Toddler Keeps a Big Man Grounded

Carlos Boozer's son's condition has made it impossible for him to visit his dad in the high altitude of Salt Lake City.
Carlos Boozer's son's condition has made it impossible for him to visit his dad in the high altitude of Salt Lake City. (Ramin Rahimian - Reuters)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

When Carlos Boozer opened the door to his home in Miami last week, his curly haired, 18-month-old son, Carmani, trotted up to him. They shared a hug that had been anticipated for almost six weeks -- ever since Carmani was released from a hospital following a bone marrow transplant to treat sickle cell disease and Boozer left his family to join the Utah Jazz.

Through the time apart, Boozer tried to stay connected to his family as best he could. Before practice, after practice, after games, Boozer was on his cellphone making calls and sending text messages for updates. When he got to his home in Salt Lake City, Boozer would speak to his wife, CeCe, Carmani, and infant twins, Cameron and Cayden, through a webcam set up on his personal computer.

The Jazz granted him less than a two-day leave to spend Thanksgiving with family, and Boozer soaked up every minute. He swam in the pool. Enjoyed a Thanksgiving brunch. Took Carmani for a ride in his Ferrari. "He loves how it sounds. He likes to go 'Vroom, vroom, vroom.' It's the cutest thing in the world," Boozer said. "Little stuff like that, I just miss it."

Then he went back to taking his frustrations out on the rest of the league. Boozer, who sat out Friday night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers with a sprained ankle, is ranked third in the NBA in scoring (25.2 points per game) and 10th in rebounding (11.2). But he admits that balancing NBA stardom with his situation at home in Miami has been difficult.

"It's trying times," he said. "Sometimes God puts you through those times to see how you come through it. I'm dedicating this season to [Carmani]. I want to go out and give it my all for him every single night."

Carmani's condition has made it impossible for him to visit his dad in the high altitude of Salt Lake City. The elder Boozer felt distant and helpless, as he checked home repeatedly, sometimes as many as 15 times a day. "I'm going to call tonight -- as soon as you guys stop asking questions," Boozer said with a laugh this week after scoring 26 points in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers.

This has been Boozer's plight ever since May 31, 2006, when Carmani was born with sickle cell disease, an inherited disorder that affects more than 70,000 people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Boozer is among more than 2 million people who carry the gene that allows them to pass it on their children. The disease creates abnormal blood cells that can clog blood flow through small blood vessels. It causes pain, blood clots and other serious problems, including death.

The condition was detected while Carmani was in the womb. Boozer and CeCe, who have been together since they met nine years ago at Duke, elected to try a risky new treatment that involved a bone marrow transplant and in vitro fertilization. They produced two healthy embryos with the hope that one would take.

Both did, and CeCe gave birth to the twin boys on July 18. The stem cells from the umbilical cord from the older twin, Cameron, was used for the transplant, which occurred a few weeks later. Carmani was hospitalized at Miami Children's Hospital for 40 consecutive days, the final 30 recovering from the surgery and chemotherapy treatments used to remove the old bone marrow. Boozer and his wife stayed with Carmani each day at the hospital, alternating shifts. CeCe stayed during the days, and after his workouts, Boozer stayed through the nights. "It was a scary thing," Boozer said. "You'd see his hair fall out. Grown people don't do well with chemo. But my son, he's amazing, they were calling him, 'Superbaby' after awhile."

Boozer missed almost two weeks of training camp while his son's health improved. Boozer and CeCe are in the process of forming a foundation called Boozer's Buddies to raise awareness for stem cell research and help families in need pay for bone marrow transplants. While their son was hospitalized, Boozer and his wife witnessed several families struggling with medical costs. Boozer, who is in the third year of a six-year, $68 million contract, said treating Carmani has already cost close to $1 million.

"We all think God put you here for one thing, basketball or . . . whatever. When something like this happens, it's very clear what you're put here for," Boozer said. "Going through what I went through with my son, I'm trying to help generate funds for those kids and those families that can't have bone marrow transplants. You think about it, most families, they have regular jobs, they can't afford that."

Basketball has provided Boozer refuge from the empty feeling he has spending most of the past 18 months more than 2,500 miles away from his family. While CeCe and Carmani stayed in Miami last season, Boozer still had an all-star campaign last season, averaging 20.9 points and 11.7 rebounds, before leading the Jazz to the Western Conference Finals in his playoff debut.

CeCe visits every few weeks, and Boozer praised her strength while supervising Carmani, driving him to doctors' appointments, and caring for newborn twins. "My wife is not getting too much sleep right now," he said. "I can't tell you how much of a trooper she is."

But those days apart are numbered. The transplant can't be deemed a success until next August or September, Boozer said, but Carmani's immune system has been rebuilt enough for the family to move to Utah in January.

Those hugs from Carmani when Boozer comes home will become more regular. "It's a beautiful thing," Boozer said, smiling. "I'm excited about that. We didn't know it was going to happen or not, but now, we're quite certain about it."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company