There have been far longer droughts than the one the Omaha South High School boys basketball program had suffered since its last state title in 1990. But it would be fair to say its hoops fortunes dried up for the better part of a generation before Bruce Chubick arrived as head coach about a decade ago. He’s turned what became a perennial loser into a winner. Under him South did everything to reach the pinnacle of Nebraska prep basketball with the exception of a state title – until last weekend. In Lincoln the Packers entered as the No. i rated and seeded team and like two previous times under Chubick they made it to the finals. But where in the past they came up short and had to settle as runner up, this time they finished the job and were the last team standing and cutting down the nets after they beat Fremont 59-50 in the championship game. The story is very similar to what has happened with the South High boys soccer program under coach Joe Maass, except he took over a program that had never had any success and turned it into a juggernaut. His teams did everything but win a state title until they finally broke through in 2013. I have written about Maass and the rebuilding program he engineered that’s made South High soccer a feel good success story. This El Perico story is my first time writing about Chubick and the success story he’s led with South High hoops. It feels good, too.
Bruce Chubick builds winner at South
State title adds capstone to strong foundation
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in El Perico newspaper
Omaha South coach Bruce Chubick Sr. is back in Lincoln to chase another state title, though the challenges of the bracket don’t compare to a life journey that’s bested cancer, an in-game heart attack and bears in the backyard.
Entering the 2016 Nebraska boys state basketball tournament, Omaha South head coach Bruce Chubick occupied the same spot his soccer counterpart at South, Joe Maass, found himself in a few years ago.
Maass built the school’s once dreadful soccer program to elite status. But among the high national rankings, multiple district championships and finals appearances, the one thing missing was a state title. Similarly, Chubick’s engineered a dramatic turnaround with South hoops but for all the on-court feats – a handful of state tournament appearances and two runner-up finishes – there was no state title to show for it. Maass and his program finally got that elusive soccer prize in 2013.
Now Chubick has closed the deal after South’s 59-50 win over Fremont in the Class A finals in Lincoln on March 12. The Packers finished 28-1.
South entered as the tourney’s prohibitive favorite and No. 1 seed after a 25-1 regular season in which the team outscored foes 69 to 44 on average. The only loss came to a top Colorado club at a showcase event in Grand Island. In Lincoln, the Packers displayed the athleticism that separates them from their in-state competition. At least three Packers are Division I scholarship commits and D-I schools are looking at a fourth. No one will ever know if South would have reached this pinnacle with another coach, but the record shows the consistent winning ways began under Chubick, who deflects praise to his staff. Among his assistants is his son, Bruce Chubick Jr., who played for him at Atkinson West Holt before playing at Nebraska.
The fact is the senior Chubick, who at 65 is old enough to be his players’ grandfather, has flipped programs wherever he’s coached in his 42-year career. He led former patsy Atkinson West Holt to a Class C-1 title. At his last stop, Council Buffs Abraham Lincoln, he turned a perennial loser into a winner. Just as Maass took the South soccer job when nobody wanted it, Chubick committed to a dead end basketball program with a losing culture. It seemed a bleak challenge. Only Chubick didn’t see it that way.
“I mean, they had nowhere to go but up as far as I could see,” he told this reporter on the eve of the state tourney. “Everybody thought it was a hopeless situation. But I saw it as nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he told another reporter.
He knew he could win there but he didn’t expect to qualify for state six straight seasons and to play in three finals in that same span.
“I don’t know I would have believed that if you told me that nine years ago.”
But raising programs from the bottom up is what he does.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s just my personality,” he said. “I used to build houses, so I guess maybe I’m a builder and that’s kind of my M.O. I come in and I try to build programs. Before South, I’d get ’em built and then leave, but I’ve kind of stuck around on this one. I like South O, I always have. It’s working-class, blue-collar type people, and that’s me, so it’s a good fit.”
Besides, he’s found a great student-athlete base there that includes kids who need the strong, positive male role model he provides.
“You know, I’ve been in the Sand Hills of Neb. and the cornfields of Iowa teaching and coaching. I started in the inner city at Tech (Omaha Technical High School). And then I came back to the inner city for this job. This is the most rewarding job I’ve had. I’m not sure when I was in the suburbs or in the farming communities I was helping kids, but I’m pretty sure we’re helping kids here, and that feels pretty good.”
He’s rarely had this kind of talent to build around. Several players have gone on to play college ball and there’s more talent in the pipeline. This year’s squad started four seniors but it’s most impactful player, Nebraska basketball pledge Aguek Arop, is a junior wing. He led South in scoring and teamed with his older brother Makoor to key a high pressure defense and high efficiency offense. They’re among many South Sudan natives to emerge as difference makers in hoops just as Mexican-Central American natives key South’s soccer resurgence.
“I’ve had some really good teams over the years,” Chubick said, “and three years ago here was the most talented team I’ve ever coached. Just tremendously gifted. That was a special bunch. They’re all playing college ball somewhere. But the chemistry wasn’t good. They didn’t really mesh together and they didn’t really like each other.”
He ranks his 2015-2016 Packers as “not very far behind talent-wise” from that earlier team but far ahead in terms of cohesion. “Their chemistry is great and they’ve worked hard to get to where they’re at.”
Point guard Monte’ McGary, signed to play wide receiver at South Dakota State, said, “I think the biggest thing is we all get along as a team. Everybody likes each other, so it’s really fun. The majority of us played on the same team starting in sixth grade and then we all came here. Even if didn’t play together, we all knew each other.”
McGary said the team’s tight bond is reflected in its unselfish play.
“When we’re at our best we’re all playing defense and just having fun sharing the ball, not caring who scores. We’re just out there playing.”
That’s just what South did, too, down in Lincoln.
The Packers’s baseline to baseline game wore down the bodies and the will of opponents.
Aguek Arop said it was text book South style ball.
