In the mid-1950s, two world-class athletes were produced from the same neighborhood in Omaha, Neb.
Bob Gibson, who would become the greatest pitcher in St. Louis Cardinals history, and Bob Boozer, a standout basketball forward who would become a NCAA all-American, an Olympian and a NBA champion, were friends and teammates.
Both were coached by Bob Gibson’s older brother, Josh Gibson, on a YMCA-sponsored baseball team, the Monarchs. Both were teammates for a year on a YMCA-sponsored basketball team, the Travelers. Both were teammates for a year on the Omaha Tech High School varsity basketball team. And both became business partners as owners of radio stations.
Boozer, 75, died May 19 in Omaha. “He and Bob Gibson showed people that minority players could come out of Omaha and play professional football or baseball or whatever it may be,” Gale Sayers, legendary running back for the Chicago Bears, told the Omaha World-Herald.
Sayers and two other football standouts, Marlin Briscoe (the first black quarterback in the American Football League and later a wide receiver for the undefeated 1972 Dolphins) and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, were raised in the same Omaha neighborhood as Gibson and Boozer, following in their paths.
“I used to sit in the stands at Burdette Field (in Omaha) and watch Gibby pitch,” Boozer said to Leo Adam Biga, who wrote a series on standout black athletes from Omaha. “As good a baseball player as he was, he was a finer basketball player. He could play. He could get up and hang.”
A positive influence on both was Josh Gibson. “He was my mentor,” Bob Gibson said in a 2009 interview with Matt Crossman of The Sporting News. “Not just mine, but he coached guys like Bob Boozer, the basketball player, and Gale Sayers. He was really influential on the kids in Omaha at the time.”
Bob Gibson, 17 months older than Boozer, went to Creighton, played for the Harlem Globetrotters and eventually gave up basketball to pursue a Hall of Fame career with the Cardinals.
Boozer, 6 feet 8 and 215 pounds, went to Kansas State and averaged 21.9 points per game in three varsity seasons and twice was named all-American. As a junior, he led Kansas State to the NCAA Tournament Final Four.
In 1959, Gibson’s rookie season with the Cardinals, Boozer was chosen as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft by the Cincinnati Royals. But Boozer declined to join the NBA that year, preferring to keep his amateur status so he could play for the United States in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Boozer helped the U.S. win the gold medal, then embarked on a NBA career.
Boozer played in the NBA for 11 seasons (1960-71) and averaged 14.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game for his career. He played for the Royals (1960-63), Knicks (1963-65), Lakers (1965-66), Bulls (1966-69), SuperSonics (1969-70) and Bucks (1970-71). With teammates Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, he helped the Bucks win the 1971 NBA championship.
That same year, Starr Broadcasting sold Nebraska radio stations KOWH and KOZN to an ownership group led by Gibson and including Boozer.
“I don’t think I understood the full meaning of the word bigotry until I tried to sell advertising time for KOWH,” Gibson wrote in the book “Stranger to the Game” (1994, Viking). “Almost none of the established businesses would buy from us and they searched hard for reasons not to.”
Gibson and his partners sold the stations to RadiOmaha in 1978.
“As the principal investor in KOWH, I had been operating at a personal liability that was eventually too much to handle,” Gibson wrote.
Boozer worked 27 years as a community affairs executive and federal lobbyist for a communications company, Northwestern Bell-US West (known later as Now Qwest.)
In 2005, the Omaha World-Herald ranked the top 100 Nebraska athletes of all-time. The top five, in order: Gibson, Sayers, pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, Boozer and Rodgers.
“There are other neighborhoods in America that have produced impressive lists of athletes and maybe some have been more prolific than the north side of Omaha,” Gibson wrote in “Stranger to the Game.” “… But I have a hard time believing that any community as small and isolated as the Logan Fontenelle housing projects can match us for quantity and quality and diversity of athletes.”