Ron Boone, Still an Iron Man After All These Years (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
I never saw Ron Boone play ball, but I didn’t need to in order to write this story about his magnificent commitment to the game, one made manifest by his sheer doggedness. His commitment and toughness ran so deep that he earned the nickname “Iron Man” for never missing a single game during a very long and grueling 13-year professional basketball career in the ABA and NBA. More than a body you could count on to suit up and get on the court, Boone was a consummate player who ranked among the best guards of his era. He could do it all: score, handle the ball, pass, rebound, defend, you name it. He was a key cog on a championship team. He played alongside and against many legends, always holding his own. He’s another of the Omaha born and raised figures who went from the ghetto and projects here to become a sports legend. His devotion to the game has remained intact many years after his retirement as a player.
Ron Boone, Still an Iron Man After All These Years (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
A chiseled 6’2” guard known for his toughness, Boone saw action in each and every one of the 1,041 regular season contests his clubs played. His consecutive games-played streak set a record for pro hoops unbroken until years later. In fact, Boone said he doesn’t recall ever missing a game — preseason, regular season, post season — in a playing career that included elementary school, high school, college and the pros.
This feat is important to Boone. Since his 1981 retirement from the Utah Jazz, he has worked as a color commentator on Jazz radio and television broadcasts. Since 1988 Boone has been a full-time resident of Salt Lake City, the site of his greatest triumphs, where he is active in private business and community efforts.
“The longer I’m out of the game, the prouder I am of it,” said Boone, who at age 58 is buff and just over his peak playing weight of 205 pounds. “I know how very difficult it is to get through an entire season without getting hurt, not to mention 13 seasons or 1,041 consecutive games.”
Of course, he sustained the game’s usual bumps and bruises, ankle sprains and worse, but he never sat out a single game because of them. There was the shoulder separation he suffered in a collision with another player during a regular season game. On that occasion, a reluctant Boone followed the team doctor’s advice to undergo acupuncture the next day and by the following night he was able to shoot and play through the pain. The only other injury that set him back, if only momentarily, was the broken nose he suffered in a playoff series. He simply got the broken bone set, taped and protected by a mask he wore the rest of the series.
“Other than those two injuries, there was never a remote chance I was not going to play,” he said.
Fortitude and ferociousness came to be Boone’s signature qualities as an athlete, for which he credits several people. Hailing from a family of athletes — he and his five siblings all won college basketball scholarships — Boone was first schooled by his older brother Don. Two of his early coaches, Josh Gibson and Neal Mosser, are remembered for their old-school emphasis on fundamentals, discipline and, above all else, winning.
The late older brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Josh Gibson, was a former jock who shaped many fine athletes as a youth sports coach in northeast Omaha. Boone, whose first love was baseball, played ball under Gibson, whose fiery demeanor — he was known to physically challenge cheating officials and abusive fans — taught him to never back down.
The strict Mosser coached many greats while head basketball coach at Omaha Technical High School. Boone recalls Mosser as being “a very fine coach, but a very tough coach,” whose formidable presence and insistence on perfection ensured “you did what he said.” Quitting on a play or sitting out to pamper a boo-boo were unacceptable.
But the real story is how this late-bloomer became a professional all-star and record holder at all after an unheralded prep career at Tech, where he didn’t start until his final year. As a kid, he had some serious game, but he was small and came up when Tech was a talent-laden powerhouse. As late as his junior year he rode the bench on the fabled 1963 Tech squad led by the great Fred Hare, a phenom Boone and others call “the best basketball player to come out of the state.”
When Boone became a starter, he helped keep Tech a contender, but was thought unlikely to play major college ball due to his height — even on tip-toes, about 5’8” — and his 140-pound frame. Yet he still harbored big-time hoop dreams. He wouldn’t let anything stop him from achieving them either, even if he had to will himself to grow, which perhaps he did. Then there was his secret motivation.
“I remember playing in a league down at the local YMCA and just having a good time — scoring points — and this friend of mine asked one of the officials if he thought I could play major college basketball and the guy said, ‘No way,’ Boone recalled. “That was always in the back of my mind because I thought I could. If there was anything in my life that I can say inspired me, it was those comments.”
The short, scrawny Boone yearned to follow in the footsteps of near north side athletic greats like Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer and Gale Sayers. The youngster showcased his playing abilities at Kountze Park and in the rough-and-tumble leagues at Bryant Center, the mecca of north Omaha hoops, where he went head-to-head with Omaha’s finest players.
Yet his dreams seem stalled. There was, of course, his nagging lack of size, as well as the absence of interest from college recruiters. Boone, who grew up poor in the Logan Fontenelle housing project, knew an athletic scholarship was his only sure ticket to college. Then two things happened to give him a chance.
First, he and a Tech High teammate were offered a package deal to Clarinda Community College. These days, junior college ball in Clarinda, Iowa, a rural town whose white-bread, slow-paced life was “a culture shock,” is as far from major college hoops as you get. But Boone made the most of his only season there by averaging about 26 points a game. In a matchup versus the University of Nebraska junior varsity squad, which included future star Stu Lantz, Boone burned the Huskers. But a hoped-for invitation to join Nebraska never came from then-head coach Joe Cipriano.
