Ron Boone: A True Champion
Originally published in Utah Jazz HomeCourt Magazine in May 1996.
Ron Boone: A True Champion
Wewoka was not very different from any other tiny Indian community southeast of Oklahoma City. Vamoosa, Sasakwa, Knoawa, Wettumka and Bowlegs were nearby hamlets.
by Dave Blackwell
Ron Boone remembers his birthplace where he entered the lineup September 6, 1946. "I would sit under a pecan tree and eat pecans all day long. And there was the red dirt that would get all over my shoes and clothes when I went out to play. There was a street named Seminole that was half-paved with asphalt on one side and dirt on the other. Why this is still so fresh in my mind I don't know," says Boone, who left Wewoka for the "big town" of Omaha, Nebraska when he was only four years old.
A piece of Wewoka resurfaced years later when Boone, who does possess Choctaw blood, was nicknamed Chief while playing for the ABA Utah Stars. "One day Willie Wise decided I looked like an Indian so he called me Chief," Boone remembers. "The nickname carried through the team and then the league and then the media. I guess I was the first Chief and Robert Parish was the second."
Today Wise's nickname has been replaced by Booner, even though Wife Jackie and the rest of the family refer to him as Ronnie.
Regardless of what he is called, Ron Boone is recognized as a person who played 13 pro seasons in the American Basketball Association and the National Basketball Association; as the illustrious keeper of the most consecutive games played record in professional basketball history (1,041); and as the color analyst of Jazz basketball on KJZZ and Prime Sports and a cohost of SportsTalk and JazzTalk on SportsRadio 570.
Not bad for a little guy who was content to follow the big boys around in north Omaha, a predominantly black section of the Nebraska city.
“I came from a very sports-minded family," says Boone. “There were four boys and two girls, and we all went to college on basketball scholarships. I was raised on a dead end street that had 65 kids on it, and we played every sport that was available. I used to follow my brother Don wherever he would go. He was an excellent basketball player, and he was a great baseball player who was looked at by the St. Louis Cardinals." To this day the Cardinals remain Ron's favorite team.
North Omaha produced some incredible athletes like Hall of Famers Bob Gibson of baseball, football's Gale Sayers, basketball's Bob Boozer and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers.
“Whenever I ran into guys like Gibson and Boozer it was because of my brother Don. Baseball was my first love and best sport and, while my brother would be playing with the Gibson brothers, Josh and Fred, and Gale Sayer’s brother Roger (a world class sprinter), I would be the bat boy. That’s why I was a better baseball player at an early age than I was a basketball player."
Another reason was size. Boone was a slender 5'7" when he graduated from Omaha Tech High School, where he averaged 12 points and was named second team All-City his senior year. College scouts ignored him, but a few junior colleges showed some interest.
Boone chose Iowa Western Community College in little Clarinda, which was impressed with Boone while scouting one of his OmahaTech teammates.
"When I went to Clarinda I had grown three inches to 5'10", so I was just beginning to blossom into a pretty good basketball player," says Boone. "I averaged 25 points there. One of my highlights was playing against the University of Nebraska freshman team, whose best player was Stu Lantz." Lantz would later play years in the NBA and currently provides color commentary for the Los Angeles Lakers "I scored 35 points against them, but Nebraska coach Joe Cipriano didn't look at me cross-eyed. I guess he didn't want me to come to Lincoln, even though I wanted to because of Fred Hare," a legendary prep scorer who was a year ahead of Boone at OmahaTech.
"As it turned out, Cipriano's lack of interest was the best thing that could have happened to me," says Boone.
Years before, Neal Mosser and Claude Retherford were roommates at the University of Nebraska. Mosser later became the highly successful basketball coach at Omaha Tech, where one of his players was Boone. Retherford eventually landed in Pocatello where he became the longtime basketball coach at Idaho State.
"It was Coach Mosser who helped me get a basketball scholarship to Idaho State. I was accepted sight unseen and now, 30 years later, Claude Retherford is still one of my best friends. He visits me in Salt Lake City every spring and I teach his basketball camp in Tulare, California, every summer."
Boone no longer was an unknown commodity after three years at Idaho State, where he averaged 22 points a game and became the second leading scorer in school history and a member of its Hall of Fame.
Then came the next step, the 1968 draft. Boone was selected in the 11th round (147th pick overall) by the Phoenix Suns, an expansion team. Boone thought that, with all of the roster shuffling of a first year team, he wouldn't get a very good look so he opted for the ABA Dallas Chaparrals, which had drafted him in the 8th round.
With former Kentucky and NBA star Cliff Hagan as his coach. Boone averaged almost 19 points his first year and finished second to Warren Armstrong, a.k.a. Warren Jabali, as rookie of the year. After a fine second year at Dallas, Ron and Glen Combs were traded on January 8, 1971 to the Utah Stars for Donnie Freeman and Wayne Hightower.
Months later, the Stars were ABA champions in their first season in Utah.
"What a trade," says Boone. "The team was great, the atmosphere was great. The winning attitude was there. Glen and I walked into something special."
The Stars won the championship in game seven at the Salt Palace against the Kentucky Colonels, Which boasted such stellar players as Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore and Louie Dampier. But the Stars could counter with top players of their own. "Zelmo Beatty was our star player and we played around him," says Boone.
Utah and Kentucky were fierce rivals, but that was pretty much the norm for the league because of its compactness, especially when compared to the sprawling geography of the NBA of today. "We had to play each team seven or eight times a year, visiting their home courts three or four times a year. You got a chance to know the other players a lot better than you do now. It was much closer," says Boone. "Guys would invite you over to their house for dinner during the season. That made it a special league because we were so close together."
However, the harmony off the court often did not translate to peace on the court.
The play in the ABA was very physical and fights were not uncommon. “The ABA was a very young and aggressive league with players coming and going with the franchises,” says Ron. "Someone was trying to make the team and take your place so it was always a battle. You tried to protect your turf because somebody was always out there.
"The league didn't want fighting – they didn't like fighting —but they didn’t give you heavy fines and suspensions like they do now in the NBA. If there was a fight, they’d break it up. Maybe you'd get thrown out but then you'd play the next game, or wouldn’t get thrown out and you'd keep playing."
Boone admits he had "a few fights. I was considered a physical player and, even though I was 6'2" and 200 pounds, I played a lot of forward and I had to protect myself against those big guys."
Old Stars fans still talk about one fight involving Boone and Cincy Powell of Kentucky. Says Ron. "I think people people remember that fight because I wasn't even in the game and Cincy Powell was a good friend of mine. We were teammates at Dallas. What happened is that Cincy was getting into it with Willie Wise so I got off the bench and tried to act as a peacemaker. I was standing between them, and then Cincy took a punch at me. So I took a punch at him. It was just a natural reaction. I did catch him. I hit him pretty good."
Even though the Stars would not win another championship, they were a tough playoff team every year, and Boone was an important ingredient. Statistically, his best year with the Stars was 1974-75 when he played every game and averaged 25.2 points while shooting .495 from the field.
While the Stars were still competing on the floor, financially strapped owner Bill Daniels was trying to sell the club to local interests. It appeared Daniels would be successful several times, but each time serious flaws were discovered in the local offers. The Stars and Boone would soon be gone, but memories are still fresh of that championship season.
"What made that year so exciting was because it was Utah's introduction to professional basketball. That made it very, very special. You still hear people talk about it even today as though the championship was won yesterday," says Boone.
While questions of the Stars future and financial viability remained, the NBA, weary of expensive and emotional battles with the younger league for top college players, worked out a merger agreement with the ABA. However, the NBA didn't want to absorb all of the ABA teams, just the quartet of San Antonio, Indiana, Denver and the New Jersey Nets. In December, 1975, Boone and players from the other unwanted teams headed elsewhere. Boone was sold to the short lived Spirits of St. Louis, who had already picked their broadcaster, a young man named Bob Costas. Boone describes the Spirits as "one of the best teams you could put together: Moses Malone, Don Chaney, Marvin Barnes, Freddie Lewis, Caldwell Jones, and Gus Girard."
On paper, an exceptional team, but at the end of the season the NBA held its dispersal draft and Boone was packing again, this time to the Kansas City Kings.
“The Stars had played Kansas City in an exhibition doubleheader in Denver and we beat them. Kings coach Phil Johnson (now Jazz assistant coach) must have liked me because he picked me in the draft. I had two very good years in Kansas City before going to the Lakers."
Ron averaged 22.2and 17.7 points in his two seasons with the Kings, shooting .459 from the field. Then it was on to the talent laden Los Angeles Lakers where Boone's playing minutes dropped drastically. What is forgotten is that Boone was traded twice on June 26, 1978. The Kings traded him and a 1979 second round draft pick to Denver for Darnell Hillman and the draft rights to Mike Evans. The Nuggets then turned around and sent Ron and a pair of second round picks to the Lakers for Charlie Scott.
With the 1978-79 Lakers, Ron averaged only 19 minutes a game after playing 37 and 32 minutes a contest during his two years with Kansas City. His scoring average dropped to 7.4 and the next October he was traded to the Utah Jazz.
In a November 1, 1979, interview in the Deseret News, Boone told me, "I had just arrived at (Lakers) practice and I knew something was happening. Coach (Jack) McKiriney had something on his mind and I knew it had to do with me. It was the way he was using me in practice and in games. It was things he would say in which I was not included. I didn't want to think about a trade, but I sensed something would be happening pretty soon. One day I was on the practice court, lacing up my shoes. Coach McKinney came up and said he didn't know whether the news was good or bad but that I had been traded to Utah. Well, that was good news. I had been hoping something would happen the past summer. I shook hands with some of the guys and wished the coach good luck and I headed home to pack. I didn't even take time to tie my shoes."
In Salt Lake City, Ron was reunited with coach Tom Nissalke, but that was about the only recognizable face as the Jazz, who got the approval to move from New Orleans in June of that year, had only three months to put things together. The first round pick was Larry Knight from Loyola of Chicago. After a couple of practices Knight asked general manager Frank Layden whether he should buy a house. Without hesitation Layden replied, "Rent." Knight was gone soon after, as were more than 20 players who wore a Jazz uniform in that first season of 1979-80. Boone averaged 12.4 points in his chaotic welcome home and, after 52 games of the next season, he was waived on January 26, 1981.
After playing in 1,041 consecutive games - despite dislocated shoulders and broken noses and various and sundrv other ailments and injury - the road had come to an end.
The Jazz had been forced to reduce its roster when Rickey Green was reactivated. There had been talk about using the flexible injury list and retaining Boone, but Frank Layden said that would be bending the rules, an approach the Jazz retain to this day.
Said coach Tom Nissalke, "It was a horrible moment for me because Ron is such a class guy. The easy way out would have been to use the injury list, but Frank felt that was dishonest and he refused to break the rules.”
At the time, Layden said it was the hardest decision he ever had to make. But he told the Deseret News, "It was my decision fully, I take all responsibility. I think we made the right move. The youngsters have to be given a chance and we have to think of the future and I will have to live with it."
The Boone family moved back to Omaha where Ron operated several small businesses, including stores involved in sales of children's shoes, a liquor store and a music store called "Boone's Mystical Sounds."
But, seven years ago, the Jazz asked Ron if he wanted to return to Salt Lake City to succeed old buddy Zelmo Beatty as Rod Hundley's partner on the TV and radio broadcasts. Ron, like General Douglas MacArthur before him, said, "I shall return."
Boone says, "What you see now in the NBA is what we used to do in the ABA. Up tempo and fast breaks, dunking and three-pointers. It was all very exciting, what the fans wanted to see. The only thing the NBA had that the ABA didn't was the dominating big man. We had the guards and the forwards but not the big guy.
“Corning here to play with the Stars was really the start of something very special for me, getting a chance to play in Salt Lake City. I knew absolutely nothing about Utah when I arrived here, but in the past 20 years I have learned a lot about it and I have learned to love this area."
The feeling is mutual.