“We move the ball, we attack, we force turnovers, we get deflections, all that. With great defense we get easy buckets off transition.”
Aguek and McGary said they were “very hungry” to finally bring a title trophy back to South. McGary spoke of wanting “to put our names in the history books.”
With the title now in hand, McGary said, “We’re happy for the program and the school. It’s really special.”
“It’s been our goal the last three years to be the last one standing,” Chubick said. “We came close last year. I don’t think there was any denying these guys. I just think they were on a mission and they weren’t going to let anything to get in the way.”
Before the tourney Chubick praised guard Caleal Walker as the team’s “unsung hero,” adding, “He leads by example. You want a complete player that gives a hundred percent – that’s Caleal Walker.”
In the title game Walker flashed big time moves and dunks in scoring a game-high 20 points. He scored 56 points in Lincoln and was named the all-tournament team’s honorary captain.
Chubick added, “Then you’ve got Monte’, who’s steady at point guard, and Karlon McSpadden at wing. Aguek is probably the most gifted of all of them. He’s really special.”
The coach didn’t mention South big man and Iowa football recruit Noah Fant, who was in his doghouse. But the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder gave South a solid interior presence and physicality.
Chubick said, “They’re all humble, really good kids, fun to coach, fun to be around. I can’t imagine not being around them. They’ve sacrificed and done everything we’ve asked them to do and driven us crazy along the way, but they’re kids, they’re supposed to do that.”
He thinks enough of his players that when he suffered a heart attack the day of a late February road game versus Lincoln Southeast he decided against checking himself into the ER until after coaching the contest. “I didn’t want to quit on the players,” he said. The next morning a physicias inserted two stents to unblock arteries. The youthful Chubick, who stays in great shape and had no prior heart problems, said he now has “more energy” than before. He earlier survived a cancer scare and he deals with rheumatoid arthritis.
Arop said Chubick’s toughness rubs off on them. “For him to be able to fight through his heart attack, I mean it’s just a good example for us fighting through like fatigue, adversity.”
Chubick admits to being old-school but adds, “I try to stay current school, too. You gotta do both. The kids don’t want to hear stories all the time about this team you had 30 or 40 years ago. They cant relate to that, so we don’t go there.”
McGary said there’s no generation gap with this coach, who’s known to get animated on the sidelines.
“He communicates and relates to us really well. From the stands he can look kind of crazy but he’s really cool with us, we never have any problems with him, nobody gives him trouble or anything like that.”
If not for some ill-timed injuries and suspensions, South may be in the midst of a dominant run like Omaha Central went on in the early 2000s with six titles in eight years. Only Chubick’s “cut loose” some of his best players for violating team rules and school policies. If they’d played, perhaps South would be celebrating a dynasty, too. “We’re an eyelash away from the same thing except we haven’t been very lucky,” he said. “Some of those disciplinary things we could have looked the other way and probably given ourselves a real good chance to win it, but I don’t want it that bad if you’re not going to do the right thing,”
With no major injury or disciplinary problems this season, he speculated South’s time had arrived, saying, “Maybe it’s all going to come together now.” Before the state tourney, he expressed confidence in his team’s ability to seize the moment.
“They’ve risen to the occasion every time except for one bad quarter. I’m not going to question whether they will or not this time. I’m pretty sure they’re gonna. The bigger the stage, the better they play. They love the attention. I hope this ends with a state championship, but if it shouldn’t work out that way I still think the world of these kids.”
Maneuvering his players like chess players in the South gym during a walk-through practice before heading to Lincoln, he told his team, “We’ll do what we do.” Code for: South’s up-tempo, full-court game will be too much for opponents.
Sure enough, South proved too much. After the nets were cut down, Chubick made it know he’ll be back at least one more year to make another run to Lincoln.
“I promised Aguek (Arop) when he came in I would stay until he graduated, so I want to keep my word, so I’m back next year anyway.”
Whenever he does leave, he’s secure that a foundation’s been built.
“It’s there. I think it’s kind of a turn-key thing for somebody down the road, but I’m going to keep her for awhile anyway – just as long as the health holds up.”
Having Survived War in Sudan, Refugee Akoy Agau Discovered Hoops in America and the Major College Recruit is Now Poised to Lead Omaha Central to a Third Straight State Title
UPDATE: I have no idea if Akoy Agau is even considering Nebraska or Creighton or UNO, but any local hoops fan has to hope that one of the three in-state Division I programs manages to land him. If you saw Agau lead Omaha Central High to the Class A state title against Omaha South the other night then you saw what a difference maker he can be. If you didn’t see him, then all you need to know is that he had 16 points, 13 rebounds and 14 blocks. That’s right, 14. It’s not the first time he’s put up numbers like these in the state tournament and with his senior year to go and Central returning far more than just him it’s a sure thing, barring injury, that he will dominate the tournament again next year. The University of Nebraska needs him the most. The program is mired in medicority and it needs a boost to go along with whoever the new head coach is going to be because it’s going to be players not coaches who turn things around and Agau is the type of player you can build a program around, especially if you surround him with eight or nine other legit prospects. Creighton is of course a rock solid program by comparison but a mid-major like CU is always in a precarious position and it needs him to infuse local talent into a program whose best players come from Iowa and everywhere else but Nebraska. When Antoine Young departs after this season there will not be a single scholarship player from the state left in the program. The fact that Agau is an Omaha Public Schools student and a rare quality big man would help solidify the program over the next five-six years. UNO is the least likely to get him but imagine what Agau’s presence could do in raising the profile of this fledgling D-I program. He could help turn it from a pretender to a contender in a very short time. Chances are, Agau will not stay home but instead take his considerable upside somewhere else. I hope I’m wrong.