Second, a sudden, dramatic growth spurt at season’s end turned Boone into a strapping physical specimen, but with the quickness he had as a smaller player. He finally had the look of a major college prospect.
“As I started to grow, I started to inch up and to get bigger and stronger. I started to get muscles naturally, without lifting weights,” Boone said.
Just as Boone got some feelers from Iowa’s two state universities, Mosser pointed him out to Idaho State University head coach Claude Retherford, a roommate and teammate of Mosser’s at Nebraska. Retherford took Mosser’s word that Boone was a diamond-in-the-rough and signed him unseen. Boone headed to Boise, Idaho, little realizing it would be the start of a long and fruitful association with the Rocky Mountain West that continues to this day.
Playing in a full-court running scheme that complemented his coast-to-coast style, Boone soon developed into a bona fide pro prospect. In addition to being able to run the floor and dog opponents all night long, his strength and fierce competitiveness added intimidating dimensions to his all-around game.
“I was a very strong player. I was a guy who even though I was only 6’2”, could go up and play forward, and I did on a number of occasions because of the strong physical style I had. I didn’t back down. I didn’t take any shit from anyone. I would fight,” Boone said.
Far more than an enforcer on the court, he was also a capable scorer, an excellent free-throw shooter, passer and rebounder.
By his senior season he was being courted by both the Dallas Chaparrals of the fledgling ABA and the NBA’s expansion Phoenix Suns. On Retherford’s advice, Boone opted for the ABA, a league renowned then and fondly remembered for its free, open, playground style of fast-breaks and flamboyant dunks. That attitude extended to its innovative rules, including the 3-point shot and the use of a red, white and blue ball. After being traded to the ABA’s Utah Stars, Boone enjoyed his best seasons, leading his Salt Lake City-based club to the 1971 ABA title. Teaming with fellow ABA legends Willie Wise and Zelmo Beaty, Boone sparked the Stars to the championship, a feat he ranks as the “greatest accomplishment” of his career.
“That’s the ultimate thing you can achieve in a team sport, regardless of all the individual accomplishments you had as a player,” he said. “Very few teams get there.”
While he will forever be associated with The Streak, he is quick to point out he was fundamentally sound. Boone, the third leading scorer in ABA history, owns career league averages of 18.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game. His lifetime field goal percentage is 46 percent and his lifetime free throw percentage is 84 percent.
As a starter his first two years in the NBA, Boone continued his dominant play, posting 20 points a game in two seasons with the Kansas City Kings before spending his last three years as a valuable reserve and role player, first with the Los Angeles Lakers and then the Utah Jazz.
While gaining NBA validation was important to Boone, his years in the wild and woolly ABA are the ones he remembers most fondly. After all, it was in the circus-like, street-ball atmosphere of the upstart league where the thing he is best remembered for — The Streak — began.
“It was a fun league. It was a very attractive league and fun to watch because it was so wide open. The league was different from the NBA. The style of play was run and gun. I think that approach right there is the reason we ended up with your Julius Ervings and George Gervins right out of college and why guys like Rick Barry jumped leagues (early in his career, going from the NBA to the ABA),” Boone said. “Even today, if you talk to people who grew up in it, they’ll tell you we had the most popular brand of basketball you’d ever want to see.”
Before the leagues merged in 1976, a red-hot rivalry existed between the ABA and NBA, and debate raged over which featured the better players. As Boone saw it, the ABA had a decided talent advantage except in one category. “We had all the best guards and forwards and the NBA had the big men. I thought the NBA was a little afraid of us.”
Other than the occasional player defection or draft coup, it was a rivalry existing in people’s minds, not on the basketball court. The exceptions were hotly contested inter-league exhibition games staged in the years leading up to the merger. For the ABA, it was a chance to gain respect. For the NBA, an opportunity to put the brash young pretenders in their place.
“We took it as a challenge,” Boone said, “because not only were we looked at as a minor league, guys like Red Auerbach (the Boston Celtics’s famed former coach and general manager) had the attitude that we would just go away. I think we took pride in beating them.”
In the overall interleague rivalry, the ABA edged the NBA 79 wins to 76. In particular, Boone recalls the throttling his Utah Stars dealt the NBA’s Kansas City Kings, a team he joined only a year later after the merger made him the third player selected in the NBA dispersal draft.
In the spirit of fairness, however, Boone acknowledges that in a much-hyped 1972 meeting between the two leagues‚ defending champions — his Utah Stars and the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks — his Stars got whipped by the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led Bucks. Jabbar dropped his trademark shot, the “sky hook,” on them all night.
Early in Boone’s career his consecutive games played streak was something he was largely unaware of. It only assumed bigger-than-life dimensions when the number of games played reached into the hundreds, and club officials and media types brought it to his attention. “The longer it continued the more you started to think about it,” he said.
The streak is a remarkable feat considering Boone’s bruising style of play and the wear and tear anyone accumulates over the course of each 80-game regular season. Basketball is, after all, a running, jumping sport filled with contact on rebounds, picks, screens and post-up moves, and by head-first dives for loose balls on an unforgiving hard court. “It’s a blessing I was able to do that,” he said.
