

Brandon Brooks, who has coached the boys team at McClymonds for 16 years, said he wouldn’t have it any other way—regardless of school size, the OAL is a premier league that deserves the big-school showcase. “If we were in Division IV, Division V, it would not be fair,” he said. “We’d probably be in (the) state (final) every year. On the flip side of that, we’d be playing schools three, four hours away.”

A map of the 10 California sections. Oakland is No. 5. Click on the map for more information on the sections. (Graphic courtesy of the California Interscholastic Federation)

Joining the NCS would mean more travel—and added expense—for the cash-strapped OAL. It would also mean the OAL would have to give up its votes on the CIF council, which includes the nine other sections in the state, and lose the representation Dobbins said is “important for a predominately urban district.” It would lose its automatic bid to state championship events the OAL typically doesn’t do well in, like wrestling. It would also mean dissolving a section with 90 years of history, with no guarantee that the Oakland schools would get to maintain their historic rivalries, and with them likely being divided into different leagues and divisions based on the size of the school. For Moore, who in 2008 already had jobs as OUSD procurement officer and operations officer, that was too much history to be placed in doubt.

“Leon Glaster, who was chief financial officer [of the OUSD], came to me in late May [2008],” Moore recalled. “He said, ‘Mike, Google Oakland Athletic League,’ and that’s when I saw there was a conversation about the Oakland Athletic League going away. And he knew me, knows me. And that was unacceptable, because of the history.”

According to Dobbins, the district hasn’t had any talks about disbanding the section since hiring Moore. He said that naming Moore to the post “saved” the OAL by filling the position with a well liked, respected, long-time employee who takes pride in maintaining the league’s historic status.

Yet although Oakland officials, including athletic directors at the schools, now say they’re united in wanting to keep the league independent, the decision may not be up to them. A CIF governance task force will soon look at the possibility of restructuring for the first time since the state’s governing body of high school athletics was formed in 1914. Disparity in the size of sections is a primary reason for the inquiry. Though the CIF is unlikely to dissolve a section without the approval of its leaders, it could also take the unprecedented action of a drastic restructuring that would affect the boundaries of every section.

Even if a state restructuring doesn’t happen, the OAL can still join the NCS whenever Oakland officials make the call. NCS commissioner Gil Lemmon said if the OAL petitioned to join, the NCS “would certainly entertain that thought—not just [for] the six larger schools, but the charter schools, assuming those schools are also interested.” (Next fall the Oakland section will incorporate the city’s charter schools, which will form their own league.)

Moore said that won’t be happening as long as he’s in charge. One of his first assignments when he took the league’s reins was to provide it with stability. He wants to do more than that—strengthen the league’s foundation so its status as a section remains secure for the foreseeable future. “One of my mentors told me, ‘Never move a pillar until you know what it’s holding up,’” he said. “Some traditions are load-bearing walls, so you go very slow before you take a wrecking ball and destroy tradition just because it’s old.”

***

When Michael Moore attends basketball games at Oakland Tech, athletic director Jim Coplan checks in to see if there anything he can do for Moore, knowing full well the answer is probably “no.”

“He’s been around for a long time, and he knows a lot of people. He’s able to take care of himself,” Coplan said. “I don’t assume he’s going to need anything from me.” Moore knows his way around the gyms and fields of Oakland schools, and he’s familiar with many of the people in the stands. Ever since he became commissioner, he has tried to get out to a couple of games a week.

Moore, left, usually watches basketball games with a group of OAL coaches, OUSD employees, and college interns. (Photo by Ryan Phillips)

The sight of Moore on his power scooter—wearing a white hat with black ‘OAL’ lettering, or vice versa, and sitting with a group of that usually includes school district employees, league coaches and college interns wearing black OAL shirts—is a familiar one to the regulars at league basketball games. Moore becomes animated when he talks—his eyes widening, pitch fluctuating for points of emphasis. His other career as a preacher is clear in the way he tells stories, but his expression at games is deadpan. He applauds at the right times, lights up a little when he sees an exciting play, and generally tries to make sure it doesn’t look like he’s cheering for one team over another. He also tries to put out the vibe that he doesn’t want to be bothered by league business. He said some students and fans think he favors one school over another in certain rulings, and sometimes are happy to give him an earful of their opinions when they see him. “A discussion about policy?” he said. “Not on game day.”

