Carlos Boozer Jr. last visited Juneau two years ago, a college player with lofty aspirations.
This week he returned to town, an NBA star looking forward to his second season in the pros.
Boozer, a former basketball star at Juneau-Douglas High School and Duke University, now plays for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. He will begin his sophomore season next fall with a new coach - Paul Silas - and in all likelihood with the most-talked-about rookie in years - high-schooler LeBron James, whom the Cavs are expected to select with the top pick in next week's draft.
He visited Juneau for two days earlier this week - his first visit to Juneau since May 2001, after he helped Duke win the NCAA Championship.
Boozer's trip to Alaska started with a couple of days in Fairbanks, where he shot a Sprite advertisement and was a celebrity presence at the Showdown at the Top of the World 3-on-3 State Championship basketball tournament.
Boozer arrived in Juneau on Sunday, and within an hour he was at the Juneau-Douglas High School main gym helping out with Houston's Hoop Camp, the basketball camp run by JDHS head coach George Houston. Boozer also spent most of Monday helping out with the camp.
During Monday's camp session, Boozer gave a talk to the mostly fifth- through eighth-graders about his younger days in Juneau. He said he'd go to the covered play area at Auke Bay Elementary School to shoot baskets just about every day when he was their age. He encouraged them to keep practicing, especially in the offseason.
"When you do something good, you get confidence," Boozer told the campers. "At each level I got better, but the competition gets better. But if you're having fun, that's the most important thing.
"To get better you have to practice, just practice. I was a gym rat, and I loved it. In the season, it's all about the team, but during the offseason is when you can really do some work on your own skills. You make steps in the season, but you make strides in the offseason."
Boozer also told the campers about life in the NBA, and how he has started an autograph collection as he's met some of the stars he used to follow when he was younger.
"I wouldn't trade my job for anything in the world," he said.
While most of Boozer's time in Juneau was spent helping with the camp, he also took some time to film a public service announcement for the state to encourage young people not to drive while impaired by alcohol or drugs.
After Monday's talk with the campers, Boozer sat down with Juneau Empire sports editor Charles Bingham for a interview.
He discussed being back in Alaska, his first year in the NBA, playing for a losing team in Cleveland and his hopes for the future with new coach Paul Silas and No. 1 draft pick LeBron James. He also discussed his first game against Karl Malone, the player Boozer models his game after...
Question: So you've been on the grand tour. What did you do in Fairbanks the other day?
Answer: Yeah, we had a Sprite endorsement up there. I had to do the 3-on-3 tournament. It was pretty cool, though. ... The kids were great. It was like 80 degrees and they shut down First and Second avenues. It went well.
Q: Is that the first time you've been in Alaska since two years ago?
A: That's the last time since I brought my wife, she was my girlfriend then, up here about two years ago.
Q: What's it like being back up here?
A: It's great. I mean, I couldn't wait to get in. I've been looking forward to this trip the entire year. I knew I was coming up here at this time, so it's just great. The people have been terrific. Just being in this environment again, I mean, the community is terrific and I got a chance to meet a lot of my friends again, and come in here and watch camps. So it worked out terrific. It was right around the time of coach's camp so you couldn't beat that, and the weather's great.
Q: Do you get a little homesick coming back up here?
A: Yeah, a little bit. I mean, I just wanted to get back up, I hadn't been here in so long. You don't get this kind of scenery - not in Cleveland, believe me. It's nice in Cleveland, but it's not mountainous and beautiful like it is up here.
Q: Do you still consider yourself a Juneau boy?
A: This is my home; I'm a hometown kid. I'm going to be here every summer. I didn't get a chance to be here last summer because I was trying out for the NBA, but I'm going to get back up here every summer and this is my home, absolutely.
Q: So are you going to get some property?
A: Actually, I'm going to try and do something up here. I'm not sure what yet, whether it's a restaurant or another bowling alley out in the Valley, or just something.
Q: This was your first year in the NBA, and people in town have followed you since you were (in high school) and going on to Duke. Why don't you describe your first year in the NBA and what kind of an adjustment it was for you?
A: A major adjustment. I went to a team that was really young, so we got thrown into the fire and we were all 21, 23 years old at the most and young teams just don't win in the NBA. So when we got the opportunity to play, we were excited, we were just happy to be on the court. We're trying to win games, but it's so tough because we're young. It was fun, though, being in the NBA. Like I was telling the kids out there, it's exciting. Every night you get to play against a star. It might not be your position, but there's a star on the other team. That's the ultimate dream that I'm living in, so I couldn't be any happier. We just want to win a lot more games, though, of course.
