What would you do
if you were Chase Budinger, two-sport schoolboy folk hero? Would you pursue
your unlimited potential in volleyball, nurture the talent that could earn you
an Olympic gold medal, fulfill the promise that Mike Rangel, the longtime coach
and trainer for Karch Kiraly--the sport's Michael Jordan--casts in historic
terms? "As a high school senior, Chase was head and shoulders better than
anybody we've ever seen at his age in the game of volleyball," says Rangel.
"He's the closest thing we've seen to Karch Kiraly in 30 years."
Or would you follow the white-haired basketball sage, forsake college
volleyball and cast your lot with Arizona coach Lute Olson, who started
watching you during your freshman year of high school and predicted to his
staff, audaciously and accurately, that you would become the finest player from
San Diego since Bill Walton? After all, the sport's Michael Jordan-- Jordan
himself--raved to Olson about the 6'7" redhead with the 42-inch vertical
leap ("Man, I love that kid") after guarding Budinger at his Flight
School camp last summer.
volleyball? The sport in which Budinger was named the co-MVP of the McDonald's
High School All-American Game last March, joining the select company of Kevin
Garnett, LeBron James and Dwight Howard? Or the one in which he admits he has
more skill? Budinger's decision was crystal clear at the start of McKale
Madness, the annual fanfest that kicked off hoops practice at Arizona on Oct.
13. While his teammates danced and shimmied onto the floor as their names were
announced, Budinger sauntered out wearing sunglasses, with a beach towel draped
over his shoulders. Then he symbolically chucked a volleyball into the crowd.
Guess I won't be needing that for a while.
"It was such
a tough decision," says Budinger (pronounced BUD-ing-grr, with a hard G in
the last syllable). "I love both sports, but basketball has always been my
passion. If I had to choose between a volleyball game and a basketball game on
the same night, I'd always choose basketball. Focusing on basketball was
something I'd never done before, and I really wanted to try it."
could have played both sports at the other two colleges he seriously
considered, USC and UCLA, whereas Arizona doesn't have a varsity men's
volleyball program. But as he agonized over his decision, making endless lists
of pros and cons during classes at La Costa Canyon High, Budinger came back to
three things: 1) Arizona was the first elite hoops program to notice him; 2) he
would miss most of the volleyball season anyway playing basketball; and 3) he
could finally answer the tantalizing question posed by coaches in both sports:
How good could he become if he specialized for the first time?
Now we know.
These days the only spiking in Budinger's life is that of his potential NBA
draft status, which has risen from outside the top 100 at the start of 2006
into the lottery-pick range. At week's end Budinger was making a case for
himself as the nation's top freshman, averaging 19.8 points a game for the No.
14 Wildcats, who improved to 5--1 with an 84--72 victory over Illinois in
Phoenix last Saturday. Budinger's 22-point outburst against the Fighting Illini
was only the latest evidence that he's becoming, as Olson calls him, "our
Sean Elliott"--a reference to the signature player of the coach's 24 years
in Tucson. When Olson used that phrase to motivate an overly deferential
Budinger against Northern Arizona on Nov. 15, the rookie unleashed his inner
Elliott-ness (or was it Elliot Ness?), nailing five three-pointers in a
guns-ablazing 32-point tour de force that would have been even more remarkable
had Budinger played in the final 9:34. (He returned to his dorm room that night
and discovered that his MySpace and Facebook pages had been flooded with
well-wishers and hundreds of new "friend" requests.)
Arizona features a half-dozen NBA prospects on its roster, Olson's willingness
to anoint Budinger so early took the freshman by surprise. "I was like,
Whoa," says Budinger, sounding like classic Keanu Reeves in Bill &
Ted's Excellent Adventure. "It was pretty overwhelming when he told me
that." But Olson says the Elliott comparison is no stretch, noting
Budinger's superior long-range shooting, ball handling, athleticism and
unselfishness. Olson also admires Budinger's desire to improve his defense by
going head-to-head against teammate Marcus Williams--one of the nation's most
explosive swingmen--in practice every day. "It's going to hurt Chase's
confidence a little bit," Olson says, "but the great thing about him is
he wants to learn, wants to be pushed. A lot of guys who are good are like,
'Hey, don't mess with me.' But he's an absolute joy to work with."
At the same time,
Budinger has addressed a potentially tricky chemistry issue by using his vision
and passing (2.3 assists a game) to create shots for the older Wildcats.
"My teammates have been very supportive of me," Budinger says.
"When I have open shots, they'll get the ball to me and want me to shoot,
and they know I'll do the same thing for them." Williams calls his wingmate
"a highlight waiting to happen," not least because of Budinger's
remarkable hops, which he has only enhanced since hooking up in the eighth
grade with Trent Suzuki, a former personal trainer for Magic Johnson and
Shaquille O'Neal. "Chase has been doing adult-level, high-intensity
strength and conditioning from Day One--the same program I would have Magic or
Shaq do," says Suzuki, who also trained Budinger's older siblings,
Brittanie (a volleyball star who had her number retired by the University of
San Francisco) and Duncan (a second-team volleyball All-America at Long Beach
work with a personal trainer reflects one of the growing trends in high school
sports. Such is Suzuki's relationship with the Budingers ("He's part of the
family now," says Chase's mother, Mara) that his influence has extended to
Chase's mental conditioning and even media training. "We've spent a lot of
hours across from each other at the kitchen table using flower vases for
microphones," says the 43-year-old Suzuki, who made sure Budinger was
wearing a suit for the August 2005 press conference at which he announced his
commitment to Arizona. "Forget the age gap. Chase is one of my best
friends. We talked for an hour last night."
Yet not even his
Suzuki-prescribed regimen--a high-protein diet and a gallon of water a
day--could prevent Budinger from contracting a nasty case of tonsillitis in
September, which cost him most of Arizona's preseason exhibition trip to
Canada, to say nothing of 12 pounds. (He had his tonsils removed on Sept. 7.)
It was a reminder that even a folk hero has his weaknesses. Indeed, Budinger is
only now back up to his playing weight (205 pounds), and he acknowledges that
he doesn't expect to be a one-and-done phenomenon. "I think I'll need at
least two years of college just to get more maturity and physical
strength," says Budinger. "I need to learn a lot. Nobody was even
talking to me about [the NBA] until after the McDonald's game."
In the near term,
volleyball fans hoping to check out Budinger's skills will have to settle for
grainy YouTube clips and familiar moves transferred to another sport. As his
father, Duncan Sr., points out, "You'll see him go up for a dunk, a block
or a rebound with a quick jump--boom, one-and-a-half steps, up!--and recognize
that it's a volleyball approach." Not that volleyball is entirely out of
the picture. Budinger is still holding out the possibility of making the U.S.
Olympic team, either in 2008 or further down the road. ( Olson says he'd have no
problem with his young star playing in the Beijing Games.)