Most of my writing these days covers the arts-culture-creative scene but I still jones to do a sports story every now and then, and here’s a new one for The Reader that I am fond of. It profiles Akoy Agau, a 17-year-old junior at Omaha Central High School, where he is both a top student and a major college basketball recruit whose team is heavily favored to win its third consecutive Class A (largest class in Nebraska) state title. Agau is not only very tall at 6’9 he is highly skilled and athletic, which makes him the rare quality big man in these parts. His story takes on another dimension when you add to it the fact that he and his family are Sudanese refugees who were displaced by war in their homeland and he was only introduced to basketball after he came to the States, where he’s adapted remarkably well and progressed his game at an exceedingly fast pace. He has another year of high school ball ahead of him, and then it will be off to play collegiately somewhere. Whether or not he becomes an impact player at that next level is beside the point given how much he’sovercome and how far he’s traveled.
©by Leo Adam Biga
A truncated version of this story was published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In this sparsely populated state where basketball’s never fully taken root, the annual hoops crop is slim pickings, especially when it comes to big men. Only rarely does a promising post player emerge on the high school scene here and it’s even rarer for one to do much at the next level.
All of which explains some of the intrigue attending Omaha Central junior Akoy Agau, the intimidating 6’9, 230-pound inside presence for the two-time defending state champion and season-long No. 1 ranked Eagles. Only recently turned 17, he’s still growing physically and adding to an already formidable skill-set. A scary proposition for opponents. An enticing prospect for the many colleges recruiting him.
With five championships in the last six years, Central’s a dynasty program. Success only begets more, as the metro’s best talent now flocks to the old downtown school on the hill. Despite producing many all-state players, Central hasn’t had a really good big man since star-crossed Dwaine Dillard in the late 1960s. Until Agau.
He’s not only tall, he possesses a huge wing-span, can jump and run the floor better than most kids half his size and shows uncanny timing and instincts for blocking shots. Though he must work on his post moves, ball-handling and jumper, he displays a soft touch around the rim, in the lane and outside.
Adding to interest in him is how this South Sudan native, who never heard of basketball in Africa, came to be in Omaha at all, much less play at a high level. He lived with his refugee family in Khartoum, Sudan and in Cairo, Egypt for the first six years of his life owing to civil war and famine in his homeland.
His Christian Dinka family came to the United States. through a church-based NGO, settling outside Baltimore, Maryland in 2002. All his mother, Agaw Makeir, knew about the U.S. was that it was far off. Fears about not knowing English or American ways were eased by assurances that just as missionaries helped them in Africa other good samaritans would help them here.
“We put that in our head and our heart and said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ It was our dream to come here and for our kids to be able to come here and go to school and have clothes and shoes and sleep at night and not worry about the gun and that people are going to attack you in your home,” she says. “It was a very beautiful thing to come here.”
After a year in Maryland the family moved to Omaha, where refugee relatives preceded them. Omaha is where Agau was introduced to basketball. Central coach Eric Behrens first laid eyes on him when the then-14-year old was shooting hoops one summer day at the outdoor court adjoining the Mason Apartments that the Agaus and other Sudanese families resided in. The youth’s size naturally peeked the coach’s curiosity. Behrens got to know him at Norris Middle School, where Agau attended and where Central often practices. As the Norris basketball team would wind up workouts Behrens and Co would arrive. The two formed a bond. Yet Behrens was surprised when Akoy elected to go to Central because most Sudanese student-athletes were opting for Bryan.
Sudanese players have made their mark in the metro since the mid-2000s. Koang Duluony went to Indiana State. Mading Thok is headed to Ball State. But Agau is, as Husker hoops color man and former player and coach Andy Markowski puts it, “the whole package” compared to those earlier “projects.”
Agau’s made most of his considerable progress since 7th grade, when he first got serious about playing. He’s excelled with Team Nebraska select clubs, balling all over the city, often with older players. The last few summers he’s gone to elite AAU camps and tourneys around the nation to hone his game and raise his stock.
Upon meeting him the first thing that impresses you beyond his size is his composure and confidence. Struggling to survive and assimilate gave him life experiences rare for an American teen.
“It was a wild journey,” he says of the his family’s crucible.
He’s sure the journey wizened and toughened him.
“Sudan’s a lot different than here obviously. We had to work for a lot more things. When we needed to get things we had to go a far distance. I didn’t go to school, it was too far away. It was really hard. I think some of my maturity is because I really had to work hard when I wanted things. My parents taught me you have to work for everything you want. It’s just something that’s carried on and helps with everything I do.”
The war in Sudan did more than disrupt life, it claimed the lives of several loved ones. Akoy’s father Madut Agau lost his first wife. Akoy’s mother lost her father and five siblings.
The tranquility and pristine countryside Makeir knew growing up was shattered by conflict. “Then come the war, you could see all the grass and trees burned down and it didn’t look like home no more,” she says. “A lot died there. We saw a lot of people dying. We couldn’t help them.”
The family fled attacking government forces and warring factions. Once, Makeir fled with 3-year-old Akoy on her back an infant in her arms. Months on foot exposed them to danger and death by starvation, disease, wild animals, violence. Years of subsistence living in tent city refugee camps short on food and water gave way to starting over in America, where the family scraped for every dime and depended on the kindness of strangers until Akoy’s father found steady work at the IBP meatpacking plant in Denison, Iowa. The elder Agau stays there during the week, coming home weekends to be with his wife and children.
Having made it out the other side alive, Akoy exhibits a poise beyond his years. As a tall African refugee with a talent for the game, he’s the center of attention wherever he goes but he seems comfortable in his own skin.
“Very mature, very much so,” says his coach, Eric Behrens. “All those things that make you stand out, you can handle it in one of two ways – either you embrace it and you go the extroverted route or you kind of shy away from it and squeak into the corner. It’s hard to be in the middle when you’re a guy that gets a lot of attention like that. He’s definitely embraced it and fits in really well.
