On the road with Boom

Bambale Osby is late for an interview, and the people assembled outside Comcast Center are just amused. It’s no surprise; few leave as many stories in their wake as Osby.

Have you heard about how the alternator fell off his 1962 Cadillac DeVille last season and how he left the car parked for a month before he had the parts and the time to fix it? Or how about last spring when he was booted from a softball game for razzing an opposing hitter?

Such is the legend of Boom — the larger-than-life Maryland big man’s well-earned nickname — that everyone has a tale.

He soon rolls into the loading dock, driving a 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood. He hops out, carefree as usual, and spots the gem out of place amid a jungle of subcompact cars and clunky vans.

A friend, Marc Tuwiner, brought his gleaming 1959 El Dorado Biarritz convertible for a photo shoot. Only 1,320 were made, and this is one of just 99 with bucket seats.

“This is the car of cars,” Osby says. “If there is any car to have, this is the one to have.”

Boom is no novice. He knows what makes the engine purr and intuitively understands the connection between himself, the vehicle and the rest of the world when he cradles the steering wheel.

So too it is with the rest of his life. Take one look at Osby — the poofy ‘fro (pulled back on this day), the Herculean muscles, the wide grin that would put the Cheshire Cat to shame — and it’s hard not to think a cartoon character has sprung to life. His custom-ordered baseball cap, a blue hat with “BOOM” in white letters, is the perfect complement.

But listen to Boom at length and you hear a man who knows precisely what he wants. He wants to work on cars, no matter their condition. He wants people to remember him as a good guy. And he wants to have a good time while being around others who feel the same way.

Osby is going for a ride. And today, so are you.

•••

Tuwiner owns Annapolis Classic Cars and admits he isn’t a big sports fan. So it came as a mild surprise when, after years of selling parts to Osby, the 6-foot-8 forward mentioned off-hand he played basketball for Maryland.

That didn’t mean much to Tuwiner, a father of five. It did to his kids — especially the three between ages 9 and 12 — prompting a meeting between Tuwiner and Osby.

Before long, Boom was a fixture in Tuwiner’s life. He spends some weekends at Tuwiner’s salvage yard taking cars apart and drops by his Poolesville home for dinner on occasion.

“The thing is I do believe in the guy and think he’s a good person,” Tuwiner says. “I’m trying to help as much as I can. He’s nice. He’s a genuine person. He doesn’t have a lot of attitude. He’s got vision, but he’s so naive at the same time.”

Osby owns 1960, 1962 and 1968 Cadillac DeVilles and a 1972 Ford pickup truck and paid no more than $500 for any of them. He received his new ride a little more than a month ago from his mother, who fretted for safety after the ‘62 constantly broke down.

It’s roomy enough to fit Osby and three teammates comfortably. Boom, who took off his left shoe and is resting his foot close to the wheel, is comfortable as he roams campus.

“I just think big cars are cool,” Osby says. “Now look at that little small car. Yeah, it’s a convertible, but it’s still not as cool as a big, heavy car.”

And nothing — not the hair, not the gregarious personality — is as easy to connect Boom to as his cars.

Students leave messages on his Facebook page asking for car help. One was also a classics connoisseur and asked to hang out; the time-strapped Osby reluctantly declined. But the messages still keep coming.

“One girl has a ‘72 Chevelle,” Osby says. “I’ve been talking to her on MySpace. I’ve been telling her we need to race. We never got around to it.”

Maybe someday. For now, Osby carries a dream. Along with James Mosher, a friend from his days in New Mexico, he plans to open a store called the Chop Shop and perhaps expand the operation to the East Coast.

“After I’m done playing basketball, I’m just planning on working on cars, man,” Osby says. “Just get my own custom shop and get a huge 150 acres. Just filling it up with cars and just fooling with them, that’s what I plan on doing. I don’t ever plan on having a real job.”

It’s the American dream in a nutshell. Osby’s rough-and-tumble childhood in a dangerous Richmond neighborhood could give way to life as the planet’s friendliest shop owner.

Boom hardly can contain his glee when talking about his future. But the same is true when he combs through junkyards seeking parts.

“My kids learned a lesson. My kids said, ‘It’s great he’s just happy. He appreciates it,’ ” “Tuwiner said. “One time I was talking to him, and he said, ‘I have to go. You hear those gunshots in the background?’ He was at his mom’s house. To live like that and that’s normal? You hear those gunshots, and it’s like, ‘Hey Marc, I have to go hang up now.’ Whatever he does is going to be great.”

•••

Riding shotgun as Osby drives into the center of campus is Tara Fuller, a junior from New Jersey. They met through Facebook, and she, like so many others who encounter Osby, quickly became his friend. They texted each other during the NCAA tournament in March, with Boom sending wonder-struck messages about the fans in Buffalo.

