Meet the Cavs' Best Player

(His name isn't LeBron).

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Joe Ely Beachland Ballroom Sunday, November 2
As Cleveland celebrities go, it's pretty easy being Carlos Boozer these days.

Klieg lights and TV cameras follow your every move -- but only if your jersey reads No. 23. LeBron James appeases hungry reporters after each practice and game, a bouquet of microphones greeting his every move.

Nobody much cares to hear from Darius or Z, unless it's for their take on The Kid. Such is life for the Cavaliers, the worst team with the best buzz in the NBA.

This season -- a single top draft pick and a change of colors later -- fan interest is at an all-time high. But upgrades over last year's 17-65 team aren't so clearly discernible. Among the key returning pieces are All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, talented and selfish scorer Ricky Davis, and sinewy forward Darius Miles, who has yet to grow into the star he was projected to be when he left high school for the NBA four seasons ago. LeBron, perhaps the greatest 18-year-old in history, now must play against grown men -- each of them drooling over the chance to school him.

In the middle of it all, there is Boozer, the Cavaliers' hardest worker and most magnetic presence, if not their most vocal player. He's the truest leader on a team that talks of filling the role by committee; an anchor of maturity for a runaway barge full of youngsters.

And, at 21 years old, he is also one of them.

"It is uncanny," says new coach Paul Silas. "Booz -- you don't think of him as a 21-year-old player. He's sound; he has toughness. If he says something, people are gonna listen."

"He handles himself like a 10-year veteran," echoes GM Jim Paxson, who selected Boozer in the second round of last year's draft. "If I had 12 Carlos Boozers, they probably wouldn't need me. He does all the right things."

As it is, Paxson and the Cavaliers have exactly one Carlos Boozer -- the guy who was a silent workhorse at Duke University and the perfect complement to its bigger stars. The guy who didn't gripe when his draft-day fortunes plummeted to the second round and the league's most pathetic franchise. The guy who was named to the NBA's All-Rookie team despite starting the season on the bench. The guy who stayed here in the offseason for voluntary workouts, and who shores up his shot after practice while others slip into their throwback jerseys.

LeBron may keep people in the seats this season, but Boozer will keep the Cavaliers in games.

"He's fearsome. He's a beast. He's a horse," says Darius Miles, who calls his teammate the second-best player ever to come from Duke, behind Grant Hill.

Indeed, Carlos Boozer can be a commanding presence. His head is 24 hours' worth of five o'clock shadow: It begins under the chin and cascades over his scalp, an unbroken sea of stubble punctuated by an omnipresent goatee.

His is the build of a Roman statue: an outsized column of graceful muscle, wide and lean, from shoulders to calves. Even his nose -- a crooked protuberance befitting a battle-hardened warrior -- evokes a regal aura. A tattoo winds from his left shoulder blade down to the elbow: the image of an enraged bear, its crimson eyes glowing, its paw caught in a slashing motion. The Beast, it reads in stylized script, C-Booz Unleashed.

But if Boozer's physique cultivates an imposing air, his demeanor quickly deflates it. His laugh is an infectious cackle; his greeting is an enveloping two-handed shake, which is telegraphed to the recipient at five paces. He smiles often and speaks with good-natured thoughtfulness. Even the odd cliché comes off more like elegant prose.

"You've got to look at it not just as wins and losses," he says of last season's woeful team. "You have to look at victories in a different light. What we have to do this year is turn it into wins."

C-Booz also spews optimism at every turn.

In a morning session early in training camp, the Cavaliers are loping through half-court drills. At one point, Boozer finishes a play with a thunderous two-hand dunk, the tips of his black-and-white Nikes skimming the underside of the backboard. It's a rare show of flair for a guy whose biggest thrills involve rebounds. Later, the team runs an arduous full-court layup drill. When Silas calls an end to it, the players double over, gasping for breath. Boozer pulls teammates' hands off their knees, leading a round of high-fives. Everyone wants a piece of his palm.

After practice -- any practice -- Boozer lingers alone at a basket, turning a game that values bullet-train speed into a session of deliberate study. This day, he is working on one-handed shots with the meticulous motion of a neurosurgeon, cradling the ball in his palm as he sights his target. He slowly jogs between spots, from the low blocks to the wing to the baseline to the top of the key.

At midcourt, Silas stands motionless, hands clasped behind his back to brace his slouching, 6-foot-7 frame. For 16 NBA seasons, he too was a workmanlike player. He averaged more rebounds (9.9) than points (9.4). As a coach, Silas is mostly a mute observer; when he speaks, the words flow in gentle, reassuring tones through a colonnade of jagged teeth. His eyes radiate a swirl of creases, and a satisfied, fatherly smile breaks across his face. He's facing the other basket, watching LeBron shoot jumpers.

If King James's arrival all but obliterates Boozer's shot at a starring role in Cleveland, it won't be the first time. For a former All-American who played a key role in a national championship, Boozer was never really The Man at Duke either.

When he arrived on campus in 1999, the transplant from Juneau, Alaska, was a wide-bodied complement to lanky forwards Shane Battier and Chris Carrawell. Boozer, one of seven freshmen, would ostensibly fill the shoes of Elton Brand, a thick presence in the paint who led Duke in scoring and rebounds the previous season en route to being named national player of the year. Boozer, in turn, was a prodigious talent, a child in a man's body -- but a role player on a team that boasted five scorers who averaged double figures.

"He was put in a position where he had to play -- and start -- and he did a really good job," says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "He was able to play right away at a high level."

Boozer broke his foot late in his sophomore year, but returned in time for the NCAA Final Four, scoring 19 points in a semifinal win against Maryland. He added 12 points and 12 rebounds as Duke shut down Arizona for the 2001 national championship. It remains the proudest moment of his career.

By the beginning of his junior year, Boozer knew he would turn pro the following spring. Duke finished the regular season No. 1 in the polls, but got bumped from the Sweet Sixteen by Indiana; the game ended with Boozer unable to stick back a rebound that would have given Duke the victory. The consolation prize was finishing his career as the top field-goal shooter in Blue Devil history (63.1 percent) and a third-team All-American.

"He was a great college offensive player," says Al Featherstone, who covers Atlantic Coast Conference basketball for the Herald-Sun in Durham, North Carolina, home of the Duke campus. "He was so good with his left hand that I once heard a TV announcer call him left-handed."

Boozer's short-range game and rebounding skills were his primary selling points. That spring, he attended workouts for 16 NBA teams. Analysts expected him to go in the mid-to-late first round of the draft. He impressed scouts at a Utah camp and heard hints from Jazz brass that they might call his name with the 19th pick.

But the Jazz never called. Neither did anybody else in the first round. Boozer's Duke teammates, Jason Williams and Mike Dunleavy, went with the second and third overall picks. Boozer sat at his parents' Raleigh home, near a quiet phone, trying to stay positive.

He was finally plucked by Cleveland in the second round, the 35th player taken. From a national college powerhouse, Boozer was moving to an NBA doormat. The Cavaliers had dumped their high-priced veterans and would soon deal away their only star, point guard Andre Miller. Certain that Boozer would be off the draft board early, the team never even requested a workout with him.

"There were a lot of teams that passed on me, and I think that's unfortunate," he said at the time, admitting his disappointment in coming to Cleveland. "In the long run, it may be a blessing in disguise for me."

Even then, experts had a hard time explaining Boozer's slide. Knocks on his game have more to do with genetics than work ethic: At 6 foot 9, he was widely considered too short to be an NBA power forward, a position often played by former college centers. He's been accused of having slow feet on defense as well as a general lack of athleticism -- a beef he dispelled by dropping 20 pounds after college. Paxson believes Duke players are at a disadvantage because of their overexposure on television. After all, nobody's assets -- and liabilities -- get air time like Dukies'.

"I don't know why Carlos wasn't drafted higher," says Krzyzewski. "But I would assume there are a lot of people that would have wished he'd have been drafted higher by them."

The Orlando Magic may have been one such club. After passing on Boozer with the 19th pick, the Magic made a midseason trade to get fellow rookie Drew Gooden, a power forward whose strengths are similar to Boozer's, if more refined.

"As recruiters, we're too hung up on upside, more than we are on talent," says Magic GM John Gabriel. Boozer's consistent numbers in three seasons at Duke, he says, were a cooling factor to some scouts. "When a guy looks like he levels off, we're sort of prejudiced against him to take the next step. We all missed on [Boozer]; I think that's the underlying feeling."