“He’s very outgoing. He knows kids from every different social setting. He’s a real popular kid. He’s good with adults, too, Very articulate. He knows how to speak to teachers. He’s like in four honors classes. He’s a really bright kid.”
And he can play a little, too.
Behrens, a standout at Central himself in the early ’90, says, “I think defensively he has to rank among the all-time greats in Nebraska. His offensive game continues to develop but he has a chance to be really good on that end as well.”
The few big men from Nebraska who’ve attracted power conference suitors and made an impact in big-time college hoops include Rich King, Dave Hoppen and Chuck Jura.
“I didn’t get to watch Chuck Jura or Dave Hoppen or guys like that,” says Behrens, “so limiting the conversation to the last 15 or 20 years, Akoy’s as good as anybody since I’ve been around it. I can only think of Matt Hill (Lincoln Southeast / Texas) who would be in the same conversation as far as big guys go.”
Ranked a 4-star, top 100-150 recruit, Agau’s projected as a legit major or mid-major contributor in college at the power forward spot. The fact he’s come so far in such a short time bodes well for his future hoops.
He was barely 15 when he started for Central as a freshman. He was a factor right away but still largely a role player. His profile dramatically rose in the 2010 state finals when he erupted for a monster game versus Norfolk, recording 18 points, 15 rebounds and 9 blocks. His near triple double helped lock up the title and served notice Central would be all but unbeatable with him around.
He didn’t look it, but that big stage freaked him out.
“Well, first of all, that was probably the most nerve wracking game ever. When we were in the locker room Coach Behrens was like, ‘There’s a packed house and probably most of them are for Norfolk.’ I went out ready to warm up, looked up and saw so many people, and I turned around and ran right back to the locker room. I was so nervous, it was the scariest thing. But then once the game started everything was just normal. I basically just played and didn’t think about it.
“And truthfully I didn’t think I had that great of a game. I just went out there and played like I usually do, and then they told me the stats and I couldn’t believe it.”
A year later at state he and his team once again found themselves matched up with Norfolk, only in the semifinals, and this time he got his triple double with a 11-10-10 line. He went on to lead Central to the championship against Bryan.
Norfolk head coach Ben Ries, whose No. 2 ranked Panthers could face Agau and Central again at state this year, says, “He is the most dominating defensive player to compete at our level. His timing, length and athleticism pose a great challenge for every team. What has been impressive is his ability to be unselfish and know his role. When Central combines their athleticism on the perimeter with Akoy’s ability to protect the basket it becomes a struggle to score.”
With Agau and 6’6 Tre’Shawn Thurman choking the paint, contesting any shot launched near the basket, and smaller teammates pressing, Central held foes to a stingy 34 percent field goal mark. In the regular season the Eagles had 153 blocks to their opponents’ 22. They forced 470 turnovers, committing only 309.
At 27-0 entering the 2012 state tournament, Central is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as Class A champs this weekend at the Devaney Center in Lincoln. The Eagles dominated the regular season, winning by an average score of 71 to 45, and its most dominating player by far is Agau. He normally puts up modest stats, averaging about 12 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. But as anyone who’s ever seen him play will tell you, it’s the intangibles that make him a difference-maker on a remarkably well-balanced squad that pressures foes with quickness, height, leaping ability, a deep bench and effective passing.
They get lots of steals that lead to fastbreak layups and dunks.
Behrens appreciates his big man not being a prima donna.
“He’s a great teammate. For as much attention and for as many Division I scholarship offers as he has he’s very unselfish. He’s really just focused on winning – whatever that takes, and that’s a really nice thing for us coaches and for his teammates to have, and it’s kind of rare.
“And he’s a real leader on the team. He’s really good at knowing when a guy needs a kick in the butt or a pat on the back. Plus, he’s a hard worker, both in the team stuff we do but also in terms of individual skill work he does outside of that, and that’s why he’s got so much better – he works at it, he works very hard at it. And he works hard in the weight room, so he’s gotten a lot stronger.”
On a team without a star, Agau is its MVP. When he fouled out of the regular season finale versus Bellevue East the Chieftans made a run. He sat out the district opener recovering from minor knee surgery and in his absence lowly Northwest played Central even until the Eagles pulled away at the end, among the few times anyone’s hung withthem that long. The lead is usually double digits at the half and the game long decided before the final quarter.
If Agau leads Central as expected to the Class A title, he will be three-fourths of the way toward a goal he set as a 13-year-old.
“It’s a funny story,” he says. “Since middle school I’ve been saying to my friends I’m going to win four state titles. I have this big thing where I would win four state titles and then when I win the fourth title when they interview you on TV after the game that’s when I’ll make my (college) decision public. But I don’t know if it’ll be all that.”
Local fans would love to see him end up a Husker, Bluejay or Maverick, but his offers extend far beyond Nebraska. He’s not hinting which way he’s leaning, though his mother makes no bones about preferring him to stay close to home.
“That’s something we talk about a lot,” she says. “We tell him if he would go to a different state it would be hard for us. Bur if he goes away that will be fine with us, too.”
Her fondest wish for the family’s move to America was for Akoy, her eldest, “to try and help himself for his future” and for all her kids to take advantage of opportunities unavailable in Sudan.
“I always tell them, ‘You guys are blessed to be here, and you should be happy for what you have,’ because what they have – me and their dad we didn’t have that. We didn’t have good school, good home.”
She’s thankful her kids can “focus on school and education.” She’s thankful, too, that Akoy is thriving and setting a good example for his brothers and sisters. “He’s a good big brother. We hope his brother Magay will follow him.” Magay is a very tall and talented freshman at Central.
The fact that Akoy still retains the Dinka language and some Arabic also pleases his mother, who keeps Sudanese cultural traditions alive at home.
There’s a conspiracy of hearts when it comes to Akoy, whose mother counts as allies and advisors Scott Hammer and Coach Behrens. With so many adults looking after his best interests, she says, “we teach him from both sides.”
