ATLANTA - The jolly laugh and wide grin are the same, just like the tightly groomed goatee, the sweat-soaked jersey and the workmanlike stare after a rebound and outlet pass.
It's the same old Carlos Boozer.
Except for the logo on the jersey. And the wallet. And the stat sheet. And the reputation.
It's a Saturday night at Philips Arena in Atlanta. Boozer's new team, the Utah Jazz, is about to spend the evening beating up on the lowly Hawks, to break a two-game losing streak. It is Boozer's 23rd birthday, and family members are in the stands. He's just spent a few nice days on the road trip in Miami with his wife, CeCe.
He's wrapping up a tough week, the fourth game in five nights. But with his game check, he'll have made nearly as much in five days as he made all of last season.
Fans wait for his signature on a new issue of Sports Illustrated, a profile of him inside. Two nights before in a studio a few miles away, the TNT commentators praise him during an interview. Charles Barkley gives a thumbs-up on the $70 million deal that lured the 1999 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate away from the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer.
Heading into Monday night's home game against the New Orleans Hornets, he's averaging 22.2 points and 10.3 rebounds.
No wonder he is happy.
"I don't regret anything. I made all the right decisions," Boozer said.
Cavaliers fans might say it's a matter of opinion.
Telling the story is redundant. At the end of the 2003-04 season, Boozer asks out of a $695,000 option in his contract for the next year. The Cavaliers say yes, believing he intends to sign a six-year, $38 million deal and stay with Cleveland. That amount is the most the Cavs can pay under league rules.
But after the Cavs decline the option, Boozer, his wife and now ex-agent instead sign a $68 million free-agent deal with the Jazz. The Cavs can't match the offer and lose Boozer to the Jazz, getting nothing in return. Many fans ridicule the team for trusting him.
As time passes, it becomes clear fans didn't know the entire Boozer plan, or the extent of the Cavaliers' misjudgment.
Boozer revealed Saturday that the Cavaliers' contract offer of $38 million over six years was almost never under consideration by him. He and his party knew that before the team ever officially offered a contract.
As the NBA free-agent period was about to begin July 1, a crucial meeting took place June 30 between Boozer and the Cavs at Gund Arena.
After Boozer signed the offer sheet with the Jazz, recounting details of the June 30 meeting turned into a "he said/he said" story with lots of talk and perhaps some legal misunderstandings.
But now Boozer hints he knew his value before the Cavaliers officially offered him the contract, and he intended to get it once the Cavaliers didn't pick up his option.
"The market was set already before I even decided. I found myself in a great position," Boozer said. "It sounds greedy, because $38 million is a lot of money, too. It sounds mad coming out of your mouth, but, yeah, I knew I was worth more and I knew I could get more."
He was worth $30 million more than the Cavs could pay him, in fact.
It is possible that Boozer knew his market value even in advance of the June 30 meeting. He also knew that some teams such as Utah, Atlanta and Denver had large salary-cap space available and a need for a post player.
These are issues Boozer won't address. Pelinka has not returned repeated telephone messages.
"I don't know, that was a long time ago," Boozer said when asked if his game plan was not to re-sign with the Cavaliers even before asking out of the option year in his contract. Then he ended the interview for this story.
In two years with the Cavaliers, the team loved Boozer's personality, his activity in the community, his seemingly solid character. Coaches also loved his workmanlike and intense approach to the business of basketball.
While trusting him because of the former, perhaps the Cavaliers didn't fully consider the latter.
The contract was business, the defining financial moment of Carlos and CeCe Boozer's lifetime. It also would become a statement to the draft class of 2002, the one that passed Boozer by as he was forced into the lower-paying second round. That night deeply bashed his ego and provided career motivation. Boozer always maintained he was working hard to prove everyone wrong.
He's now the highest-paid player from that class.
Boozer put himself in position for the financial reward with a great second year, averaging 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds and finishing second in the NBA's Most Improved Player Award balloting.
His wife, CeCe, had studied contracts. She knew what his teammates and players around the league were making and were about to make. She has a Duke business degree and experience working at a sports agency.
Pelinka works for SFX, a giant sports agency that has significant influence in setting the marketplace for free agents. Last summer alone, SFX got contracts for clients totaling more than $300 million.
It appeared to set the stage for the Boozers and Pelinka to plan and then pounce once the option was not executed.
In fact, as CeCe told ESPN The Magazine, the Boozers' only mistake was "never saying we didn't want to stay in Cleveland."
The decision not to state their true feelings might have been part of the plan all along, even as Boozer told the media he wanted to stay.
The Cavaliers declined to comment for this story, referring to team owner Gordon Gund's statement of July on the situation, when he wrote publicly to the fans: "I decided to trust Carlos and show him the respect he asked for. He did not show that trust and respect in return."
All parties would rather end the conversation on the subject.
The Cavaliers moved on by acquiring young power forward Drew Gooden to take Boozer's place in the lineup alongside LeBron James.
And so far, the Jazz are enjoying their investment.
"He's one of us now; even if people in other places think differently," said Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz vice president of basketball operations. "We thought that he was a top player; we paid a premium to get him and we're comfortable with that."
The Jazz have the low post presence they lost after Karl Malone left them before last season. As a result, they missed the playoffs for the first time in 20 years.
Though coach Jerry Sloan riles when anyone mentions Malone and Boozer in the same breath, refusing to compare them, Boozer's inclusion has seen the Jazz average 13 more points per game this season.
The fact that Boozer leads the Jazz in scoring is significant, because the Cavaliers and coach Paul Silas wanted him to remain the No. 3 scoring option behind James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
It was this opportunity that Boozer says also contributed to his decision to bolt.
"I don't know what the stigma was on me in Cleveland," Boozer said. "But there was no doubt, I always knew I could score like this if I worked hard."
Sloan said: "I don't know what the theory was in Cleveland. People have a lot of theories; we have some that aren't worth a dime.
"But we paid him a lot of money. It wasn't like we didn't think he could play."
Boozer still keeps a close eye on his former team. But as far as his emotional attachment, that is long gone.
"I'm doing well, the Cavs are doing well right now," Boozer said.
"We've both moved on."
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