• Photo Showcase: Bob Boozer
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Bob Boozer used to say an open 15-foot jumper was like a layup.
Omaha's brightest basketball star, who died Saturday at age 75, outplayed Wilt at Allen Fieldhouse. Dueled Elgin Baylor in a Final Four. Shared Olympic gold with the Big O. Started an All-Star game alongside Jerry West. Sprayed celebratory champagne with Kareem.
But when former teammates describe Boozer's basketball gifts, they focus on the jump shot.
“Bob was a big man who could shoot outside,” Oscar Robertson, Boozer's close friend, told The World-Herald. “He could stretch the defense.”
In the 1950s, 6-foot-8 forwards rarely stepped away from the basket. They didn't put the ball on the floor and certainly didn't bury many jump shots. Boozer represented part of basketball's evolution, West said.
“In 1960, when we all started playing professional basketball, that was really the start of the change of the bigger players in the NBA,” West said Monday. “They were more athletic. They could shoot the ball. They had agility and quickness to play against smaller players.
“He was part of the era where players started looking more like the modern-day athletes.”
Boozer was an NBA journeyman — he played on six teams in 11 seasons. But his skill and work ethic made him a valuable teammate.
“He was a pro's pro,” said Jerry Sloan, Boozer's teammate in Chicago. “He knew the game and how to play.”
After graduating from Omaha Tech in 1955, Boozer accepted a scholarship to Kansas State.
At the time, Wildcat teammate Jack Parr remembers only one other black player on the roster. Boozer expressed concern to coach Tex Winter that he would be forced to stay in different hotels on the road. Parr doesn't remember racial problems, especially inside the locker room.
“How can you be prejudiced against someone who is so wholesome and has such a sense of humor and is such a terrific player?” Parr said. “It would've taken somebody with a real case of prejudice not to see the reality of how special Bob was.”
Boozer developed into a two-time All-American in Manhattan, leading K-State to the Final Four in '58. The highlight came that February. The Wildcats were No. 4 in the country. Kansas was No. 2.
In preparation for the Big Seven showdown, Winter equipped his freshman scout-teamers with brooms. That's how they simulated Wilt Chamberlain's shot-blocking ability.
Boozer hit jumper after jumper, finishing with 32 points (to Chamberlain's 25). K-State won in double overtime.
“Bob certainly would get my vote as the finest player in K-State history,” Parr said.
Boozer made the Olympic team in '60, joining Robertson and West. The heat that summer in Rome was stifling, West said. The competition was not. Nobody, including Russia, came within 20 points of the Americans.
Boozer brought his gold medal home to Omaha. One month later, he made his NBA debut, joining Robertson on the Cincinnati Royals.
Wayne Embry, a Royals veteran, spent a lot of time with Robertson and Boozer. As blacks, they were excluded from certain establishments on the road.
It didn't take Embry long to recognize Boozer's self-discipline. No detail was too small. Often Boozer carpooled with teammates to the airport.
“If we were one second late, he scolded us,” Embry said.
Boozer was just as serious about his game. A man of Boozer's height doesn't naturally dribble and shoot the way he did, Embry said. Boozer was meticulous.
His career did have its bumps. He was traded four times and selected once in the expansion draft. He jumped from Cincinnati to New York to L.A. to Chicago to Seattle.
By then, Embry, who would later become the NBA's first black general manager, was an executive in the Milwaukee Bucks front office. In September 1970, he saw an opportunity to acquire a veteran who epitomized professionalism.
Embry made a deal, reuniting Boozer with Oscar Robertson. With a little help from a second-year center named Lew Alcindor, the Bucks won 66 regular-season games.
Boozer became the Bucks' sixth man, averaging 9.1 points per game thanks to his smooth stroke.
“When you think of Bob Boozer, that's what you think of,” former Bucks guard Jon McGlocklin said.
McGlocklin's favorite memory of Boozer came after Milwaukee wrapped up the '71 NBA championship in Baltimore.
The Bucks were celebrating in the locker room, dousing each other with champagne. McGlocklin looked at Boozer and realized the magnitude of their accomplishment.
“He was always so in control of himself,” McGlocklin said. “To watch Boozer cut loose, it was kind of one of those moments when you go, ‘Oh, wow. I guess we did just do something.'”
It was the last time Boozer wore an NBA jersey.
Over the past four decades, Boozer occasionally bumped into his basketball peers. Sometimes in unusual circumstances.
A few years ago, Jerry Sloan was in Omaha for his oldest daughter's birthday — she lived here. He was driving to the airport when he passed Bob Boozer Drive.
Hey, he told his daughter, that street is named after my old teammate. Sloan barely got the words out of his mouth when he looked at the car in the next lane and saw ... Bob Boozer.
“It was one of the strangest things that ever happened to me,” Sloan said.
Sloan waved Boozer to the side of the road to talk. Two years ago, they saw each other again at the Basketball Hall of Fame, where the '60 Olympic team was honored. They laughed about it again.
West was at the Hall of Fame ceremony, too, celebrating what he called the greatest experience of his basketball life. Winning was special, West said. But the bonds of that Olympic team never weakened.
Which is why West felt shock when he heard of Boozer's death Sunday.
“I saw him not too long ago and he was the picture of health,” West said. “It just seems so weird as we move along in our lives that some of the people who played a role in our lives are suddenly no longer there, particularly him because he looked terrific.”
A few months ago, Boozer invited Jack Parr, now a Kansas businessman, to talk to the Nebraska Board of Parole, which Boozer served. Afterward, they started talking about old times. Remember Coach's birthday?
Tex Winter had a reputation for wearing “awful” neckties, Parr said.
In 1957, Kansas State played at Missouri. Players organized a spoof. They dressed for the road trip in the worst ties they could find.
They saved the ugliest tie for the gift-wrapping. That night at dinner, Winter opened his present.
“We were prepared to just laugh ourselves off our chairs,” Parr said.
One problem: Winter didn't get the joke. He was sincerely touched. The players didn't have the heart to tell him the truth.
Half a century later, two old Wildcats pieced together the story one more time. And Bob Boozer roared with delight.
“I'll never forget the laugh and the smile,” Parr said.
The jump shot wasn't bad, either.
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