Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer(notes) was introduced to cheers during the team's preseason opener on Thursday – not nearly as many as some of his teammates, but he wasn't drowning in boos, either. The most prominent display of displeasure came from two young fans wearing fake Jazz and Chicago Bulls jerseys with Boozer's and Tyrus Thomas'(notes) names. "Trade us," read the sign they held.
Such is the awkward relationship between Boozer and the Jazz these days. He's one of them, for now, at least. But no one's forgotten he spent the summer saying he'd love to play for the Bulls or Miami Heat. And no one doubts the Jazz explored trading him and could continue to do so. Here today, gone tomorrow?
Only less than a week before training camp opened did Boozer become certain he'd start the preseason in Salt Lake City.
"I wasn't stressed out, man," Boozer said. "I knew what was going on. They brought me back, so I'm here and happy to be here."
Skeptical Jazz fans can be forgiven for questioning Boozer's sincerity. While he was on the injured list last season, he said he planned to opt out of his contract and become a free agent this summer.
"No matter what," Boozer told ESPN.com at the time, "I'm going to get a raise regardless."
When the free-agent market didn't appear to be as lucrative as Boozer envisioned, he decided to play out the final $12.7 million season of his current contract. Soon after, Boozer announced he and the Jazz had agreed to work together to find a trade. Jazz officials remained quiet, but Boozer wasn't a part of the franchise's "Be the X-factor" marketing campaign. His jerseys also were substantially discounted during the summer.
Now, Boozer finds himself back with the Jazz. He can't be sure of his future with the team or even his role. The Jazz re-signed 24-year-old Paul Millsap(notes) by matching Portland's four-year, $32.5 million offer, and head coach Jerry Sloan has said Millsap will compete with Boozer during the preseason for the starting power-forward job.
"We are starting all over," Sloan told Yahoo! Sports."Boozer has one year on his contract; Millsap is probably going to be here [in the future]. We just have to try to make the best decision to give us a chance to win, that's all. That's all I'm looking for."
Boozer, who has started 391 of the 432 regular-season games he has played in his seven-year career, apparently didn't know of the planned competition until reporters told him. On Thursday, he started the preseason opener and played well. Millsap came off the bench and received some minutes alongside Boozer at small forward.
"I'm just going to go play," Boozer said. "Do what I do."
Millsap calls Boozer his "big brother," and he visited Boozer in Miami in the offseason. But Millsap also sees an opportunity to increase his minutes. With Boozer limited to 37 games last season because of a knee injury, Millsap took advantage of the chance to show his potential.
"I realize that I can really start at this position and make some noise at my position, at my size," Millsap said. "…I'm not just saying it. I can go out there and really do it."
One reason for the competition: Sloan has prioritized improving the team's defense after the Jazz allowed more than 100 points a game last season. Boozer hasn't been a strong defender throughout his career, and his injuries have made it difficult for the Jazz to depend on him. In three of his five seasons in Utah, he's missed at least 30 games.
"I've endured a little bit here and there," Boozer said. "But for the most part, that's what makes me what I am, makes me stronger. I haven't had one of those clear paths where everything was given to me."
Sloan sounds sincere when he says he's glad Boozer remains on the roster.
"I've always liked him," Sloan said. "I've liked him even though he got hurt. I've never had a problem with him.
"Everyone, sometime or another, gets hurt. He's always done pretty much what we've asked him to do, or tried to do it."
Boozer knows he's lost some supporters in Salt Lake City. To win them back, he's going to have to prove he's committed to the Jazz as long as he's with them. After Boozer declared last season that he intended to opt out of his contract, Larry Miller, the franchise's late owner, ripped him on a local radio show.
"It's one of the top 10 stupidest things I've heard an NBA player do in 20 years," Miller said at the time.
When Miller died later in February, team sources say Boozer again raised the eyebrows of some in the organization by not attending either the funeral or the wake. Center Mehmet Okur(notes) was the only other player absent at the funeral – he didn't attend because of his Muslim faith, but did go to the wake. Boozer said he also had a reason.
"Funerals are a tough thing to go through," Boozer said. "After I saw [Miller] in the hospital, I wanted to remember him how I just saw him last. Confident. Happy. Not happy-happy, but happy enough to give us some words of wisdom for the rest of our season.
"That's how I want to remember him. I didn't want to go to his wake and see his body lying there. I didn't want to go to his funeral, where it would be sad. I wanted to remember Larry as Larry, as a fiery competitor – happy, emotional, a leader."
Whatever differences the Jazz have with Boozer, league sources say it's become increasingly clear that team officials don't want to part with him unless they receive decent value in return – even if Boozer will likely leave as a free agent next summer. One Jazz source said the Miller family also is willing to endure a hefty luxury-tax bill for one season if it improves the team's chances to contend.
Sloan, however, also stopped short of saying he expected Boozer to stay with the Jazz the whole season. No one knows what the future holds. As for any lingering bitterness felt by some Jazz fans, Sloan is quick to note that Karl Malone, too, had his squabbles with the franchise. Nearly everyone forgave him as long as the Jazz were winning.
"The business of basketball is tricky," Boozer said. "I'm going to go out there and bust my tail for my fans, bust my tail for my teammates. … If I have to win over some fans, I will win them over."
Unlike last season, Boozer also plans to have his family with him in Salt Lake City. Since filing for divorce in March, he and his wife have reconciled.
"My wife and I got remarried and we are the happiest we've ever been," Boozer said. "The kids are here and doing good, too.
"That means I'm here and I've planted a seed. I'm planted here, so I'm happy to be here. It means that I'm committed and they are committed also."
Planting a seed and letting it grow are two different things. For now, though, Boozer has vowed to play hard and help the Jazz return to the ranks of the Western Conference's elite. For one night, at least, he heard more cheers than boos. That's a start.