Bob Boozer put his NBA dreams on hold to play for a dream team

Knee injuries delayed the professional basketball debuts of No. 1 NBA draft picks Greg Oden and Blake Griffin.

For Bob Boozer, it was national pride.

The top pick in 1959, he kept the Cincinnati Royals at arm’s length for more than a year to maintain his amateur status in hopes of playing for Team USA in the 1960 Olympics.

“I always had this deep desire to represent this country on its Olympic basketball squad,” Boozer says, “and at that time, you only had one go-round at it. Everyone told me, ‘Your chances are remote,’ et cetera, et cetera. Each person that tried to get me to sign on the dotted line expressed that, but I said, ‘Hey, this is something I’ve got to go for.’

“I knew I only had once chance.”

The 6-foot-8 former forward made the most of it, taking his place on a team coached by Pete Newell that tore through its Olympic competition in Rome by an average of 42.4 points a game.

Considered the greatest amateur basketball team ever assembled, it featured future Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy.

“We,” Boozer says, “were the first Dream Team.”

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will pay homage Friday, enshrining the team en masse along with the 1992 Dream Team ( Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, et al) and eight individuals, among them Jerry Buss, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Cynthia Cooper and the late Dennis Johnson.

Boozer, 73, is delighted to be in their company.

A member of the Nebraska State Board of Parole and a former Laker, he never regretted his decision to postpone the start of his NBA career to chase his Olympic dream.

He’d been a two-time All-American under Tex Winter at Kansas State, where the Wildcats utilized the triangle offense in reaching the Final Four in 1958, but was in no hurry to go pro.

“I had tunnel vision,” says the gold medalist, who is no relation to Carlos Boozer of the Chicago Bulls. “I was going to stay out that year and try out for the Olympic basketball squad. No ifs, ands or buts about it, that’s what I was going to do.”

Still, he notes in a phone interview, “I couldn’t possibly do it now, with the kind of money they’re giving away.”

But 50 years ago, while working for Peoria Caterpillar and playing for the company’s team in the National Industrial Basketball League during the 1959-60 season, Boozer says he earned only slightly less than he would have made playing for the Royals.

At the AAU national tournament, the Cats won the championship, and Boozer was the tournament’s most valuable player.

After the Olympics, Boozer rejoined Robertson in Cincinnati and launched an 11-season NBA career in which he played for six teams, averaging 15 points and eight rebounds a game.

In 1966, he helped the Lakers reach the NBA Finals and in 1971 he won a championship with the Milwaukee Bucks.

“That season with the Lakers was the most enjoyable season I ever had in the NBA because it was Hollywood, Los Angeles,” Boozer says. “Jack Kent Cooke had parties at his place and you got a chance to meet movie stars. It was a fun time.

“I hated to leave, I know that.”

But after the Boston Celtics broke the Lakers’ hearts in Game 7, Boozer was left unprotected in the expansion draft and picked up by the Bulls. In Chicago, he enjoyed his most productive NBA seasons, making his only All-Star appearance in 1968.

“If good players get minutes,” he says, “they’re going to score.”

In Milwaukee, Boozer rejoined Robertson and capped his career playing alongside a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

All the while, he was preparing for life after basketball, having spent several summers before his retirement working in a management-training program at the Bell System.

“You can tell when your career is over,” Boozer says. “The training camps were harder, your body didn’t bounce back as readily as it used to. It was more of a job, rather than fun.

“If we won the championship, I definitely was going.”

They did and he bolted, spending the next 27 years working for Ma Bell, the last 10 as a federal lobbyist in Washington. In 1997, after a fitful month of retirement, Boozer was appointed by then-Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson to the State Board of Parole, “and I’ve been there ever since.”

He and Ella, his wife of 42 years, are grandparents.

In Springfield, Mass., this week, Boozer will be reunited with teammates who might be unaware of the path he took to the Olympics.

“I didn’t realize he’d waited a year to make the team,” Lucas said last week. “I think that’s fantastic. I mean, he had the dream and he accomplished it. It’s a tremendous story.”

Boozer couldn’t have done it any other way. Maybe it was a gamble, he says, but the reward was worth the risk.

“Winning that gold medal and standing on that podium with ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ being played — that’s a feeling you can’t understand unless you’ve experienced it,” he says. “It’s very moving, something I don’t think you can duplicate.”

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