Photo showcase: See more images of Bob Boozer through the years.
Timeline: Bob Boozer through the years.
The Nebraska 100: A ranking of the state's top athletes. Where did Bob Boozer rank?
How is Bob Boozer remembered? See what people are saying
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On Thursday, Ron Boone got a phone call from the most accomplished basketball player in Nebraska history.
Bob Boozer wanted to talk about the NBA playoffs, specifically the Boston Celtics. Boone, a former pro player, asked Boozer how he would've responded to Kevin Garnett's aggressive tactics.
I might have had to punch him, Boozer said.
No, you wouldn't, Boone said. “As cheap as you are, you wouldn't want to pay the fine.”
They laughed and agreed to talk again soon.
Two days later, Boone was walking out his door in Salt Lake City to catch a plane. The phone rang again. A friend back in Omaha had bad news:
Boozer died of a brain aneurysm Saturday. He was 75.
The news resonated Sunday around the basketball world. “It just took me by complete surprise,” said Oscar Robertson, Boozer's friend and former teammate. “It's hard to believe.”
Especially in Omaha, where the 6-foot-8 Boozer was a gigantic figure.
During a golden era of black athletes, Boozer was the first from Omaha to earn national acclaim, becoming a two-time All-American at Kansas State and grabbing a gold medal on the 1960 Olympic team. He inspired countless athletes in the black community, several of whom earned their own pro careers.
“He and Bob Gibson showed people that minority players could come out of Omaha and play professional football or baseball or whatever it may be,” said Gale Sayers, an Omaha native and former NFL standout.
Said Boone: “He was an ambassador. He represented the black community very well.”
Boozer was prominent in Omaha long after he won an NBA championship with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 and then retired.
He came home and worked 27 years for the telephone company. He couldn't bear sitting around, so he accepted Gov. Ben Nelson's appointment to the Nebraska Board of Parole, which he still served when he died.
“Bob had a very tactful way of communicating with young inmates,” said Jim Pearson, vice president of the board. “You could sense it was kind of a mission for him.”
Boozer suddenly fell ill while having dinner with friends on Friday evening. Saturday afternoon, he was taken off life-support.
Born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Boozer's family moved to Omaha in the late 1940s. His father had tended the boilers that heated the dormitories at the University of Alabama. Time and again, he'd been denied pay raises.
“The last time he got passed over for a promotion,” Boozer told The World-Herald in 2008, “he just said, ‘Hey, we're going north.' ”
Boozer remembered taking the train to Memphis, then to St. Louis, Kansas City and — last stop — Omaha, where the Boozers had relatives.
On the near-north side, Boozer honed his basketball skills. He spent countless hours in friend Johnny Nared's backyard, shooting at the hoop on the garage.
On Saturdays, he lived at the YMCA, a three-block walk from his home at 25th and Erskine.
Boozer broke city scoring records at Omaha Tech High, averaging 25.7 points as a senior. Nebraska did not recruit him, though Boozer most likely would've left the state anyway: He didn't like the Huskers' conservative style of play.
He landed at Kansas State, grew from 6-5 to 6-8 and became a star.
“I was not a natural,” Boozer once said. “I had to make myself an athlete.”
He worked on his agility, his footwork, his jumping. More than anything, he worked on his shooting.
“Sometimes I could go on a basketball court, close my eyes, shoot and hit,” Boozer said.
At Kansas State, he averaged 21.9 points per game in three seasons, leading the Wildcats to the Final Four in 1958. In '59, Kansas State fell a game short, losing to Cincinnati in the regional final.
The Cincinnati Royals drafted Boozer with the No. 1 pick in the '59 NBA draft, but he postponed his pro career to preserve his amateur status. He wanted an Olympic gold medal.
In 1960, he qualified for the Rome Olympics. The United States, led by Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas, beat opponents by an average margin of 42 points.
Boozer liked to call it the first Dream Team. In 2010, he traveled to Springfield, Mass., to participate in the '60 team's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
His best NBA season was 1967-68, when he averaged 21.5 points and 9.8 rebounds for the Chicago Bulls.
Three years later, Boozer teamed with Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee and won an NBA championship. He retired on top.
“Bob always said that he got everything you could have ever gotten from playing basketball,” said Ella Boozer, his wife of 46 years.
After his NBA career, Bob Boozer ended up back in Omaha.
“He could've moved to Chicago or anywhere else in the country,” said 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, a friend of Boozer's. “But he stayed here in Nebraska, where he was very visible.”
Boozer mentored young athletes. He helped organize and draw attention to community events, occasionally inviting celebrity friends. More recently, Boozer made frequent visits to Boys Town, where he emphasized education.
“He never gave up where he came from,” said Don Benning, former UNO wrestling coach and Omaha Public Schools assistant superintendent. “He used his success to help other people.”
Former lobbyist Kent Popken was a longtime friend of Boozer's. “He'd call me and say, ‘This is Booz!' ”
The two had a tradition of going to a Nebraska basketball game with Gov. Dave Heineman. In February, the trio went to the Illinois game and ate pizza together at the governor's mansion afterward.
“Bob always wanted to make sure we had something to eat,” Popken said.
While on the Parole Board, Boozer hired someone to drive him to Lincoln when the weather turned icy, which Popken found humorous, especially knowing his friend's frugal spending habits.
“Bob was tighter than a banjo string, but he hated driving on ice,” Popken said.
If the weather cooperated, Boozer liked to spend Saturday mornings at Hy-Vee, where he met up with near-north-siders he'd known for 60 years. The breakfast club, they call it.
They'll be back this Saturday. To eat. To mourn. To remember the time a skinny kid from Tech High put Omaha basketball on the national map.
“The community will be at a loss,” said former Tech classmate Jim Morrison. “We need more men like him.”
World-Herald staff writers Kevin Cole and Maggie O'Brien contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.
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Boozer through the years
» All-state basketball player at Omaha Tech, graduating in 1955
» All-American at Kansas State in 1958 and 1959
» Won an Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960 on a U.S. team that also featured Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. The team was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
» Played for six NBA teams over 11 seasons, winning a championship with Milwaukee in 1971.
» NBA All-Star in 1968
» Member of the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame and the Omaha Sports Hall of Fame
» Leading vote-getter for Kansas State's 10-member Team of the Century
» His No. 30 is retired and hangs in Kansas State's Bramlage Coliseum
» Worked 27 years for Northwestern Bell, the last 10 of those years as a federal lobbyist
» A member of the Nebraska Board of Parole for nearly 15 years
» Bob Boozer Drive in west Omaha was named in his honor
An all-time great
In “The Nebraska 100,” a project undertaken in 2005, The World-Herald ranked the state's top 100 athletes of all time. Bob Boozer was fourth on the list. The top 10 is as follows:
1. Bob Gibson, baseball
2. Gale Sayers, football
3. Grover Cleveland Alexander, baseball
4. Bob Boozer, basketball
5. Johnny Rodgers, football
6. Lloyd Hahn, track & field
7. Richie Ashburn, baseball
8. Ahman Green, football
9. Tom Kropp, basketball/football
10. Jim Hartung, gymnastics
What people are saying
“He was a great role model for our children and for adults as well. We're really going to miss Bob.”
Johnny Rodgers, Heisman Trophy winner
“He was a great ambassador for the city of Omaha.”
Gale Sayers, football hall of famer
“Bob Boozer was a very good friend, a great athlete and even a better person. He spent more than a decade on the Board of Parole trying to help young adults who had made a mistake to turn their life around.”
Dave Heineman, Nebraska governor
“We grew up together. ... We were almost like brothers.”
Oscar Robertson, basketball hall of famer