There’s a normality to Osby atypical of many big-time athletes. These are guys whose days are regulated, who live together rather than interspersed among the campus population and can easily isolate themselves from regular students.

It’s not Boom’s way.

“I don’t know how many people would call out a basketball player,” Fuller says. “But walking around campus with him sometimes and you’ll just hear ‘Boom,’ and he’ll be like, ‘Hey, what’s up, man.’ He’ll say, ‘I don’t know who that was, but whatever.’ I feel like there’s not as much intimidation.”

Nor is there a disconnect from Osby’s humanity. His quirks are genuine, the offshoots of his personality, not a contrived shtick designed to attract attention.

And that only adds authenticity to any Boom-related tale.

“One of my friends had seen him in his ‘62 last year, and his windshield wipers were broken,” Fuller says. “So she saw him from her apartment and said, ‘I think I saw Boom squeegeeing his windshield [as he was driving] because it’s raining and he doesn’t have windshield wipers.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, probably.’ ”

Boom stops at the student union, and Fuller departs. The ride continues as Boom loops around the business school.

From time to time, someone stares in an attempt to identify the large car and its owner. A few days earlier, Osby was greeted by a student who was barely recognizable in his non-gameday outfit.

“He’s the Boom fan of all time,” Osby says. “He has the wig. He has the shirt. He has the cape. If I was a short white kid, that’s what I would look like. I’m telling you, that’s me.”

Boom continues his campus cruise amid some glances. He is a bit confused when it is suggested his interaction with fans is unusual. As he views things, it should be the norm.

“The people who sit and watch you every night and subscribe to you and get season tickets, you don’t ever see those people,” Boom says. “So when they come up to you and see you in the street and say, ‘Hey, what’s up man?’ it’s almost like a returned favor. They do so much for you getting the game sold out, new stadium, new gym, real good home atmosphere that the least you can do is say hi to them. You can really make people’s day.”

•••

Osby is hungry and wants to visit the Ellicott Diner. But first he must contend with a treacherous foe — parallel parking.

“These spots are just perilous, man,” Osby says when it becomes clear his Caddy won’t wedge between two cars. “Just crazy.”

For two years, the same could be said of his career. He bounced from New Mexico to Paris (Texas) Junior College and then to Maryland.

Osby revisits those days with some prodding but is clearly relieved he landed in College Park. He averaged 5.8 points and 3.9 rebounds as a junior and is expected to start this year.

“Everything is just a blast. Especially coming from New Mexico and my coach hated me. and I was in junior college and my coach hated me,” Osby says. “Being here and being free and relaxed and just being able to focus on basketball and school, it’s just great, man.”

And he pops up everywhere. When Maryland’s volleyball team played in Richmond this season, he was there to support his friends with homemade signs. There was the softball game in the spring when he was tossed from his seat behind the plate.

“I was saying, ‘You can’t hit. You can’t hit,’ ” Osby recalls. “They said, ‘You can’t talk to her. That’s distracting.’ I said, ‘That’s the point. Do you know what they do to us at free throws? Are you kidding?’ ”

Soon the ride is over. You are back in the loading dock, and Osby is eager to share a glimpse of a Facebook group dedicated to him. He laughs at a caption, “One day Boom decided to move some rocks. The result was the Grand Canyon.” It was posted before Osby even played a game at Maryland, which astonishes him.

Another gem, this one posted by forward Landon Milbourne: “His house has no doors, only walls he walks through.”

Zaniness is part of the deal with Osby, but so is his rationality. He is a relentless practice player eager to learn. But as coach Gary Williams learned last season, Osby likes to know why a play works, much like how he enjoys understanding the intricacy of an engine.

The curiosity permeates the rest of his life, areas in which his perceptiveness is particularly potent.

“All he wants to be able to do is to have a dialogue,” Williams says. “He doesn’t want someone to say you have to do this, you have to cut your hair. Like a lot of people who are intelligent, he doesn’t like to be told what to do. They would rather reason their way through it. … He’s just a little off-the-wall sometimes.”

Expect Osby to conform and you will be forever flummoxed. Embrace him for who he is and you get to know a nuanced person.

“Life is about relationships, man,” Boom says. “The more good relationships you have, the easier life is going to go. I don’t know, man, just having bad relationships, that’s just not the way to do it.”

Boom has a meeting, so he says goodbye with his unforgettable smile but not without thanking you for the fifth time for taking a ride with him.

His words make such sense; his outsized presence puts everyone at ease. And as you drive off, you feel just a bit more secure knowing you’re sharing the road of life with such a remarkable person.

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