BOULDER – Askia Booker’s shining moment came last Saturday afternoon in the Coors Events Center, and if you’re reading this I’m betting you probably don’t need another replay or rehash.
But you won’t find what “Ski” considers his defining moment among ESPN’s nightly top ten, on a social media site or any newspaper’s website. It occurred concurrently over a couple of nights in late September at a couple of locations – the Events Center court and the CU football team’s practice fields.
For a second year, CU coach Tad Boyle had his team participate in “The Program” – roughly 8 to 10 hours of highly regimented physical and mental conditioning overseen by former military personnel. Most CU hoops followers refer to it as “SEALs training,” and former U.S. Navy SEALs can be involved. But this September’s training was conducted by a retired U.S. Army master sergeant and a former U.S. Marine Corps special ops man.
It was tough, demanding duty, which is exactly what Boyle wanted. It was about fighting through fatigue, thinking clearly when body and mind are on the edge of shutting down. It also was about teamwork and leadership, identifying who among the Buffs could be a catalyst in hard times.
Last September, “The Program’s” leaders, with input from Boyle and his staff, identified junior forward Andre Roberson as that guy. “Dre” was awarded the Douglas A. Zembiec T-shirt, with Booker getting strong consideration. Zembiec was a Marine major whose military awards included the Purple Heart. He was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Receiving the T-shirt bearing his name isn’t to be taken lightly.
“They said I almost won it the year before, but it went to ‘Dre,” Booker told me earlier this week. Then, with a grin, he added, “I had my eye on the prize actually (this year). I feel like I’m one of the toughest on the team, and I think that showed it. My vocal leadership kind of put me over the edge and I think they saw that in me. It showed toughness, leading the team, keeping your eye on what’s next.”
Receiving the Zembiec ‘T’ was “great,” said Booker, and in its own way every bit as gratifying within the framework of the team as was his buzzer-beater that stunned No. 6 Kansas last weekend. “Without a doubt,” Booker said, calling “The Program” the first major event on 2013-14 CU basketball schedule. “We hadn’t played a game yet; that was basically our first game, our first test. I feel like I came out with flying colors and did well . . . but it wasn’t about me.
“It was about the team getting mentally tough and fighting through adversity. I think that one thing (the training) has helped us a ton in getting over the hump. We’re tough, and we can always fall back on that.”
Booker knows something about toughness. A lightly recruited junior guard from Los Angeles, he’s had as many cloudy afternoons as sunny ones. For fans, Booker can be beyond perplexing. He’s an “OMG, no . . . oh, yes, great shot” type of shooter. Boyle, of course, sees that, too. When asked about “Ski” and his up-and-down play a couple of days before the Jayhawks visited, this is how Boyle responded:
“It’s the same things this year as last . . . if he’s not shooting well, he has to do other things to help team – be a playmaker, get the ball inside to Josh (Scott) . . . break down your defender and get to the lane, look to kick it or get to the rim. Be who you are but take good shots. ‘Ski’ has a tendency to force things – that’s who he is, it’s part of his personality. I don’t want to take that away from him, but decision making is what it comes down to.”
After Booker’s buzzer-beater last Saturday, Boyle said he would be “the dumbest coach in America” if he continued to give Booker big minutes without weighing the upside against the downside. “The capability’s there,” Boyle said. But he knows as freshmen such as Jaron Hopkins continue to develop there might be a difficult decision looming as to how backcourt minutes are divided.
Booker averages 26.8 minutes and is scheduled to make his 11th start of the season on Friday (6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network) against Elon University. Booker’s three-of-six shooting from beyond the arc against KU put him at 13-of-48 (27.1 percent) on 3-point attempt for the season, with his overall field goal percentage at 38.1 percent (43-of-113). He’s averaging 11.8 points (third on the team) and collecting 2.9 rebounds.
