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Boozer defends his decision to leave

Sometimes, a simple thing like $68 million can come between friends in the NBA.

A month ago, Carlos Boozer was a favorite in Cleveland and little known elsewhere. He was preparing for the Olympics, and those close to him were excited about the Games being his basketball coming-out party.

Boozer is now known nationally and tarnished in Cleveland, where some think he is just another greedy athlete.

The Cavaliers had the option to extend his contract by one more season at less than $700,000. Instead, they let him become a free agent, believing he had promised to re-sign for six years at $41 million, the most they could offer him because they were over the league's salary cap.

During the free agency period, Boozer agreed to a six-year, $68 million contract with the Utah Jazz. Boozer says he took the best offer possible. The Cavs say he abused their trust.

Boozer, a movie fanatic, would understand Michael Corleone telling his brother, "It's not personal Sonny, it's strictly business."

The problem was Boozer saw it as business, the Cavs as personal.

"The Cavs did what they had to do for whatever reason," Boozer said Tuesday in Jacksonville, where he is practicing with the U.S. Olympic team. "There was no commitment, no handshake — which would have been illegal under the collective bargaining agreement anyway — but there was none. I'm a man of my word, and the only commitment I gave was to Utah, and I kept that commitment."

Cavaliers management stands by the statement owner Gordon Gund sent to fans July 14.

"Up until (early July) when the trust was broken, I believed in Carlos Boozer, the player, and Carlos Boozer, the person. That is why I tried to do what he said he wanted. We tried to do right by him, by the team and by you in trusting in his repeated insistence that if we showed him respect, he would show respect to us."

Before July, the first word most, including Cavs management, used in describing Boozer was reliability.

"It disappoints me the way some people have reacted to the situation, because I pride myself on my integrity and my honor," Boozer said. "I want people to perceive me as a man of my word and a man of great integrity. People who know me — my family, friends, teammates and fans — know what kind of man I am, so I'm not worried about it. They know I'm not a man who gives my word and then goes across my word for more money."

Bill Livingston, columnist for "The Plain Dealer" in Cleveland, had a different assessment in his Tuesday column: "(The phrase) 'Bamboozered' derives from the practice of Boozer and his agents duping the Cavs into letting him become a free agent when they didn't have to."

LeBron James, Boozer's former Cavaliers teammate and current Olympic teammate, said he was fine with Boozer and doesn't feel betrayed. "He did what he felt he had to do. My biggest concern after we lost him was what moves we were going to make. And we've made some moves (including acquiring guard Eric Snow and forward Drew Gooden), so I'm back to being happy."

The 6-9, 260-pound Boozer, the only U.S. Olympic teamer not to be a first-round draft pick, talked last month in Cleveland about how he would approach the game once he signed a huge contract.

"I think everybody wants to get paid what they are worth, not a penny less," he said then. "At the same time I'd like to think I'm going to play the same way no matter what I get paid."

Boozer, excited about representing the USA in the Olympics when many were finding excuses not to go, has been preparing for Greece since he was contacted two months ago. His five-day a week workout included weight lifting, free throw shooting, two-hour scrimmages and running on an 80-yard elevated hill.

With the roster including Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, few would expect Boozer to be a star in Greece.

Then again, few expected him to be on the team at all - even as one All-Star after another declined to play. But if he feels slighted about being a second choice, he never shows it. He figures averaging 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds last season, his second in the NBA, not only showed league executives they missed something on draft day but also that he belongs with the stars going overseas.

"I come to every game trying to prove myself over and over again," said Boozer, 22. "I just want people to know that I'm going to be here for a long time, and if I'm not good enough, I'm going to keep working to get better."

Being in the shadows had been routine for the player who comes from Juneau, Alaska.

— He was a key player on the 2001 Duke team that won the national championship, but it was two of his teammates - Jason Williams and Shane Battier - whose jerseys were retired.

— In the 2002 draft, former teammates Williams and Mike Dunleavy went second and third overall while Boozer went to the Cavaliers in the second round. The next year, the Cavs selected James with the No. 1 pick.