Agau says his parents “don’t really understand” the sport or the success he’s enjoying, though his mother understands enough to say, “basketball is good for his college.” A family that had no prior exposure to the sport will likely have part of its American Dream realized through it. None of it may have unfolded under different circumstances but as Agau says, “We don’t dwell on what would have happened if we would have stayed back in Sudan, we just focus on being happy where we are now and what we have. We’re very grateful. Being able to go to school and get our education is most important. Getting to play basketball is an extra.”
Still, he’s keenly aware basketball is his ticket to larger opportunities. He’s also aware of the attendant expectations and hype that come with success.
“I can’t really get focused or take too seriously all these things people are saying about me. I just keep focusing on what I’m doing and just keep going to the gym and getting better because, personally, I don’t think I’ve done anything yet. I’m still in high school, there’s the next step of graduating from high school and then going to college. I still have a lot to do.”
That same low-key, taking-care-of-business attitude permeates the Central program. It helps explain why the Eagles have played consistently well, avoiding the lulls that happen when teams take opponents for granted or get too far ahead of themselves or get too full of themselves. It’s why the pressure to live up to being the Nebraska prep version of the high-flying Phi Slamma Jamma hasn’t derailed them.
Typically, Akoy takes it all in stride.
“That pressure is there now because everyone expects us to be good. We’ve been playing really well, so everyone expects us to win the state tournament. We just have to make sure we keep on getting better individually and as a team in order to be able to win state again.”
He has another year of high school ball ahead of him, and then it will be off to play collegiately somewhere. Whether or not he becomes an impact player at that next level is beside the point given how much he’s overcome and how far he’s traveled.
- You: Sudan accused of fresh crackdown on Ethiopian opponents (menafn.com)
- Op-Ed Columnist: In Sudan, Seeing Echoes of Darfur (nytimes.com)
- Bombing attacks increase on Sudan border (foxnews.com)
- UNHCR seeks urgent aid for Sudanese refugees (devex.com)
- Omaha Hoops Legend John C. Johnson: Fierce Determination Tested by Repeated Run-Ins with the Law (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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.
Besides an iron will and gritty attitude, Boone attributes the streak to the care he took in preparing for games and in staying fit.
“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.
- NBA Draft: Top Selections of the Last 40 Years By Pick (bleacherreport.com)
- Chicago Bulls: NBA All-Time Starting Fives (bleacherreport.com)
- Windy City’s Finest: The Top 10 Greatest NBA Players From Chicago (bleacherreport.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Big Bad Buddy Miles (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness) (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Green Bay Packers All-Pro Running Back Ahman Green Channels Comic Book Hero Batman and Gridiron Icons Walter Payton and Bo Jackson on the Field (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Bob Boozer, Basketball Immortal (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
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.
Bob Boozer, Basketball Immortal, to be posthumously inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame
I posted this four years ago about Bob Boozer, the best basketball player to ever come out of the state of Nebraska, on the occasion of his death at age 75. Because his playing career happened when college and pro hoops did not have anything like the media presence it has today and because he was overshadowed by some of his contemporaries, he never really got the full credit he deserved. After a stellar career at Omaha Tech High, he was a brilliant three year starter at powerhouse Kansas State, where he was a two-time consensus first-team All-American and still considered one of the four or five best players to ever hit the court for the Wildcats. He averaged a double-double in his 77-game career with 21.9 points and 10.7 rebounds. He played on the first Dream Team, the 1960 U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Rome. He enjoyed a solid NBA journeyman career that twice saw him average a double-double in scoring and rebounding for a season. In two other seasons he averaged more than 20 points a game. In his final season he was the 6th man for the Milwaukee Bucks only NBA title team. He received lots of recognition for his feats during his life and he was a member of multiple halls of fame but the most glaring omisson was his inexplicable exclusion from the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Well, that neglect is finally being remedied this year when he will be posthumously inducted in November. It is hard to believe that someone who put up the numbers he did on very good KSU teams that won 62 games over three seasons and ended one of those regular seasons ranked No. 1, could have gone this long without inclusion in that hall. But Boozer somehow got lost in the shuffle even though he was clearly one of the greatest collegiate players of all time. Players joining him in this induction class are Mark Aguirre of DePaul, Doug Collins of Illinois State, Lionel Simmons of La Salle, Jamaal Wilkes of UCLA and Dominique Wilkins of Georgia. Good company. For him and them. Too bad Bob didn’t live to see this. If things had worked out they way they should have, he would been inducted years ago and gotten to partake in the ceremony.
Boozer with the Los Angeles Lakers
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 with the 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.”
- King of the courts: Rucker Park defends its streetball crown (thegrio.com)
- Streetball legend ‘Homicide’ to turn in his kicks (nypost.com)
- Artest returns to streetball roots, wants second ring (nypost.com)
- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Troy Jackson: Streetballer Nicknamed “Escalade” Dies at 35 (bleacherreport.com)
- Bismack Biyombo Breaks Out At Nike Hoop Summit As NBA-Ready Right Now (sbnation.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Here’s another Boys Town sports story. It’s about tradition and legacy and giving back, George Pfeifer played for legendary Boys Town coach Skip Palrang when the school‘s founder, Father Edward Flanagan, was still there. After Pfeifer graduated high school and served in World War II he came back to Boys Town to coach under Palrang. Later, he took over as head basketball coach, leading the hoops program to some of its greatest successes. Now, many years into retirement, he’s back again, this time as a kind of unofficial coach and mentor, at the invitation of current head basketball coach Tom Krehbiel. The old coach and the young coach have bonded like father and son and together they’ve helped Boys Town recapture some of the magic that made the school’s athletic teams juggernauts back in the day.
The story originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Tom Krehbiel, ©photo Brendan Sullivan, Omaha-World-Herald
A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
When George Pfeifer coached the Boys Town varsity basketball team in the 1960s to great success, he used an adage with his players, “Get a good deal,” as a way of impressing upon them the advantage of working the ball to get an open shot.
The 81-year-old is long retired but a special tie he’s forged with current BT head basketball coach Tom Krehbiel finds Pfeifer offering kids young enough to be his grandchildren the same sage advice he gave players decades before. Krehbiel credits the recent turnaround in BT hoops — culminating in a Class C-1 state title last season — to the input of his unofficial assistant. “Coach Pfeifer is, in my mind, the school’s all-time greatest basketball coach. I wanted to get him involved in the program. I reached out to him and he’s been a big part of our program ever since. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we started winning” once he got involved, said Krehbiel, who previously coached at Omaha Skutt High School.
The association between the men peaked last season when the Cowboys’ won their first state championship in 40 years. Until beating Louisville in the finals, the school hadn’t won a state roundball title since 1966, when Pfeifer was head coach. That ‘66 crown was the second of back-to-back Class A titles won by Pfeifer’s teams, squads considered two of the best ever to play in Nebraska prep history. It was an era of athletic dominance by the Cowboys.
Since the summer before the 2003-2004 season, when he accepted Krehbiel’s invitation, Pfeifer’s worked with BT hoops. When his arthritis isn’t too bad, the tall man with the folksy manner makes his way on campus, over to the Skip Palrang Memorial Field House named after the legendary man he played and coached under and where he toiled away countless hours on drills.
He’ll keenly observe practice from the sideline, noting things he sees need correcting. This recent Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame inductee is still a master diagnostician at breaking down systems and plays. He does the same when he goes to see a Boys Town game or analyzes tape of one, as his sharp mind dissects the action with razor precision.
“He’ll notice little technical things that only someone who knows basketball can detect. He really sees and knows the game. It’s amazing,” Krehbiel said.
Pfeifer shares his insights with the players, kids not unlike the ones he coached years ago — boys full of attitude but hungry for love. Krehbiel said Pfeifer knows just how to prod people to improve. “He doesn’t criticize — he kind of suggests.”
Tremayne Hill, a starting guard from last year’s team whom Pfeifer got close to, said the old coach got the most out of him with his “encouraging” words. “He told us to stay positive and to work hard in trying to overcome adversity. He was a lot like a father figure,” said Hill, adding Pfeifer and Krehbiel are like a father-son team.
It doesn’t surprise Pfeifer he can get through to kids weaned on PlayStation and X-Box, not Fibber Magee and Molly. You see, he was a BT resident himself from 1939 to 1943, giving him a bond he feels makes him forever simpatico with kids there. It’s why his reconnection with the institution is more than a former coach returning to the fold. It’s a son or brother coming home to his family. It’s why the vast age difference doesn’t hamper him in talking to today’s kids.
“I talk their language,” Pfeifer said. “I grew up there, so I know. When I first went back out there I said, ‘Yeah, I’m an old fogy, but I used to be out here. I know all the tricks you guys know, so you can’t trick me on anything. You can’t tell me anything I haven’t heard. I was just like you guys. My heart’s with you guys. I know what you’re going through. I’m here to be a friend of yours.’”
Hill said Pfeifer’s BT roots make a difference as “he knows the type of stuff we go through. He knows how to relate to us. More than another coach would.”
Pfeifer said he and the team developed a strong bond. “When I’d come out there, some of the kids warming up before the game would come over and say, ‘God, we’re glad to see you coach. You feeling alright? We’re going to play hard for you.’ That last night when they accepted the trophy the one kid held it up and said, ‘This is for you coach Pfeifer…’ Those are the kind of kids….” Choked with emotion, Pfeifer’s voice trailed off.
When Pfeifer coached in the ‘60s he did something rare then — starting five African Americans. One morning after a game, a caller demanded, “Why you playing all them n______s?” “Because they’re my five best players,” Pfeifer replied. Ken Geddes, a member of those teams, said race “was never even an issue.” Lamont McCarty, a teammate, said, “If you didn’t perform, you didn’t play… plain and simple. He was a wonderful coach. Same thing with Skip Palrang.”
As is now a custom, Krehbiel had Pfeifer address the assembled 2006-2007 team at a mid-November practice. It was Pfeifer’s first contact with the team. He’d have been there before if not for tending to his terminally ill wife Jean. Gathered round him were about two dozen players, many of them new faces after the loss of so many off last year’s team to graduation. Pfeifer owned their rapt attention.
He told them he was 13 when his father died. Left unsaid was the Depression was on, and with his widowed mother unable to support the poor Kansas farm family she sent him and a brother to Boys Town. There young George blossomed under iconic founder Rev. Edward Flanagan and star coach Skip Palrang..
Pfeifer also didn’t mention he became BT’s mayor (as did his brother) and excelled in football and basketball. That he developed an itch to give back to youth what he’d received. After serving in the U.S, Navy during World War II he coached at Fort Hays State down in Kansas, before accepting an offer to join Palrang’s BT staff. Intending to stay five years, Pfeifer, by then married with children, made it a 30-year career. He was a coach, a teacher and principal of the elementary school.
“I knew I wanted to be there to help those type of kids,” Pfeifer said of BT students past and present. “You know, they come there with a hole in their heart. Nobody cares about them, nobody encourages them –- they just think there’s no way they can make it. We set up goals and objectives. We praise them when they succeed. When a kid comes up to you and says, ‘God, I wish you were my dad,’ well, those kind of grab you. Then you know you made a difference.”
The campus holds a dear place in Pfeifer’s heart. It’s home. The people there, his family. He stays in touch with players by phone, letter, e-mail. He’s a regular at school reunions. But until Krehbiel asked him to come back as a consultant, Pfeifer hadn’t really felt welcome by previous coaches.
