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For what it's worth, Ron Boone is the most popular professional athlete ever to play in Salt Lake City. Over eight seasons he also was a favorite in places like Dallas, Memphis, Louisville, Charlotte, Commack, N.Y., St. Louis and Norfolk. But that was in the other league, the ABA, which expired in 1976 with Boone as its third-leading all-time scorer.
For the past two years, the 6'2�" Boone has played in the NBA, and his profile has been much lower, but not because he has lost any of his skills. At 32, he looks 26, and he is still one of the best all-round guards in the game, a powerfully muscled, pugnacious defender and a superb outside shooter. Boone's main misfortune was to enter the NBA with the Kansas City Kings, hardly media darlings, whose players have been known to disappear without a trace.
Thus, when he surfaced this season in Los Angeles, acquired in a trade to replace Charlie Scott, Boone found that the fans there—not to mention the press, the players, even the coach—knew little about him. In fact, for the first few weeks of the season they did not even know what he looked like, because he wore a mask to protect his nose, which had been repositioned by an opponent's elbow in an exhibition game. What Los Angeles did know about Boone was this: he came from somewhere and he was supposed to be pretty good—though while wearing his mask both he and the Lakers were pretty awful—and he had never, ever missed a basketball game in his life until this past exhibition season. Ron Boone was the iron man in the mask.
Even if he never becomes a star in the NBA, this week Ron Boone will be able to claim one of the greatest achievements in pro basketball history. When he steps onto the court in Houston on Nov. 22, he will play in his 845th consecutive regular-season game, eclipsing the record set by Johnny (Red) Kerr with Syracuse, Philadelphia and Baltimore between 1954 and 1965. The officials will probably stop the game and give him the basketball to be displayed in his den alongside Nos. 800, 700 et al., and his wife Jackie will fly down from their home in Omaha to help him celebrate.
But the august NBA will react with a big ho-hum. Because, you see, 662 of Boone's games were played in the ABA, and everyone knows that the NBA doesn't remember the ABA with fondness. According to the NBA, Kerr's record is safe for at least another four seasons, because his closest pursuer is San Diego's Randy Smith, way back there at 530 games as of Nov. 12. "I wouldn't knock Boone's accomplishment," says Kerr, now a broadcaster for the Chicago Bulls. "I always said that nobody could know what playing in that many consecutive games was like except the guy who did it and his wife. But, listen, if Sadaharu Oh came over and hit two home runs for the Yankees, would he break Hank Aaron's major league home-run record?"
Whether or not Boone's name is ever inscribed in the NBA record book is of little concern to him. Like every ABA alumnus, he is fiercely proud of his roots. "The whole consecutive-games thing was brought to my attention nine years ago, after I'd played 200-something straight for the Dallas Chaparrals and the Utah Stars," says Boone. "I was told that the record held by Johnny Kerr was for basketball, period. If you put yourself out for 82 or 84 games a year for 10 straight years, I don't see that it makes any difference what color the basketball is."
To gauge the significance of what it's like to play 10-plus seasons and never miss a game—including playoffs, which will make Boone's total 921 as of Nov. 22—it should be noted that of those among the NBA's 242 players who have completed as few as three seasons, only Chicago's Artis Gilmore, besides Boone, has never missed a game. Gilmore has a nice little string of his own going—599 as of Nov. 12. That's right, Gilmore played in the ABA, too. Can this mean that ABA players are tougher than NBA players? No way.
"When I broke Dolph Schayes' old record of 706," says Kerr, "I got a telegram that said: CONGRATULATIONS. YOU'RE ONLY 1,423 BEHIND GEHRIG." But if 845 doesn't sound astronomical enough, consider the NBA player's life: constant doses of six-games-in-six-cities-in-eight-nights, practice every day, the endless running, jumping, pounding and colliding. Because virtually everyone has missed at least one game with a broken toenail, a bruised elbow, Hong Kong flu or a deviated septum, Boone's feat is astonishing. His coach, Jerry West, no sissy, had his nose broken nine times during his career. "The way Ron plays," says West, "I don't see how he's possibly done it."
Boone began playing organized basketball in 1956, in the fourth-grade Saturday morning league at Kellom Elementary school on Omaha's all-black north side. For three years' worth of Saturdays, he missed not one game. "I remember once I didn't do my household chores and my mother said I couldn't play ball," says Boone, "but I snuck out of the house and played anyway." He got several lashes with a belt across the backside, after which he did double duty to keep from being locked up the following Saturday.
He guesses his team at Technical Junior High played 30 games in two years, and as a 5'7" playmaking guard at Tech High, he played in 85 straight. "Once our car broke down on the way to a game." he remembers, "but we pushed it to a service station and got it running. Made it to the game. Barely."