Buse controls the ball 90% of the time, running what is really a one-guard, four-forward offense. He sets up on the point and waits for a man—usually Knight—to get open inside. Then Buse gets it there. His passes are not as flashy as Tiny Archibald's, but lightning quick and deadly accurate. "It's because of Buse that I'm having a great year," says Knight. "I'll pass the ball in and he'll be bringing it upcourt and he'll ask me if there's anything special I want to run. I tell him I'll do a thing, then I do it and the ball comes right to me."
NBA guards who have not yet encountered Buse often drop off him and play the passing lanes. Buse's response is to pull up and shoot the jumper—which he hits with 44% accuracy for an average of 9 points a game. He did this three times in a row against Chicago's Norm Van Lier. "When he shoots like that he's really dangerous," says Van Lier, "because you can't cheat on him."
Yet on defense, Buse gets by just that way. He cheats. Or rather, he anticipates. Usually assigned to the passing guard, Buse studies his man's eyes and decides where he is going to pass. Often the two men make their next move simultaneously. Buse drops a step toward the passing lane, his quick hands flicking at exactly the right spot to make the steal, deflect the pass, or at least distract the passer. Sometimes, especially when the Pacers are behind, Buse will go for a steal at the wrong time—when his man is driving by him, for instance. Leonard would not mind this kind of mistake if the other Pacers played the kind of help-out defense that Buse does.
"Buse is a great team defensive player," Leonard says, "not a great individual defender. He is as consistent a player as I've ever seen. How we do usually just depends on how the other players do around him. Shoot, I don't even have to have him come to practice."
This is how consistent Buse is: in the Pacers' first 48 games, he made fewer than six assists only seven times; against Boston last week he had a career-high 17. He failed to make at least one steal only twice, and he made four or more in 25 games. In a home win that stopped Cleveland's five-game winning streak in early December, Buse had 11 assists and eight steals. Some of the beaten Cavaliers grumbled that Buse's numbers were padded. Two weeks later at Cleveland, the numbers were nine assists, six steals and two blocked shots. He had 15 points, 11 assists and six steals at Denver. At Philadelphia in November, 19 points, 11 assists and three steals in a big 123-117 win. The 76ers were floundering and in search of a strong floor leader at the time. An Indianapolis reporter asked McGinnis how he thought his old Pacer teammate would fit in with the talent-laden Sixers. "If we had Buse, we'd win 70 games," said Big George.
Leonard was thus not surprised a short time later when he received a phone call from Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams, who had apparently been talking to McGinnis. "Can we talk about Buse?" he asked Leonard. "Not unless you want to give us George back and Dr. J, too," said Leonard. End of conversation.
After Buse's 13-assist, four-steal performance—plus 39 points from Knight—had beaten Chicago, Sloan, now a Bulls assistant coach, was talking about Buse. "I can't tell you how badly I wanted the Bulls to draft him out of Evansville," he said. "I followed his career there. He lived with the same family that I had lived with. He was a better player than I was in college, and he's a better player right now than I was. He's a superb ball handler. He's unselfish. His game is helping other people, and there are a lot of teams—21 of them, in fact—that are starving for a player like that."
Before the 1972 NBA player draft, Sloan urged Coach Dick Motta and the Bulls' general manager at the time—ironically it was Pat Williams—to grab Buse. In the third round of the draft, the Bulls were next to pick when Buse was claimed by Phoenix on the recommendation of Jerry Krause, a new addition to the Suns' organization who had scouted Buse—again ironically—for the Bulls. While a minor battle ensued between Phoenix, Virginia and, then, Indiana to sign him, Buse, as usual, was detached. "I didn't care whether I went ABA or NBA," he says. "I still owed $2,500 on the Volkswagen I bought in college, my very first car, and I would have signed with anybody that offered me that much in bonus money so I could pay it off."
Let history show that for $3,000 the Indiana Pacers signed a man who would become one of the most sought-after guards in the NBA. Buse drove the Volkswagen for just one season as a pro, then moved up through a couple of Chevies to a Jeep, and now has a green Cadillac Coupe de Ville, which remains, among all his possessions, the only conspicuous symbol of affluence. "I know," he says a bit defensively. "Cadillacs are only for scorers, right?"