Now that he's playing in the NBA, Carlos Boozer doesn't get home to Juneau that often.
So the visits have become cherished chances to reconnect with friends from his time growing up and playing basketball for Juneau-Douglas High School. Even a short visit of just a few hours, such as Thursday's promotional stop for Alaska Coca-Cola/Sprite at the Carr's-Safeway store, means a lot.
"It's always good to be back in Juneau," Boozer said as he signed autographs for a long line of people that snaked around the edges of a small basketball court laid out in the store's parking lot. The line moved slowly, just because Boozer knew so many people and tried to get in a quick chat or hug with as many as he could.
"I played basketball to have fun. I didn't think I'd be doing this," Boozer said as people had him sign posters, basketballs, T-shirts, old shoes, trading cards, even a hot dog bun.
The promotional trip, which includes stops in Anchorage today and Kodiak on Saturday, is one of several Boozer has done for Sprite since he turned pro in 2002. He also made a swing through Alaska in May so he could film a Sprite commercial in Juneau.
Boozer was scheduled to visit Juneau in July, but a little thing called the Athens Olympics got in the way. Boozer helped the U.S. men's basketball team win a bronze medal, shooting 62.5 percent from the field while averaging 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds a game. He didn't bring the medal to Juneau, though.
"It's in a trophy case," Boozer said. "The Olympics were a lot of fun. No question, it's an honor to see that USA across your chest," he said, adding that he'd play again for the United States, "in a heartbeat."
This has been a summer of upheavel for Boozer. His July free agent signing with the Jazz drew heavy national criticism after the Cleveland Cavaliers, his NBA team for the last two years, inferred he'd made a verbal agreement to sign a long-term deal with them if they let him become a restricted free agent. Boozer repeatedly said no such agreement existed, but he still was roundly vilified in sports sections and Internet sites across the country as another of the greedy NBA millionaires.
The crowd at Thursday's gathering, though, was supportive. They see Boozer as the person who won the NBA's Community Assist Award for public service in May and was a co-winner again in August with the rest of the U.S. men's basketball team, not as one of the many NBA players who seem to be driven by money and not championships.
Fernando Pintang showed up wearing a replica Team USA basketball jersey with Boozer's name and number (7). Pintang said he ordered the jersey off the Internet two weeks ago, before he knew Boozer was coming to town.
"I knew him when he was growing up," Pintang said. "You've got to support him."
Koggie File, whose grandson, Dan Baxter, played for the Juneau basketball team with Boozer, even dug out a sign that said, "Welcome home. We (heart) our Crimson Bears."
"I found this in the garage and we greeted them with it every time they came back from the state tournament," said File, whose daughter, Nancy Hakari, walked her third-grade class over from Riverbend Elementary School. "I thought I'd dig it out and see if he remembered it."
Besides Hakari, several other teachers brought their classes to the autograph session. Hundreds of other young fans showed up after school let out.
"It's a beautiful day, and I think it's good for the kids to see someone who grew up here do well," said Stephanie Wolfram, a teacher at Thunder Mountain Learning Center. "I heard a lot of kids telling Carlos, 'My teacher was your teacher.'"
While Boozer chatted with several of the adults, he seemed to have a soft spot for the kids. He held more babies than a politician, while parents took pictures.
"I'm looking forward to see him," said Tyler Troudt, one of the third-graders from Hakari's class. "I like basketball and I want to give him my picture."
"I got a jersey (basketball trading) card signed," said John Correa, a sixth-grader from Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. "I've seen him on TV. I'm a big basketball fan. I play in Parks and Rec and for HoopTime."
Annie Braley of Angoon was in town so her son could interview for an exchange student program in Australia, but they made a side trip to see Boozer and get a poster signed.
And then there was Luke Breinig, who had the most creative autographs.
"He signed my arm. It's on there forever," Breinig said, displaying the arm before disappearing into the line again to get Boozer to sign his hot dog bun. "That's right, an arm and a hot dog."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.