By Mike Wise
Friday, December 22, 2006
Near the end of "The Shawshank Redemption," a gray-flecked Morgan Freeman tells the parole board he wishes he could have a conversation with the young man who put him behind bars for most of his life. He wishes he could fix that angry, impulsive kid before prison turned him into an old man.
Todd Bozeman was asked if he could relate to the movie character. He poked at his eggs, gazing around the Morgan State University cafeteria.
"I'm not any different," the Bears' men's basketball coach finally said. "I wish I could look back at the young man in me and tell him what I know now. I would use the two words my dad used: 'Be patient.'
"Because if I was patient, I would have waited it out. I'm a thorough recruiter. I covered all the bases. I would've got the kid anyway."
Bozeman's first season opener since 1995 was the week before. His punishment for paying the family of a recruit at California, which turned out to be two years longer than the NCAA mandated, had been fulfilled.
Starting over in north Baltimore at age 43, Bozeman is no longer the wunderkind coach of Jason Kidd and that breakneck Cal team that stunned Mike Krzyzewski and Duke in the 1993 NCAA tournament. Remember? Kidd outdueled Bobby Hurley in an heirloom, and suddenly a 29-year-old neophyte in the business became the youngest coach ever to lead his team to the NCAA tournament's round of 16.
About the only thing more stratospheric than Bozeman's rise was his fall. He came down hard.
Accused of making $30,000 in payments to the parents of Jelani Gardner, Bozeman also was cited for denying the NCAA violations and providing false and misleading information during the initial investigation. The NCAA sanctioned him for eight years, under something called a "show-cause" ban.
It meant that any school wanting to hire Bozeman had to appeal to the NCAA infractions committee, to "show cause or reason" why he should be hired. Industry-wise, the ban was viewed as a life sentence, the death of a vibrant young coach's career. The guy perceived as one of the monsters ruining the game was supposed to crawl embarrassingly back into the cave whence college basketball crooks came.
But something amazing happened to Todd Bozeman after he went down. He got a life outside basketball.
He slowed down. He began joining his wife and children, Blake and Brianna, on vacation instead of sending them alone.
"I spent more time with my children," he said. "I spent more time with my dad. I actually take vacations now. I was a workaholic then. I worked nonstop. And when you do that, you put yourself in situations where work becomes life and death. And it's not.
"I always thought if I got fired, I wouldn't get another job. You operate like that, it forces you to take more risks. And it wasn't necessary. We had it going without it."
Humility brought him back home, near where he grew up in Forestville. He paid the bills by selling pharmaceuticals, scouting for the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies, and working with local AAU programs. When Butch Beard resigned last March at Morgan State following a 4-26 season, Bozeman's second chance arrived -- a decade of penance and perspective later.
The Bears, who play tonight at No. 19 Marquette, are 2-7, having knocked off Coppin State for their first MEAC win and avenging a season-opening 19-point loss to East Carolina in the rematch on Monday night at home. Bozeman interestingly has a Cal transfer, Marquise Kately, who will be eligible next season. He figures it will take three years to make the program prominent, but he is willing to wait.
Ten years of being ostracized from college basketball begets patience.
No animosity toward the NCAA lingers, either. If Bozeman feels there is a double standard for the punishment he got vs. other coaches who didn't play by the rules yet ended up with multimillion-dollar contracts at other big-time schools -- Bob Huggins and Kelvin Sampson, just to name two -- he's not saying.
"I'm not breaking that code," said Bozeman, who said he balked when the NCAA asked him to testify against Jerry Tarkanian during its legal battle against the former UNLV coach. Yet he does see some hypocrisy.
"I was the water-cooler talk at companies like WorldCom and Enron," he said. "These were the same guys taking people's money who worked for them. They committed real crimes. They would say, 'Can you believe that guy cheating at Cal?' Things like that made me realize I'm not a bad person. I made a bad mistake, but I'm not a bad person."
Bozeman said he is immune to the student-section chants of "Thir-tee thou-sand!" that ringed his ears at American University last month. "Some of them were saying, 'Hey Bozeman, loan me $30,000.' Hey, at least they did their homework."
Old friends from the coaching fraternity have welcomed him back with notes and congratulatory phone calls. Charles Barkley, whom he befriended during Nike coaching trips while at Cal, even called to say good luck.
In a moment worthy of central casting, he actually ran into Tom Gardner this past fall at Morgan State's homecoming football game. Turns out the father of Jelani -- whom Bozeman paid and who eventually turned him into the NCAA -- is a Morgan State graduate.
"I didn't realize who he was; I hadn't seen him in a while," Bozeman said. "But when I shook his hand, an old football injury stuck out. I knew it was him. We had a brief handshake. He asked me how I was doing and I said, 'Good.'
"I don't apologize anymore. I paid my price. I'm moving on."
His only regret is that his father, Ira, didn't get to see him on the sideline at Morgan State. He died Jan. 2, barely a month after lung cancer was diagnosed.
"He always said he wanted to live long enough to see me get back in," Bozeman said. "I tried hard. I swear I tried hard."
Before Ira passed away, he asked for his medicine at the hospital. "I was getting upset, 'cause the nurses were taking a long time," his son said. "And he couldn't hardly speak, but he leaned over and said, 'Be patient.' Those are the last two words he spoke.
"Whenever I feel the need to get something done now, I let the air go and say, 'Let me be patient.' "
In a seminal film about hope and redemption, Morgan Freeman's profound words move the parole board to release him back into society, to give him a second chance. It's only right that in real life, 10 years after his fall from the pinnacle of college basketball, Todd Bozeman also got to see the sun again.