- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The man who signed Carlos Boozer away from the Cleveland Cavaliers is ready to explain.
Ready to explain why, about a month ago, he made it sound as though he might be regretting one of the most controversial free-agent defections in NBA history.
"I'll tell you, I'm kind of embarrassed at myself," Larry Miller said Monday night, recalling his Boozer blasts to the Utah press suggesting that his marquee summer signing didn't always play hard.
"And the reason is that I spent too much time which is uncharacteristic of me listening to and being influenced by the local media," Miller continued. "I'm not a media basher, so don't get the wrong idea, but all the call-in shows and newspaper articles were talking about Carlos, relative to his expectations and his pay plan and all that stuff. It wasn't so much that I bought into it it's that I appeared to buy into it and articulated that publicly.
"I made a mistake doing that, and I apologized to Carlos, because it really did hurt his feelings, and I don't blame him ... I was wrong in even talking about it publicly, and that was his main point. He said, 'Look, if you've got something to say to me, I don't have any problem with that, but you ought to do it between us and not hang me out to dry in the media.' And he's right about that.
"He and I had a good talk about everything and I think all that's been put to bed. And he and I have had a lot of interaction since then and all of that's been positive, and I don't feel it's been cosmetic or plastic."
You already know how Clevelanders feel. They've been waiting for March 15 since last July, when Boozer sparked a nationwide furor by bolting for Salt Lake City after the Cavaliers unexpectedly granted the burly forward restricted free agency. We could try to describe the depths of the Lake Erie contempt for Boozer, which overflows to this day even with Drew Gooden's and Anderson Varejao's succeeding Boozer ably, but it'd be easier for you simply to click to carlosloozer.com for the best expression of what the locals are thinking.
Especially now that Boozer, who has been out since Valentine's Day with a nagging foot sprain, won't be at Gund Arena on Tuesday to let Cavs fans abuse him.
"I have only owned the Cavaliers for two weeks, so I was not around when the organization got bamboozled," said new Cavs boss Dan Gilbert, using the standard term used in town to describe Boozergate.
"I know our great fans are very disappointed that they will not have the opportunity to 'welcome' him back home."
Especially after the Cavs thrashed the Jazz 92-73.
Boozer, of course, believes he owed Cleveland nothing in the summer and even less now. He insists to this day that he never hinted at re-signing with the Cavs for roughly $40 million over six years in exchange for the right to become a free agent last July 1. He likewise sees no need to travel with the Jazz and sit on their bench to absorb the venom that has the folks at carlosloozer.com going ahead with their "Loozerpalooza" rally at a bar near the arena before the game, even though Public Enemy No. 5 won't be anywhere close to the vicinity.
Not that Boozer's absence is such a stunner. He'll undoubtedly be ripped for avoiding the scene -- perhaps even by teammates -- but it's not like going back to Cleveland this one time will bring any closure to the saga. Boozer is going to be booed like an outlaw every time he goes back for the rest of his career, and so will the Jazz for as long as they employ him. So the suggestion that he's passing up the opportunity to finally let everyone purge their Boozer baggage and move on is a fallacy.
Boozer, furthermore, has far more pressing concerns than appeasing the jilted fan base that once loved him so. His only basketball focus at the minute has to be getting that foot right and getting back to work. Boozer has to get sufficiently healthy to start diffusing the mounting angst in his new city.
Even before Miller vented at the team in the locker room after a Feb. 7 home loss to New York and then questioned Boozer's toughness and effort in the papers LeBron James' departed sidekick had emerged as the chief target of discontent for Jazz fans dealing with the first losing season in the Jerry Sloan era.
Boozer's production hasn't been poor, but his averages of 17.8 points and 9.0 rebounds don't match his six-year, $68 million contract. The last thing anyone in Wasatch Country expected was a 20-42 record after an offseason in which Miller stomped all over the longstanding notion that free agents won't come to Salt Lake City by committing well over $100 million to Boozer and Mehmet Okur and then re-signing Andrei Kirilenko to a near-max deal.
Injuries have been the biggest issue for the Jazz, after two decades of almost-perfect attendance from John Stockton and Karl Malone. Kirilenko has missed nearly half the season thanks to a knee sprain suffered shortly after Utah's 6-1 start, and Boozer has missed the past 11 games with foot trouble that required a trip to Los Angeles late last week to see a tissue specialist. And those are just the big-name setbacks.
It's not just injuries, though. For the first time in Sloan's career, the team doesn't look at all like an extension of the coach. Hopes were high after last season's no-namers overcame the early loss of Matt Harpring to post an amazing 42-40 mark. Those hopes swelled when Miller splashed out all that cash and Boozer averaged 22.2 points over the first 10 games, switching seamlessly to the land of mighty power forwards out West.
"They certainly did with me," Miller said. "I would have expected this kind of thing if it had started last year. But when Jerry pulled that 42-40 out of his hat, I think I came to believe probably wishful thinking, it appears now that we dodged that bullet ... that we don't have to take the huge nosedive others teams have taken before we recovered.
"As I look at the whole thing now, it's not as mentally trying as it was in probably late December because I still hadn't come to grips with it then."
The unraveling began, sadly, on the same November night that Stockton's No. 12 was retired. The Jazz fell to winless New Orleans, then lost to winless Chicago two nights later. Then Kirilenko got hurt, to give the spiral a powerful nudge.
Utah has since clinched Sloan's first losing season since he took over for Frank Layden in 1988. And serious questions have since been raised about Boozer's ability to mesh with Kirilenko, sparking trade-deadline speculation that Boozer would be offloaded to the Lakers in a swap featuring Lamar Odom a move multiple Boozer confidants say he wouldn't protest, incidentally.
See? The Jazz have plenty to sort out before they stop to worry about the Boozer hate in Cleveland that now spills into next season's visit. You know how Clevelanders feel, but Utahns are still confused eight months later. Long gone is the feeling of "downright exhilaration," to use Miller's words, that followed the acquisitions of Boozer and Okur.
"It has to make me a little nervous," Miller conceded when asked if he still worries whether his breakthrough investments were the right ones. "I wouldn't be prudent financially if it [this season's struggles] didn't make me a little nervous. But I take a look at the character of the guys and I take a look at our coaching staff and I've got a lot of confidence in them."
"We did make it clear to him that he wasn't going anywhere," Miller said. "Carlos is only 23. He's going through a lot of new things, but he'll be fine. He's really a talented player.
"This is a young team, and we're all still trying to figure out who the heck we are and where we fit in. Including myself."
1hMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon
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7hIan O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer