Sometimes, love is serendipitous. Other times, it looks up your number in the student directory, calls you out of the blue and asks if you want to go out that night. � That is what happened to Utah Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer in 1999, when he was a 17-year-old freshman registering for classes at Duke. A 21-year-old North Carolina State student named CeCe Blackwell, in Durham visiting a friend, saw the tall, muscular Boozer--the Blue Devils' top incoming recruit--at the university bookstore and liked what she saw. So she cold-called to ask him to dinner, and, as Carlos says happily, "We've been together ever since."
Throughout Boozer's journey from Duke to the Cleveland Cavaliers to Utah, CeCe--whom he married in 2002--has been by his side. She watches film with him, rebounds his practice shots and analyzes his play after games. Last summer she also sat in on every meeting during his controversial free-agent contract negotiations. When Boozer first spoke with Jazz owner Larry Miller, CeCe was on the conference call (as was Carlos's agent at the time, Rob Pelinka) and did, recalls Miller, "about a third of the talking." Already she's bonded with the wives of Utah guards Carlos Arroyo and Raja Bell, organizing frequent dinner outings. "When she came in it was like, There's a new sheriff in town!" says Arroyo with a smile. Adds Boozer with dreamy sincerity, "She is the biggest thing in my life. She fulfills me."
Boozer's family values fit in well in Salt Lake City, though it's his game that has Jazz fans jazzed. While he may not be the second coming of Karl Malone, the 6'8" 258-pounder has at least erased memories of the toothless troika of Tom Gugliotta, Ben Handlogten and Michael Ruffin that tried to replace the Mailman last season. Boozer's presence on the low block allows Utah to play its preferred inside-out style, and he's both unselfish enough to look for cutters and skilled enough to bury 17-foot jump shots. Through Sunday he had averaged 19.3 points on 53.7% shooting and 10.3 rebounds--including 20 points and 13 boards in last Saturday's 108-93 win over Detroit--while leading the team in high fives and sparking a 5-1 start.
Of course, there are one or two people--O.K., maybe the entire populace of Cleveland--who aren't thrilled to see the 23-year-old Boozer in Utah, much less thriving there. To recap: On July 1 the Cavaliers declined to pick up the option on the third year of Boozer's contract, even though doing so would have locked him in for another season at a SuperSaver rate of $695,000. Team owner Gordon Gund made that move to accommodate his rising star's request for long-term security, and he says he received Boozer's assurance that he would re-sign. Two weeks later, however, Boozer snubbed the Cavs' six-year, $41 million deal and signed a six-year, $68 million offer sheet with Utah. Net result: After Boozer padded his bank account by an extra $27 million, his management agency, SFX, severed ties with him and forfeited its $2.7 million fee, a stunning move that, in the eyes of many, cast Boozer as a wrongdoer. (In fact, such an off-the-books agreement between Boozer and Cleveland would seem to put the Cavs in violation of the league's collective bargaining agreement.) Cleveland fans branded their once beloved forward the Bamboozler, and worse. Says G.M. Jim Paxson, "Based on the type of person Gordon Gund is, I feel bad for him and [Boozer's former] teammates and our fans that Carlos didn't keep his word."
Four months later Boozer says his only regret is that he didn't declare immediately what he's maintained ever since: that he never promised to stay. "I waited 10 days," he says, "and by that time I was already a snake in the public's opinion." The Jazz brass takes pains to distance itself from the controversy. "What happened in Cleveland was like a divorce," says G.M. Kevin O'Connor. "We're like the remarriage."
What made the split particularly odd is that Boozer is far from a petulant prima donna. His Utah teammates and coaches call him "humble" (Arroyo), "unselfish" ( forward Andrei Kirilenko), "an encourager by nature" (assistant coach Gordon Chiesa) and "a wonderful person to be around" (coach Jerry Sloan). The inconsistency--honorable guy commits what seems a dishonorable act--has led some to come to other conclusions about who was behind Boozer's decision. "A big thing that people wanted to harp on was that it must be my fault," says CeCe. "People who know Carlos didn't want to believe that he would be a bad person, so it had to be me." She had input in the negotiations, CeCe says, but no more than any other spouse might have. "Even though this is a job, it's also a life decision," she says. "Both people should have a say in it."
That is all in the past now, however, as both Boozer and Paxson (who reloaded the Cavs almost immediately by acquiring forward Drew Gooden) are eager to make clear. Carlos and CeCe have a house in the hills outside Salt Lake City, which they share with Beauty, a Lhasa apso who fills the role of, in Carlos's words, "our baby before we have a baby." The terrain and climate are reminiscent of Juneau, Alaska, where Boozer grew up. He enjoys the outdoors lifestyle--he spent many an afternoon casting for salmon and halibut with his dad--and has no difficulty relating to a coach whose preferred fashion accoutrement is a John Deere hat.
For years, in fact, Boozer fantasized about playing for Utah--now there's something you don't hear often--drawn by Sloan's disciplined system and the presence of Malone. Ever since he arrived at Duke, Boozer has patterned his game after the Mailman's, amassing an impressive video collection that includes all of Utah's Finals games and the four-tape Karl Malone's Body Shop program. ("His physique is crazy," says Boozer.) The Jazz twice brought in Boozer for a workout before the 2002 draft, decided not to pick him, then watched him develop into a double-double threat in Cleveland, where he continued to study Malone's game. "When we played my rookie year, he'd grab my waist so I couldn't jump on rebounds," says Boozer reverentially. "After the game, he explained how to do it."
Boozer may need to use that trick often this season. At 6'8", he was undersized even among the fours in the East, but in the West, land of the Jolly Green Garnett and Duncanzilla, he's practically a dwarf. With no interior shot blockers--the elastic-armed Kirilenko is a weakside opportunist, and centers Mehmet Okur and Jarron Collins won't be jumping out of the gym anytime soon-- Utah could be vulnerable against larger teams. Boozer plans to compensate with his positioning, guile and uncommon strength. "It's not just weight-room strength either," says Jazz player development coach Mark McKown. "He has functional strength, as we call it, like a guy who's been baling hay his whole life. He works hard too. I wouldn't be surprised if he's stronger after the All-Star break than before, which never happens."
On offense Boozer starts every possession by sprinting down the floor--much like a certain Utah forward of old--and setting up as deep as possible to make what's known in NBA parlance as a "paint catch." Once he gets the ball in the post, he tries to initiate contact immediately. "Most people are physical defensively," says Chiesa. "Carlos bangs you on offense." Boozer often outquicks shot blockers by tossing a half hook. If he senses an overplay he switches to his left hand, which he honed through years of practice; his father even had Boozer eat his cereal lefty. "He's the type of player who takes what the defense gives him; he's smart that way," said Raptors forward Chris Bosh following his battle with Boozer. "I'll have to remember that lefty thing."