Commentary

The curious career of Carlos Boozer

In previous stops, Boozer has been a polarizing player for fans and media

Updated: July 10, 2010, 3:07 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Like it or not, the Bulls' biggest free-agent addition is a perfect example of a modern-day sports mercenary, maybe even more so, ironically, than LeBron James, who took less money, need we be reminded, to go to the Miami Heat.

And like the most hated man in Cleveland, Boozer has not exactly left a trail of well-wishers in his wake.

He went from Cleveland to Utah for six years and $68 million, angering the Cavs who said he reneged on a promise to stay if they made him an unrestricted free agent. And then he went from Utah to Chicago for five years and $76 million, angering the Jazz by telling an ESPN reporter last year that he planned to opt out of his contract at the end of the season and go for "a raise."

[+] EnlargeCarlos Boozer
Icon SMICarlos Boozer was named in All-Star twice during his time with the Jazz.

This coming right after he missed15 games to injury.

Boozer opted back into his Jazz contract after finding there wasn't enough interest in the open market, hamstringing Utah's salary cap, and then angered their fans further by talking openly about how much he'd like to play for the Heat or the Bulls.

Cavs' fans started "I hate Boozer" Web sites when he left Cleveland. In Utah, the late Jazz owner Larry Miller publicly criticized Boozer's defensive effort, after which he developed what the press called a "mysterious" foot injury in 2005. Moreover, Miller later called Boozer's comments about wanting to leave "one of the top 10 stupidest things I've heard an NBA player do in 20 years."

According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger this week, the Nets were willing to offer Boozer a deal similar as the Bulls, and were stunned and angry they never got a chance to match it.

All that said, Boozer is practically a prototype of today's elite athlete, plying his trade and maximizing his market value as is his right. And make no mistake, the Bulls and their fans will love him if he stays healthy and puts up similar numbers -- 19.5 points and 11.2 rebounds -- as he did last season.

"It's a perfect fit," Boozer said of his new team and, unless he doesn't play, the Bulls will absolutely be better with their best low-post player since Elton Brand.

"He really has the ability to play inside and out," Bulls general manager Gar Forman said of Boozer. "He can play pick-and-roll, he can pick-and-pop, he can hit a perimeter shot. He's got great instincts as a passer."

[+] EnlargeBoozer
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty ImagesCarlos Boozer's injury history could be cause for concern.

As for his defensive play, which was practically non-existent under Jerry Sloan, a coach who forged a Hall-of-Fame career in large part because of his tenacity on defense, Boozer was asked how things would be any different under new Bulls coach and noted defensive specialist Tom Thibodeau.

"I feel like I feel like I've gotten better over my career in Utah with coach Sloan," Boozer said. "The last couple years we were getting taught more, which helped me a lot. And obviously I think having coach Thibodeau here, I'm going to learn a lot more and continue to be taught how to play better defense, so I'm looking forward to answering my critics and showing how much I can improve."

It was a good answer, but can he change?

"His history would suggest he'd say that," Deseret News columnist Brad Rock said, "but when he settles in, he's still Carlos Boozer and he won't play defense."

Jazz media were universal in both their praise and, especially, their criticism of Boozer.

"If the right scenario had happened this year and the Jazz had beaten Phoenix [in the final regular-season game], they would've had the No. 2 seed," Rock said. "And Boozer doesn't show up, doesn't play [because of a strained oblique muscle]. And I never heard of a hamstring keeping a guy out for almost a year [as it did in Boozer's second season, limiting him to 31 games]. Even if the coaches bought it, the public didn't. "

On the injury topic, Boozer said Friday he has had "some tough ones in the past" but that they were out of his control and that he's healthy now. Obviously Boozer had it tough with fans' most convenient frame of reference being Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton, who missed a combined 31 games in their 37 NBA seasons.

But the comparisons didn't end there.

"Malone was kind of transparent," Rock said. "He'd be mad about Larry not calling him about his contract or mad at Greg Ostertag, but we in the media and fans could look and see where Karl was coming from. Boozer, you never knew where he was coming from and he wouldn't let you in. He's not impolite, just sort of dismissive."

There were rumbles that Boozer padded his numbers after games were decided and grabbed rebounds away from younger teammates, glaring at them when they didn't comply.

But several reporters who covered the Jazz used the same description of Sloan's relationship with Boozer, with one describing it as "bizarrely protective." Boozer, they theorized, did not take criticism well and, especially after Miller went after him, Sloan knew he needed Boozer to be in the right frame of mind if the Jazz were to succeed.

Sloan did not comment right after Boozer signed with the Bulls, but Friday in Orlando said of his departure, "The lights are kind of out on us a little bit because Boozer left."

Scott Garrard, a host on the Jazz's flagship station 1320 KFAN, called Boozer "the single most polarizing player ever to play in Utah."

"Malone had people going in different directions but it wasn't even close to Carlos Boozer," Garrard said. "Karl Malone said some dopey things every now and then, but unlike Carlos, they always knew they'd get the best out of him. He'd bust his butt and play through injuries."

Garrard defended Boozer for sitting out the Suns' game, saying team doctors told the station there was no way he could have played. But he too questioned Boozer's ability and desire to play defense.

"The Lakers are going to beat everyone, but [Lamar] Odom and [Pau] Gasol and [Andrew] Bynum all just destroyed him," he said. "But then [Boozer] never had someone to compensate for his defensive deficiencies like he'll have in [Joakim] Noah."

Boozer lavished praise on new teammates Noah and Derrick Rose, calling Rose, "the most athletic point guard I've seen, maybe ever" and saying Noah was "a tremendous rebounder with a huge desire to win."

But good and good enough are obviously two different things, particularly when you're in the same conference with the "Super Power" as the three-headed Heat are now being called.

But on that note, Boozer had the home run quote of the day.

"If we work our butts off and we will ... I think we can be as good as we want to be," he said. "Our goal is to win. We're not here just to win regular-season games and compete in the playoffs. We want to win championships."

"Carlos Boozer," proclaimed Forman, "is our kind of guy. I think he'll really fit in with the culture here and what we're trying to create moving forward. He's a worker. He's professional. High makeup and character..."

When it was time for the photo op, Boozer picked up his No. 5 Bulls jersey, John Paxson's old No. 5, and flashed a grin.

"He's the perfect 15-second sound byte," Garrard said of the power forward. "He's personable with a big smile, looks happy and pleasant. If he plays well, coupled with that personality, there will be a lot of Boozer jersey sales in Chicago. Carlos is extremely capable of pulling it off."

If the Bulls win, he doesn't even need the personality.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.