“I never had a pulled muscle, hamstring, groin or anything like that and I attribute that to my old high school coach, Neal Mosser, who always had us stretch and take care of ourselves like that. Conditioning is something I took a lot of pride in. It was very difficult for me to work out with someone because it just seemed like they didn’t work out as hard as I did, and so it would set me back,” Boone said.
“My workouts were always basketball drills and road running, but more sprints. The key was my weight never fluctuated. Unlike a lot of guys who had to play themselves into shape and were two to three weeks behind, whenever I got to camp I was ready to go.”
Like other old-school warriors, Boone looks at his iron man streak as a badge of honor and derides the trend among modern athletes to coddle themselves and their injuries by “sitting out with everything from a hang-nail to a bad attitude.”
After a storied 13-year ride as a pro, Boone retired at age 35. Like many retired athletes, Boone struggled to find an outlet for his competitiveness.
“Very, very tough, especially if you want to continue playing basketball,” he said of the recreational leagues he participated in. “The NBA is physical and after retiring I found myself having to go back to high school rules. A tough adjustment. I tried it, but stopped because again I was a physical player.”
Boone’s aggressiveness was not appreciated. He wasn’t out to be a bully, he said, it’s just that’s the only way he knew how to play.
“It’s basic. Sports for the most part is muscle-memory. A lot of things just naturally happen out there, especially if you’ve been doing it for a number of years, and it’s awfully difficult to stop it.”
He next tried fast-pitch softball but after competing for several years in local leagues he lost interest when he realized the friends who’d talked him into playing in the first place had all quit. And so at age 41 he came to the sport that’s his new passion — golf.
“The greatest game I found for an ex-athlete who is so competitive and such a perfectionist is golf. It’s an individual sport. If you screw up you kick yourself in the butt. It’s so challenging that you want to beat the game and only Tiger Woods and the other guys on the tour can beat this game.”
He gets in some golf when he returns for the annual Bob Gibson Classic, an event he enjoys because of the opportunity it affords to hang out with other sports legends. He feels camaraderie among his fellow old lions.
“There’s so many stories. We all recognize each other for what we did. Even though there may be a guy you didn’t care for, you have respect for him for what he was able to do on the field or on the court,” he said. “The older you get, there’s more respect and a lot of the things you disliked about a person go away. It’s like a reunion. You wouldn’t believe the ribbing guys take. It’s a lot of fun.”
While Boone still gets back to Omaha, where he has family, Salt Lake City is his home.
“Salt Lake City is where I had my best years and where I have a lot of respect. When I retired I moved back to Omaha for about six years before going back to Salt Lake City. Yes, I’m from Omaha, but even though people talk about me being from here — it wasn‚t like I was ever a star here. I was a star in Salt Lake City. Being who I am there I can get things done. It makes a difference.”
Boone rues the disappearance of the Omaha he once knew.
“I just know the areas I grew up proud of and patronizing on North 24th Street are no longer there.”
Like the in-progress Loves Jazz & Arts Center to pay homage to North Omaha’s rich musical heritage, Boone would like to see something done to commemorate its great athletes. There is talk about plans for a north Omaha athletic museum or hall of fame.
“So many athletes came out of Omaha that were not only great college players but ended up being great professional players,” he said.
Whether or not such a showcase ever is built, Boone plans to add to his newest streak — since starting as the Jazz color commentator 15 years ago, he hasn’t missed a single game. An “iron man” to the end.
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Bob Boozer, Basketball Immortal (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
UPDATE: It is with a heavy heart I report that the hoops legend subject of this story, Bob Boozer, passed away May 19. As fate had it, I had a recent encounter with Boozer that ended up informing a story I was working on about comedian Bill Cosby. Photographer Marlon Wright and I were in Cosby’s dressing room May 6 when Boozer appeared with a pie in hand for the comedian. As my story explains, the two went way back, as did the tradition of Boozer bringing his friend the pie. You can find that story on this blog and get a glimpse through it of the warm regard the two men had for each other. For younger readers who may not know the Boozer name, he was one of the best college players ever and a very good pro. He had the distinction of playing in the NCAA Tournament, being a gold medal Olympian, and winning an NBA title.
Unless you’re a real student of basketball history, chances are the name Bob Boozer doesn’t exactly resonate for you. But it should. The Omaha native is arguably the best basketball player to ever come out of Nebraska and when he decided to spurn the University of Nebraska for Kansas State, it was most definitely the Huskers’ loss and the Wildcats’ gain. At KSU Boozer became an All-American big man who put up the kind of sick numbers that should make him a household name today. But he starred in college more than 50 years ago, and while KSU was a national power neither the team nor Boozer ever captured the imagination of the country the way, say, Cincinnati and Oscar Robertson did in the same era. But hoop experts knew Boozer was a rare talent, and he proved it by making the U.S. Olympic team, the orignal Dream Team, that he helped capture gold in Rome. And in a solid, if not spectacular NBA career he made All-Pro and capped his time in the league as the 6th man for the Milwaukee Buck’s only title.