“I think he had a desire to get back close to the program, to his home and to this community, and so the timing was right,” said Krehbiel, a Burlington, Iowa native with his own ties to the place. His father worked there and as a youngster Krehbiel spent many a summer day on campus, running about and canoeing in the pond. “So I always knew Boys Town,” he said. “I loved it.”
As Pfeifer spoke to the kids that late afternoon in November, he was every inch the coach again, instilling values and commanding respect.
“There’s nobody working here that doesn’t love you, I guarantee you,” he told them in measured tones.” “So listen to your family teachers, listen to your coaches, work hard, study in school. You have great coaches, good facilities. You’ve got everything you need, except you got to do your part. You gotta keep your nose clean. Don’t get in no trouble. Do what you’re told. Coach is going to tell you what he wants you to learn, how you’re going to do this and he’s going to tell you why. Those are three really important parts of your basketball training.
“It takes a lot of hard work. You have to be focused. No matter what happens outside, you come here and be ready for basketball.”
Tom Krehbiel coaching up his players, ©photo Rebecca Gratz, Omaha World-Herald
After Pfeifer wished them good luck and some players responded with, “Thanks, coach,” the huddled team charged back into practice.
“If they know that you care about them and that you’re there for them, they’ll work for you — they’ll work hard. They appreciate you,” Pfeifer said.
“It’s funny. Kids today are real hip-hop, you know, with this Snoop Dog slang and coach uses old school terminology that I cringe at sometimes, assuming the kids think its kind of corny, but the kids like it. I think too he provides a grandfatherly figure,” Krehbiel said. “These kids, more than any kids I’ve ever been around, they want somebody to take an interest.
“He wants to help…It really comes down to his true interest and love for the kids in the program. He’s trying to give them that last tidbit…to help them on the court and help them in life. I think when he looks at our team and he’s rooting for these kids it’s like rooting for his family, his own kids or his own brothers….He gets emotional when he talks about this place. It’s his home.”
It’s that been there-done that experience Pfeifer brings that Krehbiel wanted for his players. Then there’s the “link to success” Pfeifer represents.
“He laid the foundation 40 years ago for all the nice things that have been said about us the last two or three years,” Krehbiel said. “I think we’re all proud to carry on a rich tradition. It’s just an honor to be associated with him. I was always taught to appreciate the people that came before you…You gotta respect the people who built up the history and this place is just full of history.”
Boys Town Fieldhouse
What Krehbiel got in the figure of Pfeifer was more than he could have imagined.
“Coach has been a great mentor to me and a great resource for us,” he said. “You know he’s having an impact on our kids when after the state championship one of our starting five interviewed on TV” — Dwaine Wright — “spent his whole time on camera referencing coach Pfeifer, saying, ‘He told me in practice to get the good shots.’ We didn’t prompt him to do that. It just came out of his heart. You realize, Wow, this is an 80-some-year-old man having an affect on an 18-19 year-old kid. I was proud of our kids for the respect they showed coach. I’m proud of coach.”
Pfeifer appreciates that Krehbiel sought his counsel, thus allowing him to be a teacher again. “He was so sincere and open about establishing a good relationship. He was willing to receive me and invest in some of my knowledge,” Pfeifer said. “A lot of guys that coach, they think they know it all. But he’s really receptive. And that’s great for me because I didn’t feel that with some of the other people that were out there. I said, ‘I’ll be happy to help you out anyway I can.’”
When Krehbiel first approached him, he had no clear expectation other than getting some advice on the special demands of being a BT coach.
“This is a unique position,” Krehbiel said, “maybe as unique a position as there is in the country in high school because you’re in a home for boys. There’s not only the athletics parts of it but there’s the home campus part of it, dealing with the troubled youth, the homeless youth, with all the things they present.
“There are very few people who’ve had this position. There’s just a few of us around. There’s even fewer that have had the kind of success coach had.”
Krehbiel did some research in the BT and Omaha World-Herald archives in compiling a school record book and came away duly impressed by just “how successful” Pfeifer was at producing winning teams. In 14 years as head coach — 1959 to 1973 — his teams won 205 games and lost only 82. He led nine teams to the state tourney and guided a pair to state titles. His track and field teams were also a formidable bunch, always a threat at the state meet.
For Krehbiel, welcoming back someone like Pfeifer who’d given the best years of his life to BT was a way of honoring the man.
“My initial intention was to just try to give back to him for all the years he gave to Boys Town. My initial thought was to get him up here to one practice at the beginning of the year, and it’s morphed into a great relationship and friendship,” said Krehbiel, whose wife and five daughters all know Pfeifer.
Still, it took some convincing for Pfeifer to meet with Krehbiel that first time.
“I called him up out of the blue and introduced myself. He was real reluctant but I finally got him to agree to go lunch with me at Big Fred’s. He told stories for hours.
That’s when I told him, ‘You are welcome anytime.’ That fall I asked him to come out to practice. I gave him a pad of paper and a pen and said, ‘Watch me coach practice. Watch our kids. Give me some feedback about our team.’ He did that and from that point on he’s been popping in at practices whenever he feels like it.”
It didn’t happen overnight. Pfeifer eased his way in, not wanting to impose himself, less he undermine Krehbiel’s authority.
“When it first started we’d talk maybe once every couple weeks,” Krehbiel said. “He wouldn’t come to practices much. As he and I became closer and he became closer with all the other coaches, there was a comfort level. Last year he was out here about two or three times a week prior to the season opener, and we’d be talking about offenses and defenses and philosophies back and forth.
“I was reaching out initially to find out, ‘How did you handle the job? How did you handle the kids? What are the issues beyond basketball I should know about?’ Then when he and I started talking I found just how solid his philosophies are in basketball and in life and I really wanted to get to know him more. You just can’t help but sense the way he approached things and did things is probably the best way as well as the right way to have a lot of success. I try to emulate him.”
