For what it's worth, Ron Boone is the most popular professional athlete ever to play in Salt Lake City. Over eight seasons he also was a favorite in places like Dallas, Memphis, Louisville, Charlotte, Commack, N.Y., St. Louis and Norfolk. But that was in the other league, the ABA, which expired in 1976 with Boone as its third-leading all-time scorer.
For the past two years, the 6'2½" Boone has played in the NBA, and his profile has been much lower, but not because he has lost any of his skills. At 32, he looks 26, and he is still one of the best all-round guards in the game, a powerfully muscled, pugnacious defender and a superb outside shooter. Boone's main misfortune was to enter the NBA with the Kansas City Kings, hardly media darlings, whose players have been known to disappear without a trace.
Thus, when he surfaced this season in Los Angeles, acquired in a trade to replace Charlie Scott, Boone found that the fans there—not to mention the press, the players, even the coach—knew little about him. In fact, for the first few weeks of the season they did not even know what he looked like, because he wore a mask to protect his nose, which had been repositioned by an opponent's elbow in an exhibition game. What Los Angeles did know about Boone was this: he came from somewhere and he was supposed to be pretty good—though while wearing his mask both he and the Lakers were pretty awful—and he had never, ever missed a basketball game in his life until this past exhibition season. Ron Boone was the iron man in the mask.
Even if he never becomes a star in the NBA, this week Ron Boone will be able to claim one of the greatest achievements in pro basketball history. When he steps onto the court in Houston on Nov. 22, he will play in his 845th consecutive regular-season game, eclipsing the record set by Johnny (Red) Kerr with Syracuse, Philadelphia and Baltimore between 1954 and 1965. The officials will probably stop the game and give him the basketball to be displayed in his den alongside Nos. 800, 700 et al., and his wife Jackie will fly down from their home in Omaha to help him celebrate.
But the august NBA will react with a big ho-hum. Because, you see, 662 of Boone's games were played in the ABA, and everyone knows that the NBA doesn't remember the ABA with fondness. According to the NBA, Kerr's record is safe for at least another four seasons, because his closest pursuer is San Diego's Randy Smith, way back there at 530 games as of Nov. 12. "I wouldn't knock Boone's accomplishment," says Kerr, now a broadcaster for the Chicago Bulls. "I always said that nobody could know what playing in that many consecutive games was like except the guy who did it and his wife. But, listen, if Sadaharu Oh came over and hit two home runs for the Yankees, would he break Hank Aaron's major league home-run record?"
Whether or not Boone's name is ever inscribed in the NBA record book is of little concern to him. Like every ABA alumnus, he is fiercely proud of his roots. "The whole consecutive-games thing was brought to my attention nine years ago, after I'd played 200-something straight for the Dallas Chaparrals and the Utah Stars," says Boone. "I was told that the record held by Johnny Kerr was for basketball, period. If you put yourself out for 82 or 84 games a year for 10 straight years, I don't see that it makes any difference what color the basketball is."
To gauge the significance of what it's like to play 10-plus seasons and never miss a game—including playoffs, which will make Boone's total 921 as of Nov. 22—it should be noted that of those among the NBA's 242 players who have completed as few as three seasons, only Chicago's Artis Gilmore, besides Boone, has never missed a game. Gilmore has a nice little string of his own going—599 as of Nov. 12. That's right, Gilmore played in the ABA, too. Can this mean that ABA players are tougher than NBA players? No way.
"When I broke Dolph Schayes' old record of 706," says Kerr, "I got a telegram that said: CONGRATULATIONS. YOU'RE ONLY 1,423 BEHIND GEHRIG." But if 845 doesn't sound astronomical enough, consider the NBA player's life: constant doses of six-games-in-six-cities-in-eight-nights, practice every day, the endless running, jumping, pounding and colliding. Because virtually everyone has missed at least one game with a broken toenail, a bruised elbow, Hong Kong flu or a deviated septum, Boone's feat is astonishing. His coach, Jerry West, no sissy, had his nose broken nine times during his career. "The way Ron plays," says West, "I don't see how he's possibly done it."
Boone began playing organized basketball in 1956, in the fourth-grade Saturday morning league at Kellom Elementary school on Omaha's all-black north side. For three years' worth of Saturdays, he missed not one game. "I remember once I didn't do my household chores and my mother said I couldn't play ball," says Boone, "but I snuck out of the house and played anyway." He got several lashes with a belt across the backside, after which he did double duty to keep from being locked up the following Saturday.
He guesses his team at Technical Junior High played 30 games in two years, and as a 5'7" playmaking guard at Tech High, he played in 85 straight. "Once our car broke down on the way to a game." he remembers, "but we pushed it to a service station and got it running. Made it to the game. Barely."