Boozer retired relatively young and unlike many athletes he prepared for life after sports by working off-seasons in the corporate world, where he landed back in his hometown after leaving the game. If you look at the body of his work in college, he should be a sure fire college basketball hall of fame inductee, but somehow he’s been kept out of that much deserved and long overdue honor. The fact that he helped the U.S. win Olympic gold and also earned an NBA title ring puts him in rare company and makes a pretty strong case for NBA Hall of Fame consideration. Some measure of validation happened this week when the 1960 Olympic team was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Boozer with the Seattle Sonics
Bob Boozer, Basketball Immortal (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons and later reprinted in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness
Omahan Bob Boozer chartered a bus to Manhattan for a February 5 engagement with immortality. By the way, that’s Manhattan, Kansas, where 50 of his closest friends and family members joined him to see his jersey retired at half-time of the Kansas State men’s basketball game.
In case you didn’t know, Boozer is a Wildcat hoops legend. In the late-1950s, he was a dominant big man there. In each of his three years, he was first team all-conference. He was twice a concensus first-team All-American. And that doesn’t even speak to his elite-level AAU play, his winning an Olympic gold medal on the original “Dream Team” and his solid NBA career capped by a championship.
Unless you’re a serious student of the game or of a certain age, the name Bob Boozer may only be familiar as one adorning a road in his hometown. But, in his time, he was the real deal. He had some serious game. He overwhelmed opponents as an all-everything pivot man at Omaha Technical High from 1952-55, earned national accolades as a high-scoring, fierce-rebounding forward at K-State from 1955-59, led an AAU squad to a title, played on the legendary 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball squad and was a member of the 1971 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks. It’s a resume few can rival.
“There’s very few guys that really had it all every step of the way, like I did. All City. All State. All Conference. All-American. Olympic gold medal. NBA world championship. Those are levels everybody would like to aspire to but very few have the opportunity,” he said.
He is, arguably, the best player not in the college hoops hall of fame. He is, by the way, in the Olympic Hall of Fame. His collegiate credentials are unquestionable. Take this career line with the Wildcats: 22 points and 10 rebounds a game. And this came versus top-flight competition, including a giant named Wilt at arch-rival Kansas, when K-State contended for the national title every year. If anything, the Feb. 5 tribute is long overdue.
Of his alma mater feting him, he said, “It’s quite an honor to have your jersey retired. That means in the history of that school you have reached the pinnacle.”
The pinnacle is where Boozer dreamed of being. His Olympic experience fulfilled a dream from his days at the old North YMCA, mere blocks from his childhood home at 25th and Erskine. Then, he reached the pinnacle of his sport in the NBA. A starter most of his pro career, he was a productive journeyman who could be counted on for double figures in points and rebounds most nights. His career NBA averages are 14.8 points and 8.1 rebounds a game. The 6’8 Boozer played in the ‘68 NBA All-Star game, an honor he just missed other years. He led the Chicago Bulls in scoring over a three-year period. He was the Bucks’ valuable 6th man in their title run.
Still, he was more a role player than a leading man. His game, like his demeanor, was steady, not sensational. He was, in his own words, “a blue-collar worker.” He could shoot like few other men his size, utilizing deadly jumpers and hook shots.
“I was a good player. I would make you pay if you made a mistake. I could move out for the jump shot and the hook shot or make a quick move for a layup,” he said.
While he admires the athleticism of today’s players, he doesn’t think much of their basic skills.
“We could flat-out outshoot these kids today. We worked awfully hard at being able to shoot the jump shot. I used to always say that a 15- to 18-foot jump shot is just like a layup. That was my mind set — that if I got it clear, it was going down.”
He perfected his shot to such a degree that in practice he could find his favorite spots on the court and nail the ball through the hoop with his eyes closed.
“It’s just something that with thousands and thousands of repetitions gets to be automatic. And when I shot I always used to try to finger the ball for the seams and to swish it because if the ball left my hand with a backward rotation and went through the net, it would hit the floor and come right back to you. That way, when you’re shooting by yourself, you don’t have to run after the ball very much,” he said, chortling with his booming bass voice.
Unlike many players who hang around past their peak, once Boozer captured that coveted and elusive ring, he left the game.
“I had made up my mind that once I walked, I walked, and would never look back. Besides, your body tells you when it’s getting near the end. I started hating the training camps a little more. The last few years I knew it was coming to an end,” he said. “The championship season with the Bucks was the culmination of my career. It was great.”
Indeed, he left without seeking a coaching or front office position. The championship was made sweeter as he shared it with an old pal, Oscar Robertson. As players, they were rivals, teammates and friends. Both were college All-Americans for national championship contending teams. As a junior, Boozer and his KSU Wildcats eliminated “The Big O” and his Cincinnati Bearcats from the 1957-58 NCAA quarterfinals. The next year Robertson turned the tables on Boozer by knocking the No. 1-ranked ‘Cats out of the regionals.