Boozer, meanwhile, missed on the financial payoff guaranteed to first-round picks. Second-rounders, like free agents, must earn a roster spot. Cleveland gave him a guaranteed two-year deal anyway, worth more than $900,000 -- easily a million less than he would have made as a first-rounder. Among Cavaliers, only rookie Jason Kapono makes less.

"With the disappointment of going in the second round, you're just happy to be picked," says Boozer, ever the diplomat. "I just look back at the benefits. I knew I had a chance to start in Cleveland, and that lit a fire in me."

Had Boozer gone to Utah, he might have been groomed to be heir to Karl Malone, the consummate power forward and Boozer's longtime idol. He might also have spent most of his first season on the bench.

His career in Cleveland started that way. Second-year coach John Lucas chose to sit younger players in favor of underperforming veterans like Tyrone Hill. By late January, after a 1-5 West Coast trip in which the Cavaliers blew several late-game leads, the team sank to a dismal 8-34. Paxson fired Lucas and replaced him with assistant coach Keith Smart. The move opened up a permanent starting role for Boozer, a capable scorer and the leading rebounder almost every night.

Though he started in fewer than half the team's games prior to the All-Star Break, Boozer was named to the All-Star Rookie Challenge team. There, he weathered a moment more embarrassing than the Cavaliers' season itself, when Golden State's Jason Richardson inbounded a ball to himself off Boozer's forehead, then nailed a three-point basket.

"He has no class," Boozer told reporters after the game.

The next month, Boozer avenged the slight, notching 19 points and 14 rebounds against Richardson and the Warriors in a 21-point Cavalier rout. He ended the season averaging 10 points and 7.5 rebounds, and his .536 field-goal percentage was third-best in all the NBA. He also registered 21 double-doubles -- the same number as Malone.

Among forwards drafted ahead of Boozer in 2002, only Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire (13.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Miami's Caron Butler (15.4, 5.1), and Orlando's Gooden (12.5, 6.5) posted better numbers -- and all had more playing time than Boozer.

"Not only has he turned out to be the talent that you hoped he would be, but he brings energy to that club that we're all just starving for," says Orlando's Gabriel.

"Carlos exceeded our expectations, especially in the sense that he was able to deal with the kind of season we went through," says Paxson. "He dealt with it like a real professional."

The first words out of Boozer's mouth at a preseason press conference sound like any he might have uttered during his career at Duke. "I'm sad to say it so many times, but we're young. We all have more experience this year." It's the next part that seems to stick in his throat. "We all know what it's like to lose 65 games. That's a horrible feeling."

The horror subsided in an adrenaline surge on May 22, when the Cavaliers earned the right to select LeBron. Never mind the four-straight seasons of 50-plus losses or the utter lack of team identity that led to them.

LeBron brings unlimited potential, if not a full tube of salve for the Cavaliers' most glaring ailments. The team was abysmal on defense last season: The 101 points allowed per game were second-worst in the NBA. Outside shooting was sketchy at best, and virtually anyone who could dribble was given the chance to play point guard. LeBron is an instant upgrade at that position: an athletic player and a fabulous passer who sees the court better than most veterans. His outside shot won't win many HORSE games on the playground, but his ability to distribute the ball and cut to the basket would seem to more than compensate.

Not surprisingly, Silas reveals no sense of urgency. He says LeBron is getting more comfortable running the offense with each day, and others -- like sharpshooter Kapono -- will ease into their roles with time. Besides, poor defense and perimeter shooting are hallmarks of any young team, and nobody does it younger than the Cavaliers. The average age among starters -- minus graybeard Ilgauskas (himself a spry 28) -- is 21. Baldwin-Wallace fields an older lineup.

"The good news is that in the size of their club and their athleticism, they're right there with the best in the Eastern Conference," says Orlando's Gabriel. "But nothing takes the place of experience, and the bad news is that everyone else gets a little better in the offseason also."

Always a respectable midrange shooter for a big man, Boozer devoted his offseason to shoring up his 15- to 20-foot game.