"This may sound crazy, but, to me, one of the best things to ever happen to Carlos was to slip into the second round," said Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski. "It created the chip on his shoulder that he plays with every night.

"I think that has really motivated him to prove to people how good he really is, and every time I watch him with the Cavs, the thing that amazes me is he plays his butt off every night."

Wojciechowski thinks Boozer's Olympic teammates will get the same dedication.

Boozer, a self-described "teddy bear" off the court, is anything but Gentle Ben on the court. It is his ability to do the dirty work - defend, set picks and rebound - that will probably endear him even more to teammates who are used to dominating the spotlight.

"He is a team-first guy. The Olympics is an incredible stage for him," Wojciechowski said. "He is a guy who can impact a game without having his hands on the ball a lot."

Boozer says he is ready for whatever role Brown wants.

"There is no telling what the rotation will be," Boozer said. "We've got some superstars, so whatever my role is, I'm going to be excited, whether I play 35 minutes or 10 minutes.

"I have a chance to help our country win a gold medal. If I'm able to break out, I'd love to do it."

Golden opportunity

Those closest to Boozer are excited about Athens because they believe he will be much more than a supporting player for the U.S. team.

"You guys are in for a treat," his dad, Carlos Sr., said. "I imagine we're going to see some fantastic things out of Carlos in Greece."

Paternal pride can easily be dismissed, except that anyone who talks about Boozer seems to have the same opinion.

"Even though the other players will have a lot more glitter and luster, Carlos is going to be right there at the end, because he is going to do the things that help them win," said Darren Matsubara, who coached Boozer for four years when Boozer was a teenager on his traveling team based in Fresno.

"He's going to come out a star, because the expectations might not be so high, but he's going to do more than what he was supposed to do."

Boozer's original summer plans included finishing his degree at Duke and spending time with his family.

When USA Basketball asked Boozer last month to compete in Greece, his "to do" list changed only slightly.

"I had to call my dean and tell her I would get (his degree in sociology) next summer," he said.

He still expects to see his family, just on a different continent.

"I'm taking my wife, my mother, my father, my brother and my sisters," he said of the trip to Athens.

His mother, Renee, is working on her itinerary.

"I'm trying to come up with a plan of what we can do, especially with the other three (siblings) that are still in school, because it definitely needs to be an educational experience," she said.

That doesn't mean she will slight the basketball side.

"I think the Olympics is the ultimate that Carlos could do on earth with his basketball play," she said.

Fans in Greece should not be surprised to see any member of the Boozer family around Athens, including the Olympian.

While some NBA stars found reasons not to accept an Olympic slot - injuries, fatigue, security concerns - Boozer can't get his bags packed fast enough.

"It is an incredible opportunity," he said. "I think it is one of those once-in-a-lifetime offers.

"I just want to experience everything. I want to see everything, especially the opening ceremonies. I hear it is one of the most magnificent things you can go through. I want to get everything on videotape. I want to go to the Olympic Village ... go to Olympic Stadium. It's exciting to me."

No one who knows Boozer would be surprised by his voracious summer appetite for basketball and other things.

"He's really open-minded to learning about anything," said his wife, Cindy.

Love and basketball

Those who know him best have to be surprised at the negative emotions his move to the Jazz has engendered.

"He's probably one of the most sincere people you will ever meet in your life," his wife said. "There are not a whole lot of people he's close to, but if you are (one), he gives you 100 percent. It never wavers. He loves you unconditionally for the good or the bad. Everybody knows they can call our house at 3 in the morning if you have a bad day just to talk about it. He'll wake up and talk to you for hours if that's what you need."

However, he also is realistic about life in the NBA, especially his new one.

"Everyone doesn't know everything that went into" his signing with Utah, he said Tuesday. "The fans in Cleveland, I loved them. When I was there, they were great supporters of me. I love them tremendously, and hopefully they're still cheering me on. But if not, I understand the business."