The two were teammates on the 1960 US Olympic basketball team, considered by many the best amateur basketball talent ever assembled. Besides Boozer and Robertson, the team featured future NBA stars Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy. It destroyed all comers at the Rome games, winning by an average margin of 34-plus. Then Boozer and Robertson were reunited with the Cincinnati Royals. Cincy was the site of some fat times for Boozer, who was popular and productive there. It’s also where he met his wife, Ella. The couple has one grown child and one grandchild.
After a trade to the New York Knicks that he protested, Boozer bounced around the league. He played a few years with the expansion Chicago Bulls, where he enjoyed his biggest scoring seasons — averaging about 20 points a game. He led the Bulls to the playoffs in their inaugural season — the first and last time a first-year expansion team did that.
A card from his time withe Cincinnati Royals
He had one happy season with the Los Angeles Lakers, spelling the great Elgin Baylor, before he joined Robertson in Milwaukee. With the incomparable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center, smooth Bob Dandridge at forward, playmaker Robertson at guard and the steady Boozer coming off the bench (he averaged 9 points and 5 boards), the Bucks, in only their second year, blew away opponents en route to a 66-16 regular season mark. They captured the franchise’s first and only championship by sweeping the Baltimore Bullets in four games.
By then, Boozer was 34 and a veteran of 11 NBA seasons with five different teams. He left the league and his then-lofty $100,000 salary to build a successful career off the court with the former Northwestern Bell-US West, now called Qwest.
Now retired from the communications giant, the 67-year-old Boozer enjoys a comfortable life with Ella in their spacious, richly adorned Pacific Heights home in Omaha, a showplace he refers to as “the fruits of my labor.” He moves stiffly from the wear and tear his body endured on the hardcourt those many years. His inflamed knee joints ache. But he recently found some relief after getting a painful hip replaced.
With his sports legacy secured and his private life well-ordered, his life appears to have been one cozy ride. Viewed more closely, his journey included some trying times, not least of which was to be denied the chance to buy a home in some of Omaha’s posher neighborhoods during the late 1960s. The racism he encountered made him angry for a long time, but in the end he made peace with his hometown.
Boozer grew up poor in north Omaha, the only son of transplanted Southerners. His father worked the production line and cleanup crew at Armour’s Packinghouse. His mother toiled as a maid at the old Hill Hotel downtown. Neither got past the 9th grade and these “God-fearing, very strict” folks made sure Bob and his older sister understood school was a priority.
“They knew racial prejudice and they said education was the way out. Their philosophy was, you kids will never have to work as hard as we did if you go get your education. We had to get good grades,” Boozer said. “My junior year in high school my mother and dad set my sister and I down and said, ‘We‚ve got enough money to send your sister to Omaha U. (UNO). You’re on your own, Bob.’ Well, it just so happened I started growing and I started hitting the basket and I figured I was probably going to get a basketball scholarship, and that came to fruition.”
No prodigy, Boozer made himself into a player. That meant long hours at the YMCA, on playgrounds and in school gyms. His development was aided by the stiff competition he found and the fine coaching he received. He came along at a time when north Omaha was a hotbed of physical talent, iron will and burning desire.
“That was a breeding ground,” he said. “All the inner city athletes were always playing ball. All day long. All night long. If you were anything in athletics, you played for the Y Travelers, a basketball team, or the Y Monarchs, a baseball team, under Josh Gibson (Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s older brother), who was a fine coach.”
Boozer, #20, in front row, in NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks team photo
Boozer said he spent so much time at the Y that its executive director, John Butler, “used to let me have the keys to the place. Butler provided the arena where I could work out and become an accomplished player and Josh Gibson provided the opportunity to play with older players.”
He said his dedication was such that while his buddies were out dating, “I was shooting hoops. It was a deep desire to excel. I always wanted to be a basketball player and I always wanted to be one of the best. I realized too at an early age athletics could provide me with an education.”
Athletics then, like now, were not merely a contest but a means of self-expression and self-advancement. Boozer was part of an elite lineage of black athletes who came out of north Omaha to make their mark. Growing up amid this athletic renaissance, he emulated the older athletes he saw in action, eventually placing himself under the tutelage of athletes like Bob Gibson — or “Gibby” as Boozer calls his lifelong friend, who is a year his senior. They were teammates one year each with the Y Travelers and at Tech.
“Some of the older athletes worked with me and showed me different techniques. In the inner city we basically marveled at each other’s abilities. There were a lot of great ballplayers. We rooted for each other. We encouraged each other. We were there for each other. It was like an inner city fraternity,” Boozer said. “I used to sit in the stands at Burdette Field and watch ‘Gibby’ pitch. As good a baseball player as he was, he was a finer basketball player. He could play. He could get up and hang.”
By the time Boozer played for Tech coach Neal Mosser, he was a 6’2” forward with plenty of promise but not yet an impact player. No one could foresee what happened next.
“Between my sophomore and junior years I grew six inches. With that extra six inches I couldn’t walk, chew gum and cross the street at the same time without tripping,” Boozer said. “That’s when I enlisted my friends, Lonnie McIntosh and John Nared, to help me. Lonnie, a teammate of mine at Tech, was a physical fitness buff, and John, who later played at Central, was probably one of the finest athletes to ever come out of Omaha.
