Saturday, March 03, 2007

Andre Ward Olympic boxer aims for king of the world

ONE SPORTS HERO in Oakland could own this city, and he's already piling up the points. If he someday combines a championship with his celebrity, he'll be a knockout winner for sure in Oaktown.

Andre Ward is everything you'd want in an athlete. He's a special talent, but not full of himself. He's young, but respectful of elders. His record is clean inside and outside the ring.

Oakland can hold up this Olympic champion as an example of the type of athlete we could revere and respect. He is a devoted husband and father. He's spiritual, polite and worldly wise at 23.

And if Ward becomes the middleweight champion of the world, which is his goal, he could cast a shadow in Oakland wider than Lake Merritt, the body of water around which he does his roadwork.

Right now, this hometown kid is more promise than proven. Oakland has adopted him, but hasn't yet embraced him the way it would if a title belt graced his middle. The target date is two more years.

In the meantime, something heartwarming is occurring between Ward and Oakland, even though he has yet to box here professionally. His next bout is March 29 in San Jose. Meanwhile, his bonding with Oakland continues.

An eclectic coffee shop — Coffee With a Beat — is near the lake. Ward's godfather and trainer, Virgil Hunter, has known owner Nate Smith for 30 years. So Ward has a place to come to after his early morning workout.

Young, old, white, African American, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, West Coast, East Coast, everywhere else, joggers, walkers — Coffee With A Beat is a melting pot of humanity.

They all admire the smiling young man with the flashing fists.

"Andre Ward represents the best of Oakland, black or white," said Adrian Harper. "But as it relates to the African-American community, he is what we want our young people to strive to be. He's a nice guy, he's dedicated, he's humble. He's not afraid to intermingle with Oakland and he has not allowed celebrity to ruin his outlook."

Coffee With A Beat is where politics is discussed as heavily as sports. And celebrities who turn up are given their space by the locals.

"He's such a nice gentleman," T.C. Culberson said of Ward. "You can just feel that he's very kind-hearted, extremely polite, and very generous with his time to the people who come up to him. He's very modest."

Smith has owned Coffee With A Beat for six years, but has known Ward since he was a little tyke.

"He's a great kid and I'm proud to know him," Smith said. "He does these interviews and he knows how to speak, like he's been there before. Hewatches his diet here. He gets salmon, vegetable dishes; he doesn't eat anything fatty."

Bobby Warren trained George Cooper, a popular Oakland middleweight in the 1960s and'70s, and he expects big things from Ward, who's 10-0 as a pro.

"He's always in condition and he listens," Warren said. "He's a good kid and he's serious about religion. You don't find too much of that today, not among the youngsters. You hope the best for him."

Ward is respectful of his elders, but only to a point.

"I do a lot of cursing," said Warren. "And he always tells me, 'Bobby, don't curse.'"

Ward arrived this particular morning, changed out of his workout clothes and sat down with lox and bagels layered with cream cheese and onions. Someone kidded him about being Bar Mitzvahed.

"I've always had an old soul," he said. "I come around the older gentlemen; they have a lot of wisdom. There's a lot of history here. I listen to the old stories about life. I'm a good listener."

Ward's wife, Tiffany, and children, Andre Jr. and Malachi, occasionally join him at Coffee With a Beat. Ward is there once a week depending on his training schedule.

"It's great to know there's a place like this — a good, clean place — that supports what I'm doing," he said. "I'm a people-watcher. I watch body language and mannerisms. I sit back and soak in what these guys are talking about, then I go about my day.

"There's a beat going on in here that's real laid back. I'm that kind of person. I'm not into hoopla."

Andre Ward — a credit to Oakland, but mostly a credit to himself.

Dave Newhouse's column appears Monday, Thursday and Sunday, usually in the Metro section. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone (510) 208-6466 or e-mail

No comments: