SALT LAKE CITY – The disbelief and distrust had grown so deep a season ago, Utah Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor had gone to Carlos Boozer with a proposal that franchises seldom ask of athletes. He wanted to release MRI results to the media to provide public proof that Boozer's hamstring hadn't been a phantom injury.
Yes, this was an unorthodox move, but as nasty as it had become for the front office and Boozer, O'Connor resolved to make a case for his $68 million investment.
"Kevin," Boozer remembered telling him, "you can tell them to go to hell."
Well, that was one strategy, but O'Connor deferred to a different diplomacy. He flanked himself with the team orthopedist, Dr. Lyle Mason, and distributed the X-rays to the assembled media to, he said, "show them where he had torn it, where the blood was."
Even now, Boozer bristles, "I never cared what people thought. As long as I know what's going on, and my teammates (do), I could care less what other people think. At that time, Kevin was getting so much flak from so many people about the injury."
From the way he had wormed his way out of his Cleveland contract for a $68 million score in Utah, to the foot injury that ended his first season with the Jazz conspicuously just after his owner ripped his toughness and tenacity, there's been no mistaking Boozer's burden this year. After two disjointed years of missed games and growing acrimony, his credibility was on the line.
Now, there are no more boos, no more doubts, no more suggestions that he wished the Jazz could end his misery with a trade. Here come the Western Conference finals to Salt Lake City, and Boozer finds himself in the oddest of juxtapositions.
For two seasons, with Boozer in and out, the Jazz were far behind where they had hoped his arrival would bring them. Suddenly, they're far ahead. Boozer has gone for 24.7 points and 12.4 rebounds in these playoffs, gone unbeaten at home and gone a long way toward validating the vision of his signing.
Once Boozer had worked his way into All-Star form, the reshaping of this franchise under O'Connor and coach Jerry Sloan had to be considered a staggering success. "We were an expansion team three years ago," O'Connor said. Today, they're contenders constructed for the long run, with Boozer and Deron Williams a cornerstone combination whom the Spurs' Robert Horry boldly determined eventually "… are going to be better than Stockton and Malone."
Those are comparisons that Boozer wants no part of discussing, but it beats the expired charges that he had turned into a grand bust for Utah.
As it has turned out, the Jazz are a textbook study in rebuilding franchises, especially without the luxury of multiple lottery picks. They signed Mehmet Okur and Boozer as expensive restricted free agents, targeting teams whom they knew weren't in position to match those offers. They traded into the third spot two years ago to take Deron Williams over Chris Paul, traded for Derek Fisher and signed a smart, sensible vet in Matt Harpring, an old football player who fit Sloan's physical style to perfection. What's more, they bolstered the bench with second-round picks Paul Millsap and Dee Brown.
"In a market our size," O'Connor said, "you can't afford mistakes."
For everything they did right here, it would've been considered wrong had Boozer failed to push past his problems. If he had wanted out of Utah, as most suspected, this season has changed his mind the way it's changed the franchise. With Williams (22), Boozer (25), Andrei Kirilenko (26), Okur (who turns 28 on Saturday) still short of playing primes, the Jazz have reason to believe they've made a move to stay in the West elite. Perhaps good fortune caused them to reach the conference finals so quickly – Golden State's disposal of Dallas and all – but they're inching closer to the big three of the Spurs, Mavericks and Suns.
Everything has changed with Boozer and his point guard's rising stars. When Boozer himself had recently been a pall over this franchise, it's downright dizzying to see the way he's transformed into the promise of tomorrow. He's good, very good, and working on great now.
"The difference is if something happens (to him) a week from now, everyone will say, 'OK, when do we get him back?' They know he'll fight through it, because they've seen him do it here," O'Connor said.
So the Jazz come home for a holiday weekend in the conference finals, and everyone in town must admit to themselves that they never saw this conference finals run coming so soon. It didn't take long to forget everything that Carlos Boozer hadn't been with the Jazz and suddenly admire everything he has become here.
A rising star for the NBA's rising franchise.
"It's been great to be healthy, to have a chance to show (my) abilities after I haven't had a chance for a couple of years," Boozer said. "I'm looking forward to the future."
Whatever happens the rest of the way with the Spurs in this series, as long as the Jazz have Boozer to go the distance, they have a future again. Always, this was the plan with him.