“We’d go down to the Y every week. Lonnie would put me through agility drills on some days and then John and I would go one-on-one other days. John was only 6’3” but strong as a bull. I couldn’t take him in the post. I had to do everything from a guard-forward position. And, man, we used to have some battles.”
By his junior season Boozer was an imposing force — a big man with little-man skills. He could not only post-up down low to score, rebound and block shots, he could also shoot from outside, drive the lane and run the floor. With Boozer in the middle and a talented supporting cast around him, Tech was a powerhouse comprised mainly of black starters when that was rare. Then came the state tournament in Lincoln, and the bitterness of racism was brought home to Boozer and his mates.
“We had the state championship taken away from us in 1955. We played Scottsbluff. We figured we were the better team. I was playing center and I literally had guys hanging on me. The referees wouldn’t call a foul. I’d say, ‘Ref, why don‚t you call a foul?‚ and all I heard was, ‘Shut up and play ball,’ he said. “On one play, Lonnie McIntosh stole the ball and was dribbling down the sideline when one of their guys stuck his foot out and tripped him. There was Lonnie sprawled out on the floor and the referee called traveling and gave the ball to Scottsbluff. I will never forget that.
“We were outraged, but what could we do? If we had really got on the refs we’d have got a technical foul. So we had to suck it up and just play the best we could and hope we could beat ‘em by knocking in the most shots.”
Tech lost the game on the scoreboard but Boozer said players from that Scottsbluff team have since come up to him and admitted the injustice done that day. “It’s a little late,” he tells them. According to Boozer, Tech bore the brunt of discrimination in what should have been color-blind competition.
“Tech High always used to get the shaft, particularly in the state tournament.” He said Mosser, whom he regards as one of Nebraska’s finest coaches, helped him deal with “the sting of racism” by instilling a certain steeliness.
“Neal was a real disciplinarian. And he used to always tell us that life was not going to be easy. That you‚ve got to forge ahead.”
That credo was tested when Boozer became a hot recruit his senior year but was rejected by his top choice, the University of Iowa.
“Neal showed me a letter that Iowa coach Bucky O’Connor wrote telling him he had his quota of black players. “Neal said, ‘Bob, these are things you’re going to have to face and you’ve just got to persevere in spite of it.’ It hardens you. It makes you tougher.’”
Kansas was in the running until Wilt Chamberlain signed to play there. Boozer settled on Kansas State, where he made a name for himself and the Wildcats. Under coach Tex Winter, Boozer was the go-to-guy in the triangle post, an offense made famous years later by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
“A lot of plays flashed across the middle. We had a double screen where I’d start underneath and come back. The off forward and guard would come down and pinch and I’d brush my guy off into them and pop out for my jump shot.”
During his three-year varsity career, the Cats went 62-15 and won two Big Eight titles. Boozer was unstoppable. His 25.6 scoring average as a senior remains a single-season record. He ranks among KSU’s all-time leaders in points and boards.
In a famous 1958 duel for league, intrastate and national bragging rights, he led a 75-73 double overtime win over Wilt Chamberlain and KU in Manhattan. He outscored Wilt 32 to 25.
“Nobody could go one-on-one with Wilt. He was just too powerful. From his waist up he was almost like a weight lifter. You always had to be aware of where he was because he’d knock the ball in the 13th row. I had one move where I’d face him and fake him and he’d take a step back and I would do a crossover hook shot. He’d be up there with it and always miss it by about like that,” Boozer said, holding his index finger and thumb an inch apart. “I’d say, ‘In your face, big fella.’ And he’d say, ‘I’ll get you next time.’ Wilt and I always enjoyed each other.”
After his banner senior year the NBA came calling, with the Cincinnati Royals making Boozer the No. 1 overall draft pick, but Boozer had other ideas.
“I delayed going pro one year to keep my amateur standing and get a shot at the Olympic Trials.”
To stay sharp he played a year with the Peoria Cats of the now-defunct National Industrial Basketball League, an AAU-sanctioned developmental league not unlike today’s CBA or NBDL. Boozer worked at the Caterpillar Tractor Co. by day and played ball at night. He led his team to the NIBL title, which qualified the team and its players to showcase their talents at the Olympic Trials in Denver. Boozer and a teammate made the grade. The Rome Olympics are still among his personal highlights.
“I was a history buff and just the idea of being on the Appian Way, where the Caesars trod, and all the beauty of Rome — it was magnificent. And winning the gold medal for my country was very, very meaningful.”
Even after entering the NBA, Boozer honed his game in the off-season back home with John Nared in one-on-one duels at the Y. “If he could guard me, as small and quick as I was, he could guard anybody in the NBA,” Nared said.
“We used to go out and get dinner, go back to our rooms, light up some cigars, pop open some beers and talk basketball until the wee hours of the morning.”
Boozer prepared for post-hoops life years before he retired by participating in a summer management training program with the phone company. By the time he quit playing ball, he had a job and career waiting.
