Calvin Booth used height, hard work, and quiet ambition to set records in college and carve out a 10-year playing career in the pros. His latest challenge: bringing an NBA title to Denver.
The routine started when he was 6 or 7 years old, a little kid who wouldn’t be little for long. Calvin Booth would walk out the front door of his family’s home in suburban Columbus, Ohio, and grab that day’s copy of the Dispatch. He would sit with the paper, open it to the sports section, and immerse himself in the minutiae of the agate page. “From as young as I can remember, he would go get that newspaper off the porch,” his mother, Gail, says. “He was always very attentive to detail.”
“I was that kid,” Booth says. “I checked every box score, remembered every number.”
It was hardly unusual, in the early days of ESPN and a couple of decades before YouTube game recaps and Instagram highlight reels, for sports-obsessed kids to pore over the vertical columns of names and numbers that filled a page or more of most daily newspapers. But a few things separated young Calvin from most of his peers: There were the physical attributes that became obvious soon enough, as Booth grew—and grew—into one of the best defensive players in Big Ten basketball history. Less obvious were a quiet ambition and a sharp, analytical mind, traits that those who knew him best recognized before and during a 10-year NBA playing career.
Now, a little more than a decade into his post-playing career, Booth ’98 Lib has reached the pinnacle: Last June, he was named president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets. It’s a job that offers both an enviable opportunity and a daunting challenge: Booth takes over a team led by a two-time league MVP, a widely respected coach, and a talented supporting cast; he also inherits mile-high expectations for a franchise that has never reached the NBA Finals, in a league in which championship windows tend to open briefly and abruptly snap shut.
The consensus of former teammates and coaches, and of his own front-office peers, is that Booth is well suited to the moment; Tim Connelly, a longtime mentor and the man he replaced in Denver, calls Booth “one of the brightest basketball minds I’ve ever been around.” It’s a reflection of his personality, not his capacity, that Booth’s ascent to one of the game’s top jobs has been a relatively quiet one. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Can you believe he got that job?’ But I wasn’t surprised,” Pete Lisicky ’98 Bus says of his former roommate. “Knowing his personality, he works hard, never has a bad thing to say about anyone, and he has a very perceptive mind. I always believed he could do this.”
Booth, barely halfway into his first season in charge, knows his new role brings massive responsibility, a much brighter spotlight, and little tolerance for failure. “I’m in a position now where job security is not promised,” he says. He’s relying on the things that got him here: the lessons learned from supportive parents, and from the coaches and teammates who challenged him to maximize his talent and chase his goals, and on that infatuation going back to childhood with the data and insights that explain the game. In one sense, only the medium and the stakes have changed.
Calvin Booth Sr. was a longtime Columbus police officer, and Gail worked as a nurse before eventually earning a law degree, so it figured that their only son would make something of himself. “He never gave us a moment’s trouble,” Gail says. “He basically was a rule follower. He was always a good student and a good person. I couldn’t have asked for a better son.”
Ed DeChellis ’82 Edu would get to know the Booth family while recruiting “Little Cal,” the nickname that was Gail’s way of differentiating her son from her husband, “Big Cal.” Then a Nittany Lion assistant coach, DeChellis quickly became fond of the entire family. “His mom and dad, I can’t say enough about them—just wonderful people,” DeChellis says. “Once he signed, I knew we were getting a quality kid.”
It was less clear what kind of player Penn State was getting. Booth was, by his own admission, the “proverbial late bloomer,” a skinny kid with talent who grew up nearly in the shadow of Ohio State’s campus but was ignored by the Buckeyes and other Big Ten programs. His mother remembers him “sitting the bench a lot, until he grew about five inches one summer. At that point, you couldn’t deny him. People seemed concerned that he was on the thinner side, but he always had confidence in himself.”
Under head coach Bruce Parkhill, Penn State was still trying to establish itself in one of the nation’s toughest conferences, and Booth was the sort of recruit—far from a sure thing but, at 6-foot-11 and with an impressive wingspan, a prospect with a huge upside—that the Lions would have to gamble on. “He wasn’t a highly ranked kid,” says DeChellis, who took the lead on Booth’s recruitment at Groveport Madison High School. “He wasn’t strong enough to complete plays. He was a natural shot blocker, left-handed, and he could rebound, but he just couldn’t score in the box because he was so light. I told Coach [Parkhill], ‘Bruce, if we get this kid, we’re gonna have to teach him how to play.’”