As for the “other things” Boyle points to that Booker does well, he’s second on the team in both steals (14) and assists (21). On the flip side, he’s also first in turnovers (20). For Boyle, Booker continues to be an on-court balancing act who brings energy and a fearless style – a good combination as long as he can couple it with heady play.
Last Saturday’s last shot actually was set up for Booker’s backcourt mate – Spencer Dinwiddie – but when Dinwiddie was covered, Xavier Johnson’s smart inbounds pass found Booker. That play, Booker said, “kind of showed our toughness. It was drawn up for Spencer, but Xavier found me open . . . but at the end of the day it’s not about me, it’s about what the team did to that point and putting ourselves in position for that shot to happen.”
It was reminiscent of last season’s final possession against UCLA, when the Buffs were down three. Boyle drew up a final shot for Booker and the play was executed to perfection, but Booker’s wide-open trey to tie was a fraction off. The Bruins won 78-75 and Booker took the loss hard.
But it didn’t shatter his confidence or curtail his shooting. I asked Dinwiddie last season to describe Booker’s on-court persona: “He’s a hard-wired shooter,” Dinwiddie said – which essentially means Booker has shooting in his DNA and has never met a shot he didn’t like.
As long as they’re good shots, Boyle says go for it. “He’s always told me to keep shooting, but just to take great shots,” Booker said. “When ESPN got me after the game, the first thing I said was ‘I want to thank my coach for always giving me – not the green light, but telling me to keep shooting and have faith in myself.’ Without him, I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to take the shots that I take.
“Some coaches probably would hate me for the shots I take. I thank Tad for that. But again, that’s who I am. I play aggressively. I try to attack the basket and get my shot off. But at the end of the day it’s not always about me. If they don’t get me the ball I’d never have a shot. Without those guys, I couldn’t do it. I thank them.”
At the postgame news conference, Booker gingerly rubbed his left shoulder as he answered questions. On the way to being buried in a “dog pile” under teammates during a wild rush of the CEC court, his shoulder hit the hardwood. “It’s fine,” he said. “Whatever you hear about, whatever anybody else says, it’s perfectly fine. I’ll be playing (Friday).”
As big as the KU win was – CU snapped a 19-game losing streak to its one-time Big 12 Conference foe – Booker said Boyle’s warning to the Buffs was: “Don’t get drunk off your own wine. That’s the perfect way to think about it.” In a 24-hour period he received maybe a year’s worth of texts and telephone calls, but he said he realizes “you can’t get too caught up in that stuff because we have a game on Friday and you want to prepare for that and not get caught up in the hype.”
Nonetheless, I asked him if there was a chance that the KU win becomes too much of a highpoint for this team. “There’s always a chance, but at the end of the day coach tries to pinpoint whatever and nip it in the bud and tell us it’s over with,” Booker said. “Thank God we won, but we have to move on. Spencer said it great (Monday) as well: If we don’t beat Elon, it looks terrible for us . . . it’s almost as big a game (as Kansas). I think we have to keep our focus on the next game, which is the most important game. If we do that we’ll be just fine.”
In Booker’s estimation, the Buffs’ biggest improvement since their opening loss to Baylor has been in the realization by him and his teammates that “we have a lot of fight in us. We’ve had some close games with a couple of teams and we’ve learned how to get over the hump, whether it’s making free throws or missing them and getting a defensive stop. Or it’s making a shot like I had.
“But at the end of the day we’ve gotten over the hump. As a team you need that because you’re always going to have close games. If you can get over the hump in a close game you’re more than likely going to come out with the win.”
Young talent continuing to grow up as well as grow into Boyle’s system also are factors in CU’s nine-game winning streak and this week’s entry into the top 25 (No. 21). More experienced players – Dinwiddie, Johnson and Scott come to mind – knowing when and how to step up is another factor, as is other players knowing and reveling in their roles.
But Booker is spot on about “getting over the hump” and the Buffs’ mental toughness. In fact, he’s Exhibit A – and if he ever needs a reminder there’s that T-shirt in his drawer.