Q: It's something, too, coming from Juneau-Douglas to Duke where you'd been winning all the time. I think there was an Associated Press story that moved about the time Cleveland lost it's 50th game where it said...
A: We were first to 50.
Q: ... where you'd gone back and figured out that was about twice what you'd lost between high school and college.
A: It's true, we were 17-65. We played a lot of teams tough, but we just didn't get the W's. It's tough going in the games hoping to be in the game at the end, you know. Like you just said, we're used to going into games knowing we're going to win by 20 or 30 points - it's just a matter of time. Like here, we dominated in high school, and at Duke, we only won one championship, but we were always ranked in the top five or top 10. It was a lot more fun and there was a lot more winning going on, but we're Cleveland, we'll be there. We're young, we're getting better, we've got a brand new coach (Paul Silas), and a new superstar coming in (LeBron James). He's unproven yet, but at the same time he's got the superstar talent and he'll be a great addition to our team. We're gonna be there, and I'm just excited about it.
Q: You look at New Jersey, and about the time you were coming out of high school they were drafting Kenyon (Martin, the first pick overall of the 2000 NBA Draft) and they've been in the last two playoffs.
A: Yeah, they got the No. 1 pick when I was a senior in high school, and they've been in the (NBA) Finals the last two years. ... So it gives us confidence that we can go from last in the East to, hopefully, first.
Q: You've come from places that have been pretty established with their coaching, (but with Cleveland) this will be your third coach in two seasons now between (John) Lucas and (Keith) Smart.
A: And really, it hasn't even been a year yet. ... It hasn't even been a year yet and I'm already going to have three coaches. It's a lot different than coming from here, where coach (George Houston) has been here for 30 years and going to Duke where he (Mike Krzyzewski) has been at Duke for almost 30 years. So, well, I mean, let's talk about Paul Silas for a second. He's sincere, he's terrific, he's motivating, he wants to win. He's been a winner, with Charlotte and New Orleans they went to the playoffs all but one year he was there. That's an incredible feat and that's the kind of guy that we need. ... He (Silas) is ranked 16th all-time or something like that in rebounding, so I'm going to try and learn as much as I can from him.
Q: With the NBA you play two or three times as many games as you did in high school or college. Does it get to be a grind at all with all the travel, or do you have things you do to break things up?
A: Well, it's not really a grind. I mean, I was so excited to be there, you know what I mean? I'm not going to say it's not hard at times, because it is. You know, like we'll go to Boston to Atlanta to New Jersey, then all the way out to the West Coast to play Dallas and San Antonio. So you're really busy flying. We fly a ton. I'd guess, on the average, we probably average about three or four games a week. And that's for a lot longer period of time. Like in college we'd probably play once a week until we got into conference play, and then we'd play Wednesday and Sunday. In high school we always played Friday and Saturday. So it's a lot different than where we'd play on Monday and Tuesday, off on Wednesday, and then Thursday and Saturday games. It's a lot more games, but I have so much fun. I mean, I don't even think I hit the rookie wall, the imaginable rookie wall that everybody goes through. I don't even think I hit that because I was so excited to be in the NBA. I mean, I've got NBA logos on everything (slides pants leg up to show the NBA logo on his socks) I have. I mean it's a dream come true.
Q: Do you have any kind of a pregame ritual?
A: Absolutely. ... I've done the same thing since I was a seventh-grader at (Dzantik'i Heeni) middle school. I'll go to sleep for an hour. I can't sleep for over an hour ... I take a shower, get dressed and go to the gym, and I pray before every game. At different times, like at high school, I would pray twice. I'd pray in the locker room because I was so nervous and I wanted to play well. I never wanted to lose the level of play that I was at. And I'd pray during the national anthem ...
Q: And whenever you go out, do you do so many shooting drills?
A: It varies. I mean, I'll go out there and definitely break a sweat to get pumped up and to get my shot, to make sure it's on. But it kind of varies. I mean, we do post moves every time and we do shots, just to get lathered up, then go into the locker room to get ready and come out rolling to go.
Q: You talked about playing stars every night, even if it might not be your position. What kind of highlights (did you have) this year? I know one of your all-time players is Karl Malone. What was it like going up against him the first time?