Most of DeChellis’ best memories of that recruitment involve Booth’s parents. He smiles recalling conversations with Calvin Sr., who died in February 2020. “Big Cal was such a good person, and he was really talkative," DeChellis says. “With Calvin, if you called the house, you couldn’t ask yes or no questions, because he’d give you yes or no answers. But Big Cal, you were on the phone for an hour whether you wanted to be or not. I’d try to get a conversation going with Calvin, but in the end, it was, ‘OK, put your dad on.’ I spoke to his parents more than I did to him.”
Lisicky, a sweet-shooting wing from Whitehall, Pa., recalls his initial encounter with Booth when both were high school seniors on a campus visit in the fall of 1993: “I saw him in Rec Hall, and my first impression was, Man, he is tall and quiet.” For his part, Booth says, “Maybe I’m quiet around people I don’t know; nobody likes the loudest guy in the room. But I was also observing what people said, what was going on. I had a long memory.”
The underrecruited kid from Ohio, already wearing a chip on his shoulder, announced his college choice that weekend over breakfast at the Nittany Lion Inn—and only after his father interrupted Parkhill’s impassioned pitch to ask his son, “Are you going to tell Coach, or do you want me to?” At that, Booth told the coaches he would be coming to Penn State. “That might have been the most he said all weekend,” DeChellis says. “You talk about holding your cards close to the vest—you didn’t see any of his cards.”
Booth arrived on campus the following summer, destined for a first-year redshirt that meant his playing time would be limited to practice. The 1994–95 Nittany Lion squad featured future NBA big man John Amaechi ’94 Lib and a seasoned backup in Michael Joseph ’95 Lib, grown men used to the rigors of Big Ten play. The redshirt year allowed Booth to get stronger and test himself daily in practice. Fans didn’t get the chance to see it, but his teammates and coaches saw plenty. “He was fiery,” DeChellis says. “He’d get upset with himself if he didn’t do something well.”
At practice, Lisicky watched his freshman classmate battling Amaechi and Joseph, “both 250 pounds plus, 22 years old, and he never backed down. His wingspan always gave him a chance to block their shots, and he frustrated them. He came in every day and competed.”
One revelation—Booth’s will to compete—soon revealed another: The tall, quiet, skinny kid was smart. Though their personalities couldn’t be much more different, DeChellis compares Booth’s intellect to that of Amaechi, who followed up a brief pro basketball career to become an internationally renowned consultant and psychologist. “Both those guys, you had to sort of reason with them a little bit,” he says. “You had to explain the why.” The following season, with Amaechi graduated and his redshirt behind him, Booth got his chance to play. He was still raw offensively, but he made an immediate defensive impact, averaging 3.6 blocked shots per game. He played an integral role on the 1995–96 Penn State team, which won 21 games, finished tied for second in Big Ten conference play, and reached the NCAA tournament.
He got steadily better over the next three seasons, winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors after averaging a staggering 4.4 blocks per game as a junior, then posting team highs of 15.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game as a senior in 1998–99. He finished with 428 career blocked shots, still a program record, and his career average of 3.75 blocks per game remains the best in Big Ten history. There’s no self-deprecation when Booth describes “the one skill I had” providing him a path to playing professionally; he wasn’t only a shot-blocker, but it was the one thing he knew he could do at an NBA level.
DeChellis was watching the 1998 NBA draft, in the summer before Booth’s senior year, when he called him and challenged him to “‘get off the couch and get to the gym, because so-and-so and so-and-so were just drafted, and you can be better than those guys.’ And he did. He worked, he got stronger, he filled out. He wanted it.” The following summer, the Washington Wizards made Booth the sixth pick of the second round, 35th overall, in the 1999 draft.
By the numbers, Booth’s playing career was an unqualified success. He played 366 games in 10 NBA seasons, placing him behind only Bob Weiss ’66 H&HD and Frank Brickowski ’83 H&HD among former Lions in both categories. But a sense of “what if” prevailed. In the spring of his second season, he scored the game-winning, series-clinching basket in the Dallas Mavericks’ first-round playoff upset of the Utah Jazz. That summer, he signed a $34 million free agent contract with the Seattle SuperSonics. Not long after, he suffered a serious ankle injury that required surgery. He still showed flashes of what had made him such an intriguing prospect, including a 2004 game in which he blocked 10 shots in a mere 17 minutes, but he was never quite the same. Acknowledging the impact of the injury, he says, “I never quite met my own expectations. After a while you realize how hard it is just to stick around, and how few guys have a 10-year career. That makes it a little easier to stomach, but not in the moment.”
By the time he retired in 2009, Booth had already put “what if” behind him. Married with two young kids, he’d gotten started on his next career before his first was even over. In this one, his experience as a journeyman player would prove invaluable, and no ankle injury could limit what he was capable of.
Tim Connelly joined the Wizards as a video coordinator in 1999, right around the time the team drafted Booth, and the two quickly hit it off. Though he didn’t play college ball, Connelly was a basketball obsessive whose path to a front-office career would rely on long hours and a sharp mind, qualities to which Booth could relate.
Booth already looked to Connelly as a mentor when, in the late 2000s, as his playing days were nearly done, he traveled with Connelly to Treviso, Italy, for an annual summer showcase for top European prospects. In an audience of coaches and scouts, Booth stuck out. “I think he’s still the only active player to ever go to that,” Connelly says from Minneapolis, where he’s in his first year as president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The trip made clear to Connelly that Booth had a long-term plan, and a bright future.
“He’s an unbelievably bright guy, extremely observant, and sees things that most people don’t see,” Connelly says. “He always had an eye on team dynamics, and a great eye for talent. I think people didn’t realize how brilliant he is.”
Connelly played a big part in changing that, but mostly, Booth built his reputation the way he’d built his game: through intense focus and hard work. After retiring, he went back to Columbus and established an AAU program, Nova Village Athletic Club, to help young players develop, and also spent time working with a basketball club in Dublin, Ireland. They were the moves of a basketball lifer, someone taking seriously the cliché of “giving back to the game,” but eventually that competitiveness kicked back in. Booth was ready to start his next career.
He worked briefly as an independent scout before getting a full-time gig with the Timberwolves. In 2017, he rejoined Connelly, then the Nuggets’ general manager, as Denver’s assistant GM, and when Connelly moved a notch up the ladder in 2020, Booth was named the team’s general manager. When Connelly was hired away by Minnesota last May, the Nuggets quickly promoted Booth to the top job.
The necessary skill set is imposing. There’s scouting, of course, a studied eye for talent required to assess players’ strengths and weaknesses. There are the complex interpersonal skills needed to deal with your own team’s owner, rival team executives, and player agents focused solely on securing the best deals for their clients. There’s the ability to manage egos, and a necessary grasp of analytics that increasingly make NBA stat sheets feel like calculus exams. And there is vision, the ability to build a roster of players whose skill sets and personalities complement one another, the confidence to know who to trade, re-sign, or cut, and the ability to adjust or even blow it all up when injuries or missed projections or the unexpected rise of a division rival render all of it not quite good enough.
There’s no sure template for front office success; former NBA All-Stars and guys who never played past middle school have constructed title contenders, and both have failed miserably in the effort. What seems clear is that the combination of a sharp mind, the experience of having encountered every conceivable type of coach, teammate, and locker room dynamic while playing for seven teams in 10 NBA seasons, and the broad respect of your peers gives you a pretty good chance to succeed. “It’s hard to describe,” DeChellis says, “but he’s just got a great feel for people, and a great feel for the game. I think that’s sort of a gift. Whatever it is, he has it.”
The pieces he’s been given to work with in his first season are more tangible. In Nikola Jokić, the Nuggets boast a two-time league MVP in the prime of his career. Jokić is a versatile big man whom Booth calls “an impossible matchup,” and the roster around him, which Booth helped Connelly compile, is designed to complement Jokić's production. If that group can stay healthy—a challenge in recent years—the Nuggets should be among the NBA’s best teams this season. Booth knows that better than anyone. Blessed with a player like Jokić, he says, “you just want to put a team around him that allows us the best chance to win.”
In other ways, Booth’s knack for team building is already paying off. Calvin and Keisha Booth’s daughter, Carter, was a standout freshman last season for the University of Minnesota volleyball team. (Fittingly, she was the Golden Gophers’ best blocker.) And in November, their son, Carey, a 6-foot-10 forward ranked among the top 100 basketball recruits nationally in the 2023 class, signed his letter of intent to play for Penn State beginning this fall. With his senior year still to play, Carey is already a more heralded recruit than his father ever was. Matching his father’s impact on the game will be another challenge entirely.