“You see, I never forgot how my mom and dad stressed getting an education and looking after your family.”
In 1997, he retired after 27 years as a community affairs executive and federal lobbyist with the communications company. Restless in retirement, he accepted an appointment that year from then-Gov. Ben Nelson to the Nebraska Parole Board. Gov. Mike Johanns reappointed him to a new six-year term running through 2006. Boozer enjoys his work.
“It’s almost like being a counselor. I’ll pull an offender aside, especially a young male from the inner city, and have a common sense conversation with him, and most times he’ll listen. I think my athletic name helps me because most young males identify with an athlete.”
Boozer’s not just any ex-athlete. He’s an immortal.
- Collegians Were the Olympic Basketball Show in 1960 (nytimes.com)
- The Dream Team Enters The Basketball Hall Of Fame: Can The Lakers, Bulls, And Celtics Come Too? (sbnation.com)
- Basketball Hall Of Fame Speech: The 1960 U.S. Olympic Team (sbnation.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Closing Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Hoops Legend John C. Johnson: Fierce Determination Tested by Repeated Run-Ins with the Law (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
This is one of those scene-setting pieces I don’t do as much anymore. I like doing them, but they can take a lot of time and effort for very little return other than the satisfaction of doing these stories. The subject here is a recreational basketball league of the type that can be found in just about any urban neighborhood. The idea was to capture the vibe of this distinct subculture to the extent that I put you as the reader there in the bleachers with me. To make the story a visceral experience. The article originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). Written as a secondary feature, I was surprised when it ended up on the cover. It’s not the first time that’s happened and I suspect it won’t be the last.
It’s a Hoops Culture at The SAL, Omaha’s Best Rec Basketball League
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Once the hoops get rolling in the Sunday men’s recreational basketball league, the scene turns into the kind of urban soul fest you associate with Chicago, Detroit, Philly or New York. Only this is Omaha. In an intimate, interactive community setting, the best summer ball in town is played in The SAL, Omaha’s version of the Harlem Ruckers League.
Housed until recently in the Salvation Army North Corps center at 2424 Pratt Street, the league, by concensus, draws the area’s best players. Many have serious credentials. A typical game features jocks from the pro and college ranks, past and present, along with former and future legends from The Hood. All strut their stuff before a knowledgeable, appreciative, vociferous throng.
NBA journeyman Rodney Buford, the ex-Creighton star, is a regular, rarely missing a game or a mid-range jump shot. One Sunday, fellow NBA player and ex-Bluejay Kyle Korver showed, raining down 3s to the fans’ delight. The league is so competitive Buford’s teams have never won the title. “That lets you know right there” said team sponsor Talonno “Lon Mac” Wright. “If you can make it through here, you’re a player. It’s the best competition you’re going to get in the city,” league director Kurt Mayo said.
Former UNO Mav Eddie King, who grew up balling in Chicago, said, “I think it’s a staple of north Omaha and I think it’s the best basketball in Nebraska, period. Oh, yes, you’re going to get challenged every game. Every team has good players. You can never get comfortable.” He said the close confines and neighborhood feel create a special environment. “This is the best atmosphere because everyone has family and friends in the stands. It’s a small gym and everyone’s on top of each other. People talk a little smack. That makes it fun. Plus, it’s real competitive. It’s streetball, but at the same time it’s fundamental, because 80 percent of these guys played ball at a four-year college.”
Mayo formed the league with wife Melissa in 2002, reviving a gym fallen into disuse. Before the Salvation Army, the league operated under a differnt name at the LaFern Williams Center in south O and the Butler-Gast YMCA up the street, where it’s back again. Mayo met resistance when he announced plans to move things to the Y at 3501 Ames Avenue. Trading the homey, if dingy, old digs for the gleaming, if cold, new facilities was an issue. But “the grumbling” ceased when the league ended the summer season at the Y on August 7. By all accounts, the new venue’s a hit, even if it lacks character. It does, however, have a nice wood floor, not some tacky mat like the Salvation Army center has. Mayo hopes to reinvent the magic at the Y with an “elite” level men’s Sunday league starting September 11.
But The SAL is where the league gained the rep and made the memories. Where it found a fun yet gritty flavor as a combined sports venue and social club.
James Simpson is among many who come each Sunday. Besides enjoying friends play ball there, he said, “it’s good for the community. I’ll follow it wherever it goes.”
“It’s the thing to do,” Wright said. “It’s like, Let’s get dressed, we’re going to The SAL. Everyone comes to watch the games or to see the women. There’s music. You meet people. You see your friends. On a good day, it’s just wall-to-wall packed. It gets loud. The crowd gets into it. if they like you, they’re cheering on you. If they hate you, they’re booing on you. If someone does something good out on the court, they ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh.’ Some people might run out on the court, just having fun. It’s just a nice hangout. No problems. Everybody gets along. A little fussing here and there, but no big deal.”
Ex-Husker Bruce Chubick said there’s no dogging it in The SAL: “You can’t really half step your way through because there are too many players that are good. Plus, you get a nice little crowd that comes out, and they’ll let you know about it if you make a bad play. So, you’ve got that motivation going. It’s entertaining.”