In his one season at Iowa Western Community College, he played in all 25 games. After transferring to Idaho State in 1965, he played center although he was only six feet tall. The star of the team was Dave Wagnon, who had a 32.5 scoring average and finished second to Purdue's Dave Schellhase for the NCAA scoring title. After Wagnon graduated, Boone, by then a sinewy 6'2", performed at guard and forward and became a 22-points-per-game scorer. His 61 straight college games brought his string to 249 before he signed his first pro contract in 1968 for $15,000 and played his first game for the Chaparrals. After 2½ seasons in Dallas, five with the Stars, one with the Spirits of St. Louis, two in Kansas City and a month with the Lakers, Boone had played in something like 1,170 consecutive basketball games. Congratulations. You're only 960 behind Gehrig.
The other day Boone left his Spartan two-bedroom apartment in one of those Jacuzzi communities in Marina Del Rey to spend 24 hours with his wife and two children in Omaha. There he checked out the construction of their "dream house." a contemporary ranch home tucked tightly into an affluent new section outside town and hard by the exclusive Omaha Country Club. Boone, a scratch golfer, hopes to play there. "Los Angeles is not my kind of place," he says. "I drive to the airport, to practice and to the Forum. That's it. Omaha will always be my home. It's a perfect place for the kids." Indeed, 12-year-old Jozette is a budding track star, already owning a shoe box full of gold medals from regional Junior Olympic meets. Since she began running for the Omaha Skylarks last April, she has burned a 26.1 220 and an 11.3 100. But 4-year-old Jaron could probably make it in Hollywood. He's a bundle of personality and, with the same high cheekbones, pointed chin and light eyes, the image of his father, who is part Choctaw Indian.
Jaron was resplendent in a denim leisure suit at the Omaha airport, where his mother had taken him to meet his father's plane. He couldn't wait to find out how Ron had done in the Lakers' victory over Denver the previous night. His first words were, "Daddy, did you score 20 points?"
"No," said Boone somewhat sheepishly. "I only scored seven." The boy's eyes fell.
"But as soon as I get rid of that mask I'll score 20," said Boone.
Jaron shrieked, whirled and shot an imaginary jumper.
The visit ended all too quickly; Boone was on a plane back to L.A. the next morning. Thumbing through the last edition of the ABA Guide, he reminisced, shaking his head as he read forgotten names. "Does it make me feel old?" he said. "No. I feel about 10 years younger. Look at all these guys I played with. They're all old. Cincy Powell, John Beasley, Glen Combs, Cliff Hagan, Tom Thacker, Spider Bennett. Whew!"
He recalled playing a game against the Houston Mavericks with 82 people in the stands, sliding across the ice-hockey rink to get to the court at the Long Island Arena in Commack where the New York Nets used to play and, during training with the Chaparrals, "always having somebody new in camp every day. Hagan was the player-coach and he'd bring some guy in, play him one-on-one and the next day bring in somebody else."
He chuckled when he noted the 1975-76 roster of the Spirits of St. Louis, which he had joined after the Stars ran out of money and the club was disbanded after 19 games. "Listen to this," he said, "Marvin Barnes, Caldwell Jones, Moses Malone, me, M. L. Carr, Freddie Lewis, Don Chaney and Mike Barr. The best team that never went anywhere. I remember the first day I joined that club for practice, I couldn't believe it. Everybody did what they wanted. Freddie Lewis just sat around, said he had a toothache, and Marvin, I don't even think he bothered to come that day. Marvin could do no wrong. We'd have an eight o'clock game, Marvin would show up at 7:30, have a hot dog and a Coke, then go out and score 50. The folding of the league was the best thing that could have happened to that club."
Boone also recalled playing with the ABA champion Stars in 1971, the year Dallas traded Boone and Combs for Donnie Freeman and Wayne Hightower. "The best trade I ever made," says Vince Boryla, then the Stars' GM. "Getting Ron was what won us that championship," says Bill Sharman, who coached the Stars. Sharman is now the Lakers' general manager and made the deal to bring Boone to Los Angeles. "Ron was so tough in the playoffs, I always called him the Al Attles of the ABA," says Sharman. "I coached them both. They were two of the nicest kids I have ever known. Real gentle and quiet, but don't get them mad."
Coincidentally, it was Attles who ended Schayes' string at 706 by crashing into him and fracturing his cheekbone.
Like Attles, Boone became one of the game's tougher characters. "I was no street-fightin' man by any means," he says. "I never had a fight of any kind until I got into the pros. But the ones I had, I never lost."