A: John Lucas, I mean, he's a good friend of mine, coach Lucas is, but he knew Karl Malone was like my icon player. And we played them (the Utah Jazz) in a preseason game, right before the season started, and he made a joke, he was like, "Just go up and get his autograph so you can start playing now." Because while we were playing them, I was just so nervous to touch him. I mean, he's Karl Malone and he's what I want to emulate my career after and I was guarding him, and I guess I didn't want to impose my will on him yet. And when it came to the timeout, and he (Lucas) said, "Go get his autograph and let's go play basketball," it was just kind of funny. But yeah, like after that game it was just like playing anybody. But at the same time, I know it's Karl Malone and this is the guy I want to be like. I mean, he's 6-9 just like I am, and he's built similar to what I'm built. He's a stud. So, he's been the league for 18 years, going on 19 next year, so I'm, it's just something I wanted to emulate.
Q: Did he knock one of your shots?
A: Yeah, he did. I scored on him a couple of times; I think I had a fadeaway and a dunk. And then the next time I went up, I had a fast break, and he came and swiped it from behind. It wasn't real, you know, real nasty. But it was like a smart, veteran-type thing. Like right when I went up like this (goes into a layup shooting position) he just swiped it from my hand. It was nice, though. It looked good, though, it looked good.
Q: So did you learn from it?
A: Yeah, absolutely. He's probably got the best hands for a big guy in the league. So like everytime you turn the ball to him, he's always swiping at the ball, trying to knock it out of your hand. That's something I learned. That's something I'm getting better at. Kenyon Martin does it really good right now and I think he probably learned it from Karl, too, but every time you put the ball in front of him he tries to swipe it. Definitely, you've got to protect the ball securely around him, absolutely.
Q: Has there been anything that's been a big surprise about going into the NBA?
A: I'll tell you what surprised me. The biggest surprise about the NBA for me was just ... people really want to win, you know what I mean? Before I got to the NBA, I thought people would give up and they'd let the (Los Angeles) Lakers win. They'd play good for three quarters, then let the Lakers win in the fourth quarter, like it was set up that way or something. Everybody wants to win. I mean, everybody's good. I thought, just like college, we'd start, these guys would back us up and then we've got some walk-ons. Like I told the kids, (players in the NBA) from the first guy to the 12th guy, they were all stars in college. They were all stars in high school. So they know what it takes to win and they've been successful, just like I have. ... For example, I'll go up against Chris Webber (of the Sacramento Kings) who's an all-star, and then when he's tired, they're bringing Keon Clark who's a star in his own right. That's the example that I give. That's how good the NBA is. Even the backups could be starters on the other teams. That was the biggest surprise for me.
Q: Probably one of the biggest adjustments, too.
A: Oh, yeah, you know, when you're in college, you give him the business and you score on him and you score on him. Then coach subs him out and you go against the backup and that's when you end up with 25 points. You'd be getting the first guy in foul trouble. ... In this league, you've got to go up against the first guy, the second guy and sometimes a third guy if those two guys are in foul trouble, and they all could be starting. It's incredible, man. The amount of competition and how good these guys are, you've got to sharpen your game all the time or somebody will pass you by.
Q: Is that (competition) something that keeps you from having that ebb-and-flow you might have in college, because you do know that you have to be on your game the whole time?
A: You can't save anything while you're out there playing. You have to go hard all the time or someone will embarrass you. That's how good the NBA is. I mean, people don't know that one of the biggest things basketball players don't want to be is embarrassed. There's guys working just as hard as we are and nobody wants to get shown up in front of their mom or their girlfriend or their wife and their kids. And we're on TV - we were on TV a lot, not nationally, but locally - and we don't want to be shown up. And every moment out there you've got to play hard; you can't give an inch. But that's also the great thing about the sport. It's the great thing about basketball and the NBA - at this level, you can't take a break. You can't relax, because once you relax the other guy senses that and he makes you look bad. It's an art, man, and I love it.
Q: You've not necessarily been the top scoring threat (in your career). When you were at Duke you always had Jay (Williams, now with the Chicago Bulls) and Mike (Dunleavy, now with the Golden State Warriors), and before that Shane (Battier, now with the Memphis Grizzlies). And here (at Cleveland) you've got Z (Zydrunas Iglauskas) and Ricky (Davis). Do you think that helped you find your place?
