In Boston, the public-address announcer had to ask Don Buse how to pronounce his name. In Milwaukee, a sportswriter burned out his typewriter criticizing the Bucks' guards for being victimized by a "nonentity" named Don Buse. In Atlanta, Lou Hudson, a 10-year veteran, said he had "never heard of him" before playing against Buse for the first time. New Orleans' Pete Maravich had "heard of him but never seen him." Presumably that held true the night Buse swiped the ball from Maravich four times.
Anonymity hardly bothers the Indiana Pacers' guard anymore. During his four years in the ABA. he was overshadowed by high-scoring teammates such as George McGinnis and Billy Knight. Last year, while setting ABA records in steals and assists (he had more of each than Slick Watts, who led the NBA in both categories) and playing more minutes than anyone else in basketball, Buse finally got to play in the ABA All-Star Game and made the All-ABA second team. But still no one seemed to have heard of him.
So now. halfway through his first season in the expanded NBA, Buse is neither surprised nor hurt that hardly anyone outside of Indianapolis seems to know who he is. much less how to pronounce his name, although it does seem a bit strange when one considers that for most of the season he has led the NBA in minutes played, in steals and in assists—the latter two by such wide margins that, barring injury, he ought to run away with both titles. "Well, we haven't been on national TV yet," he says. "Don't know if we'll ever be."
Buse was certainly pleased to be an ABA All-Star last year, but the fact that he finished sixth among Western Conference guards in the fans' balloting for this year's NBA All-Star Game didn't faze him. In fact, he says, he prefers anonymity. It suits his game better. "What thief wants to be well-known?" he says, smiling. "And by the way, it's 'Boozey.' "
He says the assists, 8.9 per game, come largely because he has the hot-shooting Knight to feed the ball to. "I had to adjust to the assist role," says Buse, who led the University of Evansville to the NCAA Division II championship as a junior. "In college and high school I was always the scorer. A lot of people compare me to Jerry Sloan, because we both went to Evansville, or they'll say I play defense like Jerry West maybe because I look kind of like him. But when I was in high school my idol was Cazzie Russell because he was always putting it up." The steals, 3.6 per game, just come naturally. "I'm not as quick as Watts or Walt Frazier," he says. "I steal with my hands. I do have exceptionally quick hands."
Buse may still be a nonentity to NBA fans and writers, but he is well known to coaches, and especially to general managers who dream of strong, young, 6'4" guards who are smart, steady, confident, commanding, white and unselfish. Buse is all of these. His own general manager, Bob (Slick) Leonard, who is also the Pacer coach, stifles a contented chuckle every time his phone rings and a fellow GM asks if he would consider dealing Buse. "Why, I just tell 'em no," he says. "Fast." Then Leonard counts his blessings and pats himself on the back for having bought the draft rights to Buse five years ago from the Virginia Squires—and for parting with the $3,000 cash bonus that kept Buse from signing with Phoenix of the NBA.
This year Leonard rewarded Buse for his outstanding play by canceling the last two years of his $50,000-per-year contract and giving him a new, four-year deal. Buse's annual salary is still well below six figures, which surely leaves him as the lowest-paid regular starting guard in the NBA. But Buse, a 26-year-old bachelor from a poor, fatherless family of nine in the tiny southern Indiana dairy town of Holland, considers the sum downright generous. "I love him," says Leonard.
So, it seems, does just about everyone Buse comes in contact with: teammates, opponents, fans, folks from Evansville and Holland—all of whom find Buse a comfortable kind of guy to be around. Sipping a beer after a game, or entertaining working buddies who drop by the modest ranch-style house in an unpretentious section of Indianapolis, Buse will smile a lot and joke around in his country Hoosier twang. He'll talk about his racehorse, Scoot 'n Shoot, which came in at 23 to 1 a couple of weeks ago at Latonia, or about the summer softball game in which a team of Pacers upset a team of hockey players from the WHA Racers on three tape-measure Buse home runs, or about the time McGinnis tried to sell Buse his speedboat and the thing nearly sank.
Of course it is for the things he does on the court that Buse is most loved by Pacer fans, and he does far more than just generate impressive statistics. He is the total floor leader—"the perfect coach's player," Atlanta's Hubie Brown calls him. With the exception of Knight, the Pacers are a team of unknowns, and most NBA-oriented experts predicted they would have a pretty good shot at winding up at the very bottom of the league. Few who knew Knight are surprised to see that he is the league's third leading scorer with 26 points per game, but a lot of people were shocked to see the Pacers win in Philadelphia, Boston and Buffalo; run off six straight in early January; and remain thereafter around the .500 mark, several floors above the Midwest Division cellar. And this with a lineup of Wil Jones and Darnell Hillman at forwards, Dan Roundfield and Dave Robisch sharing the center spot, and the 6'6" Knight, a natural forward, and Buse at guards.
"We do it this way," says Leonard. "We let Boo-Boo bring the ball up, post Billy, and watch Boo-Boo pass it to him. Then we often get a basket."