The way I understand it, the two incoming college freshman were assigned as roommates, to live in what would become dubbed “The Rat’s Nest” in the turrets at the top of the Memorial Football Stadium at Kansas State University. One was a fast talking, street wise basketball player from Cicero, Illinois and the other a gangly, short-tempered Nebraskan with great potential on the court.
The minute they met, I’m told, they clicked. It was in the late 1950’s and one man was black and the other white. One of those men was my father, Don Matuszak. The other man turned out to be Dad’s lifelong, dearest friend, Bob Boozer.
Dad told me that the two of them never noticed a color difference, although there were times while traveling for basketball games that they’d see the restrictions in various establishments. Even in Manhattan, Kansas, there were some places that wouldn’t allow Bob to eat in a main dining room, which shocked my father. They didn’t make a big deal out of those occasions, simply left and found another place that would serve them.
Basketball was the centerpiece of their original friendship — they found they complimented each other very well on the court. Bob was a 6’8″ forward and my father was a 6-foot ball handler who had an uncanny knack of being able to get the ball to the best scorer, and on K-State’s team, that combo was a successful one. Their team was rated number one in the country by all polls at the time, with my dad as the captain and Bob Boozer as the star player. This is also the team that included UNC’s basketball coach Bill Guthridge and a team that as a whole formed an incredible bond of guys from different backgrounds and a team that went on to exceed expectations and break records.
Boozer, as my dad called him, graduated from college to play professional basketball and was on the U.S. Olympic Basketball team. “Tuz” as Boozer called my dad, married my mother, played semi-pro ball, became an assistant athletic director and then a successful businessman. My sister remembers Boozer coming to our home and only being able to see his chest through the peephole, because he was so tall. I remember him being my parent’s only friend who had the privilege of taking their king-sized bed when he came to visit. But we both remember the laughing friendship, the stories they’d tell, the way they’d pick up where they left off after months, or later, years, of seeing each other.
And in retrospect, I believe my sister and I were raised colorblind, quite simply because we never saw Boozer as a black man. He was just Dad’s best friend.
Mom will tell stories of how they’d feed off each other. If Boozer was short-tempered during practices, it’d be a wisecrack by Dad that would change the attitude. If one of them became a bit too big for their britches, the other would bring them back to reality. They were bookends in college, pals for life.
Gale Sayers’s book, “I Am Third” detailed his extraordinary relationship with Brian Piccolo in their football days and the movie “Brian’s Song” highlighted their relationship — a black man and a white man.
I’d contend that a decade before, Boozer and Matuszak created a bond just as special and just as impressive, but in a time that was much more tentative about racial harmony. And because of that friendship, a basketball team made history in their incredible record, two men became rich with their bond and those who were able to witness it, experienced something incredibly valuable.
Bob Boozer passed away this weekend. But his legacy, his humor, his concern for others and his friendship with my father continue on…..