It doesn’t hurt that the two are cut from the same cloth. “Our personalities are a lot alike, so there’s a bond person-to-person, coach-to-coach,” Krehbiel said. That’s not to say these two see eye to eye on everything.
“He believes in zone defense and I believe in man to man,” Krehbiel said. “But that’s the fun of it — debating the merits of each. But,” he added, “as far as what we demand of our players, how we treat our players,” they’re on the same page.
It wasn’t until Krehbiel watched Pfeifer interact with the players that he understood all that the venerable old coach could bring.
“Then when I saw him around the kids and I saw how he still has a lot of viable, valuable contributions…and I saw the kids take to him, it obviously was a great idea to have him around. It’s just kind of matured into what it is today. He’s around quite a bit. As much as he wants to be. The door is always open.”
Along the way, Pfeifer’s shared some coaching secrets, including a list of offensive- defensive Dos and Donts and his mantra for teaching “technique, technique, technique” he got from coaching great Skip Palrang. Pfeifer’s passed along full-court press and matchup-zone tactics that made his teams so hard to beat. Above all, he’s preached taking the high percentage shot and protecting “the hole.”
“He gave me a file folder of his coaching notes and a card with his pregame preparation notes,” Krehbiel said. “I read through it all and I copied it down in my own words and style. That’s the relationship he and I’ve built up. For him to give that to me, I mean, what do you say? That should tell anyone a lot about his willingness to give. I think he really, really wants this program to be successful and those are the lengths he’s willing to go.”
What Pfeifer does for BT hoops can’t truly be measured.
“He doesn’t come out and design plays and run drills. He’s in the background helping the coaches. He’s really helped me in my preparation for games. He talks to players one one one,” Krehbiel said. “The last couple years he’d take some of our better players aside, real fatherly like, and say, ‘Here’s what I see in your game. Take the good shots, not the bad shots.’”
Wishing to remain in the background, Pfeifer chooses not to sit on the bench, but in the stands during games. He’s always watching, however.
As last year’s team stormed through the season, losing only four times, including twice to Wahoo Neumann, Pfeifer noted a tendency for BT players to settle for three-point shots and to play soft in the middle. With his adjustments the Cowboys avenged Neumann in the first round of the state tourney.
When last year’s star player, starting center and then-BT Mayor Vince Marshall, felt good about a game in which he scored well but recorded few rebounds, Pfeifer had a heart to heart talk with him. “I said, ‘I was mayor when I was at Boys Town. You’re the mayor and you got only three rebounds last game. What the hell were you doing? You’re the mayor, you’re going to make me look bad. Get your ass on the boards.’ That’s the way we talked. We were brothers.”
Pfeifer’s known to intervene when emotions run over. Once, after a so-so practice on the eve of state, the admittedly “fiery” Krehbiel lost his cool when he noticed a couple players cutting up. “I lose it. I go up one kid and down another. I was furious they wouldn’t take this seriously,” Krehbiel said. “And here comes coach. He gets off his chair and gets right in the middle of us and says, ‘Wait a minute.’ I immediately shut up. He takes over and says something about not getting a big head and keeping yourself together and staying in the moment.
“He was just that calming influence and that’s what he’s been. I’ve really calmed my demeanor in regards to the sidelines and the game-time stuff in my conversations with him. He’s really helped me with the handling of the kids around here. He reminds me they’re always watching you and they’re going to play off your demeanor. He’s a sounding board. I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Coach, we’ve had this issue with a young man, how would you handle that?’ He gives me tidbits on how to handle certain situations as head coach.”
Pfeifer can still get fired up, as when he pulled his BT athletic jacket out of moth balls for a school pep rally to show how much he bleeds Big Blue. He told the crowd, “I’ve waited 40 years to wear this thing again.”
There’s the sense of a circle being closed. That what Pfeifer got from Palrang is being handed down to Krehbiel. Lessons from 65 years ago live on, no doubt to be carried on by the young men Krehbiel and Pfeifer work with today.
“The greatest thing for me, bar none, is to have my name linked with coach Pfeifer’s name and coach Palrang’s name in the same sentence. To be linked to that history is overwhelming,” Krehbiel said. When Pfeifer couldn’t get away to Lincoln to accept his Hall of Fame induction, he asked Krehbiel to accept in his place. For Pfeifer, Krehbiel was the natural choice. “I love him,” Pfeifer said of his coaching protege. “What an honor to accept for him. That just fortified our relationship. He’s a good old guy,” a tearful Krehbiel said.
Krehbiel met many athletes Pfeifer coached. They were disappointed he couldn’t make it. “They all love him. Guys came in from both coasts and from all over the country to honor him with this induction, which was long overdue,” Krehbiel said. One of Pfeifer’s favorites, Charles ”Deacon” Jones, a standout BT miler and football player who became a University of Iowa All American and two-time Olympic long distance runner, was inducted into the Hall the same night.
“I know it was killing coach not to be able to go and to be on the stage with Deacon,” Krehbiel said. But Deacon and the rest know Pfeifer was there with them in spirit. Like he always has been and will be. A brother under the skin.
Krehbiel never competed for Pfeifer, but considers it a privilege coaching with him and “seeing all he does around kids.” He said it seems he and the players benefit more from the relationship than Pfeifer does. However, he added, “I hope we’re helping keep him active.” It’s clear when Pfeifer talks hoops it takes his mind off, if only a little while, his wife. Krehbiel’s visited Pfeifer at his house during this hard time. Krehbiel’s daughters say prayers for Jean.
Perhaps the old coach’s greatest joy comes from watching his young protege catch the same passion he caught for Boys Town. Pfeifer said, “I’ve told him, ‘Tom, if you stay there long enough you’re going to get what I got.’ It’s a fever.” Krehbiel said the example of Pfeifer is one reason “why I stay here. It’s why I’ll always be here.”
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