The league is a subculture unto itself. The many female fans include spouses, lovers and groupies. Some mothers have children in tow. The guys taking-it-in range from hoop junkies looking for another fix to coaches scouting talent to neighborhood cats looking to escape the weather. The common denominator is a love for the game. It’s why some folks view five or six contests in a single sitting.
The hold basketball has in urban America is a function of the sport’s simplicity and expressiveness. Only a ball and a bucket are needed, after all, for players to create signature moves on the floor and in the air that separate them, their game and their persona from the pack. Not surprisingly, the hip-hop scene grew out of streetball culture, where trash talking equals rap, where a sweet crossover dribble or soaring airborne slam resembles dance and where stylin’ gets you props from the crowd or your crew. Music and hoops go hand-in-hand.
The vast majority of players at The SAL and Butler-Gast Y are black, which makes it ironic that the two-time defending champs, Old School, are an all-white group of former Division I players led by Chubick. In what Mayo considers “a traditional” league, Old School is short on style but long on fundamentals.
Former Omaha South and University of Washington star Will Perkins said to cut it in this league, “you’ve got to be tough…you’ve got to be skilled. You can’t just take your college game or your streetball game here. You’ve got to have a mixture.”
As the action unfolds on the funky, tile-like court everybody complains about, the spectators join in a kind of call-and-response exchange with participants. A player jamming home a thunder dunk will stop, await his fate from the crowd, and then either get their love or take their poison. A guy blowing a dunk or a layup or drawing air on his jumper gets well-deserved catcalls. But here the good-natured smack directed at refs and players is often hurled right back.
“Man, you gotta finish that! What are you doing? You had a wide open layup. Hey, y’all gotta fight for this one, fellas. They’re not going to give it to you. C’mon!”
Unrestrained displays of emotion, usually shouted down from the bleaches, sometimes overflows onto the court. Despite threats and invectives, few incidents ever come to blows. Chest thumping and trash talking is just part of the heat and the edge. It’s all about respect out here. No one wants to be shown up.
As day wends into night, and one game bleeds into another, there’s a constant stream of humanity in and out of the cramped old gym, where music thumps from a boom box during time outs and between games, where burgers, dogs and nachos can be had on the cheap and where vendors hawk newly burned CDs and DVDs.
Amid the hustle and flow, players and fans intermingle, making it hard to tell them apart. There’s no barriers, no admission, no registration. It’s a straight-up come-and-go-as-you-please scene. As the small bleachers hold only a couple hundred people, the rest of the onlookers line both sides and ends of the court. Folks variously stand against walls, sit in folding chairs or sprawl on the floor.
The league serves many purposes. For college programs at UNO and Bellevue, it’s a way to keep teams sharp over the summer and toughened up for the coming NCAA season. Kevin McKenna, UNO head coach the past four years until rejoining the Creighton staff this summer, said, “I got my team to play down there the past few summers because I thought it was the best league. There was another league in town, but I felt this was the most competitive — where’d we get the most out of it.” Bellevue University coach Todd Eisner has recruited there. It helps Omaha Central grad and current Illinois-Chicago player Karl White get ready for the college grind.
For former college mates, like the Still Hoopin’ squad made up of such ex-Bluejays as Buford, Latrell Wrightsell and Duan Cole, it’s a chance to relive old times, stay fit and feed still hot competitive fires. For Buford, it’s one more workout in an off-season regimen before NBA training camps begin. For men pushing 30, 40 or older, it’s also a pride thing — to show they still have some game left. For them and guys not so far removed from the game like Alvin Mitchell, the former NU, Cincinnati and UNO player, or Andre Tarpley, a senior last year at UNO, or Luther Hall, a recent Bellevue U. grad, it’s both an outlet and a place to prep for pro tryouts.
Danai “Ice” Young, whose college hoops career stalled at NU, is using the league as a launching pad to try and make the ABA River City Ballers’ roster. Albert R. went from The SAL to a spot on the pro streetball tour, where he goes by “Memphis.”
For youngbloods, it’s a test to prove they can hang with the old dogs. “If you’re the best talent, or think you’re the best talent, this is where you’re going to be,” said veteran ref Mark LeFlore, Sr. Mayo said few high schoolers have had what it takes to play in The SAL. Two that did, guards Matt Culliver and Brandon McGruder, formed one of the highest scoring duos in the annals of the Metro Conference at Bryan High School last year. Both earned scholarships to play at the next level.
Another youth, Aaryon “Bird” Williams, is perhaps the most impressive of the pups as he’s only a senior-to-be at Omaha North, where he played in a handful of varsity games last year after moving here with his family from Gary, Indiana. Mayo sees a phenom in-the-making in Williams. “Man, he was dunkin’ on everybody. You have to see it to believe it. He’s definitely a man-child. He reminds me of a young K.G (Kevin Garnett), and I’m not exaggerating,” Mayo said. “He’s a beast.” It’s another example, Mayo said, of how top local talents “find their way” to the league. “I’m already missing The SAL, but I’m recreating it at the Y. The tradition continues.”
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