"Carlos is one of those guys you don't have to run plays for, and he can still get you 10 to 12 points," says Paxson. That's exactly what he did last year: His 10 points per game came almost entirely off rebounds and in transition. That will change under Silas, whose offense accentuates versatility, with players rotating to multiple spots on the court. Boozer will jockey for the ball near the basket, but will also get it near the foul line and on the wings, off pick-and-rolls.

"He has more confidence than last year," says Ilgauskas, whom Boozer considered a mentor in his first season. "He came out with a different mentality. He works his ass off, and now he knows he's gonna stay on the court, no matter if he messes up."

Donnie Walsh, president of the Indiana Pacers, says too many draft watchers miscast Boozer for lack of size and outside shooting, based on the low-post play they saw at Duke. "I didn't know that he can shoot the ball the way he's shooting it," Walsh admits. "He's certainly strong enough; he's got a great body. But he can also bring the defense away from the basket, which will help him. When he's playing against bigger players, his ability to step out on the floor brings them out of their comfort zone."

One day after a preseason loss, Boozer remains one of the last players in the gym, after a practice that already ran more than an hour overtime. He is working on 20-footers from around the court, jogging from station to station, his wine-colored jersey now a sweat-soaked burgundy. Most shots find the bottom of the net; misfires are greeted with a resonant growl. But he does not curse or show anger; he takes the ball again and shoots till he scores, then jogs to the next spot on the floor. No coach hovers over his routine.

"You just let him go," says Paxson.

Mike Krzyzewski talks about Carlos Boozer the way a best man talks about a groom.

"Carlos is the kind of guy you would want as your friend, as your brother, as someone really, really close to you, because he can share in your successes and failures at the same level that you do," says the Duke coach. "He's right there with you, and there's not many people that can do that."

Coping with failure would seem to make Boozer the perfect fit for the Cavaliers and their fans. That a basketball player named "Boozer" would land in Cleveland is worthy of a toast in itself. But he has drunk alcohol exactly twice in his life -- when Duke won the 2001 championship and again at his wedding two summers ago. He will happily drink a third time to celebrate a Cavalier title.

Though he is one of few players to have moved to Cleveland full-time, Boozer tends to stay at home in his downtown apartment with his wife, Cindy. The few times he goes out, it's with young center DeSagana Diop and Miles. He loves to eat -- Blue Point Grille, the Chop House, and Bahama Breeze are among his favorites -- and go to movies.

"We love it when the sun comes out," adds the man from Juneau, where rain is a regional pastime and summer temperatures soar into the 60s. "The only thing that kinda bothers us is the cold."

Boozer's first full summer as a Cavalier left little spare time to explore his new hometown, let alone complete the few credit hours he needs for his sociology degree at Duke. In the days leading up to the LeBron draft, he took part in voluntary workouts and helped coaches audition potential second-round picks. He participated in both of the team's summer leagues (in Orlando and Boston); attended a camp in Maine for children from war-torn regions; visited his family in Raleigh, where his brother Charles is a top high school prospect; and made two trips back to Alaska. He also visited his friend Jason Williams, a groomsman at his wedding, who was critically injured in a motorcycle accident following his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls.

Boozer is under contract with Cleveland only through spring. But by the time he weathers the two seasons his initial pro deal requires, the Cavaliers might be a team worth sticking with. Boozer himself speaks as though he'd prefer to be here.

"I want us to get back to the glory days at the Coliseum, when we had Mark Price and Larry Nance and those guys," he says, referring to an era that he spent in elementary school, 2,500 miles away.

Recovering the misplaced mojo of those teams would be a good thing for the Cavaliers, whose teams have never rocked Gund Arena the way they did rural Richfield 15 years ago.

Certainly, the Cavaliers want Boozer around. He came to Cleveland a draft-day steal, but his play will drive up his price tag. For ammo, he need look no further than former Blue Devil Elton Brand. Labeled an undersized power forward when he left college, Brand has averaged 19 points and 11 boards. Over the summer, he signed an $82 million contract that will keep him with the Clippers for the rest of the decade.

If LeBron James was the best draft pick Jim Paxson has made, it was also one his mother could have handled. The shrewder move was the one that brought Boozer to Cleveland. Paxson himself would rather withhold judgment for now. It's a luxury enjoyed by the worst team with the best buzz in the NBA.

"If we can keep him for the long term, and he can help us win a championship," he says, "then it'll be a great pick."

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