Questions about transfers and eligibility are common for Moore, and an important part of his job as commissioner. A hot topic this basketball season was the fate of star player Jabari Brown, a junior guard considered to be among the top players in his class in the country. Brown transferred to Oakland High from Findlay Prep in Nevada during the 2009-10 season and was made eligible to play by Moore. Moore ruled that Brown did not fall under the normal CIF rules for transfers, which state that a player is not eligible to participate in the same sport at two different schools in the same school year, because of a legitimate hardship case. Another section challenged Brown’s eligibility with the CIF, which subsequently ruled that Brown could play—and he did, after first sitting out a handful of games to stay below the OAL’s game play maximum.

Moore said he heard talk that the only reason he allowed Brown to transfer was because the player was heading to Moore’s alma mater. It was the first high-profile eligibility case of his tenure, with the potential to cast the league in an unflattering light if it wasn’t done by the rules. But according to Jimmy Durkin, who covers prep sports for the Bay Area News Group, it appeared that Brown “had a legitimate hardship case and deserved to have his eligibility cleared.” Moore welcomed the scrutiny. “I frequently remind people that there is a book that I love that is filled with mercy and grace, but that is not the OAL rule book,” he said.

“That’s one of the reasons why they said they hired me,” Moore continued, speaking of Brown’s case. “To make sure [league business] is done in a decent and orderly fashion, with all the i’s dotted, all the t’s crossed, knowing it’s not going to make everybody happy, but when it’s questioned, we can say we followed policy.”

Another reason Moore says he was hired is to maintain the structure of the league, which hasn’t changed since Skyline joined in 1961. But though the six schools remain the same, the sports Oakland students play today have changed. It’s no longer just the “big three” of football, baseball and basketball, sports in which OAL athletes have gone on to succeed at the national level.

The OAL has produced sixty Major League Baseball players in its history, and many NFL and NBA players as well. Throughout this decade, the league churned out professional athletes including Marshawn Lynch, now playing for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, and Leon Powe, who plays for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Both are Oakland Tech grads. Of the twelve inaugural inductees into the OAL Hall of Fame—which the league will launch this summer—ten either played baseball, basketball or football.

But today the OAL has 117 teams competing in 10 CIF-sanctioned sports like swimming, track and tennis, not just the big three. Participation in other sports that aren’t sanctioned by the CIF, like hockey and lacrosse, is also growing among Oakland students.

With these changes have come calls for the OAL to get with the times. The current structure benefits the teams that play basketball, the league’s most high profile and popular sport with both fans and college recruiters. As the CIF is currently structured, each of the ten state sections gets two automatic berths into the state basketball playoffs—five from Northern California, five from Southern California. So while an Oakland school has a one in three chance it will advance to the state Division I basketball playoffs, for a school in the Southern Section, those odds are significantly worse, even when taking into account its five divisions.

NCS commissioner Lemmon said if the OAL joined a larger section, more schools would be interested in playing Oakland schools during the non-league season as well. Sections award points to schools for playing other schools in the same section, and those points go toward playoff eligibility and seeding. “I believe there would be greater competition for schools in Oakland,” Lemmon said, “not just in one sport, but in all activities.” Durkin agreed that the competition would likely improve if OAL schools joined the NCS. By facing top schools like those from Berkeley and San Leandro on a regular basis, OAL schools could “work on elevating their programs up to those levels.” The OAL also isn’t as strong financially as other sections, like the NCS.

Those around the OAL, though, seem to mostly agree that keeping the OAL’s autonomy outweighs the benefits of joining another section. Jim Coplan, the Tech athletic director, said the subject of folding the Oakland section has come up at meetings of OAL athletic directors, but they all want to remain independent and in charge of their own destiny. “There is some inclination by people in the CIF to fold the Oakland section into a larger section,” Coplan said. “We would prefer, as a league and a section, to keep things the way they are.”

League supporters are aware, though, that more independence means less competition for some sports. “That’s the tradeoff, but we felt like autonomy was worth it,” Dobbins said. “We also felt it was important to have automatic bids where Oakland does better.”

Moore also places a high value on the league’s independence. Part of the OAL’s status as a section comes with the power to police itself, as well as have a vote on the CIF’s commissioner board. “We know what is happening to us as a section. We are a section. We have history and tradition of being a section,” Moore said. “Why would we give that away for an unknown?”

***

Moore is as about as Oakland as you can get. He’s spent most of his life in his hometown; he’s the second youngest of five kids who grew up in East Oakland as a die-hard A’s and Raiders fan. He remembers spending much of his youth in church at Evergreen Baptist Church—
if it wasn’t time for choir, it was vacation Bible school, drill team or a church picnic. “I literally grew up there,” Moore said. The Moore family home was across the street from his elementary school, Bella Vista. He remembers the neighborhood as being “in transition”—different races and classes moving in and out. He remembers the Oakland schools he attended—McChesney Jr. High after Bella Vista, and then Oakland High—the same way.

