When someone you love dies, the stories you tell about them - whether you're telling them to strangers on the street or to family members sitting around the dinner table - don't change. For the most part, it's the same details, same anecdotes, same punch lines, even years after they're gone. It's the tense, unfortunately, that changes.
He has a great laugh gets replaced by He had a great laugh. And while that might seem like a minor thing, it's not. Because in the beginning, every time you slip up or misspeak, it hurts all over again.
"My father, he wears his ring all the time," Todd Bozeman says. The 42-year-old coach is smiling. In a tiny, cluttered office with bare walls, in the middle of Morgan State's campus, Bozeman is telling a story about the ring he got for his father, Ira, after Bozeman guided the University of California to the Sweet 16 in 1993. Then in mid-sentence, he stops, realizing his mistake.
"He wore it all the time," Bozeman says. His smile fades for a second, then returns. "He always had that ring on. He was so proud of that ring."
Do you remember Bozeman? If you follow college basketball, you should. In the early 1990s, he was one of the game's brightest young coaches, taking over at Cal when he was only 29, and going 63-35 over 3 1/2 seasons.
He was a master recruiter and a tireless worker, and he took a program with very little recent tradition or history and thrust it into the national spotlight.
He introduced us to Jason Kidd, one of the best point guards of the past 20 years, as well as NBA players such as Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Lamond Murray. But along the way, he did something foolish, something he may never be able to shake completely.
But no matter what you think about Bozeman - who had to wait out an eight-year "show-cause" ban issued by the NCAA in 1997 before he was hired in April by Morgan State - whether you believe that he deserves this second chance or not, understand this: He has paid a large price for his basketball sins. His father, Ira Bozeman, his best friend and biggest supporter, will not be courtside next season when his son coaches his first college game in more than a decade. In January, Bozeman buried his dad, who died after a brief battle with lung cancer. And though the years away from the game may have been a blessing, giving Bozeman more time with his father during his final years, months and eventually days, more than anything else, Bozeman wanted his dad to see him on the bench again.
"It's hard," Bozeman says, his eyes occasionally welling with tears. "It hurts. I would give anything just to see the smile on his face again. ... But I know he's guiding me. I know he's that voice that I keep hearing, telling me to keep patient."
A father's touch
When it came to basketball, at first glance, Ira Bozeman wasn't what most people would consider a patient man. When his son, Todd, joined his first team, but didn't play very much, Ira Bozeman decided he would fix this obvious injustice, and campaigned to coach the next year's squad. He helped found the popular Falconers Summer Basketball League in Prince George's County, and he drove buses, swept courts, kept score and did countless other tasks in his spare time. In the stands during his sons' high school basketball games at Bishop McNamara, you could hear him all game from across the gym, laughing, teasing, hooting and hollering with anyone and everyone, including the referees. He was immediately recognizable with his red hair and big grin.
"He was about 6-foot-1, 220 pounds," says Michael Bozeman, Todd's younger brother. "But just because of his presence, you would have thought he was 7-foot-2 and 500 pounds."
Though he worked three jobs to support his family after he got out of the Air Force, including as an office manager at the National Gallery of Art, Ira Bozeman never missed his sons' games. Never.
"If you talk with anyone in PG County, they knew my dad," Todd Bozeman says. "The refs, the parents, everybody. He'd be teasing people all game, just riding them, and the next thing you know, you look up and he'd be walking out with the guy he'd been jawing with. And he'd have his arm around them. ... I can remember one time I was with my parents, and they kept running into friends of theirs. Another guy came up to my dad and he said, 'Man, have you ever met a stranger?' But that's just the way he was. Anyone who has ever met my dad felt close to him."
Like his father before him, Todd Bozeman was personable and well-liked by most people. He could talk to you for hours and you'd walk away feeling like he was your friend. Those traits helped him rise quickly through the coaching ranks, where relationships and energy are sometimes more important than knowledge and experience. After playing four years at Rhode Island (he was the team Most Valuable Player as a sophomore) and graduating in 1986, Bozeman took a job at Federal Express to pay the bills, but he worked as an assistant coach at Potomac High School to feed his basketball jones. During the summer, he drove around the country so he could work at basketball camps. He lived in dorms, made contacts and soaked up knowledge. Basketball, he decided, was like the ministry. It was a calling, and he wanted to use it to teach kids about life.
"I just really appreciated the bond you built with players," Bozeman says of his decision to go into coaching. "I liked that you could have a guy, and you could say, 'Hey, listen, why don't you try this? It will make you a better player.' Then, you see them go out and do it in a game, well, that kind of thing gets me pumped."
Bozeman rose through the coaching ranks so quickly, it's kind of a blur looking back. In 1988, he got a job at George Mason as an assistant that paid $9,000 a year. Three weeks later, Perry Clark hired him away to be an assistant at Tulane, which didn't even have a program at the time. In 1990, he got a job as an assistant coach at Cal, and he immediately made a name for himself on the recruiting trail by landing Kidd, one of the best high school players in the country.
When Cal coach Lou Campanelli was forced out in February 1993 after claims that he was verbally abusing his players, Bozeman took over as interim coach and guided the Golden Bears on a memorable late-season run that included an upset of two-time defending national champion Duke in the NCAA tournament. It was the first time a team had kept Duke from making it to the Final Four since 1987, and Kidd ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, making a jumper over the outstretched arm of Blue Devils point guard Bobby Hurley.
"When they played Duke in the NCAA tournament, my father and I drove all night to get to Chicago and watch the game," says Michael Bozeman, an assistant coach for the women's basketball team at George Washington. "My dad and I snuck into the back of the press conference after they beat Duke, and I can just remember being so proud of the way he handled himself. People were throwing questions at him left and right, almost like darts, and he just remained composed the entire time."
Even though Cal lost to Kansas in the next round, the team ordered rings to commemorate its run to the Sweet 16. Bozeman ordered one for his father, with "Pops Bozeman" engraved in the band. Ira Bozeman wore it every day for the rest of his life.
"If he were here right now, he'd shake your hand and you'd feel that ring," Bozeman says. "He'd hit you on the back, and you'd feel it. He was so proud of that thing."
For a while, Bozeman was a media darling. He was young and good-looking, he dressed well, and he was articulate. And no one was going to outwork him, especially on the recruiting trail. Before Bozeman, a Christian, recruited Abdur-Rahim, a devout Muslim, he spent weeks studying the religion as a sign of respect before a visit to Abdur-Rahim's home.
"I do my homework," Bozeman says. "I gave Shareef information about the Muslim community at Cal and showed him it wouldn't be different for him there. I knew not to shake his mother's hand, and that I should take my shoes off when I visited. I think some of that stuff gets overlooked. I wanted to show him that I respected the differences between our religions."
His friends teased him, saying he was never out of arm's reach of a telephone. He worked crazy hours, and rarely, if ever, took vacations. At the time, mostly because of Kidd, Cal seemed more like a rock band traveling the country than it did a basketball team. Fans in opposing cities would wait outside arenas for the Golden Bears' bus to arrive, then beg the players for autographs.
But as the expectations increased, so did the pressure. Bozeman responded by working even longer hours. Michael Bozeman says he can remember his parents flying out to California occasionally, simply because they were worried about how much stress their son was under. Looking back, Todd Bozeman says he can remember a weekend when he found himself trying to decide whether he should make a recruiting visit while his wife, TeLethea, was pregnant and approaching her due date. He didn't go on the road, but the fact that he even contemplated it makes him shake his head now, years later.
"At the time, I was like, 'OK, hold on. Are you crazy?'" Bozeman says. "I guess I wasn't gone quite to that degree, but just the fact that I thought of going seems so ridiculous."
What happened next, Bozeman is even less proud of. In 1994, desperate to sustain Cal's momentum, Bozeman decided he had to replace Kidd (who left after two years for the NBA) with California's high school Player of the Year, point guard Jelani Gardner. According to a Sports Illustrated story, and the eventual NCAA investigation, Bozeman agreed to pay, through a third party, Gardner's parents $15,000 a year during their son's career for travel expenses so they could watch him play. When Gardner's family got upset about their son's decreased playing time during his sophomore year, they turned Bozeman in to the NCAA. With the controversy brewing, Bozeman agreed to resign.
The incident eventually earned him an eight-year "show-cause" ban from the NCAA, one of the harshest penalties the sport's governing body had ever handed down. It meant that any school that wanted to hire Bozeman needed to go before the NCAA infractions committee and get its approval. A school would have to argue on Bozeman's behalf, and "show cause and reason" explaining why Bozeman's past transgressions should be forgiven. Few schools, if any, were willing to stick their neck out that far.
To this day, it's not exactly clear where the money came from. Sports Illustrated quoted former NBA coach Butch Carter, then an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks, saying he delivered the money on behalf of his friend, Bozeman. Carter, who was later named head coach of the Raptors, told the Toronto Sun in 1997 that the story was a lie and that he was misquoted. The NCAA never found Carter guilty of any wrongdoing.
These days, Bozeman will admit that he made a serious mistake, and blames no one but himself, but he declines to discuss the details about the incident.
"I always felt for my brother because of how much he had to go through on his own during that," Michael Bozeman said. "He was a stand-up guy. Nobody will ever know how much of that he took on his own, just to make sure the people involved could continue their careers."
Even when it was years behind him, virtually no schools were interested in Bozeman until the ban was lifted in June 2005, and even then, it took him almost an entire year to get a second chance.
"It's very difficult for someone to come back from a ban like that," says David Swank, who headed up the NCAA's investigation into Bozeman. "I guess it depends on the individual, and the seriousness of the infraction. To be honest, it's been so long, I don't remember a whole lot about his case."
Bozeman says he still doesn't really know why he gave money to the Gardners, saying the best explanation he can offer is "temporary insanity," a phrase he has repeated many times with reporters. For eight years, he faced the harsh reality that he had sabotaged his coaching career, the one profession he truly loved. And Bozeman will be the first to acknowledge that, at times, it was not easy.
"Why did it happen? I can't really answer that," Bozeman says. "I can say temporary insanity, but that's about it. It happened, and I'm not making light of it. I've apologized before, and I hope I can move on. Everybody's got something they're not necessarily proud of, and that's mine. I've always believed in what Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] says, that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. I rode out that adversity and tough times, and I'm moving on. I made a mistake, but I'm not a criminal."
What hurt was that he felt like he had let down the people who loved him, but his father, for one, wouldn't hear of it. In a 60-line poem Bozeman wrote, then read at his father's funeral, he summed up Ira's support during the incident in a few short lines:
Even when a small bump in life began,
This "Cat" was ever present, encouraging me to hold my head up, "Stand strong and take it like a man."
So when I moved my family back home to be near my support system,
As I juggled my thoughts, my next career path, I knew he'd be there to listen.
Drawn back in
Eight years, however, left time for a lot of thinking. At times, Bozeman thought he would be comfortable away from the game. But the itch to coach wouldn't go away. He found himself doing basketball things in his spare time.
He coached his son Blake's basketball team. He watched his daughter, Brianna, at her dance recitals and joined the parent-teacher association. He worked at various basketball camps. He took a job as an NBA scout for the Toronto Raptors in 1998, and did that until 2001, when he was let go after new coach Lenny Wilkens was hired and brought in his own people. He traveled to Nigeria to help conduct a basketball clinic for kids with virtually nothing to their names, some of whom had walked nine hours in flip-flops just to attend.
He eventually took a job at Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, and tried to focus on a new career, but he simply couldn't walk away from basketball. He longed to be a college coach again.
"Occasionally, I would talk to schools, and I would go through the whole interview process, then find out later that [my sanctions] were the reason I didn't get the job," Bozeman says, declining to name which schools interviewed him. "In some instances, they would just stop calling. It was tough. It's not like they could say I didn't have enough experience, or that I wasn't qualified, or that I hadn't won. I've been to the NCAA tournament. I've coached high-level players. The sanctions would be the only reason why I wouldn't get the job at certain schools."
If there was a silver lining, it was that Bozeman got to slow his life down a bit, take an even bigger role in the lives of his children. He got to gather with his family at his parents' house frequently for Sunday dinners, play golf with his dad, and crack open a deck of cards afterward, teaming up with his old man for heated games of Bid Whist. Late at night, Bozeman and his father would talk about basketball, dreaming of the day Todd would get another chance.
"You know how sometimes you say, 'That guy was like a father to me?'" Bozeman says. "Well, I don't have anyone like that. And it's because my father covered every base."
On Dec. 1, 2005, Ira Bozeman - a smoker for much of his life who tried to quit in recent years - was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Barely a month later, the strongest man Todd Bozeman had ever known was gone. So many mourners showed up for his funeral, the church had to seat people in the basement.
Todd Bozeman's mother, Martha, didn't want her oldest son to be a pallbearer because she was worried it would be too hard for him. He insisted. He put on his best black suit, a white shirt, a gold tie with black stripes, and carried his father to his final resting place.
Months later, he put on the same suit, the same tie, the same underwear even, and showed up for an interview at Morgan State for the program's head coaching job. Bozeman wore the same suit again for his news conference, when he was introduced as the Golden Bears' coach. Several times, he had to step away from the lectern to compose himself.
And when Morgan State opens its season in November, Todd Bozeman will walk out onto the court for his first college game in nearly a decade, wearing that suit and tie at least one more time.
Some things will be the same as they were so many years ago. But a piece of Bozeman will be missing. He'll stand tall anyway, take his dad's advice, and hold his head high.
Age / / 42
Hometown / / Bowie
Family / / Wife, TeLethea; children, Blake (13) and Brianna (8)
Accomplishments / /Played at Rhode Island; graduated in 1986; assistant coach at George Mason, 1988; assistant coach at Tulane, 1988-1990; assistant coach at California, 1990-1993; head coach at Cal, 1993-1996; youngest head coach ever in NCAA Sweet 16 (age 29)
Career record / / 63-35; three NCAA tournament bids in 3 1/2 seasons