Jim Boatwright has kept his cool in plenty of tough basketball games like 36 years ago when his Maccabi Tel Aviv men’s basketball team stunned the favored Soviet Red Army team in a politically-charged European Cup semi-final played in a small Belgian town.
Indeed, Boatwright played eight years for Maccabi and was the team’s leading scorer when the Israeli squad won the European Championship in 1977 after beating the four-time defending champion Red Army.
But he was and is at heart an Idaho boy, and the Gem State is where he returned 10 years ago to take a history teaching job and assistant basketball coaching job at Hailey’s Wood River High School. In all, Boatwright has taught school for 23 years.
His engaging personality, sense of humor, and love of teaching and the kids themselves made him an instant favorite of students in Hailey.
In December Boatwright, 60, resigned his teaching position at Wood River. And today, Friday, he will begin chemotherapy treatments in his ongoing battle with liver cancer. By his side in the fight is his wife Jennifer, also a Blaine County School District educator.
On Wednesday night, Boatwright and his wife, family and friends came back to Wood River where the school honored him during halftime of the season-ending home game against the Minico Spartans.
Principal Peter Jurovich, presenting Boatwright with a plaque, joked that the turnout of fellow teachers who came to honor Boatwright was considerably better than the turnout at his morning staff meeting.
Then it was Boatwright’s turn to do one of the things he does best—talk a little.
Seated in a chair, he took the microphone and said, “This is a great, great, great honor. There are students and friends here going back 30 to 40 years. As you go down the road of life, you learn if you have someone you can call a friend, you’ve got it made. God has blessed me with friends and great, great, great colleagues.”
Alluding to a saying of baseball great Lou Gehrig when faced with a health crisis, Boatwright said, “I do consider myself the luckiest man alive. I have four kids, but really I have thousands. And as I look out to you, I realize this is the future of America—and I feel pretty darn good about it.”
Boatwright graduated from Rupert’s Minico High School in 1970, where he lettered in basketball, track and golf. He led the Spartans to back-to-back state basketball championship games in 1969 and 1970. As a junior, he averaged 37 points per game during the state meet. He still ranks among the top Minico all-time scorers. He set free throw shooting records.
At Wednesday’s ceremony, Boatwright brought along the Minico No. 55 jersey he wore during his high school playing days—a uniform the school later retired because of his importance to the program.
Boatwright invited current Minico head coach Adam Johnson down the floor and greeted him with the announcement that he was donating the jersey back to Minico. Johnson, who comes from a well-known Rupert family, was extremely touched and could hardly contain his emotions.
That’s the kind of man Boatwright is. And after the ceremony there were free cupcakes, while they lasted.
Having earned a slew of All-State and All-American honors in Idaho, Boatwright received a scholarship to play at Utah State University. He was the top scorer both his junior and senior seasons at Logan and was named Utah State's top athlete in 1974. He became a collegiate All-American.
Boatwright, a towering 6-9 forward, joined the European Professional Basketball League and played eight years for Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel. He eventually became the team’s captain taking over for the famous 6-2 shooting guard Tal Brody, who had been the No. 12 pick in the 1965 National Basketball Association draft out of the University of Illinois.
Maccabi won the European Championship in 1977 and Boatwright was the team's leading scorer.
There is no way to downplay the importance to Israel of Maccabi’s Feb. 15, 1977 game against the Soviet Red Army team. It was a culminating year of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union boycotting Israel. It was a decade during which the Soviet Union burnished its athletic credentials in sports like basketball and ice hockey as a way to proclaim the superiority of its political system.
And Maccabi’s 91-79 upset win over the Red Army has been recognized for years as a key event in forging Israel’s national identity. It was Israel’s first-ever European Cup title, watched on television by most of the nation’s population, and it became a source of pride.
Boatwright was a key member of that team, and he led all scorers with 26 points in Maccabi’s 78-77 championship game win over the favored Mobilgirgi Varese squad from Italy in a game played April 7, 1977 at Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
He was selected as a member of the Israeli Olympic basketball team for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Boatwright won another European Cup title with with Maccabi in 1981.
Boatwright, father of four young children, came back to Utah State where he began his coaching career at Logan. He said he wanted to live his life in the Intermountain area. In 1988, he started teaching and coaching at Star Valley, Wyo. Boatwright guided his Star Valley team to the state championship and was named Wyoming’s “Coach of the Year.”
Subsequently he taught elementary and secondary school in Arizona and California.
For the last nine years, Boatwright has conducted his Snowline Summer Basketball Camp in Hailey. He was assistant boys’ basketball coach to Fred Trenkle at Wood River for three seasons from 2003-06.
As Boatwright goes through his chemotherapy treatments, he will be strengthened by the memory of his beloved son Daniel James Boatwright, who died of heart failure at the age of 25 on Oct. 28, 2006.
Daniel loved basketball, his family, his teachers, his schools and the Boston Red Sox. Very much like his father, he talked to anyone and everyone, and all went away feeling better about themselves. Dan also spent summers helping his father teach and coach Snowline Basketball Camps.
Dan was born in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1981. Besides his mother Chris Boatwright of Corvallis, Ore., and his stepmother Jennifer Boatwright, Dan is survived by his sisters, Jim’s daughters, Kate Whitlock (Garrick) of Beaverton, Ore.; Sarah Irish (Andy) of Cammas, Wash.; and Rebecca Boatwright of Los Angeles, Calif.