“At Oakland High, we had, I think, 26 ethnicities. We had a Latvian student. So on International Day at Oakland High, you had the chance to taste some of the most wonderful food,” Moore said, breaking into a full-bodied laugh.

Moore's Oakland High yearbook photo from his senior year.

Moore was student body president at Oakland High, the first boy to be elected twice, as he remembers. He remembers the guy who encouraged him to run—student body vice president Steve Isono—and the girl who was the first student elected student-body president twice. “Heidi Klendennan,” he said, repeating the name for emphasis. “So a young lady beat me to it.”

Though he went to a lot of basketball and football games, the guy who would go on to oversee all prep sports in Oakland didn’t play high school sports. “A lot of people think I played football because I blocked,” Moore said. “But I blocked as the water boy.”

It was also while he was at Oakland High in 1972 that Moore had his first health scare. He was in the hospital regularly as he rapidly gained weight. His blood pressure was skyrocketing. He said doctors told him he was about done. “But something inside me said, ‘God, there’s too much I want to do,’” he said. Moore said that over the next year and a half following the scare, he lost 120 pounds.

A few years later, Moore moved from Oakland for a short, but important time in his life. He remembers the exact date—January 11, 1977—when he left for Bishop College, a historically black liberal arts school in Dallas. He was two years out of high school, transferring from Merritt Junior College, an outgoing 19-year-old kid eager to meet new people and see a new place.

Moore’s college roommate, T.L. Lewis, remembers seeing Moore sitting on top of his luggage in the lobby on the first day of school and then finding out the two were going to be roommates. The two hit it off quickly, both ending up majoring in philosophy and religion, pursuing the ministry after school, and remain close friends. “Room 312,” Lewis said of the room the two shared. “I call Michael now, and say ‘312.’ That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Lewis said the way Moore talked about his hometown in those days, “he made Oakland seem like a dream city.”

When Moore returned to Oakland from Dallas, he started substitute teaching. He said he got into education “by accident”—he was waiting for a call from a church to become its minister, but took the teaching job as a temporary position. At that time, while he was taking classes at Cal State Hayward, a professor told him he could make just as much of a difference in the classroom as behind the pulpit. “That was one of those ‘Aha!’ moments,” Moore said.

The substitute-teaching gig led to one job after another at OUSD—and some at the same time. And Moore didn’t give up the ministry either. He managed to also work for 15 years as pastor of Joshua Christian Church in West Oakland until 2003, and still gives occasional guest sermons at Oakland churches. In his nearly thirty years with the district, Moore has worked as a school security officer, instructional assistant, history teacher, dean at Bret Hart Middle School, assistant principal at Fremont High (twice), digital high school manager at Oakland Tech, all-city council director, adult education assistant principal, administrator on special assignment, operations officer and procurement officer. “He has tremendous ambition and industry,” said Martin Waldron, a former teacher at Fremont. “He’s a good man and he isn’t afraid to ask, and to accept, help.”

But Moore’s effect on the district was almost cut short a decade ago. In 1997, while assistant principal at Fremont, he felt a sharp pain in his right side while accompanying the Fremont boys’ basketball team to Sacramento for the Northern California championships. He said he didn’t think much of it then, but ten days later, he found out his appendix had burst. He lost feeling in his leg, felt more pain than he’d ever had in his life, and had to get a wheelchair. “After what I had gone through, I was happy to be alive,” he said.

A recurring theme in Moore’s career has been his work with small, intimate communities inside the OUSD. Moore was at Fremont in the ‘90s when the school was redesigned into five smaller academies. Waldron, who oversaw the project, said Moore strongly believed in the project. “Mike’s forte is personal relationships,” Waldron said. “[The school academy project is] tied in with his philosophy of education.”

Moore has carried that philosophy—that smaller can be better—to his job at the OAL. ”I don’t complain about other sections being large, and I don’t let them complain about us being small,” he said.

According to Dobbins, if Moore hadn’t taken the job in 2008, there weren’t a lot of qualified candidates after him in line. And if the OAL didn’t have a full-time commissioner, Dobbins said, it was very much in danger of losing its status as a section. “The argument the state gave was, ‘Well, you don’t have your own commissioner,’” Dobbins said. “We were really saved by the commissioner.”

As commissioner, Moore makes sure the OAL is following CIF rules and that school athletic directors—whom he oversees—follow the OUSD budget. Though Moore doesn’t have an impressive athletic resume, he has an impressive administrative one, and his inside knowledge of the OUSD and education politics have given him a reputation as somewhat of a sage around the district. This is Coplan’s first year as AD at Tech, and he said Moore has been instrumental in helping him learn the ropes. “Any time I’ve had a question, I’ve always felt comfortable asking him for advice and counsel via e-mail, and he has always responded quickly,” said Coplan.

