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Rooney: After Chicago Legends visit, Donnie Boyce ready to reconnect with CU Buffs

Former Buffs star coaching at his old high school

CHICAGO — Donnie Boyce had a plan. The way it went awry — so painfully and heartbreakingly, when he was so close to achieving his goals — put a tremendous damper on the end of his Colorado basketball career.

Yet the moment still provides Boyce with grade-A material for the second act of his basketball career.

While CU coach Tad Boyle has taken great strides to cultivate a network of basketball alumni during his decade at the helm, Boyce has remained a distant and detached figure. The man who ended his CU career as the program’s all-time leading scorer, whose bond with Chauncey Billups helped bring the most prized recruit in Buffs history to Boulder one year after Boyce graduated, rarely has returned to the campus where he thrilled so many fans more than two decades ago.

The time has come for that to change. Boyce wants to be part of Buffs Nation once again.

That process perhaps began in earnest over the weekend, as Boyce represented the Buffs as CU’s “Legend” at the Chicago Legends doubleheader, where D’Shawn Schwartz punctuated the festivities with an overtime, buzzer-beating 3-pointer that lifted the Buffs to a thrilling win against No. 13 Dayton on Saturday.

Boyce met Boyle in person for the first time and spent time with the team on Friday night.

“I’m definitely looking to reconnect,” Boyce said. “The last few summers me and Tad have been talking. This past summer I actually was supposed to come out there but I had some commitments AAU-wise that I couldn’t get out of. But I’m definitely looking forward to reconnecting and just reestablishing my roots out there.

“It’s something that’s long overdue. I had a little bitter taste in my mouth because I was used to winning and we didn’t win. We couldn’t get over that hump. It wasn’t because of the coaches and it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. Sometimes in the atmosphere everything has to line up right.”

It was a happy accident that brought Boyce from the Windy City to Boulder in the first place.

Boyce was all set to keep his basketball career local at DePaul. But when another Chicago prep standout, Tommy Kleinschmidt, signed with DePaul, Boyce says the Blue Demons asked him to delay his signing. Soon afterward Boyce received phone calls from Dereck Whittenburg and Tom Abatemarco, assistants under then-CU coach Joe Harrington.

Boyce figured a trip to Boulder would be worth the time. Not because he considered the Buffaloes a legitimate hoops destination — not yet — but because he could check in with some Colorado-based relatives.

“I had relatives out there, so I said, ‘You know what, this will be a good chance to go out there to visit my relatives,’” Boyce said. “So it wasn’t really necessarily a trip where I was looking at the school, it was more of a trip to catch up with my family. I ended up liking the campus and liking the situation.”

Boyce remains in the game as the head coach at his alma mater, Proviso East, a traditional prep basketball power in the near west Chicago suburb of Maywood, teaching youngsters the game that was at once rewarding and cruel for Boyce. Most Buffs fans can’t think of his name without remembering the gruesome end, when a broken leg against Oklahoma in the Big Eight Conference tournament ended his career abruptly.

In Chicago on Friday night, Boyce related a subplot to that game. Two of his high school teammates at Proviso East were Michael Finley and Sherell Ford, future NBA players who, at that time, had already eclipsed the 2,000-point mark in their collegiate careers. Boyce wanted to join them, so he told his Buffs teammates to get out of the way at the start of that ill-fated Oklahoma game.

Boyce finished his career with 1,995 points, passing two other Chicago-area Buffs, Shaun Vandiver and Cliff Meely, to become the Buffs’ all-time leading scorer. He later was surpassed by Richard Roby and Cory Higgins, both of whom finished their CU careers with 2,001 points.

“I vividly remember telling my teammates, the first three, four, five minutes, I’m not passing the ball,” Boyce said. “The first minute I had a quick six and I was on my way. Then it happened. Me and the ref had a funny moment. They were putting me on the stretcher I asked him, ‘Can I just shoot these last two free throws?’ I wanted to get a little closer to 2,000. He gave me one of the weirdest looks. But the support from the people in Boulder, from the university, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to get through that mentally without that support. Coach Harrington and the coaching staff, they visited me every day in the hospital, making sure that connection and that bond was still strong.”

For Boyce, that CU connection might be a little rusty, yet it remains strong. And it’s one he hopes to revisit more frequently as the years continue to unfold.