It's almost certain that no more than a handful of people who will read this ever saw Bob Boozer play for K-State. He last suited up as a Wildcat over 53 years ago, almost another era entirely. But the announcement Saturday that Boozer, 75, had passed in his hometown of Omaha as a result of a sudden aneurysm shook Wildcat Nation nonetheless.
It's not hard to explain how important Boozer was to Kansas State. Only once have the Wildcats finished the regular season ranked #1 in the media poll; that was 1959, when Boozer led K-State to a perfect conference record, and were only stopped in the NCAA Tournament by their other primary rival of the era, Cincinnati, and their legendary star Oscar Robertson. The previous year, Boozer and the Cats had marched to the Final Four after capturing the Big Seven title, keeping archrival Kansas and their star Wilt Chamberlain out of the post-season in the process. It was, by any measure, the most successful two-year period in K-State basketball history, and that in and of itself would be enough to mark Boozer as the greatest player in school history. Being the school's only two-time first-team consensus All-American just cements the argument.
As important as he was to us, however, Boozer was pretty important to the entire game of basketball.After graduating in 1959, Boozer delayed his entry into the NBA in order to retain his amateur status so that he could play for the USA in the 1960 Olympics. The scoring load for that team was carried by three of the all-time greats -- Jerry Lucas, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson. Even playing behind that trio, Boozer still managed almost 7 points a game as the USA went 8-0 to capture the gold. He struck up a lifelong friendship with Robertson at the Games, despite the two having been bitter rivals in college; indeed, Robertson spoke to Boozer on Friday, not long before the aneurysm struck. Their careers would be joined going forward, as well; Boozer and Robertson were #1 picks in the NBA draft in consecutive years, both selected by the Cincinnati Royals, and played together there from 1960-63. Lucas, their Olympic teammate, joined them in 1963. That, however, would lead to Boozer being squeezed out of the starting lineup in Cincinnati.
Boozer was traded to the Knicks midway through the 1963-64 season, and was then traded to the Lakers in 1965 (joining former Olympic teammate West). The following year, Boozer was taken in the expansion draft by the newly-minted Chicago Bulls. It was a great fit. Boozer led the first-year franchise to the playoffs, and was selected to the All-Star team the following year. The Bulls failed to reach the playoffs, however, and Boozer was traded to Seattle. He spent one year there, playing well, before again moving on, this time to Milwaukee where he rejoined Oscar Robertson for one last hurrah. Boozer wasn't the major factor on that team, which also included Bob Dandridge, Lucius Allen, and some guy named Lew Alcindor... but he did contribute as the sixth man (a contribution Robertson himself has often pointed out), and the Bucks went on to win the 1971 NBA title. With that title and a gold medal in his pocket, Boozer felt he'd accomplished enough, and retired after the season ended.
All of that is interesting enough, but Boozer's most important contribution to the game of basketball rolls back to his time in Manhattan. You see, the coach of the Wildcats back then was Tex Winter, and it was with Boozer leading his offense that Winter finally perfected what was then known as the Triple-Post Offense... a scheme which later became world-famous as the Triangle when Winter, as an assistant under Phil Jackson in Chicago, imprinted the scheme onto Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Boozer, having retired from the game, went on to an extremely productive life. He became an executive at Northwestern Bell, received an appointment to the Nebraska Parole Board, and was a noted volunteer at Boys' Town as well as being involved in many efforts to help inner-city youth in his hometown. There's even a street named after him in Omaha, and his basketball career was only a small part of why Boozer received that honor.
Boozer was still in good health on Friday, but fell ill during a dinner with friends and was rushed to the hospital. There, doctors discovered the aneurysm. Saturday afternoon, the decision was made by his family to remove him from life support.
On behalf of the BotC staff, all our thoughts and prayers go out to Ella Boozer and to the rest of the Boozer family. Ella spent 46 wonderful years at Bob's side, and our loss doesn't begin to compare to hers.
Memorial arrangements are still pending, through Thomas Funeral Home in Omaha.
(Several hours after this posting, I received an e-mail from Michael O'Daniel at Oscar Robertson Media Ventures, pointing out a couple of errors on my part, and I thank Michael for the information. The post has been updated to correct those errors.)