Moore stays organized: in his office on High Street, he’s got two iPhones at hand, and there are three 50-inch flat screen TVs hooked up to his computer. These play a constant stream of images from monitoring cameras on OUSD campuses, a plan that Moore oversees and is currently being developed. Moore believes the surveillance program will help bring a drop in crime and truancy.

Moore's OUSD office. The flat screen TVs were paid for by the Secure Our Schools grant, and will have live feeds to all Oakland schools when the project is completed. (Photo by Ryan Phillips)

Moore also uses the TVs to keep up with the schedules and activities of his staff of 27, including eight who directly report to him. People are constantly knocking on either of the two doors to his office, and his various jobs with the district have him attending countless meetings a week. “It would drive me crazy. He’s got a lot of shops under this one roof here,” said Betty Guerin, who works for Moore on the camera project. “But it all gets done. Everybody’s happy. He even buys us breakfast every now and then.”

But it’s Moore’s job as commissioner that brings him the most joy, he said. He especially enjoys going to games, and seeing kids gradually progress. “It’s a caterpillar-to-butterfly process. You get the chance to watch some young people start, and as they apply themselves, some young people make wonderful turnarounds,” he said. “When they discover that sports is a lot like life, that’s very fulfilling for me. When they learn to work with people that are not like them, to deal with authority.”

***

Moore is hardly unique as an OUSD lifer, especially around the OAL. The league has a small-town feel, with parents and kids often playing for the same school. Many of the league’s coaches attended the school where they work, or a rival school. Oakland Tech girls basketball coach Valerie Hartsfield, a Fremont High grad, said she fires her team up sometimes by humming the Fremont chant.

“People know who played where, who against who,” said Coplan, who said he grew up in Oakland when Hall-of-Fame baseball player Joe Morgan was at Castlemont. “Parents tell me about coaches they worked with, players they played against. I think there’s a lot of that.”

Coplan said it’s common to see famous alums around their alma maters, like when he recently saw some Tech football players working out in the weight room with Marshawn Lynch grimacing and sweating right along with them. “And he’s been gone from Tech for like seven years,” Coplan said.

It’s these sort of stories and traditions that Moore is intent on preserving by keeping the league intact. Moore believes the OAL allows the athletes to serve as ambassadors of Oakland, to show the teams they play another side of the city than what they may have heard. For example, he said, in March, the Castlemont boys basketball team played Turlock High in a Northern California playoff game at Oakland Tech. “They got a chance to see some inner city kids having a ball, not fighting each other, not shooting each other,” Moore said of the Turlock parents. “Now I just believe they have a different opinion of Oakland.”

Along with the Hall of Fame, this year the league is also introducing its first All-Academic teams, which recognizes athletes with high GPAs. The awards are presented along with other league awards, like the All-City team, which recognizes the top players in the city. Moore said he thinks one of the best ways to keep tabs on a kid, and keep them interested in school, is to have them in a sports program. “Mike says it’s the best after-school program in the district,” Dobbins said, “and there’s 2,500 kids in the program.”

Instead of folding the OAL, Moore would like to see it expand. It is incorporating in the city’s charter schools in the fall, which will compete against one another at the small-school level and will not yet be eligible for CIF playoffs. As Moore sees it, the discussion should be whether some NCS schools want to join the OAL, not the other way around.

Budget restrictions make any expansion unlikely, and will make league business more difficult as well. And the future of the OAL and its independence may not be up to Moore or the OUSD to decide. According to NCS commissioner Gil Lemmon, the CIF task force, which has been meeting since last year, will soon turn its attention from common rules among the sections to the structure. One idea being floated in the initial discussions would be dividing the state into four sections of more equal size. Any recommendation by the task force would have to be approved by a vote, and take two years to implement.

Moore maintains that it won’t happen while he’s the commissioner. As a guardian of the league’s long history, he believes it’s his responsibility that the OAL get its proper recognition, respect and space to operate. He savors every day and he forgets nothing, because ever since that day when he was 14, when the doctors told him he might only have 90 days to live, his life has been nothing but unexpected overtime.

“There are sections that are bigger than Oakland, there are sections with hundreds of schools,” he said. “But we produce. We’re playing where we are, and we’re winning. And we have a tradition.”

One Comment

  1. Terri Hunter-Davis

    Thoroughly enjoyed this piece. I’m a 3rd-gen Oakland High alum (not long after Mr. Moore graduated) and 3rd-gen OAL athlete, and despite the advantages of merging with another section, I’m proud to see the OAL remain independent.

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