A: That's a good point. I think I'll develop into that first option. I was the first option in high school - and I was first, second and third option sometimes. ... At Duke I was the second option most of my career because I was the only post presence we had that was effective. Jay was always the first option, and my freshman year definitely Shane. But in the league, like you said, we go to Ricky and Z. Most of our plays go to them because they're all-star caliber players. ... So being the third, fourth, sometimes maybe even the fifth option ... it makes you develop other things. It makes you want to run the court harder, it makes you want to go to the offensive boards, ... it makes you want to do something else out there to have an impact on the game.
Q: Because you've had to develop other parts of your game, do you think that makes you a better fit in the NBA where you can help teams out? There are a lot of guys who come out of college and they're scorers, but they (only do one thing).
A: I think so. I definitely pride myself on my ability to play defense and my ability to rebound. I'm definitely an offensive threat all the time, but it might not be my main focus some nights. I'll have to stop a guy like Kevin Garnett (of the Minnesota Timberwolves), that's my goal. I want to keep him under 20 points and he averages 25. That might be my goal for the night. It makes you develop and ... have self-pride in other things that you can do. And with me, I do multiple things on the court. I play defense, I get blocked shots, I get a lot of rebounds, I get 10 to 15 points a game, and the next thing you know I make an impact.
Q: Do you ever regret coming out of school early?
A: No. I don't regret it at all. Like I said to the kids, I talked it over with my parents. My parents thought I was definitely ready mentally and physically to go. Coach K said the same thing. We planned ... academically, as well, to leave after my junior year. It worked out great. I mean, I wanted to go higher in the draft, of course. I wanted definitely to go in the first round, and as high as I could. But, you know, I was happy with being selected 35th. I had a great opportunity in Cleveland. I'm in a great position where I'm graduating, so I don't regret it at all. I think it was the best situation I could have made, and at the same time I got married. I'm extremely happy about it. ... There's no regrets at all, even though I did want to help them (the Blue Devils) out when they played Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, when they lost. But I wasn't able to.
Q: Are you finishing up your degree?
A: Yeah, I'm going to finish up next summer.
Q: What's your degree?
A: Sociology. Yeah, I'm not sure what I'll do with it, but I love the classes. I'm interested in sociology.
Q: I saw it on the team Web site (that you're running a camp in Cleveland).
A: ... Yeah, I'm looking forward to my camp in August.
Q: Just passing on the knowledge?
A: Yeah, just trying to give as much as I can to the kids because all those kids aspire to be in the NBA, or WNBA. ... If I can throw anything at any kid, even just one kid, I've done what I wanted to do.
Q: As a kid growing up, did you have anybody that you emulated (besides Karl Malone) that you've now had a chance to go in and talk to?
A: Trajan (Langdon, a former East Anchorage High School star who played at Duke and with the Cavaliers before heading to Italy last year to play for Benetton Treviso) is probably the closest, truthfully. And Elton Brand (a former Duke center now playing for the Los Angeles Clippers), but that was later in my career, like when I was a junior (in high school). But I think earlier on, for me, obviously I was a major Michael Jordan fan. I had every poster I could get my hands on. I never got close enough where I could sit down and have a conversation with him. I've talked to him a couple of times briefly, you know, two or three minutes, but nothing long-winded.
Q: Anything else to say about coming back here?
A: Yeah, I just want to tell everybody thanks for welcoming me back. I mean, I was on the radio this morning and we got so many calls and everybody was so supportive. I love Juneau for that. I'll always come back. It's just my home town and I'll never be a stranger to Juneau. I love them to death - everybody's so welcoming. ... It's the atmosphere. I mean, it's beautiful outside, there's mountains, you don't see this type of people and this atmosphere in the Lower 48. Well, I haven't yet. So I'll always come back to Juneau and I just want to tell everybody thanks for welcoming me back.
Q: Yeah, in some ways it's a drag you didn't get onto a West Coast team so we could get down to Seattle to see you more than once in a season?
A: I don't think you were there, but Brian (Wallace, a Juneau Empire photographer) came down. It was incredible in Seattle and Portland, the support. There had to be 50, 50, 55 people there and it just seemed like the whole hometown was there. I mean, obviously it wasn't, but it just felt like it. I saw so many familiar faces and it made me real comfortable. It was something I definitely missed.
Q: How's the family doing?
A: Terrific. Mom and Dad (Renee and Carlos Sr.) are doing great. Charles and Keisha and Tanya are doing terrific, and my older sister Natasha's doing great at Princeton, so there's no downers. No complaints. Everything's rolling right along.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.