The names keep interweaving. Al Bianchi, for example, an old ABA opponent from the coaching ranks and now an assistant at Phoenix with whom Boone once tangled. Bianchi spent his entire 10-year career playing and rooming with Kerr, first at Syracuse and then at Philadelphia. "Boone is a tough kid, and everybody knows that, so they try not to provoke him," says Bianchi. "Kerr was a different sort. He was a finesse player. He wouldn't do a bad thing or say a bad thing to anybody. He never got into a fight. He knew how to take shortcuts, when to lay back and when to cut loose. So from the way Boone plays, I'd say his durability is incredible."
Like Boone, Kerr was lucky to avoid serious injuries during his career. Also like Boone, Kerr broke his nose once during the exhibition season. "Aside from that," says Kerr, "there were just little things. We had a good trainer who spent a lot of time at my house."
The question is whether or not putting together a string of 844 games is tougher today than when Kerr started his streak 25 years ago. "I think so," says Sharman, who played for Boston when Kerr was active. "The season is longer, the players are bigger, and there's more travel."
Kerr feels differently. "You want to talk travel?" he says. "For these guys, the longest trip is five hours coast to coast on a first-class jet. Our shortest trip was 5½ hours on the train from Syracuse to New York. Heck, we'd play a night game in Syracuse, then get on a sleeper train, wake up in Chicago, switch to the Hiawatha, arrive in Minneapolis at seven o'clock for an eight o'clock game and find Mikan, Mikkelsen and Pollard smiling, waiting for us. And the train didn't even stop in Fort Wayne. We'd get off in Waterloo, Ind., go to the Green Parrot Cafè and pay a bunch of high school kids to drive us to Fort Wayne and back. And the guys today stay in first-class hotels with king-sized beds. If we weren't sleeping on trains, 90% of our beds had footboards."
So how did Kerr's string finally end at 844? He had been traded to Baltimore from Philadelphia in 1965 and there met up with Coach Paul Seymour. In that season's 11th game, against Boston on Nov. 5, Seymour never called Kerr off the bench. "He knew," says Kerr, pointedly. Seymour's explanation to his former Syracuse teammate? "It had to end sometime, Red."
"My teammates took it harder than I did," says Kerr, probably underplaying his feelings. "Kevin Loughery got stiff as a board that night."
And what of Boone? The truly amazing fact is that in all his games he has never made a token appearance for the sake of the string, has never played through an injury that was serious enough to sideline him and has never taken pain-killing medication.
The first injury of his career occurred on Feb. 10, 1967, in his junior year at Idaho State. Dunking against archrival Idaho, Boone hit the rim with the ball, his body twisted and he came down on someone's shoulder. "Hip pointer," he says. "Might have been the most pain I've ever felt." Despite the pain he played against Gonzaga the next day, scored 19 points and had eight rebounds.
On Dec. 14, 1968, the Chaparrals were playing the Los Angeles Stars. Boone was under the basket when he collided with the Stars' Warren Davis. "Right shoulder separation," he says. "They strapped the shoulder blade down, and I had no lateral movement with my arm. I had to do a lot of dribbling with my left hand in the next game, but I could get my shooting arm up." Five nights later he got it up enough to score 28 points against New Orleans.
On April 7, 1975 the Utah Stars were leading at Denver 109-104 with seven minutes left in Game 2 of the ABA Western Division playoff semifinals, when Boone and Denver's Fatty Taylor collided chasing a loose ball. "I don't know where our bodies touched," says Boone, "but I came up with my left shoulder separated." The Stars ended up losing 126-120. "This one was worse than the other," he says. "At that point I was conscious of the consecutive-games string, and I thought I might miss a game." Back in Salt Lake City the next day, Boone underwent acupuncture. The next night he played 45 minutes, scored 25 points and the Stars won 122-108.
After that, he suffered nothing but a sprained ankle or two until Sept. 27 of this year, when Seattle's Dick Snyder caught him in the nose with an elbow during an exhibition game in Oakland. "They took me into the training room and told me it would have to be reset," says Boone. "And, lying on the table, I thought that it could mean I'd be out long enough to miss the opening game." He entered the Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood the next night and had the nose rebuilt by Dr. Paul H. Toffel, who did the reconstruction job on Rudy Tomjanovich's nose.
"It was the first time in my life I'd ever been in a hospital," says Boone, "unless you count the time I had to have my stomach pumped. It was the worst feeling of my whole life."
He missed three exhibition games—there it is, the string is not technically perfect—but he was on the floor, masked, in the Lakers' opener at Philadelphia and has not missed a game since.
"Keeping the string alive is very important to me," Boone said the other day. "If you really love the game you can be proud of the fact that you've taken care of your body to this extent. I've never had a pulled muscle, hamstring, anything like that. You think of playing a whole career and never missing a game...well, if I play three more seasons after this one, that would mean 1,154 games. But I always felt, say, from 400 up, that if I had an injury that kept me from playing, I'd just be thankful to have gotten as far as I did. So I really